Review: Human Universe

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It is almost two years ago now, that Professor Brian Cox, treated us to his splendid series The Wonders of Life, which I raved about here at the time. So, it was with a real sense of excitement that I watched the first episode of his brand new series Human Universe.

He began by asking us to consider the significance of the International Space Station. We are the only species on Earth that has managed to leave the ground and head out into space. It is a wondrous technological achievement. What made this possible?

Cox goes to the Ethiopian Highlands and visits a group of Geladas. Science has established that these primates are evolutionary cousins of ours. Around 250,000 years ago, our ancestors first began making spears out of Obsidian – black stone that forms as a result of volcanic activity. Yet why have the Geladas remained in that part of Africa while we humans – who also emerged in Africa – have gone on to colonise the world and even reach out into space?

The key difference, says Cox, is language and writing. Writing meant that knowledge could now be transferred much more simply and widely. It “freed the acquisition of knowledge from the limits of the human memory…[and]… created a cultural ratchet, an exponentiation of the known which ultimately led us to the stars”.

Cox’s lyricism here about writing is surely justified and will surely cause many Muslims to pause for thought, for the very first words of the Qur’an revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in Surah al-Alaq drew the attention of humankind to this very phenomenon:

Recite in the name of your Lord who created -
Created man from a clinging substance.
Recite, and your Lord is the most Generous -
Who taught by the pen -
Taught man that which he knew not.

(Qur’an 96:1-5)

Cox moves swiftly from the construction of spears to agriculture and the building of the earliest cities to space travel. It is a giddying journey. He finishes back with the astronauts of the International Space Station. While waiting in Kazakhstan for them to arrive back on Earth in their Soyuz module, Cox calculates mathematically exactly how the Soyuz module will first slow its entry into Earth’s atmosphere and then let gravity do its work.  It is all based on two equations that we owe to Sir Isaac Newton.

Newton was one of humankind’s true geniuses. Cox reminds us that when Newton was asked about his outstanding contribution to our store of knowledge, he famously said he had not done this by himself but had stood “on the shoulders of giants”. People like Galileo, Descartes and others all the way back to Euclid and the Ancient Greeks.

The first episode was entitled “Apeman, Spaceman” and is available to watch on the BBC iPlayer for another 29 days.

 

 

 

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An Enviable Legacy…

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For the first time in months I have a weekend off work and have been looking through some of my book collection for inspiration and to stave off boredom.

Back in 1985, the physicist Freeman Dyson was invited to Aberdeen University to deliver the Gifford Lectures. The Gifford Lectures had been established almost a hundred years previously in 1888 by the jurist Adam Lord Gifford.

Freeman Dyson’s lectures from 1985 were soon after compiled together and published under the title “Infinite In All Directions” and as the author states in the preface, they were his excuse to “talk about everything in the universe.”

At the beginning of the book, Dyson introduces the readers to this awesome passage from the Last Will and Testament of Adam Gifford (1887) in which he talks about who should be invited to deliver the Gifford Lectures:

“The Lecturers appointed shall be subjected to no test of any kind, and may be of any denomination whatever or of no denomination, of any religion or way of thinking, or as is sometimes said, they may be of no religion, or they may be so-called sceptics or agnostics or free-thinkers, provided only that they be reverent men, true thinkers, sincere lovers of and earnest inquirers after truth.”

Aside from the usual Victorian bias towards ‘men’, this is such a marvellous aspiration and legacy to have left behind in a Will. The Gifford Lectures website contains an archive of the lectures delivered going all the way back to 1888, with many of them being available to be read online for free in their entirety.

An enviable legacy indeed.

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Sayeeda Warsi and the Selling Out of Palestine

baroness-warsi

Lady Warsi was asked yesterday about the exact moment she made up her mind to resign from the Tory-led government over its policy (or perhaps more accurately, non-policy) on Gaza. She replied:

“There were many moments. Every time a school was bombed. Every time you saw a picture of Gaza with no lights at night. Every time a child about the age of my own children was killed. The moment when young boys playing football on the beach were suddenly there no longer.”

It was a heartfelt and powerful response from a gutsy lady who has repeatedly shown over the years that she is nobody’s poodle.

I first met Sayeeda Warsi in 2006, just a year after she had very narrowly failed to win the Dewsbury seat in the 2005 General Election. She had come down to East London to attend a Muslim event. Sitting next to her for dinner I was impressed at how outspoken she was in her comments. She came across as bright and sassy.

The last time I saw her was just a few months ago. I was on a train to Reading on my way to fix an issue with a Cisco switch there (we had lost management access to it so I couldn’t do it remotely). While on the train I heard an unmistakeable Yorkshire accent just behind me across the aisle. I peered over, and sure enough, it was Lady Warsi chatting away with a civil servant. She motioned me over and explained that she was on her way (to Bristol I think) to talk about women and faith. It was part of her brief as a Minister in the Foreign Office. We chatted for a bit. I expressed sympathy for the attacks she had suffered a couple of years ago when some Tory big guns were clearly out to boot her off her then position as the Co-Chair of the Conservative Party. I wrote about those attacks here on this blog at the time. She said that those attacks had now died down after they had managed to get her demoted. We then discussed some personal matters we had in common.

So, it was heartening to see her speak out so clearly and forcefully yesterday saying that the government’s position on Gaza was “morally indefensible.” It is absolutely inconceivable that the Prime Minister David Cameron would have responded in the mealy mouthed way he has to date about the horror in Gaza if it had been over two thousand Israelis that had been killed instead of Palestinians. The government’s response to the situation in Gaza has been transparently racist.

The good news is that Lady Warsi’s resignation has led to other politicians now coming out much more vocally to distance themselves from Cameron’s shameful response to Gaza. The Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, has called for an arms embargo on Israel. Closer to London, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has sided with Lady Warsi, and has said he agrees with her call to ban arms licenses to Israel.

Lady Warsi was arguably able to stand up to the government because she is not dependent on the government for her career. Prior to being ennobled in 2007, she was a successful solicitor.

The contrast with some of today’s Muslim organisations is clear. I mentioned here a couple of years ago how some Muslim organisations had effectively sold out their independence in exchange for grants from the government. They had full-time ‘Chief Executives’ whose salaries were being paid by the government. Some of their leading figures sent messages to their members about how excited they were about meeting the Queen. One of them even posted a twitter message just two weeks ago (now apparently deleted) asking why Hamas were firing rockets at Israel. It could have been straight out of an Israeli propaganda manual: do not focus on actions of the oppressor but ask ridiculous questions of the oppressed. Others have re-branded themselves as ‘Counter Extremist’ specialists and have begun launching unfair attacks on the MCB. How desperately sad.

They should take a leaf out of Lady Warsi’s book and go and get themselves a real career so that they do not need to debase themselves in such a shameful way.

On a more positive note, the demonstrations for Gaza over the past few weeks have been incredible. It has been so inspiring to see a younger generation of Muslims actively using social media to rally others and demand that the government adopt a more even-handed and just policy.

After Britain so disgracefully signed away the land of the Palestinians to the Jews in the infamous Balfour Declaration – it is the very least that we could do.

Posted in Extremism, Islam, islamophobia, Zionism | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Is Judaism The Most Racist of the World’s Great Monotheistic Religions?

Richard Dawkins famously said that:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

A lot of the world’s religions have some extremely unpleasant characteristics (in addition to many very pleasant ones I should hasten to add).

Is Judaism the most racist of the world’s three great monotheistic religions?

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The Right To Renounce Faith

Apostasy

Last month there was huge global news coverage of the case regarding a Sudanese lady that had been sentenced to death for converting to Christianity. I commented on the grossly warped version of ‘justice’ at the time and argued that:

“…Ultimately, the issue of apostasy is part of a far wider question that much of the Muslim world is still struggling with – how to reconcile traditional Islamic doctrine with modern notions of human rights, including freedom of speech, freedom of association and sexual freedoms.”

Yesterday, The Economist looked at this issue again and their article can be read here.

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“There is no life without Jihad”

Some British Muslims who have travelled to Syria to take part in the ISIS group currently battling the regimes in Syria and Iraq have appeared in a video encouraging other British Muslims to follow in their footsteps.

The video entitled “There is no life without jihad” can be viewed on YouTube as per the above link but it may not be there for much longer as the BBC reports that the UK government is working to have the link taken down.

The voices of a number of Muslims with clearly British accents can be heard encouraging Muslims to leave their ‘big houses and fast cars’ to take part in what they describe as a ‘jihad’.

They appear to regard the territory that ISIS are said to control as a ‘Khilafah’ and one of them is heard sending a message to the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi saying “the hope of this ummah is on your neck.”

There have appeared a number of groups amongst Muslims in recent decades seeking to re-establish the Khilafah and what they refer to as the ‘rule of Allah’.

It is easy to imagine the thrill for someone who is young and idealistic and wants to help overthrow cruel despots in other parts of the world by joining groups like ISIS. In practice though, these groups have invariably demonstrated huge intolerance of others who are not in their group and their actions are often synonymous with terrible human rights abuses.

 

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Birmingham’s al-Hijrah School Governing Body – All Sacked

 

 

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Andrew Gilligan of the Sunday Telegraph has been keeping an extremely close eye on events in Birmingham in relation to the alleged ‘Trojan Horse schools plot’ and has written extensively about events there in recent weeks.

Yesterday, Gilligan informed us that the entire Governing Board of the al-Hijrah Islamic school has now been disbanded by Birmingham Council following concerns about alleged mismanagement and the “potential diversion of public funds paid to run the school”.

According to Gilligan:

“…In a letter to al-Hijrah’s sacked chairman of governors, Waseem Yaqub, seen by The Sunday Telegraph, the council’s director of children’s services, Peter Hay, said: “The time for debate is over. The children in al-Hijrah need governors that govern the school properly.”…Mr Yaqub, the sacked chairman of governors at al-Hijrah, was seconded as a “consultant” to Saltley School at the same time as its respected non-Muslim head teacher, Balwant Bains, was removed, though he denies any involvement in Mr Bains’s departure.”

“Until around 2012, according to sources close to the school, the council paid only a peppercorn rent to the Al-Hijrah Trust, of £1 a year, for the use of the school buildings. Then, however, the rent was raised to £300,000 a year, above market value for Victorian premises in a run-down area of Birmingham. School sources said they were not told how the figure had been reached. Despite the huge sums extracted from the council, however, the school has a deficit of around £400,000, according to Mr Hay’s letter. “

““The council were concerned about this large amount of money demanded for rent and were not sure where it was going,” said one person closely connected with the school. “It certainly wasn’t all going to the school – it has a massive deficit. It is possible that it was going to Tahir [Alam’s] training academy, although I cannot prove that.”

“An official audit commissioned by the council found “a number of concerns about the way governors manage financial matters,” according to Ofsted. Another person closely involved in the issue said: “We are investigating the worrying possibility that the entire Trojan Horse plot was subsidised by public money.”

“Al-Hijrah has been visited by Ofsted five times in the past fourteen months, with the inspectors growing more deeply concerned each time. Mr Yaqub took unsuccessful legal action to prevent publication of their reports.

“At the school on Friday, two burly security guards were stationed outside the main entrance to the school building. The Sunday Telegraph was told not to take any pictures and was sworn at by the guards.

“Mr Yaqub described the action against the school as a “witch-hunt” based on racism and said that he had received no formal notification that it had been taken over, something the letter from Mr Hay appears to contradict.

“Mr Yaqub said that the rent to the Al-Hijrah Trust was paid “under a formal written tenancy agreement of which the local authority is aware”. He strongly denied mismanagement or dishonesty and said none of the rent had been paid to the training academy or to Mr Alam, who he said was no longer involved in the trust.”

The tale of the alleged “Trojan Horse schools plot” has been an extremely murky one with lots of very serious allegations being made but very few smoking guns being found to date.

The removal of the governors of al-Hijrah school is an interesting new development though. I have had very worrying personal dealings in the past with an individual who is now on the (sacked) board of governors and it horrifies me to think that he had anything to do with the receipt of huge amounts of public money.

Let’s hope that Birmingham Council are able to investigate fully and swiftly any allegations of possible financial impropriety.

 

Posted in Extremism, Government | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments