Friday, September 28, 2012

Waste-water snow on a sacred mountain

by Salman Hameed

I have written about the issue of the telescopes on Mauna Kea before. What makes the debate over Mauna Kea interesting is that astronomers are not exactly doing it for monetary profits (though the allure of grant money can be looked in the same light). However, there are many other cases where native religions in the US clash with hotel and resort builders. Here is a case of the use of waste-water snow on a mountain ski resort near Flagstaff, Arizona:

Klee Benally, a member of the Navajo tribe, has gone to the mountains just north of here to pray, and he has gone to get arrested. He has chained himself to excavators; he has faced down bulldozers. For 10 years, the soft-spoken activist has fought a ski resort’s expansion plans in the San Francisco Peaks that include clear-cutting 74 acres of forest and piping treated sewage effluent onto a mountain to make snow.
But he appears to be losing the battle. 
In February, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the ski resort’s upgrade plans, ending a legal saga fought by a coalition of environmental groups and 13 American Indian tribes, which consider the mountain sacred and view the wastewater snow as a desecration.
This coming ski season, the resort, Arizona Snowbowl, will become the first ski resort in the world to use 100 percent sewage effluent to make artificial snow. 
“It’s a disaster, culturally and environmentally,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs. He worries about the impact on the delicate alpine tundra and to human health should skiers fall into the treated sewer-water snow and ingest it. 
The basic structure of alliances usually remain the same: government and businesses arguing for the economic benefit of the local community and the native tribes and environmental groups arguing for the protection:

Half of all alpine ski areas in the United States, including the big names of Vail, Aspen and Lake Tahoe, are on public land, and many of them are faced with the choice of expanding or going out of business. “A ski resort, to remain competitive, has to hit certain dates. They have to guarantee they’ll be open by Thanksgiving, Christmas at the latest,” said Jim Bedwell, director of the Forest Service’s Recreation and Heritage Resources. 
“Everyone does well when the ski area does well,” said J. R. Murray, general manager of Snowbowl. 
But Indians, who pray and hold ceremonies on the mountain, feel their concerns are too easily swept aside. “Our culture can still be reduced to something that is less important than the profit margin on a ski resort,” Mr. Benally said. “That’s a very, very hard place to be in.” 
The wastewater snow, Indians say, will ruin a mountain they consider sacred ground as well as the ecosystem, a concern shared by environmental groups. When it melts, it “could degrade water quality of the aquifers,” said Rob Smith, regional staff director at the Sierra Club. 
Read the full article here.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

In Indonesia next week...

by Salman Hameed

Last week just got a bit out of hand in terms of work and blogging was one of the casualties. And things still be a bit patchy for the next 10 days or so. I'm currently at Boston Logan airport waiting to start an awfully ling trip to Yogyakarta, Indonesia. The hops are from Boston to LA to Hong Kong to Jakarta to Yogyakarta. And of course you can add two hours from Amherst to Boston as well.

This trip is a continuation of our study of Muslim physicians and medical student about their views on biological evolution and science & religion, in general. By the way, if you happen to know any medical doctors and/or students in Yogyakarta, drop me a line. I will take any help I can take. I will also have a chance to give a seminar talk on our project at the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies (CRCS) at Gadjah  Mada University next Wednesday (Oct 3rd) and a more general talk at the State Islamic University on Thursday.

Will have more posts later...

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Friday, September 21, 2012

John Sayles explores the Philippine-American War in "Amigo"

by Salman Hameed

John Sayles is amongst the giants of independent cinema. If you haven't seen Lone Star (from 1996), you should definitely put it on your must-see list of films. Early this year, I had a chance to see his latest film, Amigo, and he was there to introduce the film at our local Amherst Cinema. This film looks at the Philippine-American war right around the turn of the 20th century. As usual, Sayles does a great job of giving all sides a fair share.

Here is our Film Autopsy (review) of Amigo:

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Paper for next Irtiqa Friday Journal Club

by Salman Hameed

Our next paper will have a historical tilt to it: Can the Quran Support Darwin? An Evolutionist
Approach by Two Turkish Scholars after the Foundation of the Turkish Republic by Veysel Kaya published in The Muslim World (Volume 102, Issue 2, pages 357–370, April 2012).

As usual, if you don't have access to the paper and are interesting in reading it, you can drop me an e-mail and I can send you a pdf copy.

I will post my comments on the paper on Friday and will be looking forward to your input as well (for comments, please do read the paper or at least skim through it).

Nicholas of Cusa on ET life and earth's motion

by Salman Hameed

I am co-teaching Astrobiology this semester. Last week we looked at the idea of extraterrestrial life from antiquity through the Scientific revolution. One of the figures that stood out for me was Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) - a fifteenth century German philosopher, theologian and mathematician. In fact, not only did he talk about extraterrestrial inhabitants, he also took motion of the Earth for granted - a 100 years before Copernicus's book on heliocentrism. Sure enough, Nicholas of Cusa was not basing his ideas on any observations or on a cosmological system, but still, it is fascinating that he wrote this in his book, Of Learned Ignorance (as quoted in Crowe's The Extraterrestrial Life Debate):

The ancient philosophers did not reach these truths we have just stated, because they lacked learned ignorance. It is now evident that this earth really moves though to us it seems stationary. In fact, it is only by reference to something fixed that we detect the movement of anything. How would a person know that a ship was in movement, if, from the ship in the middle of the river, the banks were invisible to him and he was ignorant of the fact that water flows? Therein we have the reason why every man, whether he be on earth, in the sun or on another planet, always has the impression that all other things are in movement whilst he himself is in a sort of immovable centre; he will certainly always choose poles which will vary accordingly as his place of existence is the sun, the earth, the moon, Mars, etc. In consequence, there will be a machina mundi whose centre, so to speak, is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere, for God is its circumference and centre and He is everywhere and nowhere.
It seems that the thinking of Giordano Bruno and Kepler was influenced by Nicholas of Cusa (see this link for the connection between Kepler and Nicholas of Cusa). By the way, this is what Thomas Kuhn had to say on this: "Nicholas of Cusa...derived the motion of the earth from the plurality of worlds in an unbounded Neoplatonic universe".

