Friday, November 30, 2012

A report about the Boston Evolution and Islam panel

by Salman Hameed

Last month I presented at a lively panel session on Islam and Evolution in Boston. It was organized by American Islamic Congress and its Project Nur. Now John Farrell has provided a summary of the session and a highlight video from the panel on his Progressive Download blog at Forbes. By the way, John is the author of a fantastic book about Belgian cosmologist and priest, Georges Lemaitre.

Here is John Farrell talking about Ehab Abouheif, his cutting edge research in evolutionary biology, and his faith:
So, it was fascinating to hear from evolutionary biologists like Ehab Abouheif, who runs his own lab at McGill, that doing science and practicing the family’s ancestral faith does not prompt any contradiction. 
Abouheif and his team made a splash earlier this year with the discovery that many species of ants retain dormant genes that can be reactivated to generate an entire caste of ‘super-soldiers.’ [His team's paper was published in the January 6 2012 issue of Science.] 
When he came to Boston University last month at the request of Project Nur and the American Islamic Congress, Abouheif not only shared his personal thoughts on religion as a scientist and a practicing Muslim, but he also shared his concerns about the consequences for Islamic countries that fail to embrace the scientific tradition. 
“There’s a lot at stake here,” he said, “because it’s well beyond evolution. If it’s not about the evidence, if you reject science, if you reject evolution as a science and you’re not willing to listen to evidence, then that means that for all of science, when it comes into contact with sociological, political conflicts, then you won’t believe it either.”
But ultimately he asks the question:
What’s interesting from my perspective is –whatever the immediate difficulties facing Muslim countries as they grapple with democracy and technology– in the broader intellectual scheme, I think science does not pose as many challenges to doctrine in Islam as it seems to pose to traditional Christianity. 
Or is it soon to tell?
I think it is too early to tell. If issues like the rejection of evolution become a matter of Muslim identity for most Muslims, as young earth creationism has become for many Evangelicals in the US, then we are going to see a conflicts with biology. But at present, there seems to be enough flexibility for many Muslims  to accept not just microbial evolution, but also animal evolution, including that of humans.

Here is the highlight video from the panel prepared by John Farrell:

Perspectives on Islam and Evolution from Farrellmedia on Vimeo.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A review and a discussion of "The Master"

by Salman Hameed

The Master is one of the best (and certainly one of the most interesting) films of the year! It is shot specularly and the acting is amazing. And it is one of those films where a second viewing simply enhances the pleasure tremendously.

But is it about the beginnings of Scientology? Well, yes and no. There are some elements of the film that seem to be inspired by the life of Scientology founder, L.Ron Hubbard. But that is just an inspiration. Rest of the movie goes in directions of its own.

Okay now to the actual discussion of the film. First we have a no-spoiler review (film autopsy) of The Master. For those who are interested in a further discussion of the movie, film professor, Kevin Anderson, and I also have a review essay titled, The Master: What is it all about? And yes, the latter discussion contains spoilers. [See all our reviews at Film Autopsy website]

Film Autopsy (review) of The Master:

Review Essay - The Master: What is it all about?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Russell Crowe as Darren Aronofsky's Noah!

by Salman Hameed

Now this may turn out to be interesting. Darren Aronofsky likes to explore the darker side of humanity (check out Black Swan or Requiem for a Dream or Pi or the more accessible, The Wrestler). So it may be perfect that he is making a Biblical epic about Noah - a story in which much of humanity dies in a deluge. The cast is superb, with Russell Crowe in the title role (I guess, you can think of it as a sequel to Master and Commander...). Already, the ark in the film looks different than people have usually imagined. Here is a picture from the set in New York:

And here is a brief description from Vulture:
The vessel is built to biblical proportions and capable of provoking awe at distances of up to 700 cubits—which is about how far away photographer Dan Wagner was when he captured this shot for New York. “To see it in person, and know there’s no CGI involved, was incredible,” he says. But Wagner wasn’t willing to suspend all disbelief: “The set decorator brought in tree stumps that weren’t there before, to give the effect that the ark was made with local lumber,” he says. “And there’s no way Noah and his sons could have built such an enormous structure themselves. That would have taken 500 years.”
The idea here is that the ark was not meant to go anywhere - but rather be a place of shelter. Okay - we'll see how it turns out. I have liked all of his films (yes, even The Fountain - for its ambition) and it will be interesting to see Aronofsky's take on this Biblical tale. While we are on the subject, here is one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons (full disclosure: I'm really allergic to mold - so this one really hits home for me):

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Electronic monitoring of women in Saudi Arabia?

by Salman Hameed

I actually saw this news item couple of days ago and thought that somebody made this up. But no, it seems that there really are no limits of sexism in Saudi Arabia. So in the 21st century, women still cannot drive in the Kingdom (the only country in the world!). However, it seems that the Interior Ministry is monitoring the movements of women if they leave the country - and dutifully informing their respective husbands via text message about any travels outside the Kingdom. This is all related to men being considered the "guardians" of women. Since women are considered dependents, they have to seek permission to get a job, travel out of the country, or even to go to school. So in the fine minds of Saudi government officials, when they are monitoring women's movements, they are simply "protecting" the dependents. Here is an excerpt from the story (and please do let me know if it turns out to be false - as this is just too insane):

Al-Sharif was one of the first prominent Saudis to start tweeting about the electronic monitoring issue -- describing the shock experienced by a couple she knew after the husband received a text message alerting him his wife had left Saudi Arabia, even though they were traveling out of the country together. 
What surprised and disturbed them most, Al-Sharif told CNN, was the fact that the husband had not registered with the Interior Ministry to begin receiving such notifications.
"It shows how women are still being treated as minors," added Al-Sharif. She went on to explain how, even though a notification system has actually been in place since 2010, before last week, a male guardian would have had to specifically request the service from the country's Interior Ministry before receiving such messages. 
In recent years, much has been made of the fact that Saudi Arabia is the sole remaining country in which women still have not been given the right to drive. But restrictions experienced by Saudi females extend to far more than just getting behind the wheel. In the deeply conservative kingdom, a woman is not allowed to go to school, get a job, or even travel outside the country without first obtaining the permission of her male "guardian," or mahram.
Read the full depressing story here.

