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Professor A. R. Momin

Inter-civilizational dialogue

Most of our readers must be familiar with the thesis of clash of civilizations propounded by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington. Huntington argues that the principal source of conflict in the international arena in the years to come will not be primarily ideological or economic but cultural. He sees Islam and Western Christianity as potentially pitted against each other as the defining feature of the rapidly changing global scenario. Underlying Huntington’s thesis is the assumption that a clash of civilizations between the Islamic and Western worlds is inevitable, largely because, in his view, Islam cannot peacefully coexist with other cultures and civilizations.

Huntington’s argument rests on fallacious premises and questionable assumptions about the dynamics of human society and civilization. His thesis has been repudiated by some of the world’s leading intellectuals and writers and publicly denounced by many statesmen and heads of states in Europe and the United States.

A much-needed corrective to the misguided thesis of the clash of civilizations has recently been provided by the UN-sponsored document on the Alliance of Civilizations. The UN initiative was cosponsored by the prime ministers of predominantly Catholic Spain and Muslim Turkey. The Alliance of Civilizations report was prepared by a cross-cultural group of 20 prominent international figures from a variety of religious traditions, including the former Iranian president Mohammed Khatami and Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The report was presented to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan at a ceremony in Istanbul on 13 November 2006. The report calls for urgent efforts to bridge the growing divide between Muslims and the West. It points out that the main causes of the rift are not religion, culture or history, but recent political developments, notably the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Kofi Annan pointed out at the ceremony that as long as the Palestinians live under occupation, exposed to daily frustration and humiliation, and as long as Israelis are blown up in buses and in dance halls, so long will passions everywhere be inflamed. He added that no other dispute had such a huge symbolic or emotional impact on people.

The Alliance of Civilizations report notes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, along with Western military interventions in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, contributes significantly to the growing sense of resentment and mistrust that mars relations among communities. The report warns that globalization is contributing to the discord, with many communities perceiving it as “an assault.” For