Thursday, November 17, 2016

Strong reaction against the closing of Pak-Turk schools in Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

Erdogan is visiting Pakistan these days. He spoke to the Pakistan parliament for the third time. But he wanted the closure of Pak-Turk schools - and be got them. These schools have been running in Pakistan for 21 years and serve close to 20,000 students in several Pakistani cities They have an excellent reputation - but yes, they are also part of Gulen schools. Since Erdogan is going after Gulen with a vengeance, it is little surprise that he wanted these schools to be shut down in Pakistan as well. Pakistani government, for its part, resisted for a while. Their reasoning was correct and reasonable: There is no evidence for any illegal activity from any of the teachers of these schools. In addition, we cannot suddenly leave thousands of kids without teachers simply because Erdogan says so. However, now things have changed. Pakistan government has now asked the staff of Pak-Turk schools to leave within 3 days!! Here are some details:
In August this year, Pakistan promised Turkey’s visiting Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu that it would honour his request to look into the matter of the Pak-Turk International Schools’ alleged links with US-based cleric Gulen. Now, finding themselves in the midst of a political battle they want nothing to do with, hundreds of Turkish citizens, many of whom have lived in Pakistan since 1995, move to wrap up their lives at a few days’ notice. 
Car dealers were called to the schools in Lahore on Wednesday to oversee the sale of vehicles owned by Turkish teachers and staff members. “We are selling them at throwaway rates after being ordered to leave the country within 72 hours. This is highly unfair,” said a Turkish teacher, who serves at an administrative post at a Pak-Turk school in Lahore.  
He said government officials had stopped taking their calls. “However, we have been told that the police will arrest us if we do not leave by Nov 20,” he said, adding that they feared that they could be detained upon arrival in Turkey.
Talking to Dawn, a woman Turkish teacher demanded to know how the Pakistani government could hand them a ‘marching order’ without framing a charge sheet. “My husband and I moved here 11 years ago. My youngest son was born here one-and-a-half- years ago and has never visited Turkey. Pakistan is his country now,” she said, requesting not to be named as it might invite trouble for the family.
This is truly unfortunate. Dawn has a strong editorial in response to this, but it starts quite politely:
Turkey's President Erdogan is a welcome and honoured guest to Pakistan this week and we hope his visit will deepen investment and development ties between the two countries. 
However, his visit has coincided with a controversial decision taken by the government here: the Pak-Turk Education Foundation’s Turkish staff and their families have been given three days to leave the country, causing the foundation’s management to move court against the orders. 
The Pak-Turk schools are administered by a foundation linked to Fethullah Gulen, once an ally of Mr Erdogan. However, since July’s abortive coup attempt, the Turkish leadership has blamed Mr Gulen for sponsoring the overthrow attempt, resulting in a global crackdown on the religious and educational network led by him. 
While the coup attempt in Turkey may or may not have been instigated by Mr Gulen, Islamabad’s arbitrary decision is uncalled for. There are thousands of Pakistani children who have benefited from these schools since the 1990s, and there are thousands who will now suffer if their teachers are sent home. 
True, there is nothing wrong with closer government scrutiny if it is felt that teaching methods or the syllabus content is flawed. But the sudden move to issue marching orders, and that too on the eve of Mr Erdogan’s visit, smacks of intentions that may have nothing to do with the quality of teaching or education. 
There are two aspects to the unfortunate situation that must be highlighted.
First, while the coup attempt in Turkey was an event that was justifiably condemned by all those who believe in democracy, the Turkish government’s response has been unduly severe in several aspects, including the pressure on Pakistan to close down the schools. 
Pakistan would have done well to dispassionately assess the situation, especially because it concerned the fate of so many students who might have been worse off in other schools, given the overall state of education here. 
Second, many among the staff now being asked to leave have been working in these schools for several years. They had no visa issues previously, and there was not even a hint of their being linked to any illegal activity. Many have now voiced concerns they might be victimised by Turkish authorities on their return. 
It would be better then for Pakistan and Turkey to see this issue as one impacting the studies of thousands of boys and girls, and address it keeping in mind the future of these students.
I think it is too late to hope for some sanity in this situation. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Kuwait's DNA law scaled back for now...

by Salman Hameed

It would have been ready-made case for science fiction. Last year, Kuwait passed a law that would have mandated a collection of DNA information of all residents and visitors. Of course, it was about concerns regarding terrorism - and of course we can trust the government for not any purpose at all. When has any government lied to its people??