But don't worry. Everything is okay - as Paris Hilton now has her 5th store in Saudi Arabia, with the latest one in Mecca Mall. It is pretty straight forward. On the way to Hajj, the male guardian can now give permission to his wife to own a part of Paris Hilton's world of handbags. Isn't this enough freedom? What more do these women want?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Will humans be going to planets around other stars?

by Salman Hameed

Well, I believe in the Star Trek universe - and so I do think that we will be able to figure out a way to travel to planets around other stars. But the author of the fantastic Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars), Kim Stanley Robinson doesn't think so. From last week's Nature:

Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the bestselling Mars Trilogy, takes a radical view. He suggests that we get over the idea of interstellar travel altogether: a probe would take 28,000 years to get to Alpha Centauri. “We can't go fast enough to get to any of these places,” he says. 
Barnard's star was once “the place for nearby space”, Robinson says, as his novel Icehenge (Ace, 1984) — in which characters build a starship headed for it — attests. Now that researchers have identified some 840 exoplanets, and NASA's three-year-old Kepler space telescope has spotted 2,320 candidate planets, “there may never again be a single default destination”, Robinson continues. 
In his recent book 2312, which imagines humanity three centuries from now, spread across terraformed planets, asteroids and moons in our own Solar System, Robinson writes frankly about the galactic hinterland we inhabit. “The stars exist beyond human time, beyond human reach,” says the narrator. “We live in the little pearl of warmth surrounding our star; outside it lies a vastness beyond comprehension. The solar system is our one and only home.” 
Of the idea that we are destined to go to the stars and inhabit, if not the whole Universe, maybe the whole galaxy, Robinson cautions “it's a fantasy, of power, transcendence and a kind of species immortality. We have to get more realistic.”
May be the problem lies in our neighborhood. We live on a minor spiral arm located about 30,000 light years from the center of the Milky Way (see the schematic below).

In a denser part of the Galaxy, we would have needed a much shorter time to get to an exoplanet. But then, we would also have been exposed to a greater probability of having a star explode nearby destroying most of the life on the planet. A globular cluster, containing a 100,000 to a million stars, would also have been an interesting place. But then there may not be many stars with planets in the globular clusters (Messier 80, below).

Okay - but in any case, we are now stuck here, in the suburbs of our galaxy. I think we will be able to figure out a way to beat the speed of light - or somehow work around it. Otherwise, we are looking at slow solar system expansion for the next several centuries...

Saturday Video: Sean Carroll - From Particles to People

by Salman Hameed

Here is an excellent talk by Sean Carroll, From Particles to People: The Laws of Nature and the Meaning of Life, that looks at what we know about the universe and how we can rule out certain things (like astrology) from even realm of possibility. The last part of the talk focuses on the way we look for the meaning of life. A fantastic talk and highly enjoyable.

Here is how he describes it at his blog, Cosmic Variance:

There are actually three points I try to hit here. The first is that the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood. There is an enormous amount that we don’t know about how the world works, but we actually do know the basic rules underlying atoms and their interactions — enough to rule out telekinesis, life after death, and so on. The second point is that those laws are dysteleological — they describe a universe without intrinsic meaning or purpose, just one that moves from moment to moment. 
The third point — the important one, and the most subtle — is that the absence of meaning “out there in the universe” does not mean that people can’t live meaningful lives. Far from it. It simply means that whatever meaning our lives might have must be created by us, not given to us by the natural or supernatural world. There is one world that exists, but many ways to talk about; many stories we can imagine telling about that world and our place within it, without succumbing to the temptation to ignore the laws of nature. That’s the hard part of living life in a natural world, and we need to summon the courage to face up to the challenge.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Music as a bridge across religions

by Salman Hameed

At a time of tension (and war) in the Middle East, it is great to be reminded of individual efforts that elevate dialogues between faiths. Here is an article by Jalees Rehman that finds the music of The Epichorus as an enthralling example of inter-faith dialogue:
I recently came across what is a beautiful form of true interfaith dialogue: the music of the band the Epichorus. Rabbinical student Zach Fredman and Muslim singer Alsarah co-founded the band and their musical love-child is the wonderful album One Bead. In this album, Zach, Alsarah and the other members of the band combine Jewish and Sudanese-Arab musical traditions to create music that transcends the boundaries of culture or religion. The lyrics of the songs are mostly drawn from the Jewish tradition, such as the "Song of Songs" (Song of Solomon) from the Old Testament, but the album also includes the traditional Sudanese love song "Nanaa Al Genina" (The Mint Garden). 
The common theme of the One Bead songs is love, the emotion that is at the core of our human existence and spirituality. Listening to the music, one feels a profound sense of harmony that exists between the various cultural and religious traditions that are part of the Epichorus. The lyrics for two of the songs are taken from the "Song of Songs" and this reminded me of something that the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote. He composed a cycle of poems called "West-√∂stlicher Diwan" (or "West-Eastern Divan" in English). Goethe wrote these poems to represent a fusion between Eastern and Western traditions. He also wrote essays in which he elaborated on his poems and one of his comments specifically refers to the Old Testament "Song of Songs", of which he says, "...als dem Zartesten und Unnachahmlichsten, was uns von Ausdruck leidenschaftlicher, anmutiger Liebe zugekommen," which translates into English as: " is the most tender and unique expression of passionate and graceful love that has been given to us." 
I asked Zach how he chose the name the Epichorus for their band and he said that it was a reference to Epikoros (or Apikoros), which is a term used in the Jewish tradition to describe outsiders or heretics. The members of the Epichorus are indeed outsiders in the sense that they have the courage to look beyond the boundaries of their religious traditions and have sought out a creative dialogue with people outside of their faith traditions. They are also "heretics" in the original Greek sense of the word, describing people who "make choices." They chose to embark on a creative adventure and found that they could engage in an authentic dialogue by creating beautiful songs together.
Read the full article here.

Here is a chat with the members of the band, where they talk about how they got together and sing a song from their upcoming album

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

[Update]: Farooqi School blasphemy case on NPR

by Salman Hameed

[This is related to the blasphemy mess of Farooqi Girls High School. Please see these earlier posts hereherehereherehereherehere and here. You can also read my take on this matter in The Guardian: Blasphemy Laws are Darkening Pakistan's Skies]. 

Two things to report. First of all, the bail of Umair Asim's father was confirmed yesterday by a judge of the Lahore High Court. The judge seemed to know the details of the case and of the fact that this was all an unintentional mistake, and he proceeded to immediately confirm the bail of his father (and apparently of the teacher, who is already in hiding). This is really good news!

In fact, the judge suggested to the Superintendent Police (SP) to go ahead and cancel the entire blasphemy case, as there is no intention in there, and therefore no crime was committed. But the SP suggested that he also wanted to get the fatwas from the leading Islamic schools before the whole case could be dropped. So now Umair's family has to wait for that. This is a perfect demonstration of how religious groups are now making gains in civilian matters. This is ominous for the country.

The issue of blasphemy cases, including the one involving Umair's school, was discussed by the NPR today. You can listen to the story here.

