Saturday, October 13, 2012

On the courage of Malala Yousafzai, the drone attacks and a culture of extremism

                                         (Credit: Associated Free Press, Asif Hussain)

When I logged onto Twitter Tuesday morning and saw that #Malala was trending, I had a feeling that it might be about Malala Yousafzai. I first became aware of her through Adam Ellick's video feature in the New York Times. And then I found out that she had been targeted for her ongoing activism for children's education, especially for girls in the Swat Valley (pronounced Sawat, not SWAT). For the last two days, I had been working on a blog post with regards to this attack, one which was ready to be published a few minutes ago, when a technical hitch with Blogger resulted in my draft being deleted in its entirety. So here is a condensed version on my thoughts instead.

The deliberate attack on Malala by a member of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), represents a dark chapter in the history of Pakistan. The fact that even children are not off limits from violence by religious extremist forces in this country is shocking to say the least. However, this is nothing new. Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy's Emmy winning documentary "Children of the Taliban", highlights the use of children by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and other militants in their fight against the Pakistani state.Unlike these children, Malala is not a direct victim of Pakistan's misplaced priorities of defence spending at the expense of public education. Instead as a children's rights and education activist, she found herself in the cross hairs of an extremist ideology that has taken root in our society and has paid the ultimate price for her beliefs.

A bullet lodged in her neck is not enough, not for the TTP. If she recovers from her critical condition, the TTP have promised to target her again until she is dead. Her family members, including her father and brothers have been placed on hit lists. Is this what we, as a nation have become?

It is heartening to see the widespread condemnations across political, social and ethnic divides (also see fatwa issued against this attack). The ongoing protests and vigils across the country provide hope that it is still possible to stamp out extremism and intolerance in our society. However, there is a disturbing trend on social network sites with conflating the attack on Malala with the death of non-combatants, women and children in drone attacks carried out by the United States in the FATA region, especially Waziristan.

Case in point, the following tweet:

There is one major underlying problem with this assertion. The United States does not deliberately target the women, children and non-combatants that die as a result of collateral damage from its drone programs, but the Pakistani Taliban did deliberately targeted Malala for assassination. This is not to say that there are not important ethical problems with the drones themselves, ranging from defining a combatant as any military age male in the region, to the targeting of alleged militants in areas of high civilian traffic including mosques, schools and funerals and the assignation of guilt without any due process. But these deaths (one too many) should not be compared to Malala's attack. Intention matters.

In the weeks and months ahead, let's not forget our visceral reaction to this atrocity. This rage needs to be channeled into action against extremism and intolerance within our society, lest this attack becomes another marker, a footnote in the history of our decay. Apathy is no longer justifiable. Silence is no longer an option.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Taking off my Hijab

I have finally done it.

This wasn't an easy decision. I had been struggling with it on a daily basis for the last five years. During the final years of my undergraduate degree, I was constantly reminded of how much my personal beliefs clashed with those of the Islamic orthodoxy. It's hard to reconcile my mix of libertarian, socialist and humanist values with the conservative ideals of the orthodox Muslim community that I inadvertently become a part of as a Hijabi.

At the same time, as the only visible Muslim in my undergraduate program (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) I became the de facto representative of all one billion or so Muslims to my classmates. I was always conflicted between expressing traditional/orthodox Muslim beliefs and my own.

Do I support gay marriage? Yes. Does (traditional/orthodox) Islam? No.

During my first stint in graduate school, I became somewhat of a novelty. Here I was, a brown female visibly Muslim scientist working in a white, male dominated field. I organized academic journal clubs, hosted international researchers and attended conferences both at home and abroad. I was the only Hijabi in my field and I'd like to believe to think that I challenged commonly held stereotypes about Muslim women. There were some advantages to wearing the Hijab in this situation. I was "exotic".  My research got a lot more attention than it normally would. People remembered me. I enjoyed the surprise on people's faces when they realized that I was the fisheries scientist that they were meeting with. But this attention wasn't always positive. When I was interviewing for PhD positions, I was almost always asked why someone from my background was pursuing research in aquatic ecology.

On a personal level, I no longer hold the same religious perspectives that I did when I started wearing the Hijab a decade or so ago. During my undergraduate studies, I took Islamic history classes and was surprised to find out that the practice of veiling in the Arabian peninsula predates Islam and was used as a class identifier. Women belonging to the families at the upper levels of clan and tribal hierarchies wore veils. Furthermore, the two verses in the Quran that are interpreted as an injunction for women to veil themselves, only call for women to dress modestly and do not specifically mention hair. The more I read, the less convinced I became.

 So I've decided to take it off for now. It feels dishonest to represent myself as an orthodox conservative Muslim, when I'm not. I'm tired of representing all Muslims, Islam and dealing with assumptions of both the Muslim community and the general public about who I am and who I should be. For once, I just want to represent myself. My religious belief is not my defining identity, but it is an important one for me. I'm unsure of how to feel Muslim without the Hijab. (How do all the non-Hijabis and Muslim men do it?????).

I don't know what is going to happen. I might put the Hijab on again. I might take it off permanently. For now, I just want to see what life is like without it.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

FYI: The Kaaba is not the center of the world

The purpose of this post is to clarify, hopefully for once and all, the surprisingly prevailing meme among Muslims that the Kaaba is the center of the world. It isn't. Period. Although there exists a barrage of "evidence" from the Internet that supports this claim, this assertion is scientifically untrue for the following reason:

The earth is a three dimensional spheroid (not quite a perfect sphere) consisting of three layers: crust, mantle and core. The crust is the 5-70 km deep solid outer layer on which everything exists. The mantle, 2,890 km deep consists of silicate rocks composed of iron and magnesium which although solid, acts as a slow moving liquid under high temperatures (hence lava). The final layer, the core, has a liquid outer layer (iron, nickel and trace elements) and a solid inner layer (iron and nickel).

                                                      (credit: Science Ramiro)

The Kaaba cannot be the center of the world, because it exists on the surface of a three dimensional structure. For all three dimensional structures, the center is located within the structure itself and not on the surface. The ONLY way for Kaaba to be the center of the world is to assume that the world is flat.

At this point I would also like to address the claim that Kaaba is the center of the world because it's four corners point to the four main cardinal directions (North, South, East and West). The corners of the Kaaba may very well match these cardinal directions. After all the Kaaba is a cube whose eight corners are placed 90 degrees apart from each other and North, East, South and West are separated from each other by 90 degrees as well (in clockwise order). However there is no link with being perfectly aligned with these four directions and being the center of the Earth. As long as the Kaaba continues to exist on the surface of the Earth, it cannot be it's center.

Aside: Although I am aware that the purpose of such memes is to confer scientific legitimacy to religious belief (e.g. if the Kaaba is the center of the world, then Islam IS the only true religion) and provide a sense of accomplishment for Muslim communities that feel shut-out from the economic benefits of globalization, spreading factual untruths do not substantially further these goals. Furthermore, the popularity of these memes among Muslims across different regions and sects (I have heard this claim from both Sunnis and Shiites), even those that have received some form of post-secondary education, highlights the failure in science literacy across Muslim communities at a global scale.

Thursday, April 19, 2012