Community News (V12-I1)

December 31, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Salman Khan, Math tutor to the world

Salman-Khan The name Salman Khan evokes the images of a Bollywood personality. But there is another 33 year old with the same name who is changing the way people learn math and along the way changing lives of people for the better.

Salman Khan, a Mountain View resident, has posted 800 plus tutorial videos on his website the Khan Academy which interactively teach math at all levels. These videos are viewed 35, 000 times a day.

Salman Khan, who holds engineering and science degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard Business School, says it all started in 2004 when he was tutoring his cousin Nadia, who was having having trouble with her math, through the telephone and Yahoo Doodle as a shared notepad. She ended up getting ahead in her class and also started tutoring her brothers.

Nephews and family friends soon followed. But scheduling conflicts and repeated lectures prompted him to post instructional videos on YouTube that his proliferating pupils could watch when they had the time.

Realizing the immense potential of his method and the possibilities of the internet Khan formed the Khan Academy, a non profit organization. The nonprofit generated thousands in advertising revenue this year through YouTube and could become self-sustainable as a one-person operation within a year. Khan is in talks with several foundations for capital that could enable him to expand the organization’s reach.

For his services Khan was awarded the 2009 Tech Award for Education. The Tech Awards website praises the Khan Academy as follows:

Millions of students around the world lack access to high quality instruction, especially in the sciences and math. The Khan Academy provides it for free in a way that can be accessed on-demand at a student’s own pace.

The videos are directly teaching tens of thousands of students on every continent on a daily basis. Other non-profit groups have even begun distributing off-line versions of the library to rural and underserved areas in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

Lilburn sued for denying mosque permission

LILBURN, GA–The Dar-e-Abbas, a local Muslim congregation, is suing the the Lilburn city council for discrimination in denying the required zoning to build a mosque. The council had denied the zoning request citing traffic and other issues. The Muslim group says that the council caved into pressure from residents.
Doug Dillard, an attorney for the Muslim group told the WABE Radio, ‘There’s seven churches within a two mile radius of this facility. Within half of mile there’s a Baptist church. They have 110,000 square feet on 11 acres. We were asking for 28, 000 square feet on 8 acres, so it was clearly discriminatory and their decision had no basis.’

The congregation filed the lawsuit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prohibits local governments from restricting land access to religious groups.

Madison mosque decision in Jan.

JACKSON, MI–The Madison County zoning board would decide in January whether to allow the Mississippi Muslim Association to build a mosque on US 51. The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to meet on Jan 4.

The association owns five acres just north of the Madison city limits and proposes to build the Magnolia Islamic Center, a worship center to serve the 100-plus local families who now attend a mosque in south Jackson. The association has met resistance from nearby landowners and residents, who say the project is not the best use for the property.

The association earlier this month received conditional approval from the county’s planning commission for the site plan detailing the landscaping and building design.

The plans for the Islamic center call for a 10,000-square-foot, two-story building made of red brick with a standing seam metal roof. The first floor will contain the prayer hall, multi-purpose room, office, restrooms and kitchen. The second floor will contain a prayer hall, classrooms, restrooms and office. The building is based on a capacity of 650.

Toronto’s Muslim convention sends message of unity

TORONTO, Dec. 29, 2009–Speakers at a three day  Islamic convention held in Toronto on the weekend (Dec. 25-27) urged Muslims to live up to their responsibility to save the world. The Reviving the Islamic Spirit Convention, in its eighth year, was attended by more than 15,000 people from across Canada and some from the US and elsewhere. The convention is unique as it is completely organized and managed by the youth.

The convention theme, SOS: Saving the Ship of Humanity,  hosted more than a dozen hi profile speakers from the USA, Canada, and the Middle East. Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah, the former minister of justice of Mauritania and a member of the Islamic Fiqh Council, said that Muslim youth must not forget the spiritual legacy of their predecessors bust must reconnect with that tradition.

Dr. Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens, was another main speaker at the event and spoke on the universal message of Islam.

The convention saw a steady stream of people converting to Islam.

Dr. Tarek Al Suwaidan (a leading scholar and public speaker from Kuwait) spoke on Islam and the modern world. He said Muslims should look up to the character of Ali (RA)  as a role model for their own lives. He also spoke at length about Islam and science and criticised those who try to force in strange assertions in such an exercise. He stated that scientific facts can never contradict Islam but scientific theories can. He said the distinction should always be kept in mind.

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf urged the assembled gathering to live up their responsibilities and fight for a sustainable and peaceful world. He said Muslims should shun bickering over minor issues and instead unite. He also said that Muslims should avoid indulging in takfeer of fellow Muslims.

Shaykh Habib Ali Al Jifri, Dr. Tareq Ramadan, Dr. Abdul Hakeem Murad, Dr. Sherman Jackson, Imam Zaid Shakir, and a host of other scholars spoke at the convention. 

