Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Internet role in Egypt's protests

Internet role in Egypt's protests

9 February 2011 Last updated at 01:00 ET

By Anne Alexander
University of Cambridge

A few days after the fall of Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, a Jordanian newspaper printed a joke apparently doing the rounds in Egypt: "Why do the Tunisian youth 'demonstrate' in the streets, don't they have Facebook?"

Only six days later, protests across Egypt co-ordinated by a loose coalition of opposition groups - many of which are very largely organised through Facebook - seemed to prove this cynicism wrong.

Certainly, the Egyptian government reacted quickly: blocking social media sites and mobile phone networks before pulling the plug on Egypt's access to the internet.

This act of censorship was spectacularly unsuccessful.

Friday 28 January saw literally millions take control of the streets in an epic "Day of Rage". Nor did the blackout cut off news of the demonstrations and stop protesters communicating with each other.

Protest leaders had already agreed to call for demonstrations starting from key mosques, and marchers rallied at Friday prayers before heading for the city centres and key government buildings.

Satellite channels - particularly al-Jazeera - broadcast live coverage all day, constantly updated by telephone reports filed from landlines by its network of correspondents across Egypt.
Broad spectrum

The events of 28 January are particularly important, because they contain crucial clues to understanding the broader relationship between the media - both "new" and "old" - and the mass movement for change which has developed in Egypt over the past few weeks.

Firstly, the fact that an internet and mobile phone blockade failed shows clearly that this movement is not based on the web. In fact, the movement which erupted on 25 January has brought together many groups who have taken to the streets over the past 10 years.

They are varied socially and politically, ranging from workers to bloggers and democracy campaigners, to senior judges, to members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Coptic Christians.

This is the first time they have all demonstrated together, and the first time they have been joined by millions of their fellow citizens. But it is important to understand that this movement builds on a legacy of protest by many different activist networks, most of which are not primarily organised online.

Secondly, it is clear that the protesters use a range of different media to communicate with each other and to get their message across.

I was in Tahrir Square on Sunday: everywhere you look there are mobile phones, hand-written placards, messages picked out in stones and plastic tea cups, graffiti, newspapers and leaflets, not to mention al-Jazeera's TV cameras which broadcast hours of live footage from the square everyday. When one channel of communication is blocked, people try another.

Every mass movement needs spaces where political alternatives can be debated and organisation can take place.

In the 1940s, the last time that Egypt saw mass protests on a similar scale, radical bookshops, underground newspapers and illegal trade union meetings played this role.

For the current generation some of these spaces have been online.

I asked Ahmed, a socialist activist in Tahrir Square, what role he thought the internet was playing in mobilising protest.

"Online organising is very important because activists have been able to discuss and take decisions without having to organise a meeting which could be broken up by the police," he said.
'Offline' political action

Online networks are only relatively "safer" from repression: Khaled Said was dragged out of an internet cafe and beaten to death by policemen last summer.

The Egyptian security forces reportedly recently set up a special unit to monitor internet activists.

But in Egypt today, there are vast numbers of people online, making it far more difficult for the state to track them all.

Even in poor urban and rural areas people can access the internet through shared connections.

The Facebook group set up to protest at Khaled Said's death is "liked" by nearly 600,000 people and was a key organising centre for the current protests.

Mobile phone use has grown exponentially in the past few years, reaching around 80% of the population according to recent figures.

Now footage of protests and police repression filmed on mobile phone cameras is being broadcast back to millions of Egyptians by the satellite channels.

Online organising does not automatically bring people onto the streets. In 2008, a Facebook group calling for a general strike attracted tens of thousands of members but only relatively small street protests took place in Cairo, largely on the university campuses.

Ahmed believes that Egyptian activists have developed sophisticated ways of knowing when online protest will generate offline political action.

"People learn quickly. They look at who is calling for a protest, and if it is someone they know and trust they are much more likely to take part."

They also learn by example. The fall of Mr Ben Ali showed people across the Arab world, and not just political activists, that popular protests could bring down a dictator.

It is that hope, and not the internet, which is driving this movement forward.

Anne Alexander is a Buckley Fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Cambridge

Monday, 7 February 2011

What the Bible Really Says About Sex

New scholarship on the Good Book’s naughty bits and how it deals with adultery, divorce, and same-sex love.

More Ways Than Two

The poem describes two young lovers aching with desire. The obsession is mutual, carnal, complete. The man lingers over his lover’s eyes and hair, on her teeth, lips, temples, neck, and breasts, until he arrives at “the mount of myrrh.” He rhapsodizes. “All of you is beautiful, my love,” he says. “There is no flaw in you.”

The girl returns his lust with lust. “My lover thrust his hand through the hole,” she says, “and my insides groaned because of him.”

This ode to sexual consummation can be found in—of all places—the Bible. It is the Song of Solomon, a poem whose origins likely reach back to the pagan love songs of Egypt more than 1,200 years before the birth of Jesus. Biblical interpreters have endeavored through the millennia to temper its heat by arguing that it means more than it appears to mean. It’s about God’s love for Israel, they have said; or, it’s about Jesus’ love for the church. But whatever other layers it may contain, the Song is on its face an ancient piece of erotica, a celebration of the fulfillment of sexual desire.

What does the Bible really say about sex? Two new books written by university scholars for a popular audience try to answer this question. Infuriated by the dominance in the public sphere of conservative Christians who insist that the Bible incontrovertibly supports sex within the constraints of “traditional marriage,” these authors attempt to prove otherwise. Jennifer Wright Knust and Michael Coogan mine the Bible for its earthiest and most inexplicable tales about sex—Jephthah, who sacrifices his virgin daughter to God; Naomi and Ruth, who vow to love one another until death—to show that the Bible’s teachings on sex are not as coherent as the religious right would have people believe. In Knust’s reading, the Song of Solomon is a paean to unmarried sex, outside the conventions of family and community. “I’m tired,” writes Knust in Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire, “of watching those who are supposed to care about the Bible reduce its stories and teachings to slogans.” Her book comes out this month. Coogan’s book God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says was released last fall.

Conservative critics say that coherence is precisely what the Bible offers on sex. Reading it in the context of the Christian tradition, and with an awareness that the text is “divinely inspired”—that is, given to people directly by God—a believer can come to only one conclusion on questions of sex and marriage. “Sexual intimacy outside of a public, lifelong commitment between a man and woman is not in accordance with God’s creating or redeeming purposes,” explains Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. Liberals may wish the Bible were more permissive on sex, conservative religious scholars say, but it’s not.

These battles over the “right” interpretation are, of course, as old as the Bible itself. In today’s culture wars, the Bible—specifically a “one man, one woman” argument from the Book of Genesis—is employed by the Christian right to oppose gay marriage. This fight, as well as those over the efficacy of abstinence-education schools and intra-denominational squabbles over the proper role of women in church-leadership roles, have led many Americans (two thirds of whom rarely read the Bible) to believe that the Good Book doesn’t speak for them. Knust, a religion professor at Boston University, is also an ordained minister in the American Baptist denomination. Coogan, director of publications at Harvard University’s Semitic Museum, once trained as a Jesuit priest. With their books, they hope to steal the conversation about sex and the Bible back from the religious right. “The Bible doesn’t have to be an invader, conquering bodies and wills with its pronouncements and demands,” Knust writes. “It can also be a partner in the complicated dance of figuring out what it means to live in bodies that are filled with longing.” Here, in summary, are the arguments:

The Bible is an ancient text, inapplicable in its particulars to the modern world.

In the Bible, “traditional marriage” doesn’t exist. Abraham fathers children with Sarah and his servant Hagar. Jacob marries Rachel and her sister Leah, as well as their servants Bilhah and Zilpah. Jesus was celibate, as was Paul.

