Saturday, June 29, 2013

"Eye to Eye" versus Richard Dawkins

by Salman Hameed

Dawkins recently gave a psychedelic presentation of memes, and in particular focusing on internet memes. I'm sure one of the goals was to make the presentation itself into a viral video. Here it is - and watch it transform around the 5 minute mark:

Well, when it comes to internet memes, I think Taher Shah from Pakistan has a lesson or two about that. Here is his mesmerizing video "Eye to Eye" which has gone viral. It is all in English and as far as I can tell, he did not intend to be a satire. He really does like eyes - yours, his, others' - and would like to make love with his full spectrum eyes.

No seriously - you have to spend 5 minutes and watch this video (with your own eyes!):

eye to eye by taher shah from waseem ullah Qureshi on Vimeo.

And while we are at it, we can't go without watching the video of One-Pound Fish - another Pakistan connection - that became a sensation a few months ago (here is the NPR story about this song and link to where it all started):

Friday, June 28, 2013

Beyond the Religion-Secular divide in Occupy Gezi and a paper on Turkish University Students

by Salman Hameed

The unrest in Turkey continues. I have two articles below. The first one deals looks beyond the usual secular-religious divide when discussing Turkey, and the second looks at the role of social identity in the formation of attitudes towards Turkish foreign policy. First here is an article by Ateş Altınordu on The Immanent Frame:

Does the actual picture of Occupy Gezi confirm the existence of a deep fault line between secular and religious citizens that Erdoğan and the New York Times alike posit? It is true that most religious-conservative citizens are not participating in Occupy Gezi, and it is rather safe to assume that many maintain their support for the AKP and for Erdoğan himself. However, there are many significant crosscurrents that complicate this picture. First, Occupy Gezi brings together many different groups, including Kemalists, liberal-minded secular citizens, environmentalists, revolutionary socialists, anarchists, feminists, LGBT groups, highly politicized activists, and young people who simply oppose police brutality and the government’s authoritarian policies. As opposed to what Erdoğan has repeatedly implied, Occupy Gezi is fundamentally different from the Republican Rallies of 2007, which were organized by militant secularist organizations and aimed to prepare the ground for a military coup against the AKP government. While Kemalist groups may chant “we are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal” during the demonstrations, calls for the military to intervene in the political process are hardly ever heard. Moreover, all participants in the movement seem to share a general respect for religious citizens.
On June 4, the day after newspapers close to the AKP started to advance Erdoğan’s agenda by depicting Occupy Gezi as an anti-religious movement, movement participants announced that alcohol should not be consumed on the park’s premises that day as a sign of respect for the Miraç Kandili, a Muslim holiday commemorating the prophet’s ascent to heaven. Throughout the day, volunteers offered thousands of traditional kandil bagels to anyone entering the park. 
More importantly, while constituting a minority in the movement, many pious Muslims, AKP voters, and some Islamic organizations have participated in the protests. One social justice-oriented Islamic group in particular, Anti-Capitalist Muslims, has been part of the campaign against the destruction of the park from the very beginning and has a major presence in the movement.
And here is the broader outlook:

The liberation theology of the Anti-Capitalist Muslims shows that it is difficult to categorize the religious circles in Turkey as a single, uniform bloc under the unbreakable spell of Erdoğan’s AKP. The same is true for secular people, many of whom have learned to respect the religious practices of their fellow citizens, including their right to wear headscarves in public institutions. The transformative potential that emerges from the respectful coexistence of different political orientations and social groups in Occupy Gezi should not be underestimated, both in the park and in the movement more broadly. As soccer fans who use homophobic epithets in their slogans against Erdoğan are learning from the LGBT groups in the park why this is problematic, and as many Turks in the movement increasingly seem to empathize with the Kurds now that they are also experiencing indiscriminate police violence and witnessing the indifference of the mainstream media, a transformation is likewise taking place in the relationship between secular and religious citizens who together protest the authoritarian policies of the government and the violent practices of the police. The careful respect that the mostly secular participants in the movement exhibited on Miraç Kandili, voluntarily giving up drinking in public—although they vigorously defend their right to drink in public—and Eliaçık’s statement of solidarity with alcohol drinkers are manifestations of this rapprochement. 
What is happening within the confines of the Gezi Park has its limits, of course, in terms of its wider ramifications, but it is indicative of larger political learning processes in a society increasingly suffering from the authoritarian tendencies of the government, Erdoğan’s paternalistic style of rule, and the disproportionate use of force by the police against groups as diverse as soccer fans, university students, and environmental activists.
Read the full article here.

Here is an interesting article in the latest issue of International Journal of Middle East Studies: Social Identity and Attitudes toward Foreign Policy: Evidence from a Youth Survey in Turkey by Sabri Ciftci (you probably will need subscription to access the full article). Here is the abstract:
This paper focuses on the relationship between social identity based on national, religious, or international affiliations and attitudes toward foreign policy in the Turkish context. Evidence is drawn from an original survey conducted among university students in Turkey. The results show that students' social identity has a significant correlation with their perceptions of foreign policy. Most Turkish university students provide conditional support for the new directions in Turkey's foreign policy, but those with an Islamic identity appear to be more supportive of the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi's (Justice and Development Party) policies. Most university students believe that Turkey's future lies in the European Union and the Central Asian Turkic republics rather than in the Middle East. Overall, the perceptions of educated youth toward foreign policy are shaped by both social identity and their conceptions of national interest.
His sample of 800 university students from Cumhuriyet University in central Turkey span a broad spectrum of political, ethnic, and religious identities.   So couple of things I wanted to highlight. First, it seems that less than half of these students think that Turkey should be a member of the EU:

Second, this is how these students define themselves in terms if their national and international identity:

But when you look at their perceptions of Turkey's future, most of them see it in terms of EU and/or the  Turkic Republics:

Ciftci concludes this part of the results as follows:
Moving beyond these general perceptions, the young and educated segment of the Turkish electorate believes that Turkey's future lies in the EU or the Turkic republics. Only a small fraction of the respondents has an orientation toward the Middle East or the Islamic world. It appears that individuals develop attitudes differently about the goals and the future of foreign policy. When it comes to the former, most educated youth appear to emphasize foreign policy strategies that are more in line with a nationalistic perception of state identity. This view is compatible with Davutoğlu's strategic depth approach, which favors a multidimensional policy exploiting multiple identities. Since Davutoğlu has implemented his foreign policy vision as Turkish foreign minister, the finding shows that university students carry orientations that are in line with this theoretically inspired policy framework. Furthermore, students' orientations appear to be in line with the scholarly approach explaining foreign policy activities with notions such as balance of power, geopolitics, and economic interests rather than with accounts describing the new directions in Turkish foreign policy as an axis shift or Middle Easternization.
This paper was published before the Gezi protests. Nevertheless, it provides an interesting window into the identity perceptions of Turkish university students.

Ceftci, S. (2013), Social Identity and attitudes toward foreign policy: Evidence from a youth survey in Turkey
International Journal of Middle East Studies / Volume 45 / Issue 01 / February 2013, pp 25-43. DOI:

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"Voyager" - the Trekkiest Trek?

by Salman Hameed

I still have not seen the new Star Trek yet. I was disappointed and sad by the J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek franchise last time, as it kicked aside the optimism and curiosity in exchange for brainless action sequences and problematic politics. It seems that the Into Darkness is a slightly better film but it goes even further in militarizing Star Trek. Compare this to the fact that  Gene Roddenberry created the series to challenge and bypass established norms of the 60's America. After all, it was Star Trek that featured the controversial interracial kiss (between Captain Kirk and Uhura). Here is a wonderful segment from a documentary Pioneers of Television: Science Fiction that presents the context for Star Trek (it also talks about the story behind the episode with the interracial kiss):

