Saturday, May 02, 2009

Shariah goes to Harvard

What do Pakistan's Swat Valley and Harvard University have in common? Their leading Islamic authorities uphold the Shariah (Islamic law) tradition of punishing those who leave Islam with death.

There are differences, of course. For one thing, Shariah actually rules the Swat Valley, while Shariah's traditions, as promulgated by Harvard Muslim chaplain Taha Abdul-Basser, retain a more or less theoretical caste. In a recently publicized e-mail, for example, Mr. Abdul-Basser approvingly explained to a student the traditional Islamic practice of executing converts from Islam. As the chaplain put it: "There is great wisdom (hikma) associated with the established and preserved position (capital punishment), and so, even if it makes some uncomfortable in the face of the hegemonic modern human-rights discourse, one should not dismiss it out of hand."

Certainly, one should not dismiss Mr. Abdul-Basser out of hand - or the chilling implications of what it means to have a religious leader at Harvard validate the ultimate act of Islamic religious persecution. But dismissing - or, rather, ignoring - this controversy is precisely what Harvard is doing in what appears to be an institutional strategy to make it go away. No one from the public-affairs office I contacted would answer questions or return phone calls. The lady who unguardedly answered the phone at the Harvard Chaplains' office couldn't get off fast enough, offering by way of answers a faxed "On Inquiry Statement" prepared by Mr. Abdul-Basser in which he issued a raft of denials unrelated to the e-mail statements in question.

"I have never called for, advocated or otherwise supported the murder of anyone - ever," he wrote. Nope, he didn't, especially since under Shariah, death for apostasy is not considered "murder."

"I have never expressed the position that individuals who leave Islam ... must be killed." True. Indeed, in the original statement, Mr. Abdul-Basser specified the unworkability of death for apostasy "in our case here in the North/West" because, for one thing, it "can only occur in the domain and under supervision of Muslim governmental authority and can not be performed by nonstate, private actors." And finally: "I do not hold this opinion personally."

This doesn't exactly resound as a bell-clanging denunciation of the Islamic juridical consensus on death for apostasy. But maybe more disturbing than either Mr. Abdul-Basser's Shariah position or Harvard's stonewalling is the silence of the media. With the exception of the Harvard Crimson, no news outlets have covered the story.

It broke online when someone anonymously leaked the e-mail to on April 3, and it was picked up by researcher Jeffrey Imm on April 4 and subsequently blogged at various sites. (I wrote about it at on April 4.) The Harvard Crimson became the sole media outlet to report the story on April 14.

Compare this silence to the uninterrupted media pillory that Lawrence H. Summers endured back in 2005. For suggesting that differences between men and women, not discrimination, accounted for a dearth of women in the sciences, Mr. Summers was ultimately driven from the Harvard presidency. Today, for seeing "great wisdom" in the Shariah tradition of capital punishment for apostasy, Mr. Abdul-Basser not only doesn't rate a news squib, but he also continues to minister to Harvard's flock.

Not incidentally, a number of Harvard Muslims - two by name and three anonymously - objected to Mr. Abdul-Basser's statements in the Harvard Crimson story. One student said Mr. Abdul-Basser shouldn't be the official Muslim chaplain. His reason, in part, was because the chaplain "privileges the medieval discourse of the Islamic jurists and is not willing to exercise independent thought beyond a certain point."

Identified by name in the original Crimson story, this student later requested and received anonymity from the online edition "when he revealed that his words could bring him into serious conflict with Muslim religious authorities." His "words"? What kind of "serious conflict"? What "Muslim religious authorities"? The article didn't say.

Another Muslim student who called Mr. Abdul-Basser's remarks "the first step towards inciting intolerance and inciting people towards violence" also requested anonymity "for fear of harming his relationship with the Islamic community." So did a third Muslim student in order "to preserve his relationship with the Islamic community."

It is here that we broach the most disturbing aspect of this highly disturbing story: There are Muslims who oppose the Shariah tradition of death for apostasy but don't feel free to say so publicly - not at Harvard, not in the Swat Valley. But little wonder. No Harvard official, neither religious nor administrative, has been willing so far to speak out against the chaplain's statement, let alone can him. This means that when it comes to Shariah rules versus freedom of conscience at Harvard, it is freedom of conscience that goes unprotected by those hallowed, ivy-covered walls. No wonder nobody wants to talk about this story.


British Schools producing a generation of illiterates, says historian

The television historian David Starkey said that head teachers should bring back debating competitions and elocution lessons because schools were producing a generation that was illiterate and could not communicate properly.

Narrow-minded bean-counters and the internet had taken over education, he added, suggesting that Britons in the time of Henry VIII had a more rounded schooling and more competent government. “We are dangerously devaluing knowledge and learning. In much of the national curriculum there is no requirement to remember anything at all. The notion that you need to hold knowledge in your head seems to have been forgotten,” he told head teachers at a conference in Brighton.

He said that pupils “were being fed on a diet of sub-A-level accountancy” and that too many school-leavers were taking “narrow professional degrees such as law or finance”. “In the United States, anyone going to the top would not dream of doing something so narrow as a first degree — you would do a broad liberal arts degree, then specialise,” he said.

His comments were seen as a swipe at the Government’s decision to withdraw funding for courses taken by anyone who already holds an equivalent or higher-level qualification.

Dr Starkey, whose recent series, Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant, looked at the King’s early life, said: “It’s not good enough to say you can look things up on the web. You can produce connections only if you know facts.” He criticised schools for not stretching the brightest pupils and pitting them against each other. The system was less likely to identify and nurture clever children from poor backgrounds, he said.

“We are producing a generation that is not only illiterate but practically uncommunicative. Elocution competitions should be reintroduced. It is terrific training, along with acting in plays. “There was a generosity in Henry’s curriculum with music, poetry, physical education and the proper speaking of modern languages.”


Australia: Guns, knives on the increase in NSW schools

TEACHERS have faced an escalation in the number of incidents involving students bringing weapons into the classroom, prompting calls for crisis intervention to address the problem. New figures show 400 suspensions were given to students caught with firearms or knives in school last year.

The data has triggered calls by the State opposition for an urgent increase in the number of school counsellors available, to identify and engage in crisis intervention with students at risk.

The data, provided under Freedom of Information laws, shows there were 14,405 suspensions handed out to students between kindergarten to Year 12 last year. A student who receives a long suspension is banned from entering the school grounds for 20 days. Further breaches can result in a formal expulsion.

The suspensions were for using or possessing a prohibited weapon, firearm or knife, engaging in serious criminal behaviour and physical violence. Other categories of suspension have included persistent misbehaviour, possession or use of a suspected illegal substance, or using an implement as a weapon. The figures show that the number of suspensions given for "use or possession" of a gun, knife or other prohibited weapon rose 17 per cent from 339 in 2005 to 398 last year.

However, the category with the biggest increase was for students engaging in serious criminal behaviour, such as stealing. The number of students suspended for offences that could attract a criminal charge also rose, with 970 suspensions handed out - an increase of 45 per cent on four years ago. The largest number of suspensions were handed out to students who had engaged in physical violence, which included assaults or bullying.

The figures show there were 6500 suspensions for violent behaviour - a 20 per cent increase over the past four years. A further 6061 suspensions were given to students for persistent misbehaviour - up 43 per cent. Increasing numbers of students were also removed for using or threatening to use an implement as a weapon with 204 suspensions handed out - an increase of 27 per cent.

A breakdown of ages shows the vast majority of misbehaving students are aged between 12 and 16. The data also shows pupils in Years 7-10 made up 74 per cent of the total number of suspensions.

State opposition education spokesman Adrian Piccoli said the State government needed urgently to increase the number of counsellors in schools. The latest data showed there was roughly one counsellor for every 1500 students, he said. "Counsellors can identify kids at risk and carry out crisis prevention, clinical assessments and identify behavioural difficulties before it comes to the point of weapons being brought to school," Mr Piccoli said. He said a recent survey conducted by school principals showed the greatest need for increased counsellor numbers was in schools in the Campbelltown, Cumberland, Liverpool, Mt Druitt and Dubbo regions.

A spokesman for NSW Education Minister Verity Firth said the figures showed more principals were using increased powers introduced in 2005 to suspend misbehaving students. But he said more school students were also learning from their mistakes, with 73 percent of those suspended only suspended once.


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