The law would have gone into effect from this November. However, its legality was challenged and it seems that it will probably now only apply to accused or convicted criminals. So here is a shout out to human rights groups and the group of lawyers who opposed and challenged the law. Here is Adel AbdulHadi who challenged the law:
“Compelling every citizen, resident and visitor to submit a DNA sample to the government is similar to forcing house searches without a warrant,” says AdbdulHadi. “The body is more sacred than houses.” 
He argues that the law means every single person is now considered a suspect until proven innocent 
The lawyers are funding the challenge themselves on the grounds that they personally object to it. “As a person subject to this law, I’ve decided personally, and with my law partners, to launch this challenge,” he says.
The law was introduced following a bombing that killed 27 people in Kuwait last year. But critics say that DNA testing wouldn’t prevent incidents like this. 
“If a suicide bomber wants to come into the country, giving a bit of DNA is not going to scare him off,” says Martina Cornel, at the European Society for Human Genetics. “Also, if you find DNA at a specific place, you could say a person was there, but not necessarily that they committed a crime.” 
AbdulHadi also contends the law will be powerless to prevent terrorist acts. “Terrorism is in the mindset of the person, and you can’t minimise this by restricting the privacy of people,” he says. “I don’t think it will in any way assist in countering terrorism.” 
Another worry is that, once collected, the DNA samples could be used for other purposes, such as identifying illegal immigrants, or determining paternity in country where adultery is a punishable offence. However, the Kuwait government has said that the DNA will not be used to determine genealogy. 
Nevertheless, critics find the mandatory requirement concerning. “Whether for research, clinical use, or any other purpose, disclosure of this information by members of the public should be entirely voluntary,” says Derek Scholes, of the American Society for Human Genetics.
Here is the actual letter that challenged the legality of the law.

While this is a heartening victory, it is only a matter of time when another government tries the same thing. The need is for a universal protection of an individual's right to one's own DNA information. In the mean time, there are many science fiction storylines lurking in the headlines.  

Friday, November 11, 2016

"Arrival" is a good and thoughtful science fiction movie

by Salman Hameed

If Marvel and other superhero films have not yet beaten you to a pulp, you have a chance to see a thoughtful science fiction film, Arrival. It centers on communication with our extraterrestrial visitors. Actually more precisely, it deals with the role of language in the way we think and perceive the world around us. But the movie also has raises interesting questions about free will and predestination - and it is the exploration of these themes that give a justified weight to the film. Here is a trailer for the film:

Arrival joins ambitious recent science fiction films like Interstellar (see my review here) and Gravity (see my review here). What has struck me about all these films is that they are grounded to the Earth and are looking for wonder within. In contrast, movies like 2001: Space Odyssey, Contact, and less so, Solaris, look at wonder outside and then use that to reflect on humans and humanity. There is something in our cultural moment today that is driving this type of story-telling.

In any case, I don't to give too much information about the film except to say that you should check it out (a more detailed review will follow). But I should mention that even Pakistan shows up in the film, as one of the 12 ships land in Punjab (probably at Nawaz Sharif's house :)). There are also a few problems with the film (as usual with a few cardboard characters), but those are quite minor compared to the rewards of the film (and this may also be because I went in with sky-high expectations). The film is based on a short story, Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang. I haven't read the story but I have heard glowing things about it.

The movie is directed by the fantastic Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve. You may know him through his recent film Sicario. But if you have a chance, see his fantastic Incendies, which is probably about Lebanese civil war, but set in a fictional country (and Prisoners is excellent too!). Here is a trailer for Incendies:

A few miles from White House, an exhibition on the art of the Quran

by Salman Hameed

I guess just in time for the Trump presidency (did I just write that??), there is an exhibition on The Art of the Qur'an: Treasures From the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington DC. It runs through Feb 20th. There is a glowing review if the exhibit in the NYT:

It’s a glorious show, utterly, and like nothing I’ve ever seen, with more than 60 burnished and gilded books and folios, some as small as smartphones, others the size of carpets.
Flying carpets, I should say. This is art of a beauty that takes us straight to heaven. And it reminds us of how much we don’t know — but, given a chance like this, will love to learn — about a religion and a culture lived by, and treasured by, a quarter of the world’s population.
The manuscripts, most on first-time loan from a venerable museum in Istanbul, date from the seventh to 17th centuries, and come from various points: Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey. Some volumes are intact; others survive as only single pages, though so great is the Quran’s spiritual charisma that, traditionally, every scrap is deemed worthy of preserving. And the Sackler curators, Massumeh Farhad and Simon Rettig, give the material all the glamour it deserves, with a duskily lighted installation in which everything seems to glow and float, gravity-free.
You can also explore the exhibit virtually. So for example, here is a way of looking at a spectacular Lapis and Gold Qur'an completed in 1517:
Completed in September 1517, this luxurious manuscript is a triumph of illumination and calligraphy that showcases the skill of artists at the Ottoman court. At the time, the Ottoman dynasty ruled a vast territory, stretching from Egypt to Iraq, with its capital in Istanbul. Signed by both its calligrapher and illuminator—a relatively rare practice—the manuscript probably was meant for the Ottoman ruler Sultan Selim I (reigned 1512–20), perhaps to celebrate his conquest of Mamluk Egypt and Syria in 1517. Almost seventy years later, his great-granddaughter Ismihan (died 1585) dedicated the volume to the mausoleum of her father, Sultan Selim II (reigned 1566–74), and instructed that it should be recited over her father's tomb for the eternal salvation of his soul.

You can read the NYT article here and visit the exhibition site here
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