Prominent Canadian politicians including Derek Lee and Liberal Finance critic John McCallum also spoke at the convention and appreciated the efforts of Canada’s Muslim youth to build an inclusive society.

The convention’s entertainment session featured live performances by Maher Zain, Irfan Makki, Junaid Jamshed, Bennami and Grammy award winning  Outlandish. The Allah Made Me Funny comedy troupe also performed.

As part of its social outreach the convention raised more than 1000 winter coats and close to 10,000 meals for the needy in the Greater Toronto Area.

The convention featured a large bazaar selling books, clothing, and other Islamic items. Prominently missing from this year’s convention were the packaged Halal food product companies. An interest free MasterCard from the UM Financial group was launched at the event.

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Community News (V11-I35)

August 20, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Obituary:  Ali Safaeinili, NASA Engineer

Dr. Ali Safaeinili, a long-time and respected member of the Radar Science and Engineering team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), passed away on Wednesday, July 29, from complications due to cholangiocarcinoma, a rare cancer. Safaeinili was 45 years old. He is survived by his wife of 20 years, Lisa; two daughters, Nadia, 17, and Roya, 10; his parents, siblings, and many, many friends and colleagues.

Born in Sari, Iran, Safaeinili always wanted to pursue his higher education in science and engineering in the United States and enrolled at Iowa State University in 1985 to study electrical engineering and computer science. He completed his undergraduate studies in two-and-a-half years by testing out of all the required math classes and finished his post-doctorate work in 1995. At JPL for more than a decade, Safaeinili pursued radar as a means to study ice on Earth and the planets. An energetic and innovative scientist, he participated in the design, development, testing, and operation of the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS) still operating on Mars Express.

He also participated in the design and operation of the Shallow Subsurface Radar (SHARAD) currently orbiting Mars on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Active in the analysis of radar data, Safaeinili served as the Investigation Scientist for the radar investigations on both projects. In addition to earlier work on the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM), he led and contributed to efforts to develop new VHF and HF radars for Earth observations and potential applications to Europa and other icy bodies.

Safaeinili often expressed his gratitude for being given the opportunity to do what he loved most in his work at JPL. He also enjoyed giving back to the community, and volunteered with the Westminster Free Clinic, which provides medical care to the uninsured. He was appreciated by all for his warmth, good sense of humor, and generous spirit, and he will be sorely missed by his family, friends, and colleagues.

Portland mosque agreement reached

PORTLAND, OR–The City of Portland has reached an agreement with the Portland Masjid and Islamic center that will allow the latter to use a building as a mosque.

Earlier the Maine Civil Liberties Union had filed a lawsuit on behalf of the mosque alleging the city’s zoining ordinances violate religious freedom.

Under the interim agreement, the Islamic Center can use the former TV repair shop on Washington Avenue for religious purposes while the MCLU’s lawsuit moves forward.

A spokesperson says the city hopes to continue to talk with the group, and to consider amendments to zoning ordinances.

Meatpacking plans taking steps to prevent prayer disputes

LINCOLN, NB–Officials at a Grand Island meatpacking plant said they are taking steps to prevent a repeat of last year’s Muslim Prayer disputes.

It led to disruption at JBS Swift and company, also mass firings.

The Muslim Holy month of Ramadan begins Saturday.

Swift officials, along with Muslim Somali advocates and Union representatives said they are trying to accommodate workers who want to pray at sunset.
Last September, hundreds were involved in protests and counter protests at the plant during Ramadan.

New Jersey ‘Halal’  firm recalls beef products

VINELAND, August 18, 2009 (News Agencies)– Pasha Halal Poultry, doing business as Marcacci Meatsin Vineland, New Jersey, is recalling approximately 128 pounds of ground beef contiminated with ecoli.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has announced the products subject to this recall include:

* Various sizes of plastic-wrapped packages of “MARCACCI MEATS, GROUND BEEF.”

* 10-pound boxes of “MARCACCI MEATS, GROUND BEEF.”

The ground beef products were packed in foam containers and bear a package code of “8.12.09” as well as the establishment number “EST. 5913” inside the USDA mark of inspection.

These ground beef products were produced on Aug. 12, 2009, and were distributed to a consumer at the wholesale level in the Atlantic City, N.J., area, and packaged for sale to consumers at the retail level in Vineland, N.J.

Media and consumers with questions regarding the recall should contact company Owner Mehmet Silpagar at (856) 691-4848.

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Mumbai Terrorist Attacks Awaken Bollywood

December 31, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

The India film stars dictate fashion and customs, but they usually aren’t politically active. The recent killings seem to have changed that.

