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How to Think Critically About Islam Without Denigrating Its Practitioners

"No idea is above scrutiny and no people are beneath dignity," says activist Maajid Nawaz. We should interrogate the intellectual justification of all ideas and preserve the dignity of all people.

Maajid Nawaz: No idea is above scrutiny and no people are beneath dignity. And what I mean by that is that no idea in Islam, like any other religion and any other philosophy and political thought and creed, is an idea. An idea is, by definition, adopted voluntary and therefore should be subject to scrutiny. And so I don’t subscribe to any form of blasphemy or censorship when it comes to an intellectual and rigorous debate around any idea. On the other hand, no people are beneath dignity. So no idea is above scrutiny; no people are beneath dignity. And what I mean by that is, it’s very easy when understanding it in this way to recognize, and you can recognize it in your gut, the difference between somebody who is saying I don’t like the religion of Islam. Let me scrutinize it, you know. I think this whole thing about the literal word of God doesn’t sit comfortable with me. That’s very different to someone saying all Muslims are terrorists and they are a disease in America we must expel them. Your gut can recognize the difference between those two. I think Muslims as a people deserve every dignity like any other human being. But every single idea — Charlie Hebdo is a case in point. People have the right, the absolute right to scrutinize and satirize. And so I think my ideas around this were crystalized in my conversation with Sam. And, you know, I think there’s an analogy I use in the dialogue which I took from another ex-Muslim that we refer to by name in the book; Ali Rizvi is a Canadian ex-Muslim who says that it’s like saying smoking is bad and that doesn’t imply smokers are bad people, you know. To say smoking is bad doesn’t mean I’m saying all smokers are bad people. So if Sam Harris is saying he doesn’t agree with Islam, it doesn’t mean he’s saying all Muslims are bad people. And I think that’s an example that comes from this maxim: No idea is above scrutiny; no people are beneath dignity. And that’s one of the things I took away from this dialogue. And even though the phrasing of that is something which I put in the book the concept, the idea is something I took from people like Sam and I’m very happy that my own thoughts have developed in all these lines when it comes to that.

A lot of the motivation the people have for not wanting to have this conversation is political correctness. They don’t want to be seen as racist. And unfortunately the regressive left today have become incredibly trigger happy at throwing this label at people. I’ve been called a racist and an Islamaphobe and many other things. A native informant and a porch monkey. Sam Harris’ porch monkey for example is a racist slur. Simply for having this conversation, you know, you’d have thought the people would recognize that a Muslim speaking to perhaps one of the leading atheist Islam critics today — those two having a dialogue with each other would be a good thing. But instead, you know, both Sam and I have been — have faced a barrage of criticisms that are ad hominem and that are not substantive. And a lot of that is motivated by those who have a concern again for political correctness. Who have good intentions, but this is a classic example of where literally the road to hell is paved with those good intentions because you cannot justify calling somebody like me who, you know, I’ve fought Neo-Nazis throughout my teenage years. I’ve been jailed because of my previous convictions, religious convictions. And you’re going to call me a racist and an Islamophobe. And even worse a porch monkey. And that’s meant to be someone on the liberal side of this debate. So people that on the one hand want to preserve political correctness, I find that they become incredibly aggressive and use and hurl pejoratives at those engaging in this debate and yet from the other side of their mouths, they’re insisting that it’s not politically correct to scrutinize Islam. No, you know, I’ve got a view and I think Islamism must be intellectually terminated and Islam should be reformed. Islam today, you know, our view of Islam today needs reform. And because I distinguish between Islamism and Islam, I can say that. I mean Islamism is a theocracy. It’s a desire to impose a version of Islam over society. Theocracy has absolutely no place in the modern world. It needs to be intellectually terminated as an idea and that means through rigorous debate and scrutiny. But on top of that, Islam itself — it’s not politically incorrect to recognize that Islam’s heyday and the jurisprudence that developed around Islam peaked in the medieval era and a lot of it isn’t suitable or compatible to the standards that we’ve come to adopt today and the scientific advances, but also the moral standards and values in society. That also requires some scrutiny by theologians and by thinkers. And, you know, if political correctness is going to obstruct that process, then it’s going to tolerate a great deal of bigotry and prejudice in the process. And so it’s not really politically correct to take that stand at all.

We know that the neo-conservative years led to the War on Terror decade, War on Terror laws and Guantanamo and invasion of countries. And people, the regressive left especially, have a knee-jerk reaction. It’s almost a zero sum game for them. If you criticize Islamism you must be a Neo Conzionist, Indian agent, stooge, MI6, you know, all these other conspiracies that get tacked on to the end and a porch monkey. So it’s a zero sum game for them. And how to defend oneself against this to say look, I’m a liberal. I opposed the Iraq war from my jail cell in Egypt. I’ve been a liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate in the United Kingdom. I’ve ran for Parliament, for office as a liberal Democrat, you know. I’m a bona fide liberal. Every single War on Terror law that violated human rights principles as I’ve understood them I have opposed them publicly. Whether it’s the schedule 7 in the UK that denies the right to silence and denies, it forcibly takes your DNA at ports of entry and exit, airports, what have you. Arbitrary detention, Guantanamo. I’ve always been opposed to Guantanamo and its existence. I’ve been opposed to the invasion of Iraq. No matter how much I clarify that, there are people for whom as I said this is a zero sum game debate. If you’re critical of Islamistic extremism, you must automatically be a Neocon and a racist. And as I said, you know, I’ve experienced Neo-Nazi racism and it’s absurd to me for anyone to hurl that accusation. Actually it’s incredibly privilege for them. To hurl those accusations at me because there are invariably people who have never had to dodge a machete attack from a Neo-Nazi skinhead or a hammer attack. They’ve never had to witness torture in an Egyptian jail yet they’re the ones that are accusing me of being the racist. So how do I deal with that? It’s an open jury to be honest. Do I respond every single time on social media to clarify, to send out links to say, "No I didn’t say that"? Or do I rise above it and say, "You guys are just petty. I’m not going to lower myself to your level because if you wrestle in the mud with the pigs you end up getting dirty." So what do you do? I don’t think there’s an answer to that question. And I don’t know how to go about it. I think one of the things I do do is I always leave the door open. If somebody comes back to me and says, "Look, I misunderstood you. I’m sorry," I’m happy to forget and let bygones be bygones. I’m not going to hold a grudge. I understand how misunderstandings could happen because, of course, for 13 years I was on the leadership of an Islamist organization and I changed my mind. I’m always happy to allow people to change their minds, but how to get them to that stage and see you as a human being that has a holistic story behind them and isn’t just one thing or another, you know, I don’t know. I’ll keep trying, I suppose.

Taking a rational approach to religious doctrine is precisely what accounts for the moral and scientific advances of the last several hundred years. Without these advances, we would not have the liberal, rights-based society we currently enjoy, says Maajid Nawaz. So continuing to critically examine the principles on which religion operates is essential. It's equally essential to understand the difference between a religious theocracy and individuals who practice Islam. Nawaz affirms that Muslim people deserve dignity and respect, and that the voice of rational dialogue deserves similar tolerance.

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A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

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  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.