It starts with the fact that 27 blasphemy cases have been filed this year (and remember that the punishment for blasphemy, if convicted, is death. So this is no minor issue). It then goes on to talk about the burning of Farooqi Girls High School:
On a recent autumn morning in Lahore, hundreds of uniformed schoolgirls, many wearing veils, file into the Farooqi Girls High school. The four-story school sits just off a narrow, congested street in an older section of this vibrant city in eastern Pakistan. 
Getting back to class is a welcome return to normalcy for Farooqi's students and teachers. The school was attacked last month after a teacher was accused of writing insulting comments about the Prophet Muhammad in a student's notebook — something the teachers vehemently dispute. 
The accuser was a vice principal from a nearby religious school, or madrassa. On the night of Oct. 30, an angry and violent mob formed outside the Farooqi school. Still inside was Sheraz Shuja, the school administrator, along with the principal and some teachers.
"We heard a loud knock at our door, and they were trying to break the door. They were pushing it hard," Shuja says. "So we went on the top floor. Then they broke into the building, hundreds of people. They looted and burned everything. We were very afraid. If they had got hold of us, they would have killed us." 
The police arrested Farooqi's 77-year-old principal, and the teacher accused of blasphemy is in hiding, in fear for her life.
And here is a bit that should be of concern to all:
This is the fourth time this year that teachers working with nonreligious curricula have been accused of blasphemy. Sumbul Naseer, who teaches science at the Farooqi school, says she's worried. 
"So many people are having threatening calls from so many numbers, [saying], 'Don't open the school, don't go inside, we will not spare you people,' and this and that," Naseer says.
So yes, Lahore is not Swat, where the 14-year Malala was shot by the Taliban for being outspoken for her girl's education. However, given the fact that even most moderate (within the country's spectrum) Pakistanis support the blasphemy law ("oh - it is just the issue of implementation - but it is actually the right law..."), local religious groups and institutions can gain power using these blasphemy cases. If tomorrow members of the madrassa that led the charge against Umair's school demand some modifications in the secular curriculum or in the dress-code of the girl's high school, people will think twice before challenging them. Not to mention that already, people are seeking their approval for the dismissal of the blasphemy case. That is indeed some power. And this kind of Ulema power is relatively new and we are seeing these changes take place in front of our eyes.

But NPR did a good job on reporting the origins of the blasphemy law as well:
Under Pakistan's stringent blasphemy laws, it takes only one accusation — backed up with little or no evidence — to lead to an arrest. The original laws date back to British colonial times, before Pakistan gained independence in 1947. 
The laws were strengthened under President Zia-ul-Haq during the 1980s, when insulting the Prophet Muhammad or the Quran was made a capital offense. However, to date, no one has been executed for blasphemy. 
The laws do not clearly define what "insult" means. This gives wide berth to Islamist extremists, who have been increasingly using the laws to further their religious goals, says Joseph Francis, director of the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement, which helps Christians accused of blasphemy. 
"Extremists have been able to exploit the situation," Francis says. "Pakistan is under attack from militants, trying to introduce their version of Islam and creating intolerance against minorities. The blasphemy law is one of the instruments they can use." 
Francis says Shiite Muslims, Hindus, Christians and other minorities are being increasingly targeted. The accused, their families and their communities often face vigilante justice, he adds. 
"If one person is accused, the entire community is punished," Francis says."In one case, six people were burned alive and 147 houses burned down. Many people have to go into hiding — they cannot lead a normal life." 
In a twist, her accuser was arrested for planting evidence against her. In a television interview, he said he wanted to drive the Christians from the area.
And these issues - including that of madrassas versus "secular" schools are connected to class differences, widespread poverty etc. I don't think this is exclusive of the way religious groups are strengthening their positions. Here is I.A. Rahman on this matter:
I.A. Rehman, secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, says charges of blasphemy often have nothing to do with insulting the prophet or the Quran.
"Our finding is that blasphemy cases are initiated, in a large number of cases, to settle personal scores, to settle economic competition issues and to settle sectarian differences," Rehman says. 
And that is likely to continue, he adds, because the government won't tackle Islamic extremism. 
"The government is not in a position to take on the militants straight on," he says. "It is weak. And the extreme ... wave of intolerance has sympathizers and supporters across the board in Pakistan." 
Pakistan's politicians may take warning from what happened to Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab. He was gunned down last year after suggesting that the blasphemy laws be reviewed.
Listen to the story here.

Again, wishing and hoping all the best for Umair, his whole family, and the accused teacher. Here is a picture of Umair (left), his father, brother, and his mother. A skipped page by a teacher in their school - in a moment of hurry - has turned their world upside-down, including all the education work they have done in the past several decades. What a travesty!

Blow is a picture of Farooqi school that is now open - but the banners on the school - probably by the school administration - remind us of the controversy (one banner is the Shahada, affirming the unity Allah and that that Muhammad (PBUH) is Allah's Messenger).

Friday, November 16, 2012

Not enough mercury in the beard: Tycho was not murdered

by Salman Hameed

Oh all the intrigue for nothing. Two years ago I had posted about the exhumation of Tycho Brahe's body to find out if he was murdered by either another astronomer, Kepler, or on the orders of the King. Well, it seems like the famous story of his bladder infection turned out to be correct and the cause of his death (See When are we going to see a movie about Tycho Brahe).

Here is a report on his exhumation from the BBC:

The 16th-Century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe is unlikely to have been poisoned, according to a researcher studying his remains. 
The body was exhumed in 2010 in a bid to confirm the cause of his death.
Brahe was thought to have died of a bladder infection, but a previous exhumation found traces of mercury in hair from his beard. 
However, the most recent tests have found the levels of mercury were not high enough to have killed him.
"There was mercury in the beard, you will also have traces of mercury if you have a beard... But the amount of mercury was as you see in people [alive today]," Dr Jens Vellev, from Aarhus University in Denmark, who is leading the investigations, told BBC News. 
Dr Vellev now thinks there was no foul play involved in Brahe's death.
"It is impossible that Tycho Brahe could have been murdered," he explained. When asked whether other poisons could have been used, Dr Vellev said: "If there were other poisons in the beard, we would have been able to see it in the analyses." 
Instead, he says, the description given by Kepler of Brahe's death at the age of 54 matches up well with the progression of a severe bladder infection. 
One widely told story about Brahe was that his bladder burst at a royal banquet when he had been too polite to leave the table and relieve himself. Accounts say he died 11 days later.