Husbands, in essence, owned their wives, and fathers owned their daughters, too. A girl’s virginity was her father’s to protect—and to relinquish at any whim. Thus Lot offers his two virgin daughters to the angry mob that surrounds his house in Sodom. Deuteronomy proposes death for female adulterers, and Paul suggests “women should be silent in churches” (a rationale among some conservative denominations for barring women from the pulpit).

The Bible contains a “pervasive patriarchal bias,” Coogan writes. Better to elide the specifics and read the Bible for its teachings on love, compassion, and forgiveness. Taken as a whole, “the Bible can be understood as the record of the beginning of a continuous movement toward the goal of full freedom and equality for all persons.”

Sex in the Bible is sometimes hidden.

Those who follow the gay-marriage debate are likely familiar with certain bits of Scripture. Two verses, from Leviticus, describe sex between men as “an abomination” (in the King James translation). Another, from Romans, condemns men who are “inflamed with lust for one another.” But as Coogan quips, “there is sex in the Bible on every page, if you just know where to look.” A full understanding of biblical teachings on sex requires a trained eye.

When biblical authors wanted to talk about genitals, they sometimes talked about “hands,” as in the Song of Solomon, and sometimes about “feet.” Coogan cites one passage in which a baby is born “between a mother’s feet”; and another, in which the prophet Isaiah promises that a punitive God will shave the hair from the Israelites’ heads, chins, and “feet.” When, in the Old Testament, Ruth anoints herself and lies down after dark next to Boaz—the man she hopes to make her husband—she “uncovers his feet.” A startled Boaz awakes. “Who are you?” he asks. Ruth identifies herself and spends the night “at his feet.”

From this, Coogan makes a rather sensationalistic exegetical move. When he is teaching to college students, he writes, someone inevitably asks about the scene in Luke, in which a woman kisses and washes Jesus’ feet—and then dries them with her hair. Is that author speaking about “feet”? Or feet? “As both modern and ancient elaborations suggest,” Coogan writes, “sexual innuendo may be present.” Scholars agree that in this case, a foot was probably just a foot.

That which is forbidden is also allowed.

The Bible is stern and judgmental on sex. It forbids prostitution, adultery, premarital sex for women, and homosexuality. But exceptions exist in every case, Knust points out. Tamar, a widow without children, poses as a whore and solicits her own father-in-law—so that he could “come into” her. Her desire to ameliorate her childlessness trumps the prohibition against prostitution. Knust also argues—provocatively—that King David “enjoyed sexual satisfaction” with his soulmate, Jonathan. “Your love to me was wonderful,” laments David at Jonathan’s death, “passing the love of women.”

Divorce is permitted in the Old Testament—but it’s forbidden in the Gospels. Jesus didn’t like it: that much is clear. “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery,” he says in the Gospel of Mark. But in Matthew’s telling, Jesus softens his position slightly and leaves a loophole for the husbands of unfaithful wives. “When it comes to sex, the Bible is often divided against itself,” writes Knust.

Accepted interpretations are sometimes wrong.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is, as everyone knows, a story of God’s judgment against homosexuality, promiscuity, and other kinds of illicit sex. Except, Knust argues, it’s not. It’s a story about the danger of having sex with angels. In the biblical world, people believed in angels, and they feared them, for sex with angels led inevitably to death and destruction. In the Noah story, God sends the flood to exterminate the offspring of “the daughters of man” (human women) and “the sons of God” (angels, in some interpretations). Non-canonical Jewish texts tell of angels, called Watchers, who descend to earth and impregnate human women, who produce monstrous children—thus inciting God’s terrible vengeance. God razes Sodom not because its male inhabitants are having sex with each other, as so many contemporary ministers preach, Knust argues, but in part because the men of the town intended to rape angels of God who were sheltered in Lot’s house. And when the Apostle Paul tells women to keep their heads covered in church, he’s issuing a warning against inciting angelic lust: “The angels might be watching,” Knust writes.

Coogan and Knust are hardly the first scholars to offer alternative readings of the Bible’s teachings on sex. What sets them apart is their populism. With provocative titles and mainstream publishing houses, they obviously hope to sell books. But their greater cause is a fight against “official” interpretations. Knust, who was raised in a conservative Christian home, recalls with intensity reading the Bible on the couch with her mother, and—with a mixture of faith and skepticism—talking aloud about what it might mean. With her book, she encourages readers to do the same.

A person alone on her couch with Scripture can also come to some dangerous conclusions: the Bible has, at certain times in history, been read to support slavery, wife-beating, kidnapping, child abuse, racism, and polygamy. That’s why Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, that citadel of Christian conservatism, concludes that one’s Bible reading must be overseen by the proper authorities. Just because everyone should read the Bible “doesn’t mean that everyone’s equally qualified to read it, and it doesn’t mean that the text is just to be used as a mirror for ourselves,” he says. “All kinds of heresies come from people who read the Bible and recklessly believe that they’ve understood it correctly.” As the word of God, he adds, the Bible isn’t open to the same level of interpretation as The Odyssey or The Iliad.

Yet in a democracy, even those who speak “heresies” are allowed a voice. And whether readers accept Coogan’s and Knust’s interpretations, the authors are justified in their insistence that a population so divided over questions of sex and sexual morality cannot—should not—cede the field without exploring first what the Bible actually says. The eminent Bible historian Elaine Pagels agrees. To read the Bible and reflect on it “is to realize that we have not a series of answers, but a lot of questions.”

Saturday, 5 February 2011

What India And Pakistan Have In Common?

 Nuclear arsenal?
No sir,… it is their “political deafness”.
(Even though, India is far better than Pakistan with an excellent record of peaceful and stable democracy, with all its bends and curves, of course! Being an Indian, I am extremely proud of my mother soil, a country that do not use terrorism as its foreign strategy, a country in constant pursuit of harmony within and without, in spite of the occasional speed bumps. )

The recentnews from America on Pakistan’s nuclear capacity is a matter of jubilation for the Pakistan  mob. Today “TheExpress Tribune” carries a thought provoking article by Pervez Hoodbhoy, on this matter. I believe it indeed is an eye-opener at the both sides of the LOC.
I know, permit me this pessimism, his voice will be obscured by that of the euphoric victory cry of the Pakistani crowd: “We have more & we want even more”

But I am sure that a new generation will arise one day to make things change for ever… but do not ask me when?

Re-posting this interesting Pervez Hoodbhoy article:

Pakistan’s nukes: How many are enough?
By Pervez Hoodbhoy
Published: February 5, 2011

The latest news from America must have thrilled many: Pakistan probably has more nuclear weapons than India. A recent Washington Post article, quoting various nuclear experts, suggests that Pakistan is primed to “surge ahead in the production of nuclear-weapons material, putting it on a path to overtake Britain as the world’s fifth largest nuclear weapons power”.

Some may shrug off this report as alarmist anti-Pakistan propaganda, while others will question the accuracy of such claims. Indeed, given the highly secret nature of nuclear programmes everywhere, at best one can only make educated guesses on weapons and their materials. For Pakistan, it is well known that the Kahuta complex has been producing highly enriched uranium for a quarter century, and that there are two operational un-safeguarded plutonium-producing reactors at Khushab (with a third one under construction). Still, the exact amounts of bomb-grade material and weapons are closely held secrets.

But for argument’s sake, let’s assume that the claims made are correct. Indeed, let us suppose that Pakistan surpasses India in numbers – say by 50 per cent or even 100 per cent. Will that really make Pakistan more secure? Make it more capable of facing current existential challenges?