At the same time, yes, I also found the original Star Trek to be cheesy. But, I loved Star Trek: The Next Generation (of course). With episodes like All Good Things...,The Best of Both Worlds, Yesterday's Enterprise, The Measure of a Man, and Ship in a Bottle, it could compete with the best of science fiction literature. I did watch the Deep Space 9 and then Star Trek Voyager. However, I never really got into Voyager. Part of the reason was that the series was set 70,000 light years from the Earth and all the familiar villain alien races were missing. However, here is a fantastic article that provides a different context for Voyager and argues that it is the Trekiest of all Treks - and I think he has a point (though it has only a few memorable episodes). It is a feminist Star Trek and it shows the horrors of war. So while we fret over the mutilation of Gene Roddenberry's vision at the hands of JJ Abrams, here are some excerpts from this article about Voyager:
As we mourn Abrams’ macho Trek obliteration, it’s a good time to revisit Voyager, at once the most Star Trek-ian of accomplishments and the most despised object of fanboy loathing in the franchise's nearly 50-year history. From 1995-2001, it offered American audiences something never seen before or since: a series whose lead female characters’ agency and authority were the show. It was a rare heavy-hardware science fiction fantasy not built around a strong man, and more audaciously, it didn't seem to trouble itself over how fans would receive this. On Voyager, female authority was assumed and unquestioned; women conveyed sexual power without shame and anger without guilt. Even more so than Buffy, which debuted two years later, it was the most feminist show in American TV history.  
Voyager wasn’t some grrl power screed in Starfleet regalia. The ideas and emotions it explored were very much in the Star Trek wheelhouse; it just came at them from a fresh--and to some viewers, off-putting--angle. Led by Kathryn Janeway (Obie-Award-winner Kate Mulgrew), the first female Trek captain to carry a series, Voyager brought us some of the most convulsively inventive humanist science fiction this side of early Stephen Moffat-era Doctor Who.  
Set in the 2370s, Voyager episodes ping-ponged wonderfully between genres and modes. We got a revolution fought in the safety of dreams (“Unimatrix Zero”) and a metaphor-rich engagement with childhood violence and memory (“The Raven”). Some episodes spotlighted the kinds of spiritual engagements that frequent Voyager scripter Ronald D. Moore would import whole-hog to his post-9/11 remake of Battlestar Galactica.
And yet to this day, Voyager is often despised in the most grotesque terms, as a Star Trek apostate.

Here is the bit about the choice of lead characters and how it played with the expectations:
As the critic Alan Sepinwall reminds us, a great show teaches us how to watch it. With Voyager, the fanboys would have to learn how to live without a default male lead to identify with, a hero in Kirk/Picard/Riker mode. They would have to learn to identify beyond gender, and the challenge didn't end at the captain's chair. Along with Mulgrew's fascinating, maddening Captain Janeway—bullheaded; childless by choice; at once doctrinaire and impulsive---the showrunners gave us a prickly/brilliant Chief Engineer named B'Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson) struggling with her biracial half-human Hispanic, half-Klingon identity. By season four, ship botanist Kes (Jennifer Lien) left Voyager; her screentime was filled with a 103-episode-long redemption tale about a bemused, tragic and insanely svelte de-assimilated Borg called Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan).  
The show also expected viewers to spend time with an Asian Operations Officer (Garrett Wang), a half-black, half-Vulcan tactical officer (Tim Russ), and a Native American First Officer (Robert Beltran) before finally meeting the crew's significant male Caucasians, none of whom fit the traditional Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon/Luke Skywalker/James Kirk descriptors. One was the hilariously arch medical hologram played by Robert Picardo. The other was helmsman Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill).  
In the context we're exploring here, Paris is particularly fascinating. In theory, he was there carry the flag for straight male heroic signifiers, but there were clues that he was actually there to tweak people's expectation that science fiction adventures had to put a straight white guy at center-stage. The character spent his off-time saving helpless women in his virtual reality simulation of ‘30s SF serials, Captain Proton -- a sweet spoof of the brand of outer-space swashbuckling that  Roddenberry embraced on the original Star Trek, and that continued, in a more intellectualized way, on The Next Generation
Here is the about its depiction of war:

This series wasn't built around officers that could project military force, which is itself essentially masculine, whenever they needed to, and expect to be backed by the full faith and credit of Starfleet, even when they'd done something wrong or stupid. They were isolated, deprived of the usual political-military support network that made all other Trek adventures, including Deep Space Nine, so comforting to fans. 
The story began when the USS Voyager was hurled by an energy wave 70,000 light-years, to the butt end of the universe. After that, her mission was simplified: aim Earthwards for a 75-year journey home that the crew was unlikely to survive. 
And that was it. No Starfleet hijinks, no strutting around the galaxy, just 150 or so people stuck together for life. Voyager often feels less like a continuation of Trek as we know it than a challenge in the form of a question: "So you think you know what Star Trek is?" The series is an anti-action, existential feminist family drama, shot through with a persistent melancholy that reflects the crew’s desperation. 
Yes, it's still Star Trek, but the sheer unfamiliarity of the crew's predicament was disorienting. This far end of space is haunted by the violence of war. Mass violence carries more weight here, arguably, than in any other incarnation of Star Trek, and it's no stretch to suggest that the show's tragic attitude toward war comes out of its female-centered perspective. 
Here, military violence is portrayed not as a stereotypical male general might see it, but as it might be viewed by the equivalent of a diplomat, or a representative of the Red Cross, or the United Nations. It's a catastrophic event that engulfs whole civilizations, displaces whole species. It causes wounds that don't heal for generations, or starts new conflagrations. Voyager constantly meets races and species that are starting a war or recovering from one, and keeps stumbling upon the ghostly remnants of obliterated civilizations. This strain of sadness is so persistent that the show often feels like gentle critique of the military-macho strain that ran through the original series, the films based on it, as well as many episodes of the more self-aware The Next Generation.
Read the full article here

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Saturday Video: John Calvert on the history and politics of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood

by Salman Hameed

There have been fears and hope since the beginning of the Arab Spring. There now have been democratic elections in Egypt and Tunisia, and in both places, Islamist parties have come in power. The question then is how will they shape the future of their respective countries. If you have an hour, check out this fantastic talk by John Calvert on The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood: Between Ideology and Political Pragmatism, hosted by the Center for Middle East Studies at University of Denver. John traces the history and evolution of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and it is a good reminder not to treat such organizations as monolith or stuck in time. Couple of years ago I had plugged John's book, Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism (See Sayyid Qutb liked "Gone with the Wind?). Now here is John Calvert talking about The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (p.s. this talk is, I think, is from last February, and there is a question in the end about Turkey serving as model for democracy for Egypt. Interesting, that in just a couple of months, the Turkey question now seems a bit awkward):

Friday, June 21, 2013

Pew Survey: Views on religion and politics in Iran

by Salman Hameed

The elections in Iran are over and the reformist-backed candidate, Hassan Rouhani, has won the elections. Predictably, the coverage in the US has all been about the nuclear issue as if Iranians were only voting for that. For that matter, there rarely is a recognition that the elections are held regularly in Iran and the turnout is consistently high. Yes, The Supreme Leader and The Guardian Council can veto legislation and disqualify candidates, nevertheless, the President is not completely toothless. If that was the case, then the participation in the voting would not be that high. In fact, the turnout in the last US elections was 57.5% compared to 72.2% in the Iranian elections. A recent Pew survey that shows that a majority of Iranians do want a political role for religious figures. Now first, "political role" can be understood to have a very broad meaning, and second, most Iranians follow Shi'a Islam, where there already is a more established religious hierarchy compared to the run-of-the-mill Sunni equivalent.

There are still 30% of Iranians who believe that religious figures should have little to no political influence at all. But an overwhelming majority (82%) believe that Iran's laws follow sharia:

Read the full Pew article here.

In case you are wondering, Pakistan is a very different case, but religious parties received only 5% of the total vote in the recent elections (but religious parties still wield an outsized influence for other reasons). In comparison, 67% of the vote in Egyptian parliamentary elections in 2012 went to Islamist parties (38% - the largest share to The Muslim Brotherhood). However, a recent Pew survey shows that the support for Muslim Brotherhood is declining. This is precisely the reason, why we should let the process of democracy run. These political religious parties have no magic bullet - and when it becomes obvious, their support will decline:
But back to the original question of political influence of religious leaders, here is the landscape of Muslim views around the world (Pakistan and Tunisia have similar opinions on this matter! But also look at the high numbers for Indonesia, Malaysia, Egypt, Jordan, and Bangladesh):

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

No - not lazy. But back on Irtiqa

by Salman Hameed

There has been silence on Irtiqa for the last 10 days. Hmm....and the silence started right after I had a post about the NSA wire tapping story. Unless it is just a coincidence, I think this calls for some conspiracy theories. But here all I can say is that I have been dealing with a new life-form whose DNA has atoms that were processed inside stars, but now this molecule also contains some of my genetic information (Hmm...and this is where you queue the X-Files music):

But as this life-form learns that humans sleep for more than 2 hours at a stretch, the posts will resume their regularity here. In the mean time, here is Spock on laziness in The Lazy Song:

Bruno Mars - Lazy Song from Furlined on Vimeo.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Eavesdropping, drones, and cybermonitoring

by Salman Hameed

Iran is right in creating its own internet. While the US government has often criticized Iran and other states for controlling the flow of information to their countries, it seems that the US also monitors the flow of information from Google, Facebook, Apple, Youtube, Skype, etc. This is just one of the several new revelations from the phenomenal Genn Greenwald of the Guardian. The Obama administration
has turned out to be a true disappointment when it comes civil liberties and issues like the drones. In fact, when caught - and yes, it has often been leaks that have revealed some of the more nefarious government practices - Obama appears anguished and places himself above the fray. But this is his administration and these are his decisions. If the same actions were taken by the George W. Bush, there would have been a massive outcry, and people (at least on the US coasts and college towns) would have been out on the streets in protest. In many ways, perhaps, it was better to have a President who was more open about what he believed than the one who says the right things but does exactly the opposite.

Here are the recent articles by Glenn Greenwald on information from an intelligence whistleblower:

NSA Prism program taps in to user data of Apple, Google and others
The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants, according to a top secret document obtained by the Guardian. 
The NSA access is part of a previously undisclosed program called Prism, which allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats, the document says. 
The Guardian has verified the authenticity of the document, a 41-slide PowerPoint presentation – classified as top secret with no distribution to foreign allies – which was apparently used to train intelligence operatives on the capabilities of the program. The document claims "collection directly from the servers" of major US service providers.
On NSA collecting phone records of all Verizon customers in the US:
The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America's largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April. 
The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, requires Verizon on an "ongoing, daily basis" to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries. 
The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.
And while the US has actually participated in an cyber-attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, and Obama has been criticizing China for cyber-hacking, it appears that the US has drawn its own plans for a cyber-offensive:
Barack Obama has ordered his senior national security and intelligence officials to draw up a list of potential overseas targets for US cyber-attacks, a top secret presidential directive obtained by the Guardian reveals.
The 18-page Presidential Policy Directive 20, issued in October last year but never published, states that what it calls Offensive Cyber Effects Operations (OCEO) "can offer unique and unconventional capabilities to advance US national objectives around the world with little or no warning to the adversary or target and with potential effects ranging from subtle to severely damaging".
It says the government will "identify potential targets of national importance where OCEO can offer a favorable balance of effectiveness and risk as compared with other instruments of national power".
The directive also contemplates the possible use of cyber actions inside the US, though it specifies that no such domestic operations can be conducted without the prior order of the president, except in cases of emergency. 
And if you are wondering about Glenn Greenwald's motivations and on investigations targeting whistleblowers, here is his response:
They could easily enrich themselves by selling those documents for huge sums of money to foreign intelligence services. They could seek to harm the US government by acting at the direction of a foreign adversary and covertly pass those secrets to them. They could gratuitously expose the identity of covert agents. 
None of the whistleblowers persecuted by the Obama administration as part of its unprecedented attack on whistleblowers has done any of that: not one of them. Nor have those who are responsible for these current disclosures. 
They did not act with any self-interest in mind. The opposite is true: they undertook great personal risk and sacrifice for one overarching reason: to make their fellow citizens aware of what their government is doing in the dark. Their objective is to educate, to democratize, to create accountability for those in power. 
The people who do this are heroes. They are the embodiment of heroism. They do it knowing exactly what is likely to be done to them by the planet's most powerful government, but they do it regardless. They don't benefit in any way from these acts. I don't want to over-simplify: human beings are complex, and usually act with multiple, mixed motives. But read this outstanding essay on this week's disclosures from The Atlantic's security expert, Bruce Schneier, to understand why these brave acts are so crucial. 
Those who step forward to blow these whistles rarely benefit at all. The ones who benefit are you. You discover what you should know but what is hidden from you: namely, the most consequential acts being taken by those with the greatest power, and how those actions are affecting your life, your country and your world. 
In 2008, candidate Obama decreed that "often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out," and he hailed whistleblowing as:
"acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled as they have been during the Bush administration." 
The current incarnation of Obama prosecutes those same whistlelblowers at double the number of all previous presidents combined, and spent the campaign season boasting about it.
And on his own motivations:
The times in American history when political power was constrained was when they went too far and the system backlashed and imposed limits. That's what happened in the mid-1970s when the excesses of J Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon became so extreme that the legitimacy of the political system depended upon it imposing restraints on itself. And that's what is happening now as the government continues on its orgies of whistleblower prosecutions, trying to criminalize journalism, and building a massive surveillance apparatus that destroys privacy, all in the dark. The more they overreact to measures of accountability and transparency - the more they so flagrantly abuse their power of secrecy and investigations and prosecutions - the more quickly that backlash will arrive. 
I'm going to go ahead and take the Constitution at its word that we're guaranteed the right of a free press. So, obviously, are other people doing so. And that means that it isn't the people who are being threatened who deserve and will get the investigations, but those issuing the threats who will get that. That's why there's a free press. That's what adversarial journalism means.
And while we are at it, here is an excellent article by Greenwald in response to Obama's terrorism speech. He criticizes NYT for their warm welcome to the speech, but they later back-tracked and agreed with Greenwald's take, as expressed explicitly here. And indeed nothing has changed in regards to the drone attacks and, contrary to Obama's vague promise in the speech, CIA will also maintain control over drones in Pakistan.

Greenwald was also at Hampshire College recently. I posted his fantastic talk on Irtiqa last month. But here it is again:

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Wait what? Islam is not an officially recognized religion in Italy!

by Salman Hameed

Well, this lack of official recognition of Islam is a surprise to me. The reasons for this non-recognition are complex, and at least some of the blame is shared by Italy's Muslims as well. But I found this out from an article written by my nephew, Mustafa Hameed (woo hoo!). Here it is from the Washington PostLacking Recognition, Italy's Muslims Face an Uncertain Future:

In a country dominated by Roman Catholics, Muslims make up Italy’s second-largest religious group. A Pew study estimated that more than 1.5 million Muslims live in Italy, a number projected to double by 2030. 
Though it has more adherents than several faiths with official status — including Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism — Islam is not an officially recognized religion in Italy. Consequently, no Muslim organizations can receive funding through an Italian law that allows taxpayers to allocate a portion of their taxes to a religious group of their choice.
While negative views of Islam in this Catholic nation have played a part, the sheer size and diversity of Italy’s Muslim population may be among the biggest obstacles to the community’s recognition, said Mustafa Cenap Aydin, director of the Istituto Tevere in Rome, a group that promotes intercultural dialogue. 
“The tiny Buddhist community, it’s not a challenge, you can recognize it,” Aydin said. “But (with Muslims) we’re talking about 1.5 million people.” 
Aydin mentioned another hurdle to Muslim integration in Italy: ”Maybe 95 percent of Muslims are not citizens here,” he explained. That includes men like Jahan, who followed his brother to Rome two years ago in search of work. 
“Muslims in Italy are facing the challenge of situating Islam in Italy,” said Abdel Latif Chalikandi, a lawyer and cultural mediator at the Mosque of Rome. “Are you a Muslim or an Italian?” 
Chalikandi himself moved to Rome from Kerala, India, after meeting his wife, Sabrina Lei, a Catholic-born Italian convert to Islam who has translated the works of several Islamic writers into Italian. Together, the two are working to publish more books about Islam in Italy. 
Making a new life in a new country is not easy. Besides new languages, there are new foods and new customs. Fulfilling Muslim religious requirements may also be difficult.
“Italian Muslims have complete religious freedom,” Chalikandi said. “They have the right to pray, they have the right to fast. But there are, having said that, some issues.” 
He said religious obligations such as circumcision, Muslim-specific burial grounds and halal meats can pose problems for Italian Muslims. Food is a particularly sensitive issue among Italian Muslims who cannot eat pork or drink alcoholic beverages. 
Still, the religious prohibition against eating pork has not deterred all Muslims. Sharif Ahmed is a waiter at a traditional Italian restaurant near Piazza Navona, across the Tiber River from the Vatican. A recent transplant from Delhi, India, he appeared at ease presenting plates of salami and prosciutto and pouring wine for customers. Ahmed said that he does not eat pork or drink alcohol.
But things are complicated at the intersection of domestic politics, immigration policies, and cultural adjustments:

But beyond dietary differences, darker sources of dissonance are often at work. Islamophobia is alive and well in the country, particularly among conservative politicians who blame the country’s economic woes on immigrants. In many circles, being Muslim is synonymous with being an immigrant. 
But worse than brash politicians are forces within the Muslim community that put it at odds with Italian society, Aydin said. In 2009, a Moroccan immigrant murdered his 18-year-old daughter after he found her dating an older Italian man, reinforcing stereotypes of honor killings and misogyny. 
“Weeks and weeks the Italian newspapers are talking about this tragic event,” Aydin said. “They’d pose questions in these terms: ‘What do you think about this Pakistani girl who was killed since she was dating an Italian guy?’” 
Before Muslims can adopt an active role together, however, they must organize. “There is a crisis in Muslim leadership and knowledge,” said Chalikandi. 
The Muslim community, Chalikandi added, badly needs thinkers familiar with Islamic jurisprudence as well as Italian cultural norms and practices. 
The Italian government has taken a number of steps in recent years to assimilate Muslims. In 2005, the Ministry of the Interior established the Council for Italian Islam to foster dialogue between the government and the Italian Muslim community. The council was meant to be an umbrella body coordinating the country’s various Islamic organizations. That would have provided the structure for Islam to be legally recognized as a religion eligible to receive tax money. 
“The Italian state wanted to recognize the religion,” Chalikandi lamented, “but unfortunately, the Muslim organizations and leaders couldn’t get a consensus and they couldn’t sign that accord with the government.” 
Despite the divisions, the Council for Italian Islam is still intact and could yet serve as a useful forum for the country’s various Islamic organizations. 
Still, both Chalikandi and Aydin said efforts to organize the different groups representing the Islamic community of Italy may be a long-term project. 
“Muslims are learning,” Chalikandi said. “And still for Islam there is no second or third generation here yet.”
Read the full article here.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

