Monday, August 14, 2017

Fascinating new Pew poll on US Muslims: From religiosity to acceptance of homosexuality

by Salman Hameed

A new Pew poll on US Muslims came out earlier this month and I think it is absolutely fascinating. There is much focus on the way Muslims see themselves in the society and those results by themselves are interesting. For example, close of half of US Muslims report personally experiencing a case of religious discrimination in the past year. However, about half also report that they received expressions of support for being a Muslim. Both of these numbers are significantly up from 2007.

But couple of things that caught my attention. First of all, the opinions on religiosity are fascinating. About 60% of US Muslims identify themselves as "religious". The remaining are split evenly between "spiritual but not religious" (19%) and "neither spiritual nor religious" (21%). Now this last category reminds me a bit of the growing category of "Nones" - people who do not identify with any religious tradition (about 23% of US population). Now of course, here they are identifying themselves as Muslims (and 15% in this category consider religion "very important") and will be interesting to get an insight into this population.

Perhaps not too surprisingly, more than half of US Muslims say that traditional understandings of Islam need new interpretation. Of course, there are a lot of ambiguities in the question - nevertheless, the emphasis is on new interpretations:

Now the respondents were also asked what they think is "essential" for being a Muslim. Not surprisingly, 85% considered Belief in God as being essential - though 15% did not and may be the ones who are "neither religious nor spiritual". Love of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is next. But then it is followed by "Working for justice and equality in society" (69%) and then "working to protect the environment" (62%) before we get to "Following the Quran and Sunnah". Just by comparison, only 22% US Christians thought that working to protect the environment is essential to their Christian identity. So instead of "creeping Shariah", the worry should be creeping environmentalism? 

One of the surprising results from the Pew poll is the rising acceptance of homosexuality amongst US Muslims. This is an issue that was used politically after the Orlando nightclub shooting and Trump presented himself as a defender of LGBTQ rights against Muslims. Of course, we now know where he (and many of the Republicans) really stand on these issues. Nevertheless, over half of US Muslims say that homosexuality should be accepted by society and this number has almost doubled since 2007: 

Considering that 66% of US Muslims identify themselves as Democrats and that they are also likely to be more educated than the US general population, it is perhaps not surprising that the acceptance of homosexuality is high. However, the rate of change is striking and - again - this is something worth exploring. 

And while we are at it, the US Muslims are more against the killing of civilians than the general US public. Now some of this may be an overcorrection for Muslims (i.e. they may feel themselves a bit defensive on this particular question), but still 76% say that the targeting and killing of civilians can never be justified:

These were more or less positive aspects of the poll. On the negative side, half of the US public thinks that Islam is not part of mainstream society, with white Evangelicals expressing the most doubts on the place of Islam in the US society:

There is a lot more to explore in the survey. You can read get the full pdf here

Monday, August 07, 2017

Arrests in protest against Solar Telescope in Maui

by Salman Hameed

You are probably familiar with protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea. These protests halted the construction of the telescopes and initiated a review of the permit process. Just last week, a judge recommended the construction of the telescope - though the legal challenges are far from over. Nearby, on Maui, there is another telescope being built. The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) will be world's largest solar telescope and it is located on top of Haleakala - the peak of Maui. The construction on this telescope began in 2012 and First Light is expected in 2019. It also faced protests and legal challenges, but nowhere close to the level Mauna Kea. However, this past week, six people were arrested in protests as they tried to block the equipment convoy to the telescope:
An early-morning attempt by protestors to block the delivery of telescope equipment to Haleakalā resulted in six arrests, including one man who was hospitalized.  
The protest was organized by a group called Kākoʻo Haleakalā, which stands in opposition to the further desecration of sacred space.  

Last week's issue of Science also has a good summary of the controversy regarding DKIST. In fact, one of the central questions is why DKIST has been successful compared to TMT on Mauna Kea. While the article came out before the latest protests, DKIST is far along in its construction and I doubt that the project will even be delayed let alone be stopped altogether. Here is the key bit from the article that talks about the difference contexts of DKIST/Haleakala and TMT/Mauna Kea:
The DKIST’s ability to investigate the solar eruptions that can endanger electric grids and communications may be one reason why it received more public support than the TMT, which is solely a research tool, Hasinger says. But he believes a more important difference between the two projects is simply their scales. At 18 stories, the TMT would be not only the largest telescope on Mauna Kea, it would be the largest humanmade structure on Hawaii Island. The TMT’s footprint—2 hectares including its roads and parking lot—is 10 times the size of the plot used for the DKIST. “It’s just a huge structure,” Hasinger says. “In relative size you could say it’s similar [to the DKIST], but in absolute size it’s much bigger.” Moreover, Mauna Kea is not only higher than Haleakalā, it’s the highest peak in the Pacific—and, consequently, it offers Native Hawaiians a higher-profile platform to air their grievances. 
Mauna Kea also poses a bigger management challenge for the University of Hawaii. The science reserve on the Mauna Kea summit spans nearly 5000 hectares—an area more than 650 times larger than Maui’s compact Science City. “If someone is not happy with the management of Mauna Kea, it falls directly on the university,” Hasinger says. “On Haleakalā we only have the small area of Science City. The rest is managed by the national park.” And although the university owns Science City, its preserve on Mauna Kea is a lease, which means it is subject to state audits. In 1998 and 2005, the auditor released critical reports about IfA’s stewardship of Mauna Kea, providing ammunition to groups opposed to mountain telescopes. (A follow-up audit in 2014 reported improvements in IfA’s management of environmental and cultural resources.) 
The organizations behind the two projects are very different, astronomers note. The DKIST is a national project, funded by the National Science Foundation and owned by NSO. Using federal funds meant that NSO had to follow strict accounting procedures, perform a federal environmental impact assessment, and satisfy U.S. historic preservation rules. By contrast, the TMT, a private consortium supported by institutions in five countries, received no federal funds for construction. That meant it didn’t have to deal with those same regulations. “The opponents were able to sell it as this foreign company coming in and basically using our mountain for their purpose, whereas [the DKIST] at least is a national interest,” Hasinger says.

But often times it comes down to understanding the grievances and acting accordingly:

The DKIST team. 
The groundbreaking ceremonies for the two projects reflected the stark differences in their characters—and also exposed their different vulnerabilities. Kuhn remembers going as a guest to the TMT ceremony in October 2014. He stayed at a fancy Hawaii Island resort, surrounded by scientists and media from around the world, as big-screen TVs ran a live feed of the TMT’s construction site on Mauna Kea. But the celebratory atmosphere faded when Native Hawaiian protesters blocked a convoy of dignitaries heading up the mountain for a blessing and groundbreaking. As protesters shouted and chanted, organizers eventually turned off the live feed. “It was a disaster,” Kuhn says. “I understand why they wanted a great big party—it was a way of saying, ‘Yes, we’re moving forward, partners, come and join us, and bring your checkbooks.’ But I think it had the opposite effect, which was to put up a lightning rod that attracted lightning.” The event “marked real doubt” about the project’s future, he recalls. 
TMT Executive Director Ed Stone, who is also a professor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, concedes the event didn’t go as planned. “Certainly whatever groundbreaking there was could have been done better than what happened,” he says. 
In contrast, the groundbreaking ceremony for the DKIST, in November 2012, was kept “very private,” with only a handful of people closely involved with the project, Kuhn says. “I think there was an honest sensitivity to those people who felt strongly that it shouldn’t be there,” he says.
Furthermore, the access to Science City on Haleakala is much more controlled than the Science Reserve on Mauna Kea, and there is the presence of the military as well. All of this makes protests and blocking of roads much more difficult. Nevertheless, for a while the protestors were successful, before the equipment got to the telescope.

Lets see what happens next. But I think there will be a lot more activity about TMT on island next door.

World Science Forum in Jordan this year

by Salman Hameed

Jordan has been making some waves in the science world. I think the Jordan-based multi-country collaborative effort of the synchrotron particle accelerator (SESAME) is outstanding and may end up being quite fruitful to all the countries involved. The country is also hosting the World Science Forum this year. These kinds of events are rarely that productive, as the focus is usually on the parading guests. Nevertheless, this week's Nature has an article on Jordan with relation to WSF:
When the World Science Forum kicks off on the shore of the Dead Sea in November, it will be the latest jewel in the crown for one of Jordan’s biggest champions of science. Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan successfully lured the high-profile biennial conference to the Middle East for the first time — part of Jordan’s ongoing push to transform itself into a regional research powerhouse. The country hopes to emphasize the power of science to transcend politics and war in the increasingly volatile Middle East.  
It’s a tall order, but there are signs that these efforts are beginning to pay off for Jordan, which created its first national science fund in 2005. In February, the country cemented plans for a reticular-chemistry foundry, the world’s first. And in May, the Middle East’s first synchrotron, SESAME, opened near Amman with the backing of seven nations and the Palestinian Authority.  
Jordan’s leaders see science, engineering and technology as an engine of economic growth for their 71-year-old country, which lacks the oil resources of many neighbouring states. The nation’s political stability and central location have aided these ambitions. So has its diplomacy: Jordan is one of the only places in the Middle East where scientists from Israel and Arab countries can meet. “We are all in the region facing issues with energy, water and the environment,” El Hassan says. “A bird with avian flu does not know whether there is a peace accord between Israel and Jordan, it just flies across the border.”
Now of course, one of the immediate issue that comes to mind is that of the monarchy (and yes, there are good and bad monarchies - nevertheless, the issue of appointing family members may still be problematic for genuine development. See also Trump!). However, I was struck by this very sensible way of boosting research funds by the Jordanian government:
To help build research capacity, the government set up the Jordanian Scientific Research Support Fund in 2005. The fund was initially supported by a law that required all companies in Jordan to pay 1% of their profits into the fund. By 2012, when that statute was overturned, the fund had acquired US$85 million. It is now kept afloat by Jordan’s universities, which must spend 3% of their annual budgets on research or contributions to the fund. Between 2008 and 2016, the foundation gave a total of $35 million to 325 projects, mainly in the medical, pharmaceutical and agricultural sciences. 

The goal of hosting the World Science Forum is to bring attention to science in Jordan. Hope that spurs further development.