Is this the beginning of the end for the traditional University system ?


I am actually registered in two courses on a website which is part of the  “Massive Open Online Courses,” ( MOOC) system so called because they are free and online – and offered by some of the best-known universities in the world . With Stanford University, Duke university and others joining in,  a class-room of 90,000 people is not unheard of. With this scale, a free education and certification at the end of the process, does this mean the end of traditional university as we know it? I would argue that this is not the case and the good old university system, with its brick and mortar  infrastructure will still remain. Here are a few reasons why.

Firstly, the University system as we know it today, is very old – more than a thousand years old, with Al-Azhar University dating back to 988 A.D. Common sense dictates that if something has survived so long, it is for a good reason, and is unlikely to be discarded so fast. Especially, such a complex institution as the University.

Secondly, the learning model that online courses offer is not amenable to learning for all levels of students, and also the quality of interaction and learning is suspect. While each one of us learns differently, the general notion of learning i.e., by critically reflecting, asking questions and discussing and debating with others does not really exist online as it does in a real life classroom setting. This gives the traditional system an edge, that is not present in the online model.

Thirdly, will this online education be as recognized as the “regular,” education? The credibility of a degree from Phoenix University is not the same as that from a regular university, many would argue.

But, there is also the counter argument that the world of education is shifting. The way that all of us are getting information,  knowledge and ideas is increasingly shifting to an online base. This is a result of the online, information revolution, which is in some ways global ( barring those remote places which don’t have internet access).

So, no matter whether we believe in it or not, the MOOCS are here to stay. Will the market shake up their model and remove them from the scene, like any other start-up, or will they evolve into more stable forms? We may not know for sure, but what we do know is that there are thousands and thousands of students signing up for these courses and that is a fact we should not ignore, when debating about their success.



Is soccer a religion?

Source: Creativecommons/flickr
Source: Creativecommons/flickr

This is not meant as a rhetorical question, but a rather serious one. Is Soccer a religion? What makes it one, and if not, why? There are several reasons why one can argue for Soccer ( or football) as you call it, to be classified as religion. “Religion,” which comes from the Latin root “Religio,” which means to practice, or to do something over and again. The problem only begins with semantics, but doesn’t end there. I believe that it is important to clarify what religion means, what its role in public sphere is, and how one is to deal with it, for purposes other than merely spiritual. The role of religion needs to be understood now, more than ever – with seismic changes taking place around us in the U.S, vast political and demographic changes in the Middle East and North Africa and also economic challenges and recession making a deep impact on people in Europe. Many of the explanations offered to us, by journalists, academics and policy makers are couched in the language of “religion.”

There is much more going on in the religious realm, if one pays close attention to it. The debate becomes salient in the context of “football hooliganism,” as in the latest case of Egypt, where 22 people are reported to have died in clashes, following a verdict about football riots in 2011.  Religion in the public sphere is making a come-back, often for the wrong reasons. While the debates advocated by many are outright misleading, there are many nuances to the debate, if one pays close attention and has the patience to look carefully at the intersections of religion and the public sphere.

Jonathan Benthall, a scholar of Sociology of Religion argues that a “religion” has the following 19 characteristics. Let’s see if Soccer satisfies these criterion:

  1. Appeal to supernatural entities
  2. Appeal to an ideal world
  3. Totalizing discourse, creeds, master dogmas and scriptures
  4. Ontology, or an explanation of human beings’ place in nature
  5. Foundation narratives – Narratives that talk about how the world was created
  6. Conversion experiences
  7. Acceptance of doctrinal paradox
  8. Ceremonies, Rituals and Spiritual disciplines
  9. Solace in the face of death and suffering
  10. Martyrdom
  11. Demonology
  12. Moral imperatives based on altruism
  13. Internalization of a moral code
  14. Sectarianism
  15. Identity politics
  16. The sacred-profane distinction
  17. Trance states
  18. From the local to the transnational
  19. Patina – Referring to having survived for a long time.

So what? One might be tempted to ask. While one can argue that Soccer satisfies almost (if not all) of the above criterion, does it become a “ religion,” despite not being considered one in a traditional sense. What about Scientology, which is struggling to being considered as a religion, despite not being accepted by many, including the liberal western states of the United Kingdom and France, where it is being viewed with much suspicion, and treated almost like a cult. This article shows how the “religion” of Scientology is being actively seen as a “fraudulent” faith.

This question of whether something is considered a religion is relevant also because of its public policy implications. There is something to be said about the negative connotation that the term “religion” has in certain circles. Certain societies and intellectual groups actively despise religion and religious practices and anything pertaining remotely to religion is seen with suspicion, if not active hostility.

While the United States guarantees freedom of religion and one can choose to believe in practically anything that one wishes, other parts of the world are not so tolerant. The case against Scientology in France centres on a complaint made in 1998 by a woman who said she was enrolled into Scientology after members approached her in the street and persuaded her to do a personality test. The Independent quotes her as saying that in the following months, she paid more than €21,000 for books, “purification packs” of vitamins, sauna sessions and an “e-meter” to measure her spiritual progress, all fraudulent ways to “extract money.” While this article is not meant to defend Scientology or explain its doctrines, I merely used this as an example to illustrate one of the debates in the public sphere concerning religion.

Any debate about religion in the public sphere these days (and since the renaissance) has centered on how it impacts the “public sphere.” While one can argue about the need to keep religion in the private realm and separate the public sphere and religion – reality is much more complex. Robert Wuthnow, Jose Casanova, Jonathan Benthall – all world-renowned Sociologists and thinkers who have studied the role of religion in the public sphere have argued for understanding, accepting the role ( and indeed, the need) for religion to address some of our social evils such as poverty, hunger and homelessness. And it is hard to argue that religion( through faith-based organizations such as the Church, Mosque, Temple or Synagogue) continues to address these fundamental challenges on a daily basis. Religion is also making a comeback given the economic recession, the lack of government intervention in providing social security ( Western societies are facing this challenge more than others, if one looks at this closely). A recent IRIN article pointed out that just Zakat contributions ( charity given by Muslims) throughout the world is to the tune of between $200 billion to a trillion, which is more than 15 times the global humanitarian development aid, given by all the western nations combined. This staggering potential cannot be ignored.

I would like to believe that globally, there is a shift to pay attention to what religion is – in its various manifestations, its key role in the lived human experience and also its critical contribution to making our lives better. Finally, as Robert Wuthnow  famously said:  “ You may close the door on religion, but it comes flying through the window.” Perhaps it is time we make peace with the idea of religion and learn to live with it.


Will 2013 be the year of the drone?

Will 2013 be the year of the drone?  This is a question that may define the Af-Pak policy and perhaps how the rhetoric of “Global War on Terror”  ( GWOT) is shaped in the months ahead. With over 3228 people dead in the drone strikes, of whom about 881 are estimated to be civilians, this is turning out to be President Obama’s litmus test as a “moral” leader. Another major criticism of the drone program is that it makes President Obama the Judge, Jury and Executioner, not very democratic, if you think about it. I believe that the coming year is likely to be the year of the drone, unless something dramatic happens and the GWOT is concluded.

The roots of this strategy of using drones to strike hi-value targets by the current administration are in the speech that President Obama gave, in 2009, in which he said:” So let me be clear:  Al Qaeda and its allies — the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks — are in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Multiple intelligence estimates have warned that al Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the United States homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan.  And if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban — or allows al Qaeda to go unchallenged — that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.” How effective has this strategy been ?

Well, not much according to a new report, released in Sept.2012 by the Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic (IHRCRC) and Global Justice Clinic (GJC) at NYU School of Law. They point out that the narrative of “surgical strikes” that take out specific individuals is wrong and that the drone strikes are having a counter-productive impact. Their work is based on  nine months of intensive research—including two investigations in Pakistan, more than 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts, and review of thousands of pages of documentation and media reporting.  The report also quotes The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), an independent journalist organization, which has reported that:” From June 2004 through mid-September 2012,  data indicated that drone strikes killed 2562-3325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children.TBIJ reports that these strikes also injured an additional 1,228-1,362 individuals. “

So what?, one might ask. We are just going after the bad guys and there is bound to be some collateral damage in the process. Well, this is precisely the problem. When the “targeted killings” kill about an equal number of civilians and make life unbearable for people in that region, then the local population is likely to sympathize with those very people whom we are targeting as evil. As Robert Pape and James Feldman point out in their book, Cutting the Fuse, the very cause of suicide terrorism is nationalism and the feeling among people that the American forces are “occupying” their lands. This “occupation” by foreign forces unleashes very strong forces of anti-Americanism and nationalism which lead to attacks against American and allied forces. They have shown data, which includes all known cases of suicide terrorism ( including 9/11) that this is the root cause of the problems.

US Drone Strike Statistics estimate according to the New America Foundation

There is intense debate even among President Obama’s supporters about the drone’s effectiveness and how the rhetoric of using them have been counter-productive, as this article points out. The Obama administration has carried out five times as many covert drone strikes as the Bush administration, as this Colbert Report pointed out, not without irony, and Stephen Colbert points out :” So what’s behind the president’s righteous kill spree? Could it be that he’s just gunning for another Nobel Peace Prize?”

Counter-narrative to this criticism is that this is a more effective way of dealing with terrorists, and studies by RAND corporation has shown that drone strikes drone strikes are associated with decreases in both the frequency and the lethality of militant attacks overall and in IED and suicide attacks specifically. While one can question their methods of analysis ( statistical analysis), even the report acknowledges that :” To the extent drone strikes ”work,” their effectiveness is more likely to lie in disrupting militant operations at the tactical level than as a silver bullet that will reverse the course of the war and singlehandedly defeat Al-Qaeda.”

In conclusion, I think the really important question one needs to ask is not whether 2013 will be the year of the drone, but the bigger question : Is the  Global war on terror over? Because the issue of drones is inextricably linked to the GWOT, and unless we wind that down, it is very likely that the drone strikes will continue.