The YouTube was recently made re-accessible and I downloaded a couple of songs — one old and one new, because I enjoy both, then the Gangnam style phenomenon, because I was curious, and then two Ivy League lectures on mathematics and physics, because I needed them.
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Sheffield 1987: It was very cold in winter, and after spending the whole day in front of the computer, I felt I needed some relief not available from my rather taciturn English colleagues. I asked a Bangladeshi friend if there was a place to meet compatriots, and he suggested the improvised mosque near the city centre on Fridays. It was not what I actually had in mind, but decided to go anyway. In front of the little unimpressive house I saw smiling people of all nationalities, and was greeted very cordially by a young Malaysian. Everything was very friendly. Then came the sermon. It was delivered by somebody with a middle-eastern accent. He lamented the plight of the Muslims all over the world, especially in the Middle East, and urged all Muslims to follow the tenets of the religion strictly. Then he became excited, his tone changed and he expressed his disappointment about what he thought was the poor show-up and the irregularity of Muslims in attending the jum’ah prayers. This, according to him, was an extremely serious offence. “People who do not take Islam seriously have forsaken Allah’s religion. They are murtads, and should be killed.”
I was truly frightened, and when I later met my friend, I expressed my feelings clearly, “This man wants people like me to be killed. All I wanted was some opportunity to talk freely, but this man does not believe much in individual freedom.” My friend apologised, but I could see from his face that except for the killing part, he was not in total disagreement with the Arab khatib. He too believed in total submission to a God whose perception has existed since ancient times. This young man was a physicist and an intelligent one too. When conflicts arise with his knowledge of science, an educated Muslim with full faith in his religion tries to reconcile the two first by trying to re-interpret the holy words he learned early in life, or tell himself that no scientific discovery has ever been found to be the last word, and new findings replace older ones all the time. So, if he can wait long enough, something is bound to turn up resolving the contradiction. The less reverent scientist adopts the tenets with more flexibility. He thinks there are excellent prescriptions in the faith he inherited from his parents for a disciplined, healthy, useful lifestyle, and he is somewhat free to take allegorically contents that create consistency problems.
I am not alarmed when I find the head of an engineering university moving around in official scientific symposia with prayer beads in his hands. I have heard that my colleague of younger days, fellow physicist Dr Abdul Wazed Miah also became a quite religious person in later life, despite a somewhat carefree youth. His widow is also perceived as a more dedicated follower of rituals than her principal adversary.
There is nothing wrong in being religious as long as it is a matter of personal belief and poses no threat to others. When I once visited Princeton University I discovered that the main auditorium of the Physics building was being used for some kind of a conference involving Rabbis in black, and some of the top physicists in the world belonging to the same religion, who probably were less enthusiastic about observing all the rituals, but did not mind the cultural identity and historical bond. Nobody can even imagine an Ulema conference in Curzon Hall, not even in Pakistani days. The past history of this poor illiterate country shows more secularism than many western countries and economically and intellectually developed groups.
In the 1970’s, one of the greatest discoveries in physics was the technique of the “renormalization group”. In simple terms it showed how changing the scale of interacting groups modifies the behaviour of a collective system. This technique has been used in areas so far from the laws of physics that a friend of mine, who did his Ph.D. at Cornell under the Nobel discoverer of the RG technique, told me he was looking forward to a paper entitled “Renormalization group (a la ubiquitous “sex”) and the single girl”. With rapidly improving methods of telecommunication and digital storage and processing of information, human groups once isolated as discrete sets in space and time, have now become enormous solid blocks with abstract or virtual common features forming the bonds. While some religious/ethnic groups retained their privileged Brahmin identity through millennia by strictly clinging to a common past despite physical Diaspora, Muslims, with no heritage of permanent elite groups, became and remained divided into small geographical nation units despite common religion and even language, until the new Digital Age made it possible to form new networks across large distances. After decades of defeat, discrimination and humiliation they were ready to hit back at their tormentors – in the Middle East, in Kashmir, in Chechnya, Serbia, Kosovo, the Philippines, Myanmar, and other areas.
Yes, it is theoretically possible that the recent violence shown by many Muslim groups in many countries is entirely an inherent phenomenon. Some Muslim countries are rich, some citizens of these countries are super-rich and have the ability of sending money clandestinely to groups in the oppressed countries seeking historical revenge, or at least world attention to the Muslim plight. But when one notes that there is hardly any meaningful co-operation among Muslim nations, there is an occasion for other thoughts as well.
There are so many loopholes in all stories of terror – real or anticipated. Why would Osama bin Laden, friend of the Bush family and an educated engineer want to kill Muslims and innocent people of uninvolved nationalities? Why did all Muslim nations unanimously vote for a war against Iraq after a half-hearted presentation by Colin Powell showing moving trucks on desert sand and identifying them with no rhyme or reason as weapons of mass destruction? Why was Osama killed immediately after capture? Most disturbingly, why does America support some fanatic Muslim groups fighting secular governments? The American people’s vision of the external world is heavily dependent on the interpretation of a handful of TV channels, and most do not care anyway. The decisions are left to an elite class which has no great love of Muslims, because Muslims do not support elitism. So, is this a complicated game where the fanatics are first created by financial support and then allowed to come to power temporarily to perform a few outrageous sectarian acts and demonstrate the evilness of their faith, while an undemocratic, uncivilized kingdom in the Middle Eastern peninsula remains a permanent staunch ally? “You have your theocratic state, so I can have mine too.”
Why should a smart former student of an expensive public university of Bangladesh go to the USA, hobnob with suspicious people, fall quickly into a trap, and then reportedly refuse consular support from Bangladesh? How can some Muftis and madrassa-educated young men, who are considered too illiterate by the University of Dhaka to enrol there, make bombs with greater confidence than most PhD university professors? What rhetoric can inspire them to carry out skilled attacks that army people need years to learn? The common belief is that there are indoctrination networks with roots outside Bangladesh. But where? Would a rich Sheikh in Qatar feel such an Islami zeal that he would donate a significant part of his income to create unrest and chaos in a country of miskins?
No renormalization group equation is likely to create a strong enough bondage between the poor and the neo-affluent that can be easily traced from end to end by intelligence agencies and endanger the source of funds, unless it is all part of a plan with twists and turns designed to confuse the masses. In 1989 I was bewildered when I got in my mailbox, like all other colleagues, a leaflet from Penguin urging us to buy at a special discount price, not a textbook or monograph on quantum mechanics, laser physics or the renormalization group, but a novel by an author unknown to many at that time. Very unusually, this offer from the publisher came three times. For some obscure reason they had invested a lot of money promoting “The Satanic Verses” in Muslim countries, knowing full well what kind of reaction it would produce.
There are hundreds of questions about 9/11, involving technicalities related to the pattern, timing, symmetry and thermodynamics of the different demolitions, implications of brisk fiscal transactions before and after the event, absence of critical photos such as that of the Pentagon crash, the Bush family’s involvement with the Twin Towers and with the Osama family, the happy, normal lifestyle of the young “suicides”, etc., Many of the conspiracy theories have been successfully debunked. Not all.
Let us assume there was no such conspiracy and that Osama bin Laden was a lunatic who somehow managed to collect a large number of fans in Afghanistan by his oratory or simple lifestyle or whatever. Mass hysteria is a fairly reproducible phenomenon and among the illiterate Taliban it must have been easier to generate than it was during the Third Reich. It is possible that group anger united the Muslim Taliban of Afghanistan for one of the most despicable and idiotic acts of terrorism since August 1945. But the parameters were not quite right. One can see instantaneous mob violence of an irrational kind, e.g. in the streets of Dhaka after an accident, when cars not involved are also vandalized. But then there is a common enemy – the rich, who can afford to have a car, or own a bus. They are considered privileged aliens by the poor vandals. On the other hand, if the act comes out of a protracted plot, it should develop more clear-cut objectives. Hatred that has more time to crystallise focuses on specific targets, because randomness cancels out over time, by another sacrosanct principle of science – ergodicity. Osamas with sinister plans developed over many years should be expected to target Israel, or more Jewish, not Twin Towers with representatives from all countries of the world, including Muslim ones.
The incidents taking place in Bangladesh may or may not be a complex game-theoretic series of moves. If they were part of a purely indigenous plan designed to create some pro-fundamentalist feelings among Bangladeshis to help particular political parties, or a state of anarchy slowing down the war crime trial so that it lasts till the next elections, when another party with more sympathy for the accused might emerge winners, they have not succeeded. But if they are part of an anti-Muslim global game, we need to be more cautious.
In any case it was stupid to react in the way we have done to provocations, external or self-made. There was no need to ban the YouTube for a very silly video. “Innocence” also means naiveté and immaturity, cynically but correctly anticipated by the mischievous producer of the “Innocence of Muslims”. The people of Ramu could have avoided the shameful events by ignoring any clarion call from zealots or deliberate trouble-makers. It is a self-contradiction to claim to have a strong faith, and yet behave as if the Faith is so fragile that it can be damaged by a fake or real image on an individual’s mobile set. It is also strategically unwise to yield easily to fundamentalist forces. Five years ago the editor of a popular daily went in panic to apologize to a cleric, because one of his young, inexperienced staff had drawn a very innocent mildly amusing cartoon, and when the government arrested the hapless boy, the distinguished editor simply abandoned him.
If Muslims sincerely believe that Islam is here to stay, that it prescribes a good, sensible way of living, they must learn to identify situations created accidentally, by themselves or by mischievous external agents that are best handled with tolerance, and possibly with some good humour. The moderate Muslim exists and must prevail, not by counter-threats to the extremists, but by winning them over.
Ahmed Shafee is a physicist.