America's New Muslim College

Near where I live in Berkeley, the country’s first four-year Muslim college just started its first semester. Zaytuna College, which for the time being is run out of the American Baptist Seminary that also houses the U.C. Berkeley program where I used to teach, has just 15 students right now. But it’s seeking accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, as well as recognition from the top Muslim universities around the world.


Zaytuna—the name means “olive tree” in Arabic—offers degrees in just two subjects, Islamic Law and Theology and Arabic. The college developed out of an Islamic seminary founded in nearby Hayward in the 1990s by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, an Muslim scholar with ties to both Stanford and Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union. According to its founders, its mission is to teach Islam in the context of Western history and culture, as well as to promote understanding between the Islamic and Western worlds.

“We feel the college is very important in that it provides a grounding for the community in its own tradition—not in a sense to create a difference with the larger society, but to actually normalize its presence within the larger society, that there is no contradiction between being an American and being Muslim,” Zaytuna co-founder Hatem Bazian told the Religion News Service. The Muslim community, both in the U.S. and in the San Francisco Bay Area, has grown substantially over the last 40 years. As Don Lattin pointed out in a California Magazine profile of Zaytuna earlier this year, the number of students enrolling in classes on Islam and Islamic culture has been growing steadily both at U.C. Berkeley and at the Graduate Theological Union. Farid Senzai, a member of Zaytuna’s management committee, told the Religion News Service that American Muslims now are starting to build their own academic institutions, just as did earlier generations of American Jews and Catholics.

In spite of the manufactured controversy over the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” the creation of schools like this is a good thing. As Matt Krupnick points out, many of the country’s best colleges and universities originally had religious roots. In any case, as I’ve repeatedly argued, Islam in general is not to blame for the rise of anti-Western terrorism, even though Muslims make easy targets for politicians looking to score political points. You don’t have to accept either the tenets of Islam or the perspective of Zaytuna’s professors to see that the more Muslims flourish in America—rather than being stigmatized or ostracized—the more they will become an integral parts of our community, just as people of different faiths and backgrounds have since the country’s founding.

Photo credit: Meera Garud

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Sex robot brothel in Texas sparks controversy and ethical questions

Some say the proliferation of sex robots could lead to less demand for prostitution, but not all agree.

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  • A Toronto-based sex robot brothel plans to open another location in Houston.
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  • Others say that such technology could help some people find a degree of much-needed companionship.

There are currently no laws against opening a sex robot brothel in Houston, though recently announced plans to open one inspired some residents to say there should be.

The owner of Kinky S Dolls, a Toronto-based company where $120 gets customers 80 minutes alone with a robotic sex doll that moves and talks, plans to open another location in the Houston area. It would be the first sex robot brothel in the U.S.

On advice from counsel, owner Yuval Gavriel doesn't call his business a 'sex robot brothel' but rather a kind of try-it-before-you-buy-it shop for realistic sex dolls, which he sells for $2,000 to $5,000.

"I consulted with a lawyer and the lawyer said, 'Listen, there are no rules to it, but if you are smart you don't go out and say you are operating a brothel,'" Gavriel told the Washington Examiner. "He went through all the laws and all of the regulations and currently there are no regulations for this kind of service. The States is a bigger market, and a healthier market, and God bless Trump."

A sex doll sold by Kinky S Dolls for about $3,500.

Sex dolls and toys may be legal in the U.S., but some believe that establishing what's essentially a robot sex brothel would cross a line. In response to Gavriel's plans, Elijah Rising, a Christian organization in Houston that combats sex trafficking, published a petition titled 'Keep Robot Brothels Out Of Houston'.

"As a nonprofit whose mission is to end sex trafficking we have seen the progression as sex buyers go from pornography to strip clubs to purchasing sex—robot brothels will ultimately harm men, their understanding of healthy sexuality, and increase the demand for the prostitution and sexual exploitation of women and children," reads the petition, which currently has nearly 6,000 signatures.

Elijah Rising's argument is based on a paper written by Kathleen Richardson, a professor of ethics and culture of robots at De Montfort University.

"I propose that extending relations of prostitution into machines is neither ethical, nor is it safe," Richardson argues in the paper. "If anything the development of sex robots will further reinforce relations of power that do not recognise both parties as human subjects. Only the buyer of sex is recognised as a subject, the seller of sex (and by virtue the sex-robot) is merely a thing to have sex with."

How would sex robots affect rates of prostitution?

One argument, to which Gavriel subscribes, says that increased availability of sex robots would lower the demand for human prostitutes. It's an idea tangentially related to the longstanding body of research that shows countries tend to see decreases in sexual assaults and rape after they legalize porn.

In his bestselling book Love and Sex with Robots, A.I. researcher David Levy explores the future of human relationships with robots and suggests that sex robots could lower prostitution or even someday render it obsolete.

But that's "highly speculative philosophy," according to Richardson.

"The reality is that it will just become a new niche market within the pornography industry and within the prostitution trade," she said in an interview with Feminist Current. "If people buy into the idea that you can have these dolls as part of your sexual fetish, it will become another burden that actual living human beings will have to undergo in the commercial sex trade."

A sex doll sold by Kinky S Dolls.

Richardson elaborated on this idea in her paper.

"...studies have found that the introduction of new technology supports and contributes to the expansion of the sex industry," she wrote. "Prostitution and pornography production also rises with the growth of the internet. In 1990, 5.6 percent of men reported paying for sex in their lifetime, by 2000, this had increased to 8.8 percent."

However, those rates aren't necessarily causally linked.

Richardson also wrote that if sex toys, such as RealDolls and blow-up dolls, actually led to lower prostitution demand then we would have already seen decreases, but "no such correlation is found."

Still, that last point might soon become invalid as a sort of apples-to-oranges comparison if technology can produce artificially intelligent and lifelike sex robots unlike anything the industry has seen before.

An illusion of companionship

Image: Film4, from the 2015 film 'Ex Machina'

Image: Film4, from the 2015 film 'Ex Machina'

Critics argue that the proliferation of sex robots would serve to reinforce the objectification of women in men's minds, and also reduce the ability for some men to empathize, a necessary component of healthy social interaction.

Houstonian Andrea Paul voiced a simpler objection to the brothel:

"There's kids around here and it's a family-oriented neighborhood and I live right here and to have that here is just gross."

Gross, sure. But to Matt McMullen, creator of the RealDoll, the future of sex robots looks a bit more uplifting.

"My goal, in a very simple way, is to make people happy," McMullen told CNET. "There are a lot of people out there, for one reason or another, who have difficulty forming traditional relationships with other people. It's really all about giving those people some level of companionship—or the illusion of companionship."

A controversial theory claims past, present, and future exist at the same time

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Back to the Future.
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