The answer is, no. Pakistan’s basic security problems lie within its borders: growing internal discord and militancy, a collapsing economy, and a belief among most citizens that the state cannot govern effectively. These are deep and serious problems that cannot be solved by more or better weapons. Therefore the way forward lies in building a sustainable and active democracy, an economy for peace rather than war, a federation in which provincial grievances can be effectively resolved, elimination of the feudal order and creating a tolerant society that respects the rule of law.

Pakistanis have long imagined the Bomb as a panacea for all ills. It became axiomatic that, in addition to providing total security, the Bomb would give help us liberate Kashmir, give Pakistan international visibility, create national pride and elevate the country’s technological status. But these promises proved empty.

The Bomb did nothing to bring Kashmiri liberation closer. India’s grip on Kashmir is tighter today than it has been for a long time and is challenged only by the courageous uprising of Kashmiris. Pakistan’s strategy for confronting India — secret jihad by Islamic fighters protected by Pakistan’s nuclear umbrella — backfired terribly after Kargil and nearly turned Pakistan into an international pariah. More importantly, today’s hydra-headed militancy owes to the Kashmiri and Afghan mujahideen who avenged their betrayal by Pakistan’s army and politicians by turning their guns against their former sponsors and trainers.

What became of the claim that pride in the bomb would miraculously weld together the disparate peoples who constitute Pakistan? While many in Punjab still want the bomb, angry Sindhis want water and jobs — and they blame Punjab for taking these away. Karachi staggers along with multiple ethnically motivated killings; Muhajirs and Pakhtuns are locked in a deadly battle. As for the Baloch, they are in open revolt. They resent that the two nuclear test sites — now radioactive and out of bounds — are on their soil. Angry at being governed from Islamabad, some have taken up arms and demand that army cantonments be dismantled. The Bomb was no glue.

Some might ask, didn’t the Bomb stop India from swallowing up Pakistan? The answer is, no. First, an upward-mobile India has no reason to want an additional 180 million Muslims. Second, even if India wanted to, territorial conquest is impossible. Conventional weapons, used by Pakistan in a defensive mode, are sufficient protection. If the mighty American python could not digest Iraq or Afghanistan, there is zero chance for a middling power like India to occupy Pakistan, a country four times larger than Iraq.

It is, of course, true that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons deterred India from launching punitive attacks at least thrice since the 1998 tests. India could do nothing after Pakistan’s secret incursion in Kargil during 1999, the Dec 13 attack on the Indian parliament the same year (initially claimed by Jaish-i-Muhammad), or the Mumbai attack in 2008 by Lashkar-i-Taiba. So should we keep the Bomb to protect militant groups? Surely it is time to realise that conducting foreign policy in this manner will buy us nothing but disaster after disaster.

It was a lie that the Bomb could protect Pakistan, its people or its armed forces. Rather, it has helped bring us to this grievously troubled situation and offers no way out. It is time for Pakistan to drop its illogical opposition to the Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty which, incidentally, would impact India far more than Pakistan. We need fewer bombs on both sides, not more.

The author teaches nuclear and particle physics in Islamabad and Lahore

Published in The Express Tribune, February 5th, 2011.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The Muslim Mary By Jennifer Green, The Ottawa Citizen

The Muslim Mary

If you are looking for the religious text with the most references to Mary, the mother of Jesus, look no further than the Koran, Jennifer Green writes.

By Jennifer Green, The Ottawa Citizen

Islam and Christianity revere Mary above all other women, a human divinely appointed to bear Jesus in a virgin birth. But the Koran mentions Mary 34 times, and names an entire chapter after her -- more than she gets in the Bible, according to Cruden's Complete Concordance. She is the only woman mentioned by name in the Koran, and some scholars say Muslims actually revere her more than Christians do.

"Without a doubt, she is the most spectacular female figure that appears in the whole of the Koran," says Bruce Lawrence, Islamic scholar and author of The Qur'an: A Biography. "That's quite something extra for Christians to have to deal with."