And here is Nicholas of Cusa on extraterrestrial life. While be believes that life everywhere, he does give Earth ("and its region") a bit of an advantage:

Nor can place furnish an argument for the earth's baseness. Life, as it exists here on earth in the form of men, animals and plants, is to be found, let us suppose, in a higher form in the solar and stellar regions. Rather than think that so many stars and parts of the heavens are uninhabited and that this earth of ours alone is peopled- and that with beings, perhaps, of an inferior type-we will suppose that in every region there are inhabitants, differing in nature by rank and all owing their origin to God, who is the centre and circumference of all stellar regions. Now, even if inhabitants of another kind should exist in the other stars, it seems inconceivable that, in the line of nature, anything more noble and perfect could be found than the intellectual nature that exists here on this earth and its region. The fact is that man has no longing for any other nature but desires only to be perfect in his own.
But I like his speculations about solar beings and lunatics:

For since that whole region is unknown to us, its inhabitants remain wholly unknown. To go no further than this earth:-animals of a given species unite to form a common home of the species and share the common characteristics of their habitat, knowing nothing of or caring nothing for strangers. Their idea of strangers, even if it reaches some kind of vocal expression, is wholly exterior and conjectural and, such as it is, conceivable only after lengthy experience. Of the inhabitants then of worlds other than our own we can know still less, having no standards by which to appraise them. It may be conjectured that in the area of the sun there exist solar beings, bright and enlightened intellectual denizens, and by nature more spiritual than such as may inhabit the moon-who are possibly lunatics- whilst those on earth are more gross and material. It may be supposed that those solar intelligences are highly actualized and little in potency, while the earth-denizens are much in potency and little in act, and the moon-dwellers betwixt and between.  
We make these conjectures from a consideration of the fiery nature of the sun, the water and air elements in the moon and the weighty bulk of the earth.
Fascinating stuff. On the one hand, this reminds us that the conversations over extraterrestrial life have been going on for centuries. On the other hand, this also illuminates the way medieval science was different from the way we think about this question today.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Ridicule is indeed the proper response to Newsweek's cover

by Salman Hameed

I think Newsweek is making a good effort to be a supermarket junk tabloid. Here is the cover of the latest issue:
Yup. This photograph is pretty much the representative sample of the close to 2 billion Muslim population. Here is the take of Daniel Verasco on

Edward Said wrote a poignant critique of media coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis just over three decades ago. He called it “Covering Islam.” The subtitle was “How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World.” Once again Islam is being covered, the latest being the “cover” on Newsweek Magazine. Said’s [Covering Islam (1997 edition), p. lv.] assessment is as relevant as ever today:
For the right, Islam represents barbarism; for the left, medieval theocracy; for the center, a kind of distasteful exoticism. In all camps there is agreement that even though little enough is known about the Islamic world there is not much to be approved of there.
The latest Newsweek cover demonstrates just how weak its sense of responsible news reporting is. The trope of “Muslim Rage” conflates the cultural dimensions of politics with a religious faith. When Israeli planes bomb Hamas in Gaza, no major newspaper calls this “Jewish Rage.” When Terry Jones burns a Quran or when Anders Behring Breivik shoots fellow Norwegians, I have yet to see a headline of this act as one of “Christian Rage.” Rage is almost always political at base and the events subsumed under a blanket umbrella of “Muslim Rage” are local politics to the core. The fact that we see these images on CNN and the Internet tells us more about the audience than it does about those engaged in the activities.
The photograph captures “rage” to be sure, but the choice of turbaned and bearded protesters (when the majority in Cairo at least are young clean-shaven men in Western clothing lobbing rocks at the police) identifies rage with a style of dress and a style of dress with a violent religion. Ironically, the voices of those who are enraged are not to be heard anywhere inside the story. Instead, the cover boasts an article inside by Aayan Hirsi Ali, a controversial Somali whose claim to fame was posing naked with Quranic verses on her body and then becoming a darling of the Islamophobic mob. Her knowledge of Islam is so immature and biased that the very idea she might have something to contribute to the issue staggers my imagination.
Read his rest of the post here.

However, what I really enjoyed was the response on Twitter to Newsweek's call for discussion using the hashtag #Muslimrage. The responses are not only funny but they do an excellent job of exposing the ridiculousness of Newsweek's cover. From

Twitter users — Muslim and non-Muslim alike — took over the #muslimrage hashtag by the thousands on Monday to mock Newsweek’s immediately infamous cover story and its accompanying cynical social media strategy, registering their dismay with the most hilarious tweets possible. (The hashtag#muslimrave is also rising in popularity.)
Here are some of the best recent tweets with the #muslimrage hashtag.
Also, check this story from NPR, which also has quotes a few excellent tweets: 
One of the most popular posts came from "Hend," a user whose profile photo features a woman in a Muslim head covering: "I'm having such a good hair day. No one even knows. (hash)MuslimRage".
Yet another tweet laments: "Head & Shoulders still hasn't made a beard conditioner. (hash)MuslimRage".
"On a plane and people mishearing me when I say I'm a 'tourist'. (hash)MuslimRage," reads another post.
And also check out these replacement images on gawker - 13 Powerful Images of Muslim Rage., 

These are some of the most appropriate responses to Newsweek's idiocy. 

Neuroscience, atheism and the meaning of life

by Salman Hameed

Steve Paulson has a knack for asking probing questions about science and religion. He did that in his excellent book, Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Science and Religion. You should definitely check it out if you are interested in knowing how scientists and philosophers navigate the questions of science and religion, and you will find a full range of responses in his book. So it is again a pleasure to read his interview of neuroscientist, Christof Koch. Here are some of the questions that are relevant for the blog:

You like big philosophical questions, don't you?
Koch: Well, I think a lot about my place in the universe. What are we doing here? How did we come about? Does it mean anything? I like to think about these problems. You know, usually you ask these questions when you're 18 and 19, and then you get on with the business of living. Even at my age, I still ask these questions because I want to know how it all fits together before I die.
You write about how you grew up an observant Catholic and then lost your faith in a personal god. But it seems that the search for meaning, that yearning for the absolute, is still with you.
Koch: That's correct. I try to be guided by what's scientifically plausible. Of course, there is a huge amount of randomness, but we also find ourselves in this universe that is very conducive to life. I don't know how to explain it, but I see this arrow of progress toward an ever-larger complexity and to a larger consciousness and that fills me. I don't know what it means. I can't understand it but I see it. I observe it and I'm happy about it.
So you're not exactly an atheist.Koch: I'm not a conventional atheist who believes it's all just a random formation. I believe there is meaning. But as you said, I don't believe in a personal god or any of the standard things that you're supposed to believe as a Christian.

