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Pilgrim visas, the Hajj, and MERS-CoV

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — it’s all a matter of concentric circles and the integration of the vertical — ibn Arabi ]
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The concentric circles around the Kaaba ripple out across our world. This means we should be watchful at the intersection of three overlapping regions in a Venn diagram: pilgrim visas, MERS-CoV epidemiology, and pilgrim dispersal.

John Burgess of Crossroads Arabia is the only one I know focusing on the conjunction, see his Saudis Restrict Pilgrim Visas.

The point I’d like to be hinting at here is that whereas MERS-CoV epidemiology is a scientific monitoring and interpretive matter using Science Rules, and visa issues are mostly matters of bureaucracy, the Hajj itself is a matter of the most passionate devotional concern, and a “purely rational” understanding will hardly scratch its surface.

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Those with a mixture of poetry and scholarship in their souls may wish to read Love Letters to the Ka’ba: a presentation of Ibn ‘Arabi’s Tâj al-Rasâ’il to glimpse the Kaaba as seen by the al-Sheikh al-Akbar, Muhyiddin ibn Arabi:

Charles-Andre Gilis has pointed out that in the Islamic tradition the Ka’ba symbolises the centre of every state of Being, as is demonstrated by the tradition recorded by Ibn ‘Abbas according to which there exists a Ka’ba, similar to the one belonging to our world, in each of the seven heavens and seven earths (cf. La Doctrine Initiatique du Pélerinage, Paris, 1982, pp. 45-6). In the introduction to the Tâj, Ibn ‘Arabi refers to the Visited House (al-bayt al-ma’mûr), situated in the seventh heaven, the celestial prototype of the Ka’ba (p. 557).

As Gilis also observes, the Ka’ba is perceived by Ibn ‘Arabi as a manifestation of the divine Essence (Tâjallî dhâtî). However, he situates it, due to its mineral nature, in the lowest level of Being. But it is precisely the inferior character of its external aspect that allows it to sustain the ladder of beings and to identify itself on each level. It is thus described as “celestial constitution, angelic reality, young girl with formed breasts, level of the perceptible realm, and Meccan dignity (at the same time this constitutes an excellent example of the assonances of his rhymed prose: nash’a falakiyya wa haqîqa malakiyya wa jâriya falkiyya wa martaba mulkiyya wa rutba makkiyya) (p. 555).” Ibn ‘Arabi himself is astonished at the number of contradictory aspects that this being is able to bring together: “Oh marvel: divine constitution, simil (mithliyya), angelic, human, superior and inferior in which we find validity and deficiency, multiplicity and scarcity.” (p. 556)

The devotional aspect of the Hajj is orthogonal to the realism of bureaucracies and epidemiology — but not on that account any the less powerful!

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Hysteria about Afghan schoolgirl hysteria

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — Reuters publishes scary stuff, should have checked their facts with WHO epidemiologists first ]
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Last time, it was the Jerusalem syndrome — this time it’s mass hysteria, not poison.

The Reuters article, Afghan girls’ school feared hit by poison gas by Folad Hamdard (upper frame, above) was posted on April 21, 2013, just one week ago.

Its key paragraphs in terms of etiology and blame are these:

As many as 74 schoolgirls in Afghanistan’s far north fell sick after smelling gas and were being examined for possible poisoning, local officials said on Sunday.

While instances of poisoning are sometimes later found to be false alarms, there have been numerous substantiated cases of mass poisonings of schoolgirls by elements of Afghanistan’s ultra-conservative society that are opposed to female education.

and:

Between May and June last year there were four poisoning attacks on a girls’ school in Takhar, prompting local officials to order principals to stay in school until late and staff to search the grounds for suspicious objects and to test the water for contaminants.

Takhar has been a hotbed of militancy and criminal activity since 2009, with groups such as the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan active.

One wonders: Does Reuters employ fact checkers?

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One wonders because…

An Editorial Note on the 2012 article Mass Psychogenic illness in Afghanistan (lower frame, above) in the WHO’s Weekly Epidemiological Monitor (Vol 5 # 22, 27 May) reads in part:

This is the fourth year where episodes of suspected mass poisoning of school girls is reported from Afghanistan. Like in the previous years the events are triggered off with one girl developing symptoms of headache, weakness, dizziness, nausea and fainting. Often these outbreaks were believed to be the work of political elements in the country who oppose girls education. Reports of stench smells preceding the appearance of symptoms have given credit to the theory of mass poisoning (chemical/bioterrorism). However, investigations into the causes of these outbreaks have yielded no such evidence so far. In the last four years over 1634 cases from 22 schools have been treated for Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI) in Afghanistan. There are no related deaths reported.

Reuters is read by a whole lot more people than some WHO epidemiological weekly, eh?

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Luckily, the NY Times at least posted a blog post by Matthieu Aikins writing from Kabul, The ‘Poisoned’ Girls of Afghanistan, by way of alerting us to the WHO report:

I’m willing to bet that there was no poison.

Over the past few years, thousands of girls have fallen victim to waves of alleged poisonings in Afghan schools. The government, media and education activists have blamed the Taliban, and the police in a number of provinces have produced the “guilty” parties, with some of them confessing on national television.

But last July when I investigated the subject for Newsweek, I discovered never-released reports showing that the United Nations, the World Health Organization and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force had investigated the incidents for years and had never found, despite extensive laboratory tests, any evidence of toxins or poisoning — a fact that may explain ISAF’s conspicuous silence on the issue.

I’m glad that’s been cleared up.

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Here’s another DoubleQuote for you:

Of course, the Taliban spokesman was addressing a 2012 outbreak of the same hysteria story, and the “no claim of responsibility” report is from one of this year’s versions.

But why would anyone claim responsibility in any case, if the actual cause is mass hysteria rather than poisoning? There’s history to these things — they didn’t begin in Afghanistan:

The cases the Afghanistan incidents most resemble are the Tanganyika laughter epidemic of 1962, in which hundreds of people, mostly schoolgirls, were overcome by fits of mirthless, extended laughter, in what is now known as Tanzania, and the West Bank fainting epidemic of 1983.

The similarities between the heavily studied epidemic in the occupied West Bank and Afghanistan are particularly striking. Both places are in a state of conflict, where political violence is a fact of life, and both have powerful local rumor mills. The incidents follow a similar pattern: First a single report of a bad smell, then a small number of girls come down with symptoms, then it spreads. Local media fueled the rumors and the incidents spread in Afghanistan, just as they did in Israel and Palestine.

Albert Hefez, Israel’s lead psychiatric investigator of the incident, wrote in his 1985 study “The Role of the Press and the Medical Community in the epidemic of ‘Mysterious Gas Poisoning’ in the Jordan West Bank” that Israeli newspaper reports of “poisoning” at the start of the epidemic added fuel to the flames. A front page article in Haaretz on March 28, 1983 even claimed that Israeli military investigators had found traces of nerve gas and quoted “army sources” as saying they suspected Palestinian militants were poisoning their own people in order to blame Israel and provoke an uprising. Palestinian leaders followed up with accusations that Israel had poisoned them in an attempt to drive them from the West Bank.

And such things don’t only happen “abroad” — as detailed in that same NYT blog post I quoted above:

The phenomenon of groups of people falling ill for psychological, rather than physical, reasons is not unknown, nor is it limited to Afghanistan. Moreover, the typical victims are school-age girls. In late 2011, when a group of girls in Le Roy, New York, fell victim to a mysterious twitching illness, medical authorities eventually concluded it was psychogenic.

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Triangulating the Vatican

Sunday, February 24th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — three ways to get a fix on the present status and future needs of the Catholic Church ]
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Perugino, The Entrusting of the Keys to Peter, Sistine Chapel

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I want to make this brief. It seems to me that the most powerful statement of the present situation of the Church was that delivered by John Colet at Convocation in 1512:

You are come together today, fathers and right wise men, to hold a council. In which what you will do and what matters you will handle, I do not yet know, but I wish that, at length, mindful of your name and profession, you would consider of the reformation of ecclesiastical affairs; for never was there more necessity and never did the state of the Church more need endeavors. For the Church – the spouse of Christ – which He wished to be without spot or wrinkle, is become foul and deformed. As saith Isaias, “The faithful city is become a harlot”; and as Jeremias speaks, “She hath committed fornication with many lover,” whereby she has conceived many seeds of iniquity and daily bringeth forth the foulest offspring. Wherefore I have come here today, fathers, to admonish you with all your minds to deliberate, in this your Council, concerning the reformation of the Church.

The full text can be found here, where it is drawn from John C. Olin, The Catholic Reformation: Savonarola to St. Ignatius Loyola (Fordham U.Pr., 1992). I was pointed in this direction by Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia, who quoted from it in his piece The church after Pope Benedict today.

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By way of comparison, here’s a snippet from this week’s Time report, Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us, on the status of another large entity whose purported focus is the common good:

By the time Steven D. died at his home in Northern California the following November, he had lived for an additional 11 months. And Alice had collected bills totaling $902,452. The family’s first bill — for $348,000 — which arrived when Steven got home from the Seton Medical Center in Daly City, Calif., was full of all the usual chargemaster profit grabs: $18 each for 88 diabetes-test strips that Amazon sells in boxes of 50 for $27.85; $24 each for 19 niacin pills that are sold in drugstores for about a nickel apiece. There were also four boxes of sterile gauze pads for $77 each. None of that was considered part of what was provided in return for Seton’s facility charge for the intensive-care unit for two days at $13,225 a day, 12 days in the critical unit at $7,315 a day and one day in a standard room (all of which totaled $120,116 over 15 days). There was also $20,886 for CT scans and $24,251 for lab work.

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And for a third angle on the upcoming conclave, I would like to offer a brief cull from Anthony Judge‘s tabular listing of cardinals aged 80 and below, in which he identifies those who have some indication of competence in the “social” and “natural” sciences in their Wikipedia biographies.

I have omitted those who had no listing in the natural sciences — mathematics included — and those aged 80, since I understand they will be too old to vote. Of the 116 cardinals that remain, these seven apparently have some acquaintance with what Judge terms the natural sciences, as detailed in the final column:

Of these, Cardinal O’Brien, who appears to have the widest range of scientific disciplines in his background, has recently been the target of accusations of impropriety.

As those who read me regularly are aware, I “come from” the arts rather than the sciences myself. But I cannot help but agree with Anthony Judge’s comment, particularly insofar as it relates to mathematics and the sciences:

It is striking how few disciplines are represented in what amounts to a table of cognitive competence of those from whom guidance in world governance is expected.

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I’m tossing you these three quotes not so much for themselves as for the ripples of thought, the further questions they may raise. Colet’s sermon, for instance, was delivered only five years before Martin Luther “nailed his theses to the door” — or at least sent them to his bishop — thus starting the Protestant Reformation in 1517.

The aptness of Colet’s sermon to today should give us considerable pause.

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The War and Peace koan, episode n+1

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — glimpsing the Necker Cube effect, when the weapons of war meet the prayers of peace ]
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Necker cube image credit -- youramazingbrain.org

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A while back I co-authored a book with a physician friend, Cleaves Bennett MD, on the control of high blood pressure, and since he wanted to include the idea that humor had a role to play in reducing stress, we included a joke with each week’s exercises — and one of the jokes I suggested, and which made it into the book, was this:

A Catholic priest, a Dominian, once walked into London’s Farm Swtreet Jesuit Church and found one of his Jesuit friends kneeling in prayer, smoking a cigarette.

“How do you get away with ut?” the Dominican muttered. “I asked my father confessor if I could smoke while I was praying and he absolutely forbade it.”

“No wonder,” said the Jesuit. “I inquired if I could pray while I was smoking, and my confessor said, ‘Of course, old boy, feel free. … I don’t believe you should ever stop praying.'”

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This post could well be included in my “form is insight”: series, with the form in question being “the reversal”.

Here’s a recent BBC picture with the tag-line “An Israeli soldier prays at dawn on Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip”:

Some readers might look at that picture and recall Psalm 94, verses 3-5:

Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked triumph? How long shall they utter and speak hard things? and all the workers of iniquity boast themselves? They break in pieces thy people, O Lord, and afflict thine heritage.

Some might reflect on Psalm 122, verses 6-7:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; may they prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces.

Some might recall the Qur’an 49, verse 13:

O mankind, We have created you male and female, and appointed you races and tribes, that you may know one another.

Others might think of the Gharqad Tree hadith, quoted in the charter of Hamas:

The Day of Judgement will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Muslims, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him. Only the Gharkad tree, would not do that because it is one of the trees of the Jews.

And I myself have no idea what the prayers that Jewish soldier offered were all about — his own safety, that of his family and loved ones, that of his own people, that of all the world’s people — nor about the prayers of young Muslims on the other side of the wall…

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I look at that photo of the soldier boy praying beside the munitions of a brutal war, and my first instinct is to feel sadness — because the essence of prayer, surely, is shalom, peace, salaam.

And then I am reminded of the Dominican and the Jesuit in that story I told you.

Substituting “peace” for “prayer” and “war” for “munitions” to get at the essence here — should I be more sad that here, peace is depicted in the presence of war — or more glad that here, war is depicted in the presence of peace?

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