Okay - but I think we can still have a pretty good movie about Tycho. Read the full BBC story here.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

MESA conference in Denver this weekend

by Salman Hameed

I will be in Denver for the annual Middle East Studies Association (MESA) conference this Saturday and Sunday. Here is the full program. Unfortunately, I have to get back for teaching on Monday, and so will miss the last day and a half. Oh - and Monday will be fun. I'm taking a red-eye flight from Denver (leaving at midnight) that will get to Hartford at 10am. Then I have two 3-hour classes to teach that day, with the second one ending at 9:30pm.

But, this is my first time at a MESA conference and I'm looking forward to it. Let me know if some of you are also planning on attending the conference. I will post on some of the relevant sessions from there. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Review and a further discussion of the movie "Cloud Atlas"

by Salman Hameed

Based on a popular sci-fi novel and directed by the creators of The Matrix, this is one of most anticipated sci-fi films of the year. Here are two segments of our Film Autopsy dedicated to Cloud Atlas. In the first segment, Kevin Anderson and I simply review the film without any spoilers. But in the second one we look at one of the major threads in the film that connects all of its ambitious story-lines.

Here is our film autopsy (review) of the film (of course, see other film autopsies at our website).

and here is our film essay titled Breaking Boundaries in Cloud Atlas:

[Update]: Umair Asim's father granted interim bail

by Salman Hameed

Finally some good news in the Lahore blasphemy mess. Umair Asim's father was granted interim bail from Lahore High Court and has now been released. It is still a shame that this is still an "interim" bail and that the blasphemy charges have not yet been dropped. I cannot imagine the ordeal that Umair and his whole family have been going through - and how their lives have changed just in a fortnight.

Just a reminder about Umair. Here is what Umair was doing 48 hours before his schools was burnt down. Here is a spectacular picture of solar prominence taken from his telescope on top of his house in Lahore:

These storms on the Sun are natural and are located 93 million miles away. Unfortunately, the storms of ignorance and intolerance that impacted his family were man-made and much closer to home.

I just received an e-mail from Isa Daudpota that included this quote from Carl Sagan as plea for tolerance:

“We have held the peculiar notion that a person or society that is a little different from us, whoever we are, is somehow strange or bizarre, to be distrusted or loathed. Think of the negative connotations of words like alien or outlandish. And yet the monuments and cultures of each of our civilizations merely represent different ways of being human. An extraterrestrial visitor, looking at the differences among human beings and their societies, would find those differences trivial compared to the similarities. The Cosmos may be densely populated with intelligent beings. But the Darwinian lesson is clear: There will be no humans elsewhere. Only here. Only on this small planet. We are a rare as well as an endangered species. Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”
                                                                              — “Who Speaks for Earth?,” Cosmos
Unfortunately, this message is not going to get through to those who have raised this ruckus and burnt down the school. Clearly, nor do they value the education that may lead to an appreciation of such a quote. But we all have to speak up against intolerance as much as we can.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

[Update]: School in Lahore blasphemy mess back in owner's control...

by Salman Hameed

[This is related to the blasphemy mess of Farooqi Girls High School. Please see these earlier posts herehereherehereherehere and here.You can also sign the petition here]. 

Couple of things to update here. It seems that the city of Lahore has decided to give the control of Farooqi Girls High School - which was burnt by a mob - back to its owner, Asim Farooqi. This decision seems to be motivated by two reasons (at least from reading the news). First, a delegation of local clerics met 77-year old Asim Farooqi in jail and declared in a fatwa that he is indeed a true "lover of the Prophet". It is quite telling that in the current legal system, there is an attitude of "guilty until proven innocent" (he was denied bail last week!), and even then, one has to get a nod of approval from the local clerics.

Second, the city also discovered that it cannot run a school of this calibre. I did not realize that there were 9000 students in the school and about 300 teachers. The city realized that it cannot provide the same level of salaries as were being provided by Umair Asim and his family. In the mean time, the students of school have been sitting in for lessons outside the burnt-out school. There is now hope that the school will reopen at some point under the same administration. Of course, first we have to wait for the release of Umair's father and then to see how they cope with this unimaginable trauma and tragedy.

Here is the news story in Urdu that talks about the control of the school:

Another development in the case is that the police have arrested four robbers who stole money from the school while it was being attacked by the mob. And the money was recovered. Okay - that is good. But  lets make sure that people don't think that this arrest makes the blasphemy-related burning seem okay:

The episode of ‘blasphemous’ school attack took a twist on Monday as the City police revealed that the mob had also pillaged the Karim Park Farooqi Girls High School of more than Rs26.1 million in its assault on Oct 31. 
“The police have recovered Rs26.1 million from the burglars who, disguised as protesters, had stormed the school and torched the building after stealing the cash from one of the school’s cupboard,” Lahore Operations Police Chief Muhammad Tahir Rai told reporters on Monday. 
An angry mob went on a rampage and set alight the girls’ school in the Karim Park area to protest against the administration for allegedly distributing blasphemous pamphlets among the students a couple of weeks ago. 
The police claimed that four robbers, Muhammad Heera, Babar Ali, Mubashir Ali and Muhammad Rafique, alias Bao, also said to be local residents, had taken away Rs26,172,900 cash by smashing the cupboard in one of the rooms. It could not be verified independently why the school administration had stashed such a heavy amount in the cupboard rather than depositing it in its bank accounts. 
Responding to a question, DIG Tahir Rai said that initial investigations indicated that the blasphemy was not a planned act rather it happened because of a technical error. “We are investigating into the incident. Once the investigations are completed, everything will be clear,” the police officer said. To another question, Rai said that the government had reopened the school after taking the local clerics into confidence.
According to the police, the Shafiqabad police had registered a case (under section 395/353, 186/148/149/436 of the PPC) against unidentified people on the complaint of the principal. The complainant, Farooqi, had informed the police that unidentified robbers forced their entry into his school and got away with Rs26.17 million from the cupboard. 
More interestingly, the police had registered two separate cases on the same day – one against the bandits on the principal’s complaint and another against the principal and a lady teacher for blasphemy on the complaint of a local cleric. The police had also booked a lady teacher, Arfa Iftikhar, who was forced into hiding after a furious mob stormed the school over a piece of homework reportedly she had written. The whereabouts of the lady teacher are not clear yet while the school principal is in jail since his bail petition had been rejected by a local court. On the complaint of a local cleric, the police had registered a case (FIR No 1470/12) against the principal and lady teacher under section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code.
Read the full story here.

And here is an excellent article from the Independent, that provides a context of the whole blasphemy mess:

The incident, which caused an estimated £60,000 of damage, happened as the children were preparing to break for the Eid holiday. Officials said that homework given to a class of 11-year-olds by Arfa Iftikhar, 21, contained a line that insulted the prophet Mohammed. Scholars from a nearby religious school complained and Asim Farooqi, the principal of the girls' school, confronted the young teacher, who said she had made a terrible error while copying exercises. 
It transpired that while copying exercises from the Pakistan Secondary School Grammar and Composition textbook, Ms Iftikhar had started with a piece on page 360 about the Koran and the prophet Mohammed. But rather than continuing to page 361 and completing the excerpt, she had skipped to page 362 and an exercise entitled "The Street Beggar", which claimed such people were "cheats". 
The implied meaning of the two half-paragraphs was so painful that Inspector Azeem Manais, the police officer investigating the case, declined to read them out loud. He said police were trying to find out whether page 361 was missing from the teacher's copy of the book. Asked if he believed the teacher had made a genuine mistake, Mr Manais said: "Because she is in hiding it is too premature to say." 
For several days, it appeared the issue would be peacefully resolved. Mr Farooqi spoke with the religious leaders and obtained a statement from Ms Iftikhar before firing her. The handwritten letter said: "I also pray to God that he should forgive me for this great sin of mine." 
But then it appears someone translated the offending piece of homework into Urdu and distributed photocopies. On 30 October, a large crowd gathered outside the school and threatened staff. Mr Farooqi and other school officials, barricaded inside, were only able to escape the following morning, when police intervened. Later a crowd returned, broke in and ransacked the building and started fires. 
Whether the protests were spontaneous remains unclear. Teachers suggested rival establishments were envious of the school and may have seized on the incident, though they offered no evidence. 
The individual whose name appears as a complainant on the blasphemy charge filed with the police against the principal is Abdullah Saqib, who heads a mosque in Bilal Gunj, a different neighbourhood. He said by phone: "Now there is an investigation underway I will not be able to talk about this for a day or two."
By the way, does anyone have information about Bilal Gunj mosque? I thought there was another madrassa involved in this as well. Let me know if you have more information on this.

And I'm glad that the Independent article also mentioned a bit about the accused teacher. I hope she is okay and survives this ordeal:

The pupils of Farooqi Girls School said they were keen to get back in their building. "It's very sad. They destroyed our school," said Kanwal Tehseen, 11, who was in Ms Iftikhar's English class. Of her teacher, she added: "We liked her. We respected her." 
Some girls were already thinking about careers as computer scientists or doctors. "It's easier for boys to go to school. Parents think that the boys are going to be responsible for supporting the family," said 15-year-old Fareeha Zaheer. "Basically our religion teaches that it is important for us to get educated. The mother is the first educator in the household."
Read the full article here.

Updated (Nov 13th): Here is a letter to the editor from a former Farooqi Girls High School student on this particular case:

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Malala and her father in the hospital

by Salman Hameed

There are a bunch of petitions floating around to nominate Malala for Nobel Peace Prize (you can find one to sign here). In the mean time, it is great to see that she is recovering from the assassination attempt. I hope she returns to her cheerful sense again (see her in this NYT short documentary from 2009). You can see that her optimism and fighting spirit comes from her father as well. Here is a short CNN piece (both heartbreaking and heartwarming) on her recovery in a hospital in UK.

Saturday Video: Sagan's Heikegani Crab

by Salman Hameed

Yesterday would have been Carl Sagan's 78th birthday. If I had not encountered Cosmos in 9th grade in Pakistan, I would have been a computer scientist. I still find it amazing that a dude from a distant land, through the help of a picture tube, completely altered the direction of my life. I was blown away by the Cosmic Calendar in the first episode. However, one of my favorite segments from the series is from the beginning of episode 2. A Japanese legend comes out of nowhere, and yet it fits so perfectly in the narrative of the full episode. Here is this excerpt here (you can watch the excellent full episode 2 here):

Friday, November 09, 2012

The Problematic (a)Politics of "Argo"

by Salman Hameed

The movie Argo is getting a lot of Oscar buzz. I expressed some of my views in an earlier post, The Trouble with the film Argo. Now here is our Film Autopsy where Kevin Taylor Anderson and I discuss the message of the film as well as look at it as a thriller.

Here is our review of Argo:

Article in the Guardian on Lahore blasphemy mess

by Salman Hameed

[This is related to the blasphemy mess of Farooqi Girls High School. Please see these earlier posts herehereherehereherehere and here.You can also sign the petition here]. 

I have an article in today's Guardian about Umair Asim and the Lahore blasphemy mess.

Here it is:
Pakistan's Blasphemy Laws are Darkening Pakistan's Skies
Salman Hameed

I first met Umair Asim 15 years ago after an astronomy talk I gave in Lahore, Pakistan. He peppered me with questions about telescopes, astrophotography and the physics of stars. In the following years, Asim finished a masters degree in astronomy and went on to establish a sophisticated observatory on the roof of his house.

But what truly lights up Asim is his passion for public education. During the International Year of Astronomy (IYA) in 2009, Asim helped lead and organise numerous public observations in Lahore as well as in government schools in smaller cities and towns in Punjab. Wherever he went, he would bring his telescope with him. During IYA, it was a common sight to see Asim standing in front of an audience of 500, first explaining to them basic principles of astronomy and then entertaining long lines of people – from ages eight to 80 – to show them craters of the moon and rings of Saturn.

It is not hard to explain where his passion for public education comes from. His parents established Farooqi Girls' High School 34 years ago. It is now considered one of the premier private schools in Lahore. Asim also serves as vice principal and I get emails from him when a student or students from the school would take top positions in the province-wide exams.

But on 31 October the school was burned to the ground by a crowd who had heard it was accused of blasphemy. Lab equipment and computers were looted. Hundreds of library books – obviously with little use to the mob – tossed into the fire. Some even tried to pull the marble tiles off the floor.
The blasphemy accusations are not related to astronomy. Instead, they centre on a teacher at the school, Arfa Iftikhar. In a rush for the start of the Eid holiday, she accidentally missed a page while copying a homework assignment for the class. Her mistake merged a line about the prophet of Islam with the lines of a chapter on beggars. A parent of one of the students in her class noticed it, and the chatter of blasphemy spread quickly.

It did not matter that this was an unintentional mistake. In the current climate, it is comically easy to accuse someone of blasphemy in Pakistan. In fact, in this instance, the blame was also extended to the school administrators, including Asim.

The accused teacher is now in hiding and the police have arrested the 77-year-old principal of the school. He also happens to be Asim's father, and his appeal for bail has been denied by the court. Asim and the rest of his family are now in "protective custody".

It might be easy to blame religion here. But this is not a battle between freethinkers and religious zealots. Asim and his family are pious Muslims. The students at the school start their day with the name of God. I don't know the accused teacher, but it is quite likely that she also belongs to a religious middle-class family. Intentionally committing blasphemy against the prophet would be appalling to all those involved.

The burning of the school is probably about a clash between the upwardly mobile, educated middle class and the frustrated, poor and uneducated lower class. The school's success and resources – and that also for a girls' school – must have elicited envy. The mistake by the teacher provided the excuse to use the blasphemy law to vent their frustration.

This blasphemy law is devouring Pakistani society from within. It is an all-purpose tool in the service of intolerance. It has often been used against religious minorities, but Muslims are paying the price as well. The repeal of the law, unfortunately, is unlikely. Some voices critical of the law have already been silenced by intimidation and violence, such as the assassination of the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer in 2011.

Maybe the school will recover, and the damages will be covered by donations of concerned individuals. There have already been counter-protests. Two days after the burning of the school, about 2,000 women – mostly former and current students – gathered near the school holding placards demanding the release of the principal and the reopening of the school.

But what is the future of Asim, his family and the accused teacher? With the charged emotions around blasphemy, once accused, it is virtually impossible to ever be safe afterwards, even if the court clears your name. Like the era of European witch trials, Pakistan is going through its darkest phase.

If she is lucky, the accused teacher will be able to find asylum out of Pakistan. Asim's father, now sleeping on the floor of a jail cell, will have to cope with the fact that all the effort that he and his wife poured in for those past 34 years is gone.

And Asim – one of Pakistan's brightest gems – must be wondering if he will ever feel safe in a country where he shared his love for astronomy with so many people.

Here is the link to the original article.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Uzma Aslam Khan's new book and her interview in The Friday Times

by Salman Hameed

I have posted here a multiple times about a whole crop of fantastic Pakistani writers (see earlier posts Granta - and a Flock of new Pakistani Writers and New Rock Star Authors). One of these authors, Uzma Aslam Khan, is now at Hampshire College (increasing the number of Pakistani origin faculty members by 100%). I first encountered Uzma's writing when I read her fantastic novel The Geometry of God. It directly dealt with issues of science and religion in Pakistan. She now has a new book out, Thinner Than Skin. Here is the description:
Thinner than Skin is a riveting novel about identity and belonging. It's also a love story: between a young Pakistani man trying to make his way as photographer in America, and the daughter of a Pakistani father and German mother brought up in the US, who wants to return to a country she's never seen. Together they make the trip to Pakistan, where a chance meeting with a young nomad changes their lives, and the lives of those around them, forever. The novel is also a love letter to the wilds of Northern Pakistan, to glaciers, to the old Silk Road, and to the nomadic life of the indigenous people in the Northern territories, where China encroaches and Pakistanis, Uzbeks, Russians, Chinese, and Afghans all come together to trade.
She was also interviewed recently in The Friday Times. Here is an excerpt where she talks about The Geometry of God, and as you will see that this is even relevant to the Lahore blasphemy mess engulfing Umair Asim and his family that I have been posting for this past week:

AA: What was more important for you in The Geometry of God: the ideological background of fundamentalism versus free-thinking or the complex relationships the characters developed in the novel? 
UAK:Definitely the characters. The first scene of The Geometry of God came to me as a voice. It was Amal's voice. From then on I kept hearing her, and then I heard Mehwish and Noman. It was through understanding the voices and their relationship to one another that the themes of the novel arose, and the philosophical questions grew more complex. 
AA: Was it fun, writing from Mehwish's perspective, inventing a whole personal language? 
UAK:Hugely. Hers were some of the most rewarding scenes I've ever written. Amal tells her that a language is like a whale, it comes from something else. It's Mehwish's ability to adapt that allows her to become, in many ways, the soul of the book - without her zest for word play, puns, drawings, and mischief, the book would lose much of its zauq.
AA: Would you like to say something about the role Nouman played in The Geometry of God, particularly his relationship with Zahoor? 
UAK:An Italian interviewer once described Noman's story as "an escalation, a crescendo of emotions." She said that just when it seemed he lacked a distinct identity capable of generous impulses and deep emotions, he became more than that. I liked her description.
Characters absorb us when they embody contradictions we're reluctant to forgive in real life, because, who isn't guilty of contradictions? I sometimes think I write to forgive. We have less time to call on our deeper, more forgiving impulses in our cold world of reality. But in fiction, we insist on doing just this. I hope Noman can be understood if seen in this universal light, as compelling because he's familiar in his weakness. At the same time, he's also a creature of the times. He says "I bat for both sides," a position not unknown to others of General Zia's generation. In public he's one thing, in private he's another. During Zia's reign, the line between private and public was scratched with a hard, angry fist, just as all lines were: between men and women, faith and reason, worship and blasphemy, west and east. Zia's legacy is a dichotomous world.
And here is the part that directly connects to the absurdity of blasphemy charges that have been leveled against Umair Asim, his father, and the school teacher, Arfa Iftikhar. It is

AA: In the years since you wrote The Geometry of God, the country has seen some of the most gruesome attacks on religious minorities, including inhumane abuses of the blasphemy law. What is your perspective on this? 
UAK: When The Geometry of God was completed in 2007, there were many documented cases of blasphemy charges being leveled against innocent civilians, particularly Ahmadis and Christians. My character Nana was not based directly on any one person, but I read several case studies, including those involving ridiculous spelling errors, word shuffling, rumor, and revisionism - including of Jinnah's famous speech in which he emphatically declares us all "equal citizens of one State" - all of which I draw on in the book. And then last year it happened again: a Christian eighth-grader was accused of blasphemy for a spelling error in a poem. For a Pakistani writer, life imitates art all the time. When in the book Nana is falsely accused of blasphemy, he is also called an Ahmadi, as though calling someone this is an insult. His response is to refuse to wear it as an insult by refusing to say what he is. He says instead, "My faith is what they bury when they force me to expose it." And I think that the increasingly furious pace of hate crimes against our religious minorities - from the attack on an Ahmadi mosque in Lahore on May 28, 2010, which should be declared a national day of mourning, to the assassinations of Shahbaz Bhatti and Salmaan Taseer, to the present-day case of young Rimsha Masih - all of this, on top of terrorizing those already vulnerable in our society, makes us all guilty, for two reasons. First, for staying silent about what we know to be wrong. And second, because we are all forced to say what we are, all the time. We can't even get our passport renewed without 'confessing' to not being Ahmadis. I've even been asked my religion while registering for a blood test. And to whom are we always in need of confessing? Not to God, but to a bunch of people who call themselves the state. If this were a civilized land, faith would be private and proof against those we know are playing God would be public. But in Pakistan, it's the other way around: Faith is public and proof is private. 
I cannot agree more with her. Please read the full interview here. And if you are around, she is doing a book reading tonight at Booklink Booksellers at Thornes Marketplace in Northampton, MA at 6:30pm.

Principe's new book on history of Alchemy

by Salman Hameed

One of our most delightful speakers for our Science & Religion Lecture Series was Lawrence Principe from Johns Hopkins University. He has a doctorate in chemistry as well as history of science. And Robert Boyle is his guy. He now has a new book out called The Secrets of Alchemy. Here is an excerpt from an enthusiastic review in last week's Nature:
Around 1680, Robert Boyle, author of The Sceptical Chymist (1660), described meeting a stranger who demonstrated an unusual experiment. Tipping some ruby-coloured powder onto the blade of a knife, he cast it into a crucible of molten lead. The lead congealed into “very yellow” metal, which Boyle's tests proved — in his estimation — to be pure gold. 
Boyle's account, retold by Lawrence Principe, drives home a problem facing all scholars of alchemy: why, across the ages, have so many intelligent people been convinced by the promise of metallic transmutation? The Secrets of Alchemy comes closer than any other single work to explaining the grounds — rational and empirical, as well as religious and wishful — for alchemy's longevity. 
Principe's delightful writing style brings to life a depth of learning matched by few in the field. This expertise, coupled with the author's determination to strip his topic of anachronism, sets The Secrets of Alchemy apart from the usual introductory tome. After comments on alchemy's lingering popular appeal (think Harry Potter and Fullmetal Alchemist), Principe engages with the misconceptions that have long dogged his subject, particularly its association with magic, mysticism and quackery. A key premise of the book is that these are often modern associations. To understand how alchemy 'worked' for its practitioners, we must meet them on their own terms.
And it includes a broader discussion of history as well as the roots of later misconceptions:
Principe traces the theory, practice and context of alchemy from its origins in Egypt in the first few centuries AD to its development and maturity in the medieval Islamic lands and Latin Europe. He then engages with Enlightenment critiques of transmutation, tracing their consequences up to today before returning to alchemy's “Golden Age” in Renaissance Europe. 
Some will recognize elements from Principe's earlier work: the argument that 'alchemy' and 'chemistry' overlapped in the early modern world (and so should be referred to simply as 'chymistry'); his concern that Enlightenment polemics and nineteenth-century fads have distorted alchemy's modern reception; and his view that even the alchemists' most outrageous allegories may disguise genuine chemical effects. In sum, he does not believe that alchemists made gold, but does show that they were serious in the attempt.
In addition, Principe also replicates some of the medieval alchemical experiments and tries to show the intent of the original authors.
Like Boyle, Principe recognizes that sceptics will be convinced only by displays of incontrovertible expertise. The book is at its most fascinating when Principe reveals glimpses of his own skill. A chemist as well as a historian, he has recreated a range of alchemical experiments, revealing the practical foundations of seemingly opaque alchemical instructions. The first chapter opens with a recipe from one of the earliest surviving metallurgical treatises, the third-century Leiden Papyrus. The process can be easily replicated, producing a golden patina on a silver ingot. And if Principe's photographic evidence does not convince, an endnote gives instructions on how to do it yourself.
And perhaps, the most important lesson here is to recognize the differences in the way individuals conceptualized the natural world in the medieval or early modern world versus the way we think of science today:
So was Boyle a scientist, alchemist, apologist or interpreter? For that matter, how about Principe? As the book suggests, modern readers can profitably reflect on how they use such distinctions. 
For, as Principe concludes, alchemy cannot simply be reduced to chemical procedures. Many practitioners subscribed to a widely held belief in the 'connectedness' of humans, God and nature. In this world view, analogy had demonstrative as well as illustrative power: similarity between small-scale and large-scale phenomena might offer clues to unseen laws of nature. Such correspondences strike us in alchemical writing, because they have disappeared from modern scientific discourse. The Secrets of Alchemy reminds that too-selective reading can mask the influence of such views on the past science we now accept as canonical. After Isaac Newton's Principia, why not browse his theology — or alchemy?
Fantastic! Read the full review here (you may need subscription to access it). Also check out Lawrence Principe's excellent short course on Science and Religion and a longer one on History of Science: Antiquity to 1700 at the Teaching Company.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Update: News about Farooqi school, new fatwa, and more pictures

by Salman Hameed

[This is related to the blasphemy mess of Farooqi Girls High School. Please see these earlier posts hereherehereherehere, and here. You can also sign the petition here]. 

It looks like local government has taken charge of the private school burnt down by a mob last week. The principal of the school and Umair's father, is still in jail and the school is still closed. Here is an item from the Daily Times:

The school was suspended after the angry mob set it on fire on October 31. The premises came under attack after an alleged blasphemy case by a teacher who, while giving an assignment to students, had unintentionally mixed words from different pages. This led to the blasphemy controversy.
However, on the very next day, the City District Government Lahore was given the administrative control of the school and Additional Commissioner General was appointed as its administrative. On the other side, the students and their parents held a protest outside school building for release of Principal Asim Farooqi and early reopening of the school. 
On another front, here is a fatwa by Maulana Mohammad Asim Makhdoom and it correctly asserts that Umair's father is innocent and should be released immediately and that the school should be reopened immediately: 
However, it also says that the accused teacher should be investigated, and if found guilty, should be sentenced to death immediately. In addition, instead of blaming anyone from the mob, it goes on to blame some random conspiracies of infidels that are causing Muslims to fight amongst themselves. A fatwa like this is essential for the release of Umair's father. But the language in here makes me further worried about the life of the teacher - both within the judicial system and without (of course, I'm also worried about Umair and his family - but I have noticed a trend where some have started to solely blame the teacher. Remember, she made an unintentional mistake. Let's not hang her up to dry. If there is anyone to blame, it is the mob and a law that allow these incidents to happen). Furthermore, this attitude ensures that there will be more innocent Umair's and Arfa's waiting to be entrapped by this system. 

And here are some pictures of the destruction of the school. Here is the main office: 

And a classroom:

And another classroom: 

Here is a protest against the burning and closure of the school. This is a good juxtaposition of the protest with the burnt out school:

Here is a close-up of the protest: 

Some individual faces of protest: 
And some more:

The above set of pictures illustrate the on-going (and future) battle for Pakistan. This is not about about religion - but about the kind of religion one believes in. There is definite hope if the future of the society is shaped by those in the bottom four pictures. And we may be facing despair if the vision is coming from those preaching intolerance and the purging of any diversity within Pakistani society.

Two excellent articles on Farooqi Girls High School blasphemy mess

by Salman Hameed

[This is related to the blasphemy mess of Farooqi Girls High School. Please see these earlier posts hereherehereherehere, and here. You can also sign the petition here]. 

There are two excellent articles that I want to highlight. The first is by Samira Shackle, A bad few weeks for girls' schools in Pakistan. She does an excellent analysis of girls education, blasphemy law, and the various trends in Pakistani society right now:

The latest incident was the burning down of the Farooqi Girls’ High School in Lahore on Thursday. This was not the doing of the Taliban, but an angry mob. Why? Because a teacher, Arfa Iftikhar, had allegedly set a piece of homework that contained derogatory references to the Prophet Muhammad. Iftikhar has been forced into hiding, while the 77 year old principal of the school, Asim Farooqi, has been detained for 14 days on blasphemy charges. At the protests on Thursday, the mob distributed photocopies of the offending homework, and broke and burnt everything they could lay their hands upon.
First of all, women and girls are ready to defend their right to be educated. Following the violence of the mob reaction, around 2,000 students, parents and teachers took to the streets on Saturday to demand that the school reopen. The crowd, predominantly made up of teenage girls, carried placards and chanted slogans including “release our principal”. Just like the reaction to the Malala shooting, this demonstrates that society is not willing to compromise on its right to educate its daughters, whether the threat is coming from armed militants or from an angry mob.
More than anything else, this incident demonstrates that Pakistani citizens have to contend not only with militants and their acts of terrorism, but with the regressive streak of thought that runs through society, and the rumbling discontent which means that violence can break out at any moment. For the girls in Lahore who will not be going to school tomorrow morning, it makes little difference that their school was destroyed not by the Taliban, but by citizens supposedly supporting a piece of state legislation.

And here is an article by Sadia Saleem Butt, My Principal Asim Farooqi is not a blasphemer. She is a former student of the Farooqi Girls High School. Here is the full article: 
I still remember those early school days when our principal made an announcement; it was now a compulsion for us to maintain a Namaz Diary. Students were supposed to put a tick mark against those salah which they had offered; this was meant to be a part of our homework. 
I also remember that for six years of my educational life, I was given only one topic to debate on and this was Serat-ul-Nabi (The life of the Holy Prophet (pbuh)). I haven’t forgotten that when we requested our principal for a change of topic, because there was nothing new to speak of, we got the following silencing reply:
    “One who can write and speak praise the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) can write and speak of anything.” 
I still remember that the only extended break that my teachers ever tolerated was for Namaz. I also remember that as a senior, we were made to recite Surah Yaseen – a compulsion – to beseech Allah’s (SWT) mercy for our final examination. We even had a Mehfil-e-Milaad right before the 10th grade final examination, with the concluding prayers for success of all the students. 
This was my school – the alleged blasphemous school – Farooqi Girls High School.
Why were we so religiously inclined as a school? 
Because my principal – the person alleged to be involved in blasphemy – believed that no matter how hard we work, as long as Allah (SWT) is not with us, we cannot get anywhere. 
I spent 11 years in Farooqi Girls High School and I can safely say that I know what kind of person Asim Farooqi is. I know that he has a very deep attachment with Allah (SWT). In my 11 years at the school, I never once saw him degrade any teacher in front of students or parents. Through him, we learned to respect our teachers, parents and everyone else too. How then could such a man even dream of degrading our beloved Prophet (pbuh)?
He was definitely not a blasphemer; not Sir Asim Farooqi. 
Asim Farooqi, owner and principal of Farooqi Girls High School, who is 77-year-old, devoted 35 years of his life to educate the children of this nation. He was a poor man. He started with a three-room school, but provided quality education with affordability which a common man can only dream for in this part of the world. 
I had never known of any student being expelled from my school because of the non-payment of fees; it was so nominal, everyone could afford it. In this age, when quality education is worth thousands, Asim Farooqi used to charge Rs700. In today’s time, when money symbolises standards, no one could even imagine the standards he was providing. His students are doctors, teachers, engineers, lecturers, post–doctoral researchers, businessmen, and so on! In fact, I can’t remember a year in which Farooqi Girls High School didn’t secure positions in BISE, Lahore. 
On October 31, 2012 his school, his life’s worth, was burnt to ashes. It was a shock for me when I came to know why this had been done. As I had been with those people for 11 years, my mind wasn’t ready to accept that Asim Farooqi could ever commit an act of blasphemy. I tried to contact his son – the vice principal of the school – but couldn’t get through to anyone. Luckily, after two days of undying effort, I was successful in talking to Umair Asim on the phone. He told me the whole story and I quote the same here: 
    “In an unfortunate happening, a day before Eid Holidays, a teacher, Arfa Iftikhar, wrote an essay for Grade 6 students. She used the book “Pak United Grammar”. Arfa was writing the essay on the blackboard from the book. School had ended and there were four holidays to come. It was important for Arfa to get the essay completed and in this haste, she, somehow, absent-mindedly skipped the page after page 360 in her book. Statements starting from the next page were the last lines of another essay, “The Beggars”. This mixture prepared an essay which took the form of some blasphemous text. 
    When it came to the notice of parents, the principal was approached. On October 30, however, the principal in writing, informed the local mosque Muftis about the facts and confirmed that he had dismissed the teacher even though she said she had made a mistake. It is quite surprising that still on October 31, a mob, alleged to be led by a religious group, attacked, burnt, and looted the school, thus depriving thousands of students from quality education at an affordable price. None of the parents of the students were involved in any of this violence. Local MNAs and influential people tried to explain things to the leader of that mob, however, they simply refused all explanations.” 
To this account, I asked how Arfa could not see what she was writing, to which Umair responded: 
    “I understand this mistake is senseless, but as she is not here to explain, I can’t blame her. Maybe she was upset and actually could not see what she was writing.” 
Umair Asim went on to explain that the offending paper wasn’t distributed by the school or the teacher; it was distributed by the protesters to gain ‘rewards’. 
He told me that his father is in jail, and he along, with his mother, are in protective custody.
While I am not here to debate the contents of blasphemy law, I can say with certainty that the students, teachers and, most of all, the principal at Farooqi Girls High School know that blasphemy is a sin. 
Asim Farooqi is an innocent man; I pledge the authorities to release him, for he is not only innocent, he is a good man with a kind heart who would never dream of insulting our beautiful religion or the Holy Prophet (pbuh). 
Maybe this case is not sensational enough for the media to pick up on because Asim Farooqi is a poor man, with very little power, but I beg our government to conduct a proper investigation and serve justice. 
Here is the original link.

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