Jan 16, 2019

Government Shutdown Affects Grant Programs

Federal workers are not the only ones missing paychecks, the partial government shutdown has also affected academic communities, delaying funding and some travel cancellations as well. Today, I sent an e-mail to the National Science Foundation inquiring about funding, I received an automatic reply from NSF:

Due to a lapse in government funding, most National Science Foundation staff will not be receiving or responding to email until further notice. We sincerely regret this inconvenience and look forward to responding to you once we reopen.
Then a few minutes later, I received a follow up e-mail from the person in charge:
Because of the lapse in appropriations (aka, "a shutdown"), we are unable to respond to your message. Deadlines are unaffected by the shutdown.
So, here you go. You have some specific questions regarding funding and application, but you can't get an answer due to government shutdown.
I thought I should write this post in case anyone wonders whether he/she should submit the application on time or not, deadlines, according to the federal employee of NSF are unaffected by the partial shutdown.

Jan 6, 2019

Taking an Oath on the Qur'an is Not a Good Idea

While I believe everyone should have the right to use any text – holy or non-holy – for swearing-in, I cannot condone the fact that using any type of religious text for taking oath of office is latent prejudice against those who are atheists, secularists, and those who are not followers of Abrahamic religions.

Yesterday, I read on the news that Rashida Tlaib, the newly-elected Democratic Congresswoman from Michigan, took her oath on the Qur'an, a copy that is said to be owned by Thomas Jefferson. Christian lawmakers have been using the Bible to swear in to the Congress for years, which has become a tradition. Recently, Jews have been doing so too, but using the Qur'an for swearing-in Congress seems a bit odd, not only that the book fundamentally opposes to American/secular values and even Christian traditions, it does not warrant our contemporary moral concerns.

Why should a lawmaker swear in on the book that considers women inferior or unequal to men? Is it not ironic when a woman who is not considered equal to a man and whose most basic rights are inconsistent and disregarded by the book she is taking an oath on? Jefferson's version of the Qur'an is not different from the ones that are available in public. The fact that Jefferson owned a copy of the Qur'an does not mean he glorified it or interested in Islam. I know a lot of people who have copies of the Qur'an who are not Muslims. I have read Mein Kampf two times, first in Farsi when I was very young and then I read it in college. I read it not because I was interested in Hitler's views; I rather read it to remind myself of an evil mind that can easily grow in our modern day.

In the same way, given the fact that the Qur'an is the primary source of Islamic jurisprudence, Jefferson was obviously curious to learn about it and its influence on some legal system. It is not even known if he really read it. It is only said that he owned a copy, which is still available at the Library of Congress. He did not leave any note on it though. So, we cannot conclude that he really read the Muslim holy book.

So, why Thomas Jefferson owned a Qur'an? The answer is simple. He was a curious man about everything, world religions, in general, and Islam, in particular. At the time he bought a copy of the Qur'an, he was a 22-year-old law student in Williamsburg, Virginia. His curiosity of reading the Qur'an was intended to understand Islamic law (particularly the Ottoman law) and how to deal with Muslims, which was a central issue among Christians as they gradually came into contact with the Ottoman Empire. In both Europe and North America, Christian groups, such as Protestants grew interest in reading the Qur'an not because they were interested in Islam, but they were concerned about Muslims encroachment on European territory.

Christians in the West until recently refused to recognize Islam as a religion. The word "Islam" did not exist in Western language dictionaries up until 1816. Though the Islamic holy book was translated by German philologists as early as 16th century, Islam was not recognized by the Western world until the 20th century despite Muslim presence in the West as early as 16th century. There was no name for the faith; instead, Muhammadan, or Mahometanism were used for Muslim as the followers of Muhammad. Medieval Christians viewed Islam as a heresy of Christianity. In Dante's Inferno, both Muhammad and his cousin and son-in-low Ali are placed in hell. They are depicted as bloodthirsty and vicious men. Mohammad's body split from groin to chin and Ali's face cleft from top to bottom (Inf. 28.22-33; also see The Inferno of Dante Alighieri, p. 191).

In fact, Jefferson himself criticized Islam as “stifling free enquiry," in his political debates. He also held a similar view against Catholicism. He was not a very religious person, which means he did not have much respect for fairy tales in the Bible. The Qur'an is not exceptional; it contains the same superstitious elements. Jefferson despised them. He took scissors in hand and excised all pages referencing to miracles. He cut and pasted the remaining pages together and created an abridged Bible. He thought of Jesus as an inspiring moral teacher, rather than Devine being. If he had considered the Qur'an as an inspiring moral source, he may have expurgated it from superstitions too, which I would doubt there would be more than a few pages left.

It is not only wrong and misguided; it is ridiculous that some liberals are romanticizing Jefferson's association with Islam, to the degree that they have limited the scope of constructive criticism of Islam. They place Islam beyond criticism. Critics of Islam are often branded as racists and Islmophobes. Being preoccupied with the notions of non-negotiable rights, liberty and freedom of speech, both liberals and leftists use various means to labeling and intimidating everyone who disagrees with them, especially on the base of their liberal idealism. They disregard even if these values are violated by Muslims; they use this yardstick not only to purchase more party power from minorities, but also measure and judge the actions of their opponents.

Tlaib's profane outburst is an example. Ironically, her profane remark came after she took an oath on the Qur'an, which was not only ignored, but also received support from her fellow lawmaker. This shows that cursing and incivility is fine against opponents as some of Tlaib's supporters expressed. I am by no means supporting Trump, he is an empty vessel of moral values; I am more concerned at the prospect of the rhetoric of left-wing populism that may blur the lines between what is right and wrong.

Finally, it would be more meaningful if Tlaib had taken her oath on the U.S. Constitution like Kyrsten Sinema, the Democrat senator from Arizona, rather than using the Qur'an, which is incompatible with the U.S. Constitution and American values. I personally believe that the oath should be abolished altogether. It is an ethical prejudice against those who are not religious or followers of Abrahamic religions.