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The Muse

September 19, 2006

Holy Pope!

You have undoubtedly heard of the recent furious reaction and threats against His Eminence Pope Benedict XVI. I wanted to take a snapshot of what is happening today and hence this post.

Some Turks have suggested that the Pope be arrested. Others want the Pope to convert to Islam. The Vatican has been scrambling like a deer caught in the headlights, and it is sending its envoys to Muslim states to explain the Pope's remarks. Of course, al-Qaeda has said it will take over and destroy Rome, while Iraqi's burnt effigies of His Highness. To make matters worse, it seems that we are nearing the anniversary of the infamous Danish cartoons that were published to a furious Islamic reaction.

While the Pope has apologized (somewhat), people are saying its still not sufficient. Perhaps the worst thing among all these is that the Pope has been lectured on the differences between Islam and radical Islamism by, of all people, Jacques Chirac.

I was trying to find out what exactly he said, and here is an extract of the speech he gave at the University of Regensburg on Tuesday, 12 September 2006. You are free to reach your own conclusions on whether or not his remarks have been taken out of context :

...In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion". According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur'an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness which leaves us astounded, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached". The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. "God", he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death..".

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry...

In case you are wondering, India also had protests. In apna Srinagar, well, all business establishments, government offices, school and colleges remained closed...public transport too remained off the roads.

Please note that I am not being funny here, and no offense is intended. As with all sensitive issues and religion, this has already taken an ugly turn as there are reports that a Somalian nun has been shot down, and the intensity of violence is truly sad and frightening. On a brighter side, Iran seems to be taking the lead in quelling the outcry, and the anger seems to be cooling down.

My only thought on this is simple: If I am secure in my faith, why the hell should I care about what anyone else is saying as long as there is no direct insult or injury to my religion? It is obvious that the Pope was trying to be an academic, and using obscure quotes that historians love. Why bother then? No matter which religion you are from, I am sure that everyone would have been blessed by their God if the protestors had used all this energy and time to help a few poor kids, or provide a few meals to the hungry. To each his own...

Update: On a related note, Idomeneo - a Mozart opera - has been cancelled due to security risks in Berlin, as the show reportedly depicts the severed head of Prophet Mohammed. There has been a lot of discussion on this cancellation and the line between disrespect and free speech. Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel has already said that she thinks the cancellation is a mistake. Is the opera coming back? Let's wait and see.

You should note that this opera also shows severed heads of the Greek god of the sea, Poseidon, Muhammad, Jesus and Buddha [don't ask me, my only experience with operas involves catching a glimpse on PBS while switching channels]

September 06, 2006

Educating our Future

It is a fact that education is the key to solving tomorrow's problems, and it is the key to breaking the vicious "cycle of poverty" that is confronting millions across the world today.

Some sobering facts:

  • An estimated 110 million children -- 60 percent of them girls -- between the ages of six and 11 will not see the inside of a classroom this year. Another 150 million are likely to drop out before completing primary school.
  • Two 1999 World Bank studies found that closing the education gender gap in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa would have led to faster economic growth between 1960 and 1992.
  • Another 63-country study attributed 43 percent of the decline in malnutrition achieved between 1970 and 1995 to more productive farming as a result of increased female education.
  • An extra year of female education can reduce infant mortality by 5 percent to 10 percent.
  • In Africa, children of mothers who receive five years of primary education are 40 percent less likely to die before age five than are children of uneducated mothers
These observations are from a stunning piece on PBS - Back to School - that I caught recently. The show tracks seven children in seven different countries as they go to school. The programme reports that the cost for providing universal education has been estimated at perhaps $7.5 billion to $10 billion per year.

I'll leave you to check out the report yourself, but do look at this map that shows the current status of global literacy in the world. 36% of the world's out of school children are reported to live in South and West Asia.

People better than me are doing what they can to help spread education, and here are two instances that caught my attention recently:

  • The Ramanujam School of Mathematics is run free of charge by Anand Kumar, 33, a local mathematician, and Abhayanand, 52, a deputy director general of police. This school provides housing, coaching and free lessons to 30 underprivileged children from the state of Bihar. Over the past two years, 16 and 22 students, respectively, out of the 30 have graduated from this school and made it to the IIT's. They expect all 30 to get in this time [full article through Rediff here.]
  • At a cost of over $40 million [and counting] Oprah Winfrey, opened the doors to The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. She interviewed more than 3000 applicants herself and decided on her first batch of 150 students. The academy will offer training in leadership skills as well as traditional academic subjects, and will prepare its students to attend the "best universities in the world". [Report on CNN. I know everyone is busy, but do watch this video on Youtube, and go to 2:30 if you want to skip the early parts. I'll tell you, I was jumping with those girls at the end!]