A level-headed article on the on-going protests in Turkey

by Salman Hameed

There are a lot of claims about what the protests in Turkey are about (on secular vs Islamists; just about the trees on Taksim Square; a reaction to the alcohol restrictions, etc) and the participants who make up the protestors (also see yesterday's post here). Here is a level-headed article in Al-Monitor by a reporter who has been covering the protests from the Taksim Square: Who Are Turkey's Protestors? (tip from Berna Turam):

I was, in my capacity as a reporter, among the thousands of citizens who thronged the streets of central Istanbul on May 31 in what some are labeling “A Turkish Spring” and “A Turkish Occupy” movement. Other commentators have resorted to the lazy old clichés of “secularists versus Islamists.”  Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists they are "provocateurs." 
None of these capture the nature of protests that have engulfed the country. These began when police staged a predawn operation on May 31 to disperse citizens who were demonstrating peacefully against a government-backed development project that would uproot dozens of trees in Taksim Square. The diversity of the protesters defies any such neat categorization. 
After describing the make up of protestors, she reaches the following conclusion: 
My overall impression, and it’s commonly shared, is that the Taksim Park project has morphed into a vehicle for popular resentment against Erdogan’s increasingly dismissive and authoritarian ways. Under a decade of AKP rule, Turkey has become the world’s top jailer of journalists. Its interventionist policy in Syria is causing alarm. The systematic and disproportionate use of force against the slightest display of dissent obscures that the AKP was democratically elected and remains the most popular government in modern Turkish history. Yet, egged on by the slavishly self-censoring Turkish media, Erdogan seems increasingly out of touch. 
Be it through restrictions on alcohol or disregard for the environment, people who do not share Erdogan’s worldview are being made to feel like second-class citizens. The sentiment is especially strong among the country’s large Muslim Alevi minority whose long-running demands for recognition continue to be spurned much as they were by past governments. 
Hard-core secularists who massed in the district of Kadikoy, a CHP stronghold on the Asian side are keen to paint the protests as a backlash against the “Islamist” AKP. It's not just CHP supporters who feel their lifestyles are being infringed upon. Conscientious objectors, atheists and gays, almost anyone who falls outside the AKP’S conservative base is feeling squeezed. The majority, however, are sick of old-style politicians and their tired ideas. So where will they go? The question is growing ever more pressing in the run-up to nationwide local elections that are to be held next year.  
Erdogan’s political fortunes hinge on how the government handles the crisis. Pulling back the police and allowing the crowds to gather on the second day was a step in the right direction. 
Turkey is not on the brink of a revolution. A Turkish Spring is not afoot. Erdogan is no dictator. He is a democratically elected leader who has been acting in an increasingly undemocratic way. And as Erdogan himself acknowledged, his fate will be decided at the ballot box, not in the streets. 
Read the full article here

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Anti-government protests in Istanbul

by Salman Hameed

This seems like coming. Small things had been adding up and it seems that the ruling AKP party in Turkey finally pushed too much. If you haven't seen the news, anti-gvernment protests have engulfed Istanbul and have reached other Turkish cities as well, including the capital, Ankara. The center point Istanbul is Taksim Square which is not only the heart of the city but also the usual place for political protests. I have been to Istanbul multiple times (I was there at this time last year) and have friends and family there. In fact, on most occasions, I have stayed quite close to Taksim. On the one hand, it is heartbreaking to see pictures of police throwing tear-gas canisters at the protestors and pepper-spraying them. On the other hand, it is also rejuvenating to see throngs of people crossing the bridge over the Bosporus on foot (public transport was suspended to stop the protestors) to stand in solidarity with the protestors at Taksim Square against the increasing overreach of the government. This city is indeed alive!

The trigger for the current "Occupy-style" protests have been plans to replace/modify an old park (Gezi Park) with a shopping mall (on a side note, it is a shame that there haven't been any protests in Mecca, where the Saudi government has been demolishing historical structures to make way for shopping malls! "Occupy Mecca" during the next Hajj?). The police in Istanbul used teargas to disperse the crowd and prevented further protesters to get to Taksim. It seems that the police now has withdrawn from the Square. From NYT:
Violent protests against the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan engulfed this city on Saturday, as thousands of demonstrators took to the streets and alleyways in a second day of civil unrest and faced the tear gas and water cannons of a harsh police crackdown. 
Mr. Erdogan, in a televised speech on Saturday morning, vowed to go forward with a plan

to remake a city park in Taksim Square into a replica Ottoman-era army barracks and mall, the move that set off the initial protests earlier in the week. 
For many demonstrators, however, the protest has moved beyond that project and become a broad rebuke to the 10-year leadership of Mr. Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, which they say has adopted authoritarian tactics. 
Mr. Erdogan, in his first comments on the growing unrest, seemed determined to maintain the aggressive police response. His only conciliatory note was to promise to investigate claims of excessive police force against peaceful protesters on Friday that resulted in nearly 1,000 injuries, according to the Turkish Doctors Association. 
“The police were here yesterday, they will be there today, and they will be there tomorrow in Taksim,” Mr. Erdogan said. 
In late afternoon, the police withdrew from Taksim Square and allowed tens of thousands of protesters to gather there unhindered. By evening, no police officers were in sight, and most of the protesters were gathered on the lawns of the square, some drinking beer, others chanting antigovernment slogans.        
If you want to read more about it, check out this excellent article, The Right to the City Movement and the Turkish Summer, from Jadaliyya that first details the unfolding of events at Taksim Square over the last four days and then talks about the broader reasons for the protest. Here is the focus on the latter: 
The entire plan for Taksim Square’s redesign is part of an overall neoliberal turn that Prime Minister Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) are central to. Istanbul's city center has been undergoing a rapid process of gentrification, especially in the historic neighborhoods of Sulukule, Tarlabaşı, Tophane, and Fener-Balat, which housed the poor, the immigrants, the Kurds, and the Roma. The goal of this so-called “urban renewal” is to make room for more tourist attractions, or to—at minimum—“clean up” the neighborhoods, removing working class urban dwellers who might scare off tourists. The idea is that this new and improved city center will attract foreign investment in Istanbul, which is to be further developed into a financial and cultural hub at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East.   
Some outlets have linked the Gezi Park protests to the AKP's recent restrictions on the sale of alcohol. Journalists doing so are attempting to portray the Gezi Park occupation as a conflict between Erdoğan's Islamism and the country's secular ethos. The secularist opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) has also taken this stance, and has tried to coopt the uprising by turning the movement into a symbol of culture wars between secular youth and an older Islamist generation.  Attractive as that framing may be to Western media, it could not be further from the truth. While many protesters are without a doubt staunch secularists who are motivated by opposition to the AKP's increasing social conservatism, there is no indication that this is what ultimately brought thousands of people out into the streets. In fact, when CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, came to Gezi Park to speak, protesters sang over him, preventing him from being heard. It is clear that the movement thus far is about a conflict in visions for urban space between ruling elites and the people who actually live, work, and play in the city. In this regard, it is telling that #DirenGeziPari emerged as the original hashtag on Twitter. This connects to protests held in 2009 in Istanbul against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, which took place under the banner of “Diren Istanbul”—“Resist Istanbul”—cleverly shortened in translation to “ResIstanbul.”  
At the same time, and as the protests appear to spread and take on a more generally anti-government tone, it is not unlikely that general dissatisfaction with Erdoğan will eventually win out as the primary message of the movement. In that case, we can expect to see a rift between the liberal secularist opposition who joined the protest on 31 May and after and the radical protesters who spawned the movement in the first place.
Throughout the Arab uprisings, Turkey remained ostensibly stable. Some commentators proposed Turkey as a model for post-uprising Arab states, most especially Egypt. The mixture of a “moderate” Islamist prime minister and a "secular" constitution made NATO-member Turkey an attractive prototype for a new Middle East in the eyes of Western pundits.  Others, along with myself, have pointed out that Turkey is a poor choice of role model, given its ongoing conflict with its Kurdish minority population as well as myriad other dynamics. 
Today, it seems as though Turkey's internal divisions are surfacing in a way not seen for some time. What we are seeing in the Gezi Park occupation is the sudden explosion of this Right to the City movement, with some general anti-government sentiment mixed in. For now, an Istanbul court has temporarily suspended construction of the park, pending a hearing on the matter. As time goes on, and if this movement continues to grow, rifts are likely to occur and the meaning of the protests will become as contested as the physical space of Taksim Square. But for the time being, between the massive May Day protest and now this nationwide movement less than a month later, we may finally be in for a summer of uprising in Turkey. 

Also, here is a BBC report from last night that shows some of the clashes between the protestors and the police: 

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