Your book suggests that you're a deist, maybe believing there's some sort of supreme being that created the laws of the universe but does not intervene in it.
Koch: I don't know. I grew up with that picture in mind, which is very difficult to get rid of when you acquire it in your formative years. This God I have in mind is very ephemeral. It's much closer to Spinoza's God than to the God of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. The mystic Angelus Silesius, who was a contemporary of Descartes, had this wonderful quote: "God is a lucent nothing, no Now nor Here can touch him." It's totally different from any conventional conception of a god. In fact, it's much closer to Buddhist thought than to any monotheistic religion. I just grew up calling this "God" because that's my tradition, but it's not any god that we in the Western world would recognize. There isn't an old guy with a beard who watches over us.

Do you look for meaning in the world of science?Koch: I find meaning in science. It's this incredibly beautiful thing. Isn't it a wonder that we can understand the universe using mathematics that's comprehensible to our minds? That's just absolutely amazing. There's no law in the universe that says it should be like that. Physics can make predictions about the shape of the early universe. We can predict the size and the pitch of the initial bang in the universe. That's just amazing that the universe actually is comprehensible to our minds. So that fills me with great contentment.

Koch also worked with Francis Crick, a Nobel-Laureate and the co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule. Crick was also a prominent and vocal atheist. Here is the part of the interview where Koch talks about Crick and his atheism. I think the anecdote about what Crick was doing 2 hours before his death is absolutely phenomenal:

What was it like to work with someone who was so brilliant?Koch: Sheer joy and pleasure. So often he would take the same fact that I read and he would come to a startling new conclusion. He made this jump because he connected these facts to, say, something he'd done earlier in molecular biology. He was very good at using metaphors and analogies from other fields. Later on he didn't sleep well, so he would often lie awake at night and think about these things and come to the breakfast table with great new ideas. He wasn't afraid of continuously throwing out ideas. Many of them were crazy. Many were interesting but didn't work. Occasionally there were wonderful ideas. He just generated so many more ideas than other people did. 
Crick was also an ardent atheist. In fact, didn't he leave Churchill College in Cambridge because they built a chapel over his objections?Koch: That's correct. I was just at Churchill College and I visited the college because of that story. 
Given your own background as a Catholic, did you talk much about religion with Crick?Koch: We did. He was gentle with respect to my faith. When I first met him I still went to church and took my family there. He didn't push me in any aggressive way. He knew I had some religious sensibilities but it didn't impede our ability to have vigorous discussions about the neural correlates of consciousness. I guess his ardor for fighting against religion had cooled by the time I met him. 
Did you ever push back? Did you ever challenge his atheist assumptions?Koch: No. We once had a very interesting discussion about death. It's one of the things I greatly admire about him. Not only that he was a genius and a great inspiration, but also his attitude about dying. He knew he had a short time to live because he had colon cancer. Every morning when I came in, we talked a bit about the current state of his health but then he would say, "Okay, let's move onto more interesting things" and we would talk about science. He kept that attitude until the bitter end. Two hours before he passed away, he dictated to his secretary the last correction to one of our papers. He knew he was going to die but he didn't let it interfere with the business of trying to understand how consciousness arises from the brain. 
And here is Koch's take on the issue of soul:

Maybe the old religious definitions of the soul are outdated. Is part of your project trying to formulate a new, science-based idea of the soul?
Koch: These theories about the complexity of consciousness are essentially a 21st century conception of the soul. The soul in this case is conscious experience. It's attached to certain physical systems. They could be computers or biological systems. However, unlike the classical soul from Plato onwards, the soul disappears if this physical system is destroyed. 
This is not a soul that can survive death.Koch: It could in principle survive death by using technology - if my brain has some fancy reconstruction technology to transcribe it into software on silicon. In principle this simulacrum could survive death and have aspects of the old me. Unless I have a backup code, my soul dies when my brain dies. End of game, unfortunately.
Read the full interview here.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Friday, September 14, 2012

Friday Journal Club - The Religiosity of Immigrants in Europe

by Salman Hameed

Here is a paper by Van Tubergen and Sindradóttir: The Religiosity of Immigrants in Europe: A Cross-National Study published in the Journal of Scientific Study of Religion in June 2011 (Volume 50, Issue 2, pages 272–288).


The paper used European Social Survey (2002-2008) for more than 10,000 first-generation immigrants living in 27 European countries to look at their religiosity as measured by religious attendance, prayer frequency and vis subjective religiosity (the last parameter is measured on a scale ranging from 0 (not at all religious) to 10 (very religious)). 

There are a number of ways they look at the data and test out various hypotheses. Since we have been interested in looking at Muslim immigrants to Europe, I will pick a few results that are directly or tangentially related to that. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, there is substantial variation in the religiosity of immigrants across Europe. Interestingly, this variation is more pronounced using the religious attendance parameter as compared to praying and subjective religiosity.

In case you are interested in looking at the results directly, here is a table that summarizes their it for each country in the study (click on it to see it more clearly): 

Unfortunately, at least in this study, the authors did not separate out religions. I was curious about that as different religions would map out differently for religiosity measures, such as religious attendance. However, in an analysis not included in this paper, they did find that there were no significant differences in religious subjectivity across Islam, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox - the three major religions in the sample with 1000 immigrants or more. In addition,  Muslim immigrants prayed more than the other two groups, but Muslims and Catholic do not differ significantly in weekly religious attendance.

But I am surprised at their finding that including religious affiliations do not impact the findings at the individual level nor at the country level for the unemployment rate, income inequality, and religious diversity. 