Robert Moynihan, editor of Inside the Vatican magazine, agrees. In one sense, "I would say Muslims have more veneration of Mary -- those who are believing Muslims -- than most Christians today. That's because of the decline of Marion veneration in Christianity."

Pockets of worshippers around the world still pray extensively to Mary, especially among Catholics, but her influence has waned in the last generation. As women struggled to be heard, in church hierarchies and society at large, exhortations to follow Mary's example of chastity and acceptance of God's will started sounding like clerical spin designed to keep the ladies in line.

"She is not out of the picture, but she is not woven into the warp and woof of the faith," Mr. Moynihan said from his office in Rome. "That shattered with the confrontation with the modern world."

Muslim women are not as likely to have submitted Mary to this political litmus test, so they are still comfortable turning to her, he says.

Aynur Gunenc is a 37-year-old Ottawa native who commutes to Montreal every week to complete her master's degree in bioresource engineering at McGill University. She is also a practising Muslim and the mother of two sons.

Like many Muslim women, she looked to Mary while she was pregnant and when went into labour, reading Surah 19, the chapter in the Koran named for the virgin. She also ate dates as Mary did while giving birth to Jesus.

"It is supposed to help for an easy delivery." Did it work? "Yes."

"For us, Mary is a symbol of purity and patience, honesty and believing 100 per cent in God, even when things are difficult. I am full of respect and love for her. I cannot imagine, myself, keeping your faith when you have had a baby without a husband, close to people who disapprove. It would not be bearable.

"If there had been a woman prophet, it would have been Mary. She knew this life is temporary."

Christianity and Islam differ on the fundamental nature of Jesus. For Christians, he is God the Son; for Muslims, he is a prophet who was fully human.

But their accounts around his birth are startlingly similar. Both tell of an elderly couple beseeching God for a child.

In the Bible, Elizabeth and her husband, the temple priest Zachary, become parents to John the Baptist.

In the Koran, the elderly Zakariya pleads to God for a son, and his prayer is answered with the birth of "Yahya" -- John.

Mary's mother, Anna, offers her child-to-be to God, but she is surprised and dismayed to see that she has given birth to a girl, whom she names Mary, or Maryam. She offers the child to God anyway and brings her to the temple, where she comes under the protection of Zakariya.

Every day she has holy visions, and when Zakariya comes with food, he finds angels have already provided for the young girl -- details remarkably similar to the Proto Gospel of James, scripture that is not included in the Bible, but is considered credible by Roman and Eastern Orthodox Catholics.

In the Koran, the angel Gabriel comes to tell Mary she will bear a child, to which she says: "How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?"

He said: "So (it will be): Thy Lord saith, 'that is easy for Me: and (We wish) to appoint him as a Sign unto men and a Mercy from Us': It is a matter (so) decreed.

"So she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place."

In the Koran, there is no Joseph to protect her reputation. Instead, Mary goes off to an unspecified location to bear the child. Once there, she cries out in pain and says she wishes she had died before this.

In response, God provides a stream for water, and dates from a tree above.

When she returns home with the babe in arms, the villagers are horrified. How could she have a child without a husband? Jesus himself speaks to them from her arms, even though he is only a few days old.

Mary is also a bridge between Islam and Christianity, something Pope Benedict XVI touched on in his recent trip to Turkey, where he celebrated Mass at Ephesus, the western town in which Mary is said to have lived her last days.

The Pope pointed to her as an explicit link between Islam and Christianity, stressing that a common devotion to Mary can help bind the two faiths.

Vatican expert and author John Allen also commented on the link: "It is true that Mary is actually referred to more often in the Koran than she is in the New Testament," he told reporters during the pope's visit.

"She has always been a figure of strong popular devotion for Muslims as well as Christians. And it would not at all be surprising if Benedict XVI were to want to build on that in some fashion."
© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen