Archive for Religion

Life lessons from Islamic Studies

When I was in primary school I had a class called Islamic Studies in English. I think we had one in Arabic, too, but I probably flopped that one. I remember that as part of our homework we were supposed to have read chapters from the course textbook (stuff like when you walk you should not display haughtiness, or be rude by spitting on the ground, but be humble for being a creature of Allah).

We were supposed to get the chapter or something signed by our parents. I don’t recall my father ever testing my knowledge or understanding of the chapters, but he would often sign it anyway.

There was a hefty punishment for not getting it signed. I think, but can’t say for sure, that corporal punishment was involved. Certainly, from the one vignette I can remember, students who hadn’t gotten their books signed were being sent to the front of the class. Perhaps to have their hands slapped with two of those foot-long wooden rulers that had been rubber banded together, the rulers would be pulled back and then released on the palm of the hand — snap. I do remember having been punished with that ruler at other times, and I do remember that it stung.

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On Dubai and racisms

I’ve been alerted to a situation in Dubai where someone was, apparently, detained arbitrarily. The person hasn’t been charged and seems to have to jump through a lot of hoops. This is not correct, and it’s certainly deplorable in any case to hold someone without even laying charges. I am not going to defend the autocratic regimes in Dubai and the rest of the UAE, and I can certainly feel for someone who has — apparently — been detained arbitrarily. Yet the racism and stark ignorance that pervades the discussion about Dubai is indicative of more than just bitterness toward the regime. It’s Orientalism 101.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the UAE or anything, but what I am talking about in the following isn’t rocket science.

First, Dubai is a major transportation and commercial hub. This is true because of its coastal location in the Persian Gulf. This is also true of its airport, which is perhaps one of the busiest airports in the world — but certainly the busiest in the region of Middle East and South Asia. On any given day, up to 100,000 people pass through this airport, which translates into nearly 35 million every year. People in all shapes, shades, sizes, from all class backgrounds, dressed in all manner of clothing: “ultra-conservative” as well as “ultra-liberal” pass through this airport. And, in fact, this is also generally true of Dubai itself. In the streets, you can see people wearing skirts and tank tops, as well as people wearing burqas. What does this mean? Just that if you’re traveling through Dubai airport, don’t presume that you have to dress conservatively. In fact, you don’t.

Yes there is plenty of racism in Dubai. If we accept that racism is a structural mechanism of discrimination (rather than just the surface expression of racial slurs and profiling), then we see that the racism in Dubai is the massive, racialized super-exploitation of migrant labour from Asia. When we say Asia, we are not talking about East Asia, but rather, South Asia and the Philippines.

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In 2000, I created a web site on Malcolm X, which has since become one of the major Malcolm X web sites on the Internet. It reflects a good deal on the ideology I adhered to and the way I approached things at that time, when I was 15 and completing grade 9 in Scarborough as a proto-Islamist. The site has remained stagnant, particularly ideologically — indeed, I put a disclaimer that the site is meant to present Malcolm within “an Islamic context” — although I’ve changed considerably, religiously and politically. It’s also remained stagnant in terms of content, the last substantive update being in 2005.

Academically, there was a surge of sustained interest in Malcolm X in the late 1980s and early 90s, in the midst of which Spike Lee produced the film in 1992. This interest reflected the growing relevance of Black nationalism as a response to the conditions of most Black people in the United States — Public Enemy was on point. Academics were commenting on Malcolm X leading up to and following the film. At some point in the 90s this interest seems to have tapered off. Another surge of interest surfaced in February 2005, around the fortieth anniversary of Malcolm’s assassination — commemorated by a special release of the Malcolm X DVD and mainstream media interest, but not (as far as I can tell) any substantial academic interest. That is, with the exception of Manning Marable at Columbia University who is now writing a biography of Malcolm.

I keep finding myself coming back to the question of Malcolm X, as well as the question of the web site. While I haven’t read anything relating to Malcolm substantially in a while, the myriad videos posted on the Internet have allowed me to instead watch him speak. Recently, I’ve bought several books containing his words and containing words about him. As I’ve developed politically and academically, however, the site has lagged behind.

Additionally, many people don’t know, exactly, what Malcolm X stood for (he himself had a hard time with that) or what his significance is to radical politics — he’s been reduced to a symbol and a phrase, “by any means necessary”.

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They found a whole lot of ossuaries with inscriptions in 1980. Yeshua bar Yosef and Mariamne Mar do not have the same mitochondrial DNA. Big wow! Begs the most obvious question: why not test the mitochondrial DNA found in all ossuaries to establish unequivocal relationships? If, indeed, Maria is the mother of Yeshua bar Yosef — immaculate conception or not — the two would share mitochondrial DNA, as would Yose and James. Assuming that Yeshua married or consorted with Mariamne, and Yehuda is their son, he would share the same mitochondrial DNA as Mariamne. And it’s that easy. But for whatever reason, the producers of the show didn’t go that far (or did they?).

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God, Inc.

Funniest stuff I’ve seen since Arrested Development:

God, Inc. Episode 1 (3:38)

God, Inc. Episode 2 (6:31)

Salaam-e-Ishq music is excellent. The film looks like a take off of Love Actually.

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Re: evolution

Michael G from Cincinatti sent me the following in response to my post on evolution:

Evolution of man, the question has been made

Evolution and Creationism, dualities of ignorance,
Visit a curry house and you may find another answer,
Enlightenment there for both scientist and fundamentalist,
The idea that man, the poor creature he had been,
was given the spirit, gods uplifting his soul,
no conflict here with either side’s part the answer,
for both are right, but maybe not right enough,
consider the knowledge, the creatation who we are,
men who could always do with a little more work.

For Scientist only, have you considered
intelligence is out there? Or do you think
we are the only ones with a test tube?

For Fundamentalist only, do you think god(s)
do only their own work? Or do you think the work
is done with a plan through god’s creations?

For both look at the moon,
two eyes, a nose a mouth,
the face with a slight smile.

Cincinnati, Ohio

Of course, it is my blog, so I’ll comment on this. Firstly, the “dualities of ignorance” are not quite so simple.

There are creationists who believe that evolution is the vehicle that god chose (for whatever reason), or that god guides evolution. There are evolutionists who believe that god is the first cause. Okay, if that’s what floats your boat, fine.

To assume that there are scientists who are “ignorant” of god, well, I’m not so sure that’s always the case, either. Many may be, but many still have actively questioned and pursued the question of god without arriving at any kind of satisfactory answer. And thus, they’ve rejected god.

I can’t say the same about creationists who have pursued the question of evolution. Most of them read surface-level analyses like those of Harun Yahya and other “intelligent design” advocates, which are full of lies, misinformation and whatnot. Being a bona fide scientist and rejecting evolution is not quite so easy.

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note: I wrote this after I got into a bit of a debate with a creationist at a social visit. I said I’d e-mail him. I started typing, and the result was a 1400 word essay. Do I think this will convince him? Not at all. But here, I hope, is an introduction to evolution for laypersons. I know, there are no footnotes, but I can provide them. A lot of good stuff was gleaned from the archives. Comments and suggestions would be appreciated.

Evolution, by definition, refers to a change in the frequencies of genes over time.

A gene is a “patch” of DNA that codes for a certain function, or contributes to a certain function, within an organism. So, for instance, there are several genes that contribute to the size and shape of your nose. Changes in these genes mean a change in the size and shape of your nose. Not all people have the same mix of genes, as you can readily tell by looking at the noses of people around you. One gene can have several versions (called alleles).

The way for a gene to change or for new genes to form is through random mutation. This is an incredibly common process — every day new cells are formed in your body that harbour mutations. Most mutations are deleterious, that is, they are not “good” for the organism’s viability in general. Others are “neutral,” that is, they make no change on their own. And a few are “beneficial” — they increase the chances of the organism’s viability. When a deleterious mutation occurs, it often results in the death of the cell or the organism. This is how we function. This doesn’t always happen. Cancer, for instance, is an example of deleterious mutations that go unchecked by a body’s immune system.

Certain genetic mutations may seem to be deleterious, but are also beneficial. For instance, “full” sickle cell anemia in black people is a very dangerous and life-threatening disease. However, having “half” sickle cell traits offers protection from malaria.

What evolution refers to is the change in the frequency of alleles (gene versions) in the gene pool of a certain population over a period of time. Genes and genetic mutations (that is, new alleles) are propagated over several generations. Deleterious mutations aren’t always propagated (but sometimes, they are, as in sickle cell anemia).

What, exactly, selects for the genes that will be passed on? This is referred to as selection. Selection can be natural or artificial. Artificial selection occurs everyday in labs and farms, by deliberate and specific human intervention. For instance, the Canola oil we consume is a result of artificial selection and controlled breeding. On the other hand, natural selection is what occurs in nature: Certain genes are extant and propagate because they allow an organism to better adapt to its surroundings.

For instance, bacteria and viruses are constantly evolving — that is, their gene pools are constantly changing. In the mid-20th century, penicillin was seen as a wonder drug to take care of bacterial infections — it works by breaking down the cell walls of gram-positive bacteria and preventing repair. This means the bacterial cells pretty much burst open when they try to reproduce. Wide use of penicillin, coupled with bacterial genetic mutations, meant that eventually strains of bacteria developed that were able to resist penicillin. Whereas penicillin was originally a very potent drug, it is now almost useless against bacteria acquired in hospitals — because these are remarkably resistant to penicillin. That’s evolution.

Every year, you need to get a different flu shot. That’s because the influenza virus mutates and spreads its mutations rapidly. Scientists then have to find out the new strains, develop antivirals, and mass produce them. When random mutations become too wide and unpredictable — or unmanageable — then you have an influenza epidemic on your hands. That’s evolution.

In the late 19th century in Britain there was a moth population (peppered moths) that was for the most part largely light coloured — it blended in well with its surroundings. Due to the development of factories and the soot that resulted from them and accumulated on trees, these light coloured moths stuck out. Birds ate them more and more. The dark coloured ones, hitherto in the minority, soon found that they were doing better than the light coloured ones, and gradually became the majority. Their alleles (the ones that allowed them to be darker) had increased in frequency in the gene pool of the population over time. That’s evolution.

Evolution then is an empirically proven fact. So far, so good — organisms continuously adapt to their surroundings because of natural selection.

Where is the controversy? Speciation — that is, the development of “new” species. Differences in species means, essentially, that for genetic, ecological, behavioural or geographical reasons they remain in “reproductive isolation” — one species does not mate with another in natural conditions.

What happens here, in speciation, is just the same as what we have been talking about so far as evolution. Allele frequencies change, geographical and geological events occur over time to the point that reproduction between two organisms from separate populations doesn’t occur. (This doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t happen. It just means that it doesn’t happen. For instance, tigers and lions are two separate, distinct species. But they can mate and produce offspring — not the most healthy and viable offpsring. Essentially, this points to the fact that, although functionally and genetically distinct, they are closely related.) We have to remember that “species” is an arbitrary category invented by humans to understand the world around them.

Let me give you an example of how a speciation event may occur: A certain population of an organism is separated goegraphically (geographical isolation), let’s say population B gets transported to an island. This means that there is no interbreeding between population A and population B.

Because of natural genetic changes that occur over long spans of time, and also because of sociological and behavioural changes, there will be a marked difference between population A and population B. Even if they are introduced to each other and are biologically capable of reproducing, behavioural changes in mating procedure and considerable visual differences will probably mean that they will not (under natural conditions) mate and reproduce. Just like tigers and lions.

Given even more time in geographical isolation, it is possible that the genetic differences are so varied that, although population A and population B can reproduce, their offspring cannot. Like horses and donkeys, they can produce mules — but mules are sterile and cannot reproduce.

Given yet more time in geographical isolation, population A and population B, while resembling each other to some degree, may not be able to mate and reproduce at all. Kind of like gorillas and chimpanzees.

I should disclaim here that I am not saying that gorillas and chimpanzees have had more time to evolve than donkeys and horses, who have had more time to evolve than tigers and lions. Nor am I saying that they evolved due to geographical isolation (there are other ways of speciation events occurring). I am simply pointing out possibilities — all of this does not have to have happened over a relative time scale — but it did happen over a long amount of time and with various forms of isolation, not just geographical. To get ideas of time scales it is best to consult with zoologists who specialize in these respective animals.

Has speciation been observed directly? Yes, in laboratory experimentation with worms and flies and also with plants — and in nature as well.

Further evidence for speciation events comes from the fossil record. While the fossil record will never be complete due to geological considerations, it has contributed to showing the evolution of several organisms in remarkable detail (for instance, the horse’s evolution from a much smaller animal is well documented and substantiated by geological evidence). Anatomy shows us homologous and vestigial structures that are remnants of genetic history (such as cartilagenous hind leg appendages in whales). Some of the most compelling evidence of evolution comes from the genomes of various animals. Comparing a human’s DNA to a rat’s, for instance, shows considerable differences — but also some interesting similarities. Compare a human’s DNA to a chimpanzee’s, and the similarities become far more significant and numerous than the differences. Humans and chickens share a lot of genetic material, but chickens and reptiles share a lot more.

There is a lot of evidence for evolution, from all kinds of disciplines of science: Geology, paleontology, anatomy, cell biology, genetics, etc. The evidence is so overwhelming that evolution is a matter of scientific consensus.

While it may seem that organisms exist in immutable forms, they clearly do not. DNA changes every day, all over the world, in all kinds of ways. Gene frequencies change over time — and we have had billions of years to work with it (the Earth itself is about 4.5 billion years old). Evolution — the change in gene frequencies over time — is an indisputable fact.

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Shortcuts to God

In the RT on Tuesday, looking over my shoulder to the left of me was a girl reading a book. It was called “Shortcuts to God.”

What stuck out for me was a sentence, “No longer will I choose to let my rational mind and my physical senses determine what is real for me.” (p.78)

That’s messed up. What else are you going to use? Your soul? Good luck.

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Empathy and hate

I don’t know what’s more disturbing: that I can relate to a poorly-written villain from Marvel’s second mainstream universe after Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) thwarts her plans, or that I’m seriously entertaining the thought in the first place.

I don’t think God doesn’t hate. What I’ve learned about God, growing up, is that he has some kind of love-hate thing going on. God loves (more often “has mercy on”) the believers, but severely dislikes the disbelievers. He puts curtains over their hearts and turns them into stone so that they may never see the correct way, and they will burn in hell forever the fuel of which is men and stones. Stuff like that, perfect empathy? I think that’s possible for a human being — one who grafts on another half brain to her own to think faster and tries to destroy the Fantastic Four and X-Men because she has unresolved psychotic issues, yes — but not for the God I learned about growing up. If God was truly perfectly empathetic the concept of hell wouldn’t exist.

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“Radical Islaaam” and Holocaust jokes

I’ve been attending a few of the Betar Tagar‘s “Know Radical Islam Week” events. Overall I think the way Betar is handling this is remarkably stupid. I don’t see anything constructive, at all, coming out of this event — if the aim is to start a dialogue with Muslims. There are very few Muslims at these lectures, indeed most of those attending seem to be Jewish.

Much of the content of the events is actually meaningful — at least, the lectures I’ve attended were — but the medium (“Radical Islaaam”) obscures the message. I’ve told them that a much better title would be “Extremism within Muslim society,” and they acted as if that were a novel idea (and don’t they wish I was in their planning committee) but I find it hard to believe that the issue of alternatively naming it didn’t come up.

How much more meaningful would it be if they had the MSA on board to condemn radicalism in Islam? Probably a lot more. I’ve spoken with several members of the MSA, including the President and the Academic Affairs Coordinator, they both told me that a) they were not calling for a boycott, and b) they were never consulted at any time throughout the organization of this event. Betar e-mailed certain members of the MSA in the days leading up to the events, though, to receive mixed messages that they touted as “cooperation.” From what I’ve heard, members of the Thaqalayn Muslim Association are also unhappy about the way things are being carried out.

The kinds of organizations that are on board? The UofT Objectivist Club, the Toronto Secular Alliance, Daniel Pipes’s Middle East Forum, etc. That really seems like a group dedicated to fostering meaningful discussion (I’m being sarcastic).

Moreover, how can you even begin to describe radicalism within Islam — a religion of over a billion — as some kind of hegemonic entity? It’s not. Different factors have contributed to the rise of radicalism in Islam in various regions of the world. Taking the historical and sociological context into consideration is tremendously important for any analysis. This is sorely lacking in Betar’s activities.

Anyway, today I attended one of Betar’s lectures given by Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh. Abu Toameh reports for the right-wing Jerusalem Post.

What he said, though, completely undercut the message that the Betar folks were trying to get across. It seemed to me that they were trying to depict “radical” Islam as somehow censoring the reporting of things in Palestine. Abu Toameh quite unequivocally stated, several times, that it was not Hamas and Islamic Jihad that censored journalists, nor would they, but it was the Palestinian Authority (run by the PLO — Arafat and Abu Mazen’s folks) every single time, and the West supported this.

That made me want to laugh and clap out loud.

He also talked about how Arafat was a big hypocrite, sitting in mosques while stealing billions meant for Palestinians.

Also, in a remarkably stupid move, Jyllands-Posten has apparently offered to publish cartoons that a remarkably stupid Iranian newspaper is aiming to publish that make fun of the Holocaust.

It’s stupid enough of the Iranians to want to do something messed up like this, and stupider still for the Danish to want to reprint those cartoons. How stupid do people get? I imagine we’ll see extremist agenda-driven Muslims torch the Iranian embassies in protest for printing such offensive cartoons? I think any decent and right-thinking human being would find it even more offensive to make fun of the deaths of six million people than to make fun of a prophet. I suggest all Danes engage in a meaningful boycott of Jyllands-Posten and demand that the editor be replaced with someone who is less remarkably stupid (and that’s the theme of my post).

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