Equality, Shmequality

Rick Santorum had this to say a few days ago:

“Where do you think the concept of equality comes from?” Santorum said on the campaign trail last Friday (Jan. 20). “It doesn’t come from Islam. It doesn’t come from the East and Eastern religions. It comes from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

This resulted in the mouthpiece of the Hindu American Foundation calling Santorum’s comments bigotry.

Now I am no fan of Santorum (link NSFW), but is equality really such an important concept in Hinduism? Do Dalits and Brahmins drink wine from the same cup? Do the Hindu religious texts and figures teach Brahmins and Shudras to marry each other?

Jains, Sikhs, Muslims and Buddhists were also outraged according to the article.

Does religion really teach equality of all? Seems to me that all these religious spokesmen doth protest too much. Their religions preach equality. Except when they don’t (which is often).

iTunes U and Podcasts

Since I got my iPhone, I have started listening to podcasts and courses put online by universities.

Specs listed the podcasts she listens to and Razib also mentioned a podcast recently, so I thought I should list the stuff I have been listening to on my iPhone and may be Razib and others can chime in with some suggestions.

Here’s my current list of podcasts:

In addition, here are some courses and lectures on iTunes U and as podcasts that I have been listening to or that are in my listening queue:

What do you recommend?

Rome: Day 2

Travelogue of our trip to Italy. This covers our second day in Rome when we visited the Vatican and wandered about Rome.

On the second day, we got up a little late due to jetlag and lack of sleep on the plane. After breakfast, we took the bus to Vatican City. When we got to Saint Peter’s Square, we saw a really long line get into Saint Peter’s Basilica.

There were a number of tourist guides there and we decided to become part of one group tour of the Vatican. Usually we don’t like being part of a group tour since we like to do things at our own pace. We do often get the audio guides at museums. However, here we saved some time waiting in line. Also, if we had gone to the Vatican Museums by ourselves, we might have spent the whole day in there while the guide spent almost three hours with us in the museums. Did I mention that our tour guide was American?

First, we walked around Vatican City to go to the Vatican museums. At the end of the museum tour, we went into the Sistine Chapel. There, the security people were trying to get the tourists not to take pictures or talk loudly. Also, one had to have shoulders and knees covered. Since photography was not allowed, I did not take any photos of the Sistine Chapel frescoes by Michelangelo. After that, we went into Saint Peter’s Basilica.

Here are some photographs in Vatican City. More photos are on the map in the end.

Water Fountain
At Vatican Museums
Ceiling Vatican Museums
Painting on ceiling
A room
In Vatican Museums
Above door
Map room
Ceiling art
Ceiling art
Above door
Map of Venice
More art
Outside Sistine Chapel
In the Vatican
St Peters basilica
St Peters
Statue in St Peters
In St Peters
St Peter's Basilica

Then we went back to Rome to see the Pantheon. There was of course some delicious gelato near the Pantheon that we ate.

Our next stop was Piazza Navona, a city square with some beautiful fountains and architecture.

On our way back, Michelle wanted to play with the pigeons around the Basilica of Saint Mary Major. After some running after and watching pigeons, we had dinner at Trattoria Monti which had some great game food for very reasonable prices.

More photographs are on the map below under the fold.

Continue reading “Rome: Day 2”

Christmas Photos

Some photographs from Christmas lights and events around Georgia.

In keeping with the title of the blog, here are some photographs from last Christmas.

Let’s start with Atlanta: Midtown (Atlantic Station) and Buckhead (Pink Pig train at Lenox).

Atlantic Station train
Atlantic Station Christmas tree
Lenox Pink Pig ride

And some photos from the Lake Lanier Islands Magical Nights of Lights.

Nativity play

The day we went to Stone Mountain, the weather wasn’t very nice. Their laser light show could not be seen because of fog.

Stone Mountain 1
Stone Mountain 2

The Christmas lights at Callaway Gardens.


Torture, Prosecution, CIA and Public

Torture is what keeps me up, it’s what’s on my mind. I am afraid that it’s a policy that while discarded now will return another day as the country is almost equally divided on its use.

I have been knee deep in torture recently. No, I haven’t been tortured nor have I tortured anyone. I have been reading about torture. I recently wrote about torture in my review of Taxi to the Dark Side where I collected links to my previous writings on the subject as well. I also discussed US public opinion about torture a few months ago.

With the recent release of the OLC torture memos, the torture debate has restarted again. There have been calls for prosecuting those who carried out the torture and/or those who made the policy decisions. Obama has called for looking forward instead of backward (imagine if every criminal had the same attitude). Senator McCain is against investigating torture or prosecuting anyone.

I am generally of the opinion that if the state must fall it must fall but we should get to the truth. However, after reading a lot about torture I have a distinct feeling that there is not going to be any prosecutions and even if there are, the chances of acquittal are very high. I find myself agreeing with most of the points Tyler Cowen makes against prosecution. The public opinion just isn’t there against torture (more on this in a bit). Hence, I believe it is more important to build a consensus against torture than to prosecute, as Matt Yglesias argues.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do anything. For starters, we should make sure that the architects of the torture policy, like George Bush, Dick Cheney, David Addington, John Yoo, Jay Bybee, etc. are kept far from the levers of power. Therefore, I support efforts to impeach Jay Bybee, former head of OLC and currently a judge on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Also, we need a commission or some other mechanism to make public all the details about torture as practiced during the Bush era.

There are some who think that it was the higher echelons of the Bush administration that was responsible for torture. I think it’s clear now that this is wrong. Democratic leaders might not have ordered the torture (or “enhanced interrogation”) but some of them knew about it and some even approved. Similarly, other Western governments or their intelligence agencies were complicit, directly or indirectly, in renditions, torture, black sites, or sharing intelligence.

While there were courageous people in the military, government and civil society who opposed torture and did try to stop such practices, there were also a lot of others, lawyers, military commanders, CIA personnel and others, who were fully complicit in requesting, approving and implementing torture. I am about to finish reading Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side and it makes the case in detail. See, for example, former CIA counterterrorism official Michael Scheuer’s response or Condi Rice’s defense of imperial powers for the President.

That’s why I found the case of abolishing the CIA to be worth considering. CIA has a history of illegal activities (see Family Jewels and Church Committee Report and Iran-Contra report). Spencer Ackerman argues against abolition of CIA, but I found Quincy Adams and Matt Yglesias more convincing.

As for arguments about torture and its efficacy, I think torture is wrong regardless of whether it can yield any useful information or not. It is possible for torture to extract true information, though typically there’ll be lots of false confessions as well. However, it’s inhuman and morally wrong and that’s why we shouldn’t do it. As Obama said recently:

waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it is torture. […] And that’s why I put an end to these practices. I am absolutely convinced that it was the right thing to do — not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees who were subjected to this treatment, but because we could have gotten this information in other ways — in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are.

I agree wholeheartedly with Kevin Drum’s reasons for opposing torture.

I don’t care about the Geneva Conventions or U.S. law. I don’t care about the difference between torture and “harsh treatment.” I don’t care about the difference between uniformed combatants and terrorists. I don’t care whether it “works.” I oppose torture regardless of the current state of the law; I oppose even moderate abuse of helpless detainees; I oppose abuse of criminal suspects and religious heretics as much as I oppose it during wartime; and I oppose it even if it produces useful information.

The whole point of civilization is as much moral advancement as it is physical and technological advancement. But that moral progress comes slowly and very, very tenuously. In the United States alone, it took centuries to decide that slavery was evil, that children shouldn’t be allowed to work 12-hour days on power looms, and that police shouldn’t be allowed to beat confessions out of suspects.

On other things there’s no consensus yet. Like it or not, we still make war, and so does the rest of the world. But at least until recently, there was a consensus that torture is wrong. Full stop. It was the practice of tyrants and barbarians. But like all moral progress, the consensus on torture is tenuous, and the only way to hold on to it — the only way to expand it — is by insisting absolutely and without exception that we not allow ourselves to backslide. Human nature being what it is — savage, vengeful, and tribal — the temptations are just too great. Small exceptions will inevitably grow into big ones, big ones into routine ones, and the progress of centuries is undone in an eye blink.

Let’s look at recent polls about torture and investigation.

In the NBC/WSJ poll, 50% disapprove of Obama ordering the closing of Guantanamo detainee prison and 53% disapprove of the release of the OLC torture memos. 53% think that the Bush administration used torture while 30% say that they didn’t. 46% say that the harsh interrogation helped the US extract information while 42% think it hurt the US by undermining its moral authority. And only 33% want a criminal investigation of the Bush torture policy.

In the Washington Post/ABC News poll, 53% support Obama’s release of the torture memos. 48% think there are cases when torture should be considered and 51% support an investigation of the treatment of detainees.

In a Gallup poll, 51% favor an investigation of harsh interrogation techniques used by the Bush administration, but 55% think such treatment of terrorism suspects was justified.

30%, seem to agree with Cheney’s position that the ends justified the means and that no investigation is necessary. Nearly as many (25%), though, would appear to side with many congressional Democrats who say the techniques should not have been used and an investigation is warranted. Twenty-three percent think the techniques were warranted yet still favor an investigation, while 10% think the methods should not have been used but nevertheless oppose an official inquiry.

66% of Democrats favor an investigation while only 48% of independents and 37% of Republicans do. 39% of Democrats think use of harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects were justified while 55% of independents and 80% of Republicans agree.

In the New York Times/CBS News poll, 37% say waterboarding and other aggressive techniques are sometimes justified to extract information from a suspected terrorist while 46% disagree. Interestingly, only 16% of African Americans think they are justified. Only 71% consider waterboarding to be torture. 34% want Congress to investigate torture and warrantless wiretapping. 47% want to keep the Gitmo prison while 44% want to close it.

As you can see, there is some variation in these surveys. Nate Silver and Andrew Gelman try to explain why that is. While support for torture investigation varies from 33% to 51% in the various polls, the other numbers are a bit more consistent. The country seems to be almost equally divided on whether the torture memos should have been released and whether the Gitmo prison should be closed. Those who think torture is sometimes or always justified seem to vary from 37% to 55% while opposition to torture never reaches majority status either.

Looking at my previous writing on public opinion about torture, there doesn’t seem to have been any big change in public opinion in the US.

Finally, Pew did a survey about torture breaking down the numbers by religion, attending church, political party, etc.

Often justified Sometimes justified Rarely justified Never justified
Total US 15% 34% 22% 25%
White evangelicals 18% 44% 17% 16%
White non-Hispanic Catholics 19% 32% 27% 20%
White mainline Protestants 15% 31% 22% 31%
Unaffiliated 15% 25% 29% 26%
Attend religious services at least weekly 16% 38% 19% 25%
Attend religious services monthly 18% 33% 23% 23%
Attend religious services seldom or never 12% 30% 27% 26%
Republican 15% 49% 21% 14%
Independent 19% 35% 23% 19%
Democrats 12% 24% 22% 38%

Only a quarter of Americans are against torture under all conditions. This is astounding, but even worse is that only one of six white evangelicals and one in seven Republicans thinks torture is never justified. Even if we are generous and add up the numbers for those who think torture is rarely justified to the “never justified” ones, only 47% of Americans are against the use of torture. But only one-third of white evangelicals and 35% of Republicans are opposed to torture. I guess we could call these people the American Taliban.

While the Pope has come out against torture, among his followers American White Catholics a bare majority believes torture is often or sometimes justified. I wonder if any priest will deny communion to these torture-supporters.

The only groups (among those listed) with a majority who think torture is never or rarely justified are White mainline Protestants (53%), the unaffiliated (55%), those who seldom or never attend religious services (53%) and Democrats (60%). It’s disappointing that even these numbers are so low.

It can be argued that this support of torture by the religious is not a result of their being religious but rather due to the fact that those who are more religious are more likely to be Republicans in the US. I would agree with that, however, if religion can’t even get the deeply religious to oppose such an inhuman practice as torture, what use is such religion?

Eid and Rosh Hashanah

Eid Mubarak and Shanah Tovah!

Here in Atlanta, Eid is today. We wish everyone a very happy Eid. Eid Mubarak to you!

The Jewish new year started at sundown last night. So Eid and Rosh Hashanah are on the same day. Shanah Tovah, everyone!

Inheritance and Islam

As parents, we decided that we needed to write a will to decide who we wanted to be guardians for our child and how we wanted our estate distributed. The Islamic laws were not what we wanted.

As parents, we decided that we needed a will. Therefore, some net surfing and searching was warranted in the name of research.

Looking at Georgia law spouse and children share equally if there is no will. In case of no spouse or children, parents are considered 2nd degree relatives, siblings 3rd degree and grandparents 4th degree.

Upon the death of an individual who is survived by a spouse but not by any child or other descendant, the spouse is the sole heir. If the decedent is also survived by any child or other descendant, the spouse shall share equally with the children, with the descendants of any deceased child taking that child’s share, per stirpes; provided, however, that the spouse’s portion shall not be less than a one-third share;

The problem for us here was that with a minor child, too much of the estate might be tied up until she’s older.

Of course, I had to search for what Islamic wills were out there and I found one from a major Atlanta mosque. When I first looked at the document, it just said that the distribution of the estate should be according to Shariah, which didn’t make any sense since who was supposed to figure that out. Now the document goes in some detail. However, I was surprised by this section:

I direct and ordain that any heir, declared as non-Muslim at the time of my death, be disregarded and disqualified in the application of Section B of Article V.

So anyone “declared as non-Muslim” can’t inherit from a Muslim. I decided to check some online Islamic sites. According to Sunnipath, a Muslim can’t inherit from a non-Muslim and a non-Muslim can’t inherit from a Muslim. However, a bequest can be made either way. The Salafi site Islam Q&A also has some information where they restrict even the bequest somewhat.

According to the Twelver Shia website, a Muslim can inherit from a non-Muslim but a non-Muslim cannot inherit from a Muslim.

This whole approach to inheritance is communitarian instead of individualistic. It looks like the community has major rights on the estate since these rulings make it difficult for the estate to leave a particular religious community regardless of how closely related some members of different communities might be.

There is another problem with this approach. Who decides who’s a Muslim or not? Islam Q&A provides a hint:

If you believe that the person who does not pray is a kaafir and apostate – which is the correct view, and Allaah knows best – it is not permissible for a kaafir to inherit anything from a Muslim’s wealth, or for a Muslim to inherit anything from a kaafir’s wealth.

This same principle might be applied by the same group to any sects/groups they consider heretic or non-Muslim. In that direction lies madness in my view.

SunniPath has guidelines on preparing one’s will according to Islamic principles, which contains this odd tidbit:

It is worth remembering here that along with one’s written Will, one should have a separate document stipulating the number of unperformed prayers, missed fasts, unpaid Zakat, unperformed Hajj, any other religious obligations and debts payable to the servants of Allah.

One must strive in accomplishing these obligations in one’s life, and make the necessary amendments to the document whenever an obligation is fulfilled. For example: One had 500 unperformed prayers. In such a case one should stipulate this in the document. Thereafter, whenever, a prayer is made up, it should be deducted from the total of 500. This “important” document should be attached with the Will in order to let the relatives know of one’s obligations and liabilities after one’s death.

While searching on inheritance information, I found this software that can calculate inheritance shares according to Islamic laws. That’s cool.

I would recommend that you read Quran’s verses about inheritance law too.

From what is left by parents and those nearest related there is a share for men and a share for women, whether the property be small or large,-a determinate share. But if at the time of division other relatives, or orphans or poor, are present, feed them out of the (property), and speak to them words of kindness and justice. Let those (disposing of an estate) have the same fear in their minds as they would have for their own if they had left a helpless family behind: Let them fear Allah, and speak words of appropriate (comfort). Those who unjustly eat up the property of orphans, eat up a Fire into their own bodies: They will soon be enduring a Blazing Fire! Allah (thus) directs you as regards your Children’s (Inheritance): to the male, a portion equal to that of two females: if only daughters, two or more, their share is two-thirds of the inheritance; if only one, her share is a half. For parents, a sixth share of the inheritance to each, if the deceased left children; if no children, and the parents are the (only) heirs, the mother has a third; if the deceased Left brothers (or sisters) the mother has a sixth. (The distribution in all cases (’s) after the payment of legacies and debts. Ye know not whether your parents or your children are nearest to you in benefit. These are settled portions ordained by Allah; and Allah is All-knowing, Al-wise. In what your wives leave, your share is a half, if they leave no child; but if they leave a child, ye get a fourth; after payment of legacies and debts. In what ye leave, their share is a fourth, if ye leave no child; but if ye leave a child, they get an eighth; after payment of legacies and debts. If the man or woman whose inheritance is in question, has left neither ascendants nor descendants, but has left a brother or a sister, each one of the two gets a sixth; but if more than two, they share in a third; after payment of legacies and debts; so that no loss is caused (to any one). Thus is it ordained by Allah; and Allah is All-knowing, Most Forbearing.

My thoughts about this system of dividing up the estate is that it requires very specific social conditions, with a communitarian ethos where women are generally taken care of by men they are related to. In an individualistic society, this distribution leaves women in a bad situation. As parents of a girl, we are particularly sensitive to these issues.

Finally, the most important thing in our will (and the real reason we wrote one) is the issue of guardianship of our daughter in case both of us die. As immigrants living far away from parents and siblings, this was a difficult problem. We won’t want to remove her from familiar surroundings of the US but at the same time we couldn’t leave her with someone who’s not closely related. In the end, we decided that only her grandparents, uncles and aunts could be trusted.