Courtesy Anupama Chopra, LA Times

Reporting from Mumbai — Amitabh Bachchan slept with a gun. On Nov. 26, as 10 terrorists orchestrated mayhem at Mumbai’s landmark hotels and train station, Bollywood’s most enduring superstar pulled out his revolver.

The following day, he wrote on his blog: “As an Indian, I need to live in my own land, on my own soil with dignity and without fear. And I need an assurance on that. I am ashamed to say this and not afraid to share this now with the rest of the cyber world, that last night as the events of the terror attack unfolded in front of me, I did something for the first time and one that I had hoped never ever to be in a situation to do. Before retiring for the night, I pulled out my licensed .32 revolver and put it under my pillow. For a very disturbed sleep.”

As the bloody face-off between the terrorists and Indian commandos continued for three days, Aamir Khan, another major star and avid blogger, wrote: “Terrorists are not Hindu or Muslim or Christian. They are not people of religion or God . . . an incident such as this really exposes how ill equipped we are as a society as far as proper leaders go. We desperately need young, dynamic, honest, intelligent and upright leaders who actually care for the country.”

A few days after the attack, Shah Rukh Khan, who is known to Hindi film viewers as King Khan and routinely described as more famous than Tom Cruise, told a leading television channel, “I have read the Holy Koran. It states that if you heal one man, you heal the whole of mankind and if you hurt one man, you hurt the whole of mankind. . . . There is an Islam from Allah and very unfortunately, there is an Islam from the mullahs.”

This impassioned, unflinching outburst is rare for Bollywood. Mumbai’s Hindi film industry produces 200-odd films each year for an estimated annual audience of 3.6 billion. Bollywood and its stars dictate fashions, language, rituals and aspirations for millions of Indians and non-Indians around the globe. In Britain and the U.S., Bollywood box office is largely driven by Indian immigrants, but in countries such as Malaysia, Poland and Germany, even locals are avid consumers. Hindi films vary from fantastical entertainers to realistic, low-budget urbane dramas that usually appeal to more educated audiences. Bollywood is one of the few film industries globally that has withstood the Hollywood goliath. In fact, Hollywood is pushing for a piece of the booming Bollywood pie; studios such as Sony and Warner are producing Hindi films.

But despite its cultural clout, Bollywood has largely been an insular, apolitical space — columnist and author Shobhaa De, more acerbically, described it as “apathetic.” Unlike their Hollywood counterparts, stars here have rarely aligned themselves with causes. Even those who join political parties usually serve an ornamental function.

Like much of India’s elite and middle class, the film industry has preferred to disengage from politics and the invariably messy functioning of the world’s largest democracy. “Most Bollywood actors claim their job is to entertain the masses — nothing more, nothing less,” De said. “It is the Republic of Bollywood movie stars owe any allegiance to.”

But the terrorist attacks, which claimed 164 lives (plus those of nine gunmen), have forced the film industry to abandon its customary neutral stance. In blogs, media, petitions and peace marches, Bollywood has come forward to denounce the attacks and demand better governance. Most significantly, many leading Muslim stars who until now rarely delved into the controversies of religion have condemned the attacks as “un-Islamic.” They have, as Gyan Prakash, professor of history at Princeton University put it, “reclaimed their religion.” In an interview, actor Anil Kapoor, now appearing in “ Slumdog Millionaire,” called the attacks “a tipping point,” adding: “I think things will be different now.”

The film industry can play a prominent role in India’s post 26/11 citizens’ movement, not only because of its cultural cachet but also because Bollywood is and always has been inherently secular. India is home to about 151 million Muslims, the third-largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia and Pakistan. The majority Hindus and minority Muslims share a long and tragic history, and politicians of every hue have exploited this divide. Hindu-Muslim relations are usually in a state of simmer, and the decades-old distrust routinely boils over in riots, murder and more recently terrorism.

Intriguingly, Bollywood has largely managed to resist this communal caldron. Through the decades, Hindus and Muslims have worked together without any palpable friction. In fact the biggest stars in contemporary Bollywood are Muslim (this includes the reigning superstar trinity of Shah Rukh, Aamir and Salman Khan). In “Maximum City,” his bestselling book on Mumbai, Suketu Mehta described the Hindi film industry as having “the secularism of a brothel.” “All are welcome,” he wrote, “as long as they carry or make money.”

Among Bollywood’s earliest stars were Australian-born Mary Ann Evans, known to her fans as Fearless Nadia — a whip-wielding, iconic action heroine in the 1930s; the Jewish Florence Ezekiel, known to her fans as Nadira, a legendary vamp who seduced with her smoldering looks in the 1950s; and the Anglo-Indian-Burmese Helen, who from the 1950s to the 1970s was Bollywood’s most famous dancer.
Box office is king

Writer-lyricist Javed Akhtar, president of an organization called Muslims for Secular Democracy, disapproves of Mehta’s brothel comparison but agreed that in the 40-odd years that he had been working in Bollywood, he had never encountered bias. “There is a method in the madness,” he said. “People in films — from the biggest stars to the smallest — know that their survival is in the success of the film. When you go to the racecourse, you cannot not bet on the winning horse because the jockey is of some other religion. You want to win the race so you cannot afford to be communal.”

Bollywood’s reigning deity is the box office. Consequently, Akhtar pointed out, even actors and technicians who are high-profile members of the right-wing Hindu Bhartiya Janta Party will behave “in a totally separate manner within the industry.”

Attempts to divide the industry on religious lines have found little support. In July, a little-known terror outfit called the Indian Mujahideen issued death threats via e-mail to leading Muslim actors, urging them to stop acting in movies or face the consequences. The industry collectively denounced the mail and Saif Ali, one of the actors threatened, responded in a newspaper saying that he would “rather be shot than not do a shot.”

Eight years ago, a Hindu actor named Hrithik Roshan became an overnight sensation with his debut film, “Kaho Na Pyar Hai” (Say You Love Me). As the film ran to packed houses, a right-wing Hindu magazine, Panchjanya, ran a cover story insisting that Roshan was the Hindu answer to the Muslim Khan supremacy in Bollywood. The claim was resoundingly ignored. These contrived divisions also have little meaning in Bollywood because many of the leading stars have had interfaith marriages.

Even at historic turning points such as the 1947 partition, when Hindu-Muslim relations were violently fraught, the film industry has remained impervious to religious bias. In the 1940s and 1950s, the industry was also less self-focused and inward-looking. Cultural groups such as the Progressive Writers’ Assn. and the India Peoples’ Theatre Assn. exerted a great influence on the leading writers, actors and directors of the time. The filmmakers and their films reflected an awareness and engagement with social causes.

But by the 1970s, a disconnect had set in. Prakash pinned it on “the Amitabh Bachchan phenomenon.” After the actor had a string of successive hits, the media labeled him “a one-man industry.” According to Prakash: “The Bollywood space changed then and became about celebrity.”

Star-driven culture

This celebrity has only amplified in recent years. The post-liberalization media explosion and consumerist culture have converted actors into brands and they are constantly “on,” whether in cinema halls, television shows or newspapers and magazines. Hindi cinema and especially its stars dominate India’s cultural landscape, enjoying a super-size visibility. Media doggedly report on the minutiae of their lives, from love affairs to diet to favored hair stylist. Political parties have often attempted to turn this visibility into votes by using stars to campaign for them, but Bollywood stars in politics have largely been, in De’s words, “a monumental joke.”

Prakash agreed. “Unlike Hollywood, Bollywood has became a space only for stardom,” he said. “Politics is problematic, and it’s not conducive to stardom. It only gets in the way.”
Aamir Khan discovered this the hard way in 2006, when he joined activists demanding the rehabilitation of farmers displaced by the construction of a dam in the western state of Gujarat. The government demanded an apology. When he refused, multiplex owners in Gujarat refused to screen the actor’s film “Fanaa” (Destroyed). Though the film eventually became a blockbuster, losses from the Gujarat ban — deemed unconstitutional by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — ran into the millions. Not surprisingly then, silence and insularity are the preferred mode here.
Actress Preity Zinta, one of the industry’s more outspoken stars, said the prevailing silence also had to do with the quality of leadership. “Where are our icons?” she asked. “Give me one inspiring leader and I will not even think twice before offering support. Look at the political class abroad. I jumped as high as anyone in America when Obama won.”
Terrorism has provided the impetus that politicians could not. Zinta was among the thousands of people who gathered Dec. 3 at the Gateway of India (opposite the Taj Mahal hotel) to protest the attacks and demand better security. The gathering, organized spontaneously through e-mail, text messages and Facebook, was described in leading newspapers as unprecedented.
Farhan Akhtar, Javed Akhtar’s son and a filmmaker-actor, was also at the Gateway. When the firing started Nov. 26, Farhan was shooting the first episode of a “Saturday Night Live”-style television show called “Oye It’s Friday.” Farhan, who hosts the show, and his producers stopped work because, he said, “we were too depressed to continue.” But a few days later, they regrouped to rewrite a part of the show. The first episode now included several biting comic lines about politicians and their legendary incompetence. “There has been no event of this magnitude, nothing this drastic to get people polarized,” Farhan said. “But now people have had enough. We’re not going to take it lying down anymore.”
The big question is: How long will the anger last? Skeptics like De don’t envision a more politically sensitized Bollywood, but many such as Zinta and Farhan believe and hope that a sustained involvement will follow. But even if the current activism dilutes with time, the Hindi film industry, an inclusive, successful global brand, will remain a symbol of unity in a deeply fractured country.
Chopra writes frequently about Indian cinema. Her books include “King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema.”