So what might be the reason for cross-national variation? 
[T]he cross-national variation in the religiosity of immigrants is the result of bothcomposition effects (i.e., differential sorting) and context effects. Thus, according to the results of our multilevel analysis, cross-national differences are partly due to country differences in the sorting of immigrant groups and country differences in the length of stay of immigrants, their educational level, and their employment position. Over and above these composition effects, however, characteristics of the receiving countries are also important.We elaborated on previous cross-national research on immigrant religiosity (Connor 2010; van Tubergen 2006). Connor’s (2010) study, based on a subsample of Muslim immigrants, found that a less welcoming receiving context was associated with higher religious outcomes. In our study, we find a very strong statistical and substantive effect of the religiosity of the native-born population on the religiosity of immigrants. Immigrants who moved to highly religious countries like Poland are more religious themselves.

This is where I would expect to see differences between different religions. For example, there has to be a difference between Catholic immigrants moving to Poland versus say Muslim immigrants moving to the same country. I have not worked with large datasets such as these, but I wonder if these variations are washed out in the larger trends. 

Overall, the authors find that religiosity is "higher among immigrants who are unemployed, less educated, and who have recently arrived in the host country". It will be interesting to see if there are exceptions to this trend and how they stack up with the various models of immigration integration in place in Europe. For example, just this past week, we looked at the religiosity of Turkish and Moroccan-Dutch Muslims in the Netherlands, and saw that mosque attendance was up for higher educated, second generation Muslims. Some of this was the result of ethnic residential segregation and some might be attributed to the tensions between minority Muslims and the secular Dutch majority. In fact, the dataset used by Tubergen and Sindradóttir can check this as it contains second generation data as well. It is quite possible that other papers are in the pipeline and we'll get a chance to see the analysis then.

In any case, an interesting paper.

You can find past Irtiqa Friday Journal Clubs here.

Van Tubergen, F and Sindradóttir, J, I (2011) , 
The Religiosity of Immigrants in Europe: A Cross-National StudyJournal for the Scientific Study of Religion (Volume 50, Issue 2, pages 272–288; DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2011.01567.x)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

And the cycle of outrage continues...

by Salman Hameed

In an inter-connected world, we will see the same story repeat over and over again. The movie excerpt of The Innocence of Muslims is hateful and designed to provoke a reaction from Muslims across the world. Now the protests are spreading to countries other than Egypt and Libya. The problem is that the global communication is now making it too easy for a few people on one side of the world to incite a reaction from a few people on the other side. I wrote about some of it in a post from a few months ago: Moral Outrage: Burning of the Quran versus Free Speech.

But it is still not clear exactly what has happened and how should we think about this episode. So here are a couple of  links that may help in getting beyond simple narratives:

From what we know so far, most of the crew did not know about the nature of the film and this may explain some of the odd dubbing in some parts of the film:

The movie was originally about Coptic Christians. Israel said he found the project when it was still called Desert Warriors. He was told by his friend and Bacile the movie was about, "the historical persecution of Coptic Christians." Nakoula admitted to being a Coptic Christian to the AP, too.  
The budget wasn't anywhere close to $5 million. It was closer to $100,000, tops, according to Israel. "Israel suggests that, despite earlier reports that the film had millions of dollars of outside financing, the total outlay for the project couldn't have exceeded $100,000."
Also this NPR story on the mystery of the person behind the film.

And here are two takes on the current violence. The first one, Beyond Religion in the Middle East, looks at the Arab Spring and the complex socio-economic conditions in the Libya and Egypt:

The Arab Spring produced a complex matrix of political instability in Libya and Egypt, with enormous economic and social reverberations in those nations and their geopolitical relationships and strategies. The anti-American violence in Benghazi and Cairo is mostly a reflection of weakened central governments in the wake of the toppling of long-standing dictators and amid the jockeying for power of a host of actors and organizations. 
If the reaction was generically Muslim in nature, Saudi Arabia, the most notable bastion of Sunni orthodoxy vehemently opposed to any depictions of Muhammad, would be the place where the trailer and the film would be expected to first spark controversy. Yet it wasn't a flash point. Nor have we heard a peep of protest from Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman or Kuwait, Persian Gulf countries with relatively strong central governments that retained a firm grip on power during the Arab Spring. 
As the exuberant democracy movements and revolutions in Libya and Egypt transition to the painstaking reality of establishing law and order, the new regimes have to find their feet and their place in the world. The recently elected governments in Libya and Egypt and other countries will work for many years to reestablish law and order, a task complicated in Libya by the deluge of arms floating around the country after the brutal civil war. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, the entrenched military power holders, and secular organizations and individuals will compete to speak for the new state. 
At such a time, using religion alone to explain what's happening is counter-factual and counterproductive. Individuals, mobs and militants on all sides, in the United States as well as in Egypt and Libya, will try to dwell on Islam. Easily inflamed mobs in the Middle East may set back democratization efforts and strip the remade nations of foreign economic investment, tourism and the geopolitical support they need. In America, provocateurs will try to influence public opinion in divisive political times. It is important that policymakers and the news media remain clear-headed that the real issues are instead mostly local and always political.
And here is another take in Counterpunch specifically focused on Libya by a friend of mine, Vijay Parshad. He provides a context from local Libyan politics in Humiliation and Rage in Libya:

This is not the first such protest in Benghazi, the eastern city of Libya. Over the course of this year, tumult has been the order of the day. In January, a crowd stormed the headquarters of the National Transitional Council. In April, a bomb was thrown at a convoy that included the head of the UN Mission to Libya, and another bomb exploded at a courthouse. In May, a rocket was fired at the Red Cross office. A convoy carrying the head of the British consulate was attacked in June, and since then the consulate has been abandoned. In August, a pipe bomb exploded in front of the US consulate building. Frustration with the West is commonplace amongst sections of society, who are not Gaddafi loyalists, but on the contrary fought valiantly in the 2011 civil war against Gaddafi. The NATO intervention did not mollify a much more fundamental grievance they have against the US-UK, namely the sense of humiliation of the Arab world against the arrogance of Western domination in cultural and political terms. 
An earlier incident helps to highlight this point. In late 2005, protests across the world took place in reaction to a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, publishing cartoons that demeaned the Prophet Mohammad. This upsurge came to eastern Libya in early 2006. An Italian minister, Roberto Calderoli, wore a t-shirt that bore that offensive cartoon. A demonstration of more than 1,000 people, mainly political Islamists and pious Muslims, gathered in front of the Italian consulate in Benghazi on 17 February 2006. The Gaddafi regime sent in its armed police, who opened fire, killing 11. After the police firing, a section of the middle-class that was not sympathetic to the Islamists turned against the Gaddafi regime. Intellectuals such as Fathi Terbil, Terbil Salwa and Idris al-Mesmari joined a platform to bring justice not only to the families of the slain in 2006, but also for the families of those members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and others who were massacred in Abu Salim prison in 1996. 
To commemorate the slain on the fifth anniversary of the firing, on 17 February 2011, Terbil and others organized a demonstration in Benghazi. It was to block this protest that Terbil was arrested on February 15, and it was to demand his release that the crowds came out in Benghazi inaugurating the major upsurge against Gaddafi in 2011. Gaddafi lost control of the entire eastern part of the country within a week. The social roots of humiliation played an important part in the February Revolution in Libya.
Read the full article here. Vijay, by the way, also has a new book out on Libya: Arab Spring, Libyan Winter.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Exploring a cult in "Sound of My Voice"

by Salman Hameed

It is always a pleasure to see small-budget films that are driven by good writing. Sound of My Voice is an absorbing and intriguing film that straddles the boundary of science fiction. It is co-written by Brit Marling, who also co-wrote Another Earth.

Here is our in-studio film autopsy (review) of Sound of My Voice:

And of course, if you like this film, you may also want to check out the film autopsy of Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene. Here is our earlier Film Autopsy:

Paper for next Irtiqa Friday Journal Club

by Salman Hameed

In the last journal club, we looked at the religiosity of Turkish and Moroccan-Dutch Muslims in the Netherlands. We will continue on a similar theme and look at the religiosity of immigrants across Europe in a paper by Tubergen and Sindradóttir: The Religiosity of Immigrants in Europe: A Cross-National Study. It was published in the Journal of Scientific Study of Religion in June 2011 (Volume 50, Issue 2, pages 272–288). As usual, if you don't have access to the paper and are interesting in reading it, you can drop me an e-mail and I can send you a pdf copy.

Here is the abstract:

The Religiosity of Immigrants in Europe: A Cross-National Study
by Tubergen and Sindradóttir
This study examines cross-national differences in the religiosity of immigrants in Europe utilizing three different measures of religiosity: religious attendance, praying, and subjective religiosity. Hypotheses are formulated by drawing upon a variety of theories—scientific worldview, insecurity, religious markets, and social integration. The hypotheses are tested using European Social Survey data (2002–2008) from more than 10,000 first-generation immigrants living in 27 receiving countries. Multilevel models show that, on the individual level, religiosity is higher among immigrants who are unemployed, less educated, and who have recently arrived in the host country. On the contextual level, the religiosity of natives positively affects immigrant religiosity. The models explain about 60 percent of the cross-national differences in religious attendance and praying of immigrants and about 20 percent of the cross-national differences in subjective religiosity. 

I will post my comments on the paper on Friday and will be looking forward to your input as well (for comments, please do read the paper or at least skim through it).

Check out past Irtiqa Journal Clubs here.

Are they becoming the Klu Klux Klan of Pakistan?

by Salman Hameed

Yes, Ahmadis have already been declared non-Muslim in Pakistan via a constitutional change in the 1970s. Abdus Salam - Pakistan's only Nobel laureate and who made contributions toward the prediction of the Higgs Boson - has been shunned because of his Ahmadi faith. And to get a Pakistani passport as a Muslim, one has to declare that Ahmadis are not Muslims (see an earlier post here).

But this not enough. Now the Khatme Nabuwat Conference wants more restrictions on this particular community, and is asking for the release of the guy who assassinated the Governor of Punjab for his critical views on Pakistan's blasphemy law. Here is the news from the Express Tribune:
The Khatme Nabuwat Conference ended here on Monday with speakers calling for various measures against the members of the Ahmadi community. 
A resolution, proposed by Justice(r) Nazeer Ahmed – member of Islamic Ideology Council, was passed during the Tajdar Khatame Nabuwat Conference, organised by Fidayane Khatame Nabuwat at Aiwan-e-Iqbal on Monday. 
The participants of the conference also stated that Malik Mumtaz Qadri, the self-confessed killer of former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, has not committed any offence by killing him and should be released. 

Demanding amendments in the country’s laws, the participants said that the religious activities of the Ahmadi community should be banned in Pakistan and their social activities should be monitored. 
Those who attended the conference include Ruet-e-Hilal committee chairman Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman, MNA Haji Fazal Karim, MNA Captain Safdar, Maulana Syed Irfan Mashhadi, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, Akhtar, Sarwat Ijaz Qadri, Shah Ahmed Awais Norani, Pir Muhammad Afzal Qadri, Dr Raghib Naeemi, Mumtaz Qadri’s father Malik Bashir and his brother Dilpazir Ahmed.
Read the full article here.

This is not about race. But what prompted me to think about the KKK in the early 20th century American South is that fact that this group of people is openly advocating discrimination and has been tolerant of violence against minorities. Oh and judging from the list of people above - two are the members of the National Assembly and one holds a prominent post on the lunar sighting committee - they are already entrenched in the political system. What if an outfit like this get even more political clout? I can easily imagine them openly calling for violence against Ahmadis (see an earlier post here) - and this is the reason I thought about the KKK.

The religious parties, however, have never really gained much traction in polls in Pakistan. But more recently, some clerical groups are exerting an increasing level of influence in matters of public sphere. For example, the Pakistan Ulema Council, have recently made prominent statements on the matter of lunar calendar as well as the ongoing blasphemy case against a young Christian girl. Their positions on both matters are not completely insane - but still are very conservative. In the presence of many extreme voices, however, they appear moderate - and have been getting prominent news coverage. I think they are positioning themselves to be a major voice in Pakistani politics for the coming years. And that is some bad news for the hopes of a building an increasingly tolerant society.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Pakistan and India should join in Chinese Observatory plans

by Salman Hameed

A  high and dry place. Now this is what astronomers like to see. Image credit: Yao Yongqiang

It seems that China is planing a world class astronomical facility, Shiquanhe Observatory, at Ngari plateau near Kashmir. At close to 16,700 feet, the site will compete with Mauna Kea in Hawaii and various sites in Chile. The facilities will be a result of international collaboration between China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan - and may include some of the world's largest telescopes. If things go as planned, this will certainly become the focal point of Asian astronomy. From this week's Science:

Next spring, researchers will gather in China to discuss which kinds of medium-sized telescopes, with mirrors up to 2 meters in diameter, would work best in Tibet. Taiwan intends to ship a 50-centimeter optical telescope to Ngari within 2 years, while Japan plans to install a 60-centimeter optical and infrared telescope there next year that could be used to observe gamma ray bursts and supernovae. Down the road, Kaifu says, Japan may wish to put a 3-meter segmented mirror telescope at Ngari. 
Thinking even bigger, China aspires to erect two massive telescopes at Ngari. One is a 20- to 30-meter optical and near-infrared telescope similar to ELT, which Europe plans to build in the next decade in Chile. China has designated an ELT as a priority in the next 5-year plan that starts in 2016, Cui says. The best place to build an ELT in China, she says, is Ngari: “The roof of the roof of the world.” 
The other aim is scaling up LAMOST, an innovative instrument now known as Guo Shoujing Telescope that uses thousands of optical fibers to feed starlight into spectrographs for analysis (Science, 4 April 2008, p. 34). At the IAU meeting, China announced that LAMOST's commissioning data are now publicly available and that a formal sky survey will commence next month. More quietly, China has begun discussions with international partners on duplicating Beijing's LAMOST in Chile, says Zhao Yongheng, a vice director at LAMOST. He says that the plan for Ngari is far grander: doubling or tripling the size of LAMOST's 6-meter primary mirror. 
I think this will also be a perfect opportunity for Indian and Pakistani astronomers to join-in. India has a thriving astronomical community and hosts one of the largest radio telescopes in the world, The Giant Metrewave Telescope (GMRT). Pakistan, on the other hand, has only a handful of astronomers, but does enjoy a close relationship with China (also see earlier posts - here and here - about the booming amateur astronomy scene in Pakistan). The fact that Shiquanhe Observatory is located so close to both Pakistan and India, provides an opportunity for the three countries for an unusual partnership at the roof of the world.

Here is a google map of the approximate location of the observatory:

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Saturday Video: Secrets of the Sun

by Salman Hameed

 About a week ago, NASA's Solar Dynamic Observatory captured this fantastic flare:

A long filament erupted on the sun on August 31, 2012, shown here in this still captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). The eruption lasted from noon EDT to 1:45 a.m. the next morning. This still shows light at 304 Angstroms which help scientists observe the sun's atmosphere, or corona. Pictured next to the filament is a superimposed Earth, shown to scale. Credit: NASA/SDO/AIA
Glad that the Earth is not located as is shown in the picture. We get a bit of a buffer for being 93 million miles away. Inspired by this image, here is a NOVA episode on the Secrets of the Sun:

Friday, September 07, 2012

Friday Journal Club: Limits of Secularization? Turkish and Moroccan-Dutch Muslims in the Netherlands

by Salman Hameed

Here is an interesting paper by Maliepaard, Gijsberts, and Lubbers: Reaching the Limits of Secularization? Turkish- and Moroccan-Dutch Muslims in the Netherlands 1998-2006 published this year in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (2012), 51(2):359-367.

The paper looks at the trends of religiosity amongst Muslim minorities in the Netherlands. In particular, it focuses on the trends of mosque attendance between 1998 and 2006 in amongst the Turkish- and Moroccan-Dutch Muslims, which represent the two largest Muslim ethnic groups in the Netherlands.

The authors wanted to see if some of the prevailing ideas about secularization hold up. Two factors, in particular, may play an important role: a) generational replacement - the idea that individuals from minority groups growing up are imbued with the values of the majority culture (a secular Dutch society, in this case), and b) that obtaining higher education usually associated with lower levels of religious participation - both in majority and minority populations.

From this perspective:
It is therefore expected that the second generation and the higher educated Muslims attend the mosque less frequently than first-generation, lower educated Muslims. Because the second generation has grown relative to the first, and educational levels have risen in the decade of our research (Gijsberts and Dagevos 2010), this would have led to lower average levels of mosque attendance among the Muslim population.
However, there are also factors that may work in keeping religious participation at a higher level. For example, the presence of ethnic in-group members within close vicinity can create opportunities for religious practice to be enacted together. But there are also certain life stages that may lead to religious participation:
In addition to the local context, certain life stages have also been associated with reli- gious (re)vitalization. Whereas young people are often found to be less religious, when they start settling down (i.e., marrying and having children) religious practice often increases. This has been found both among Christians (Firebaugh and Harley 1991) and Muslims as well as other religious groups (Van Tubergen 2006). It is therefore expected that Muslims who live in neighborhoods with many ethnic in-group members and/or a mosque, and Muslims who are married and/or have children will attend the mosque more frequently than Muslims who live in neighborhoods with few ethnic in-group members and without a mosque, and who are single, without children. Again, because segregation in Dutch cities increased (Vervoort and Dagevos 2011), and because the second generation started forming families in the period that we study (De Valk 2006), we expect this has led to higher average levels of mosque attendance.
So what did they find? Here is the figure that summarizes their findings:

I should mention that these results are based on close to 7000 individuals who identified themselves as Muslims. And out of those, roughly 47% never attended mosque or do so only a few times a year. However, the figure above shows the change in the frequency of attendance over the years amongst the first and second generation Turkish and Moroccan-Dutch immigrants. The striking result is that the mosque attendance is has increased over the years amongst this group of second generation Muslim males (and these results are controlled for age, education and neighborhood composition):
Members of the second generation, who were originally much less inclined to attend a mosque, show a revival over time. Importantly, this cannot be explained by the fact that the second generation on average is getting older and is settling down. The secularizing effect of education also diminished over the years (also when controlling for generational replacement). So even if generational replacement and educational attainment were related to a decrease in religiosity in the early late 1990s and early 2000s, it seems that these forces previously seen as “driving secularization” (Phalet and Ter Wal 2004) lost power in predicting religious attendance. Mosques, rather than being places mainly first-generation (Turkish-Dutch) men visit, increasingly attract higher educated, second-generation (Moroccan- Dutch) men. Qualifying this as a general religious revival would be too strong: mosque attendance is not increasing among the Muslim population as a whole. However, the lack of generational and educational differences in later years indicates that a downward trend among the Muslim population in the future is doubtful.
Some of it is indeed the result of increases ethnic residential segregation of Muslim groups. But this doesn't explain the revival in groups such as Moroccan-Dutch second generation. For that the authors think that the "increasingly strained relation between the (secular) majority and Muslim minorities in the Netherlands" may be playing a role in this. And religion may form an alternative reactive identity:
That processes of labeling and othering, in combination with religious socialization, strengthen the religious identity of young Muslims has been shown previously (De Koning 2008; Ketner 2008). Our findings suggest that these processes may also extend to religious practices in the communal domain. Especially the higher educated second generation perceives most exclusion and discrimination in the Netherlands, and mostly so the Moroccan-Dutch (Tolsma, Lubbers, and Gijsberts 2012). It may therefore not be coincidental that it is especially these groups in which an increase in religious practice is found.
This is fascinating. I think this opens up room for a number of questions. For example, it will be interesting to see if these trends hold up for a comparable sample in other European countries and/or if these changes also have links to political and social changes in Turkey and Morocco. However, I'm also interested in exploring the contents of Islam that become part of this increasing religious identity as well as its source(s). The internet and satellite television channels are playing a crucial role in forming a globalized "acculturated" Islam (from Olivier Roy) and it will be interesting to see what aspects of this Islam are picked up (and emphasized) by the different Muslim ethnic groups in Europe. For example, a comparison of this data with Moroccan-French and Turkish-Germans will be fascinating, as that may tell us about the impact of various state policies towards ethnic minorities and, possibly, on the form of religious identities in different contexts. This last bit is of particular interest to me, as we are trying to understand the perceptions of modern science amongst Muslims in diverse political and cultural contexts.

In any case, a very interesting paper. Your comments are welcome.

You can find past Irtiqa Friday Journal Clubs here.

Also, see this earlier post on recent Pew poll regarding religiosity in various Muslim countries. Turkey and Morocco are both included in the survey.

Maliepaard, M, Gijsberts, M, and Lubbers, M (2012) Reaching the Limits of Secularization? Turkish- and Moroccan-Dutch Muslims in the Netherlands 1998–2006, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (Volume 51, Issue 2, pages 359–367; DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2012.01647.x)

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Paper for next Irtiqa Friday Journal Club

by Salman Hameed

Our next journal club will look at a recent paper that looks at the religiosity of Muslims in the Netherlands: Reaching the Limits of Secularization? Turkish- and Moroccan-Dutch Muslims in the Netherlands 1998–2006 by Mieke Maliepaard, Mérove Gijsberts, and Marcel Lubbers. It was published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion this past June (Volume 51, Issue 2, pages 359–367, June 2012). As usual, if you don't have access to the paper and are interesting in reading it, you can drop me an e-mail and I can send you a pdf copy.

Here is the abstract:
Reaching the Limits of Secularization? Turkish- and Moroccan-Dutch Muslims in the Netherlands 1998–2006
by Mieke Maliepaard, Mérove Gijsberts, and Marcel Lubbers
This research note focuses on Muslim minorities living in a secular context, the Netherlands. The question is whether mosque attendance among Turkish- and Moroccan-Dutch changed between 1998 and 2006, testing mechanisms of religious decline and religious vitality. Elaborating on previous research of the same Muslim groups, this study examines a longer time span and adds contextual-level explanations. Whereas previous research reported a linear trend towards secularization over time and over generations, in recent years the trend has become more complex. The revival of religious attendance among the second generation is most striking. Forces of secularization such as educational attainment and generational replacement gradually lose their predictive power. Over time, processes of secularization are therefore not inevitable.

I will post my comments on the paper on Friday and will be looking forward to your input as well (for comments, please do read the paper or at least skim through it).

Check out past Irtiqa Journal Clubs here.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Can Islamic archaeological sites be saved from Muslims?

by Salman Hameed

We have been hearing about the destruction of Islamic heritage in Mali and more recently in Libya (tip from Tom Heneghan). These are outrageous actions by puritanical idiots inspired by Wahabism. Where are the street protests for the destruction of these mosques and shrines? However, on the positive side, these actions are finally focusing some light on the destruction of numerous archaeological sites important for early Islam. The destroyers call themselves the guardians of the Holy cites of Mecca and Medina. I was looking to see what sites in Saudi Arabia are included in the list of UNESCO's World Heritage and if those included Prophet's (pbuh) birth place or other locations vital for history and archeology. And I found two places: One is a site of Nabataeans from 1st century BC, and the other - and I kid you not - is Daiyah - the first capitol of the Saudi dynasty. And that's about it.

So here are two articles that address this Saudi penchant for historical destruction. The first one is called It is time to Occupy Mecca - to save Mecca by Omid Safi, and it contrasts this disregard of history with naked commercialism (tip from Tabsir):
No, it’s not the Americans, or the Israelis, who would be destroying Mecca. 
It’s the so-called Guardians of the two holy sites (Mecca and Medina), the Saudi royal elites, who have negligently stood by over the last two decades as the majority of holy sites in these two most sacred Muslim cities have been destroyed, sacrificed to the false gods of modernization, capitalism, and progress. 
Saudi Wahhabis have a long history of destroying shrines, including those of the family of the Prophet in Saudi Arabia and Iraq.   
The graves of the descendants of the Prophet now look like dusty rubbles, with only stones to identify them.    Armed Saudi policemen beat away and arrest pilgrims who stop to offer their respect. 
The early Wahhabis even had designed to destroy the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, as they assumed that Muslims who were offering blessings and salutations on the Prophet (as the Qur’an commands them to do!) were in fact idolaters.  
The Saudis have destroyed or bulldozed some 300 sacred sites and shrines in Mecca and Medina in creating what many are calling the new “Las Vegas.”
And here in an excellent piece on Jadaliyya called Crimes Against Civilization in Hejaz by Faisal Husain (tip from Amina Steinfels):
While bemoaning the tragic fate of what they considered to be “their” heritage in Timbuktu, almost all Arab and Muslim regimes—and the authors and intellectuals their media empires feature—have acquiesced to what has been happening at the heart of the Muslim world since the rise of the first Saudi state in the eighteenth century. The actions of Salafis in Mali are trivial when compared with those committed by the Saudi regime. Indeed, the Saudi regime has set the precedent for Ansar al-Din in Mali and puritans in Muslim societies by systematically destroying Islamic historical and sacred sites and harassing, sometimes even butchering, those who attended them. Nevertheless, most Muslim nations, for different reasons, have not uttered a word of protest against the destruction of Islam’s holiest sites within the borders of the Saudi Kingdom. 
Among international actors, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has displayed the most egregious hypocrisy, itself established in the aftermath of the 1969 arson attack on al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. The organization’s zeal for protecting Muslim sites under Israeli occupation from destruction and its absolute indifference and disregard for sites bulldozed by the Saudi regime is astonishing. Worse, it has recently issued a statement on Timbuktu deploring “bigoted extremist elements” for destroying Mali’s “rich Islamic heritage.” The insincerity of the Organization’s Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, who is a respected figure, and his organization have eroded whatever credibility they have left today.
The following paragraphs will highlight very briefly both historical and current instances when the Saudi regime systematically engaged in acts far worse than those of Ansar al-Din in Timbuktu, yet they have been almost completely ignored by the same parties that condemned the destruction in Timbuktu. Hopefully, this will raise awareness about the gravity of the persisting tragedy in the Hejaz and put an end to this era of historical amnesia.
And here is the bit about Mecca:  
Mecca, the birthplace of Islam, has not been spared from desecration. In the last decade, academics, urban planners, and journalists have documented the destruction and desecration of various sites around the Grand Mosque, most notably the ochre-colored Ottoman Ajyad fortress and Bayt al-Mawlid [the Prophet’s birthplace]. The house of the Prophet’s wife Khadija (d. 619), where Muhammad resided during the first years of his mission and where his only daughter Fatima was born, has also been demolished. Historically, the people and rulers of Mecca appreciated the significance of the house of Khadija, and it was converted into a small mosque during the Umayyad period, shading it by a dome and introducing into it a prayer niche. It played a central role in different religious ceremonies organized by rulers seeking to buttress their religious credentials among Mecca’s residents. Instructed by the Ottoman Sultan Mustafa II (d. 1703), the governor of Jeddah, Sulayman Pasha, held an annual ceremony there during the month of Ramadan to mark the anniversary of the day the Prophet received his first divine revelation. One writer describes the ceremony:
The Pasha was to execute these new responsibilities of his with great humility and solemnity… During this ceremony, men led by the Pasha and other dignitaries, would voluntarily walk along in congregation at a gentle pace from the Haram’s door known as the ‘Bab al-Haririyin’ towards the house of ‘the Mother of the Believers’, the Lady Khadijah, where the Prophet was residing at the time he received his first “Wahi”, marking the beginning of his mission as a prophet and messenger of Allah… There, they would listen to the recitation of some Verses from the Qur’an and Orations (‘Hadith’) of the Prophet and compositions in his praise, offer the ‘Fatihah’—(recitation of the opening chapter of the Qur’an)—towards the end in honour of the Prophet and make their way back towards the Grand Mosque and re-enter it through the entrance called ‘Bab ‘Ali’. Sweets and refreshments would then be offered there to the congregation under the Dome of ‘Abbas.[2]Upon the remains of this once-sacred spot, the Saudi regime has built a toilet complex.
Hey - but at least the pilgrims can check time on a large clock towering over the mosque in Mecca. They may not want to be late for shopping. And with the destruction of old sites out of the way, there is  space for more hotels:  
The Saudi regime continues to bulldoze Mecca’s and Medina’s monuments, constructing on their ruins skyscrapers, luxury hotels, and shopping malls. Among the few surviving sites, Ottoman-carved columns dating back to the seventeenth century in the Grand Mosque, the green dome that adorns the mosque housing the Prophet’s tomb, and the sixth century house where the Prophet was born are all under threat of destruction. With pre-modern Mecca almost wiped out, the annual spiritual journey to Mecca and Medina has been turned into “a new spectacle.” In the words of the Saudi Minister of Hajj, the pilgrimage now resembles “twenty Super Bowls in one stadium, when two million will come, and . . . these two million people will actually be taking part in playing the game.”[9]
Unfortunately, the acquiescence of governments and regional bodies and the blackout imposed on the matter by their media empires have allowed the cleansing of the Hejaz to continue largely unopposed. They helped to anesthetize the general public to the gravity of what has happened to sites of great historical and religious significance, lulling it with illusory nostrums that celebrate King Abdullah’s large commercial development schemes in the Hejaz. In one instance, a self-ascribed “liberal” and “independent” Kuwaiti daily, al-Qabas,informs its readers, in a piece that mentions the word tatwir [development] more than half a dozen times, that Mecca is “heading to become the capital of hotels in the world.” Not once have al-Qabas and mainstream media outlets in the Gulf broached the bitter consequences of Saudi “development” schemes; that the soon-to-be “capital of hotels” is actually being “choked” and built on the ruins of Islam’s earliest surviving material legacy. In the words of a Kashmiri writer, “Modern Mecca [now] feels as if it were built by a people without history or tradition—a sprawling imitation of modernist architecture.”[10]
Read the full article here.

Also see earlier posts:
How is history viewed in Saudi Arabia?
The Problem with peddling pseudoscientific claims regarding Mecca Clock
Mecca Clock: Seeking Prestige via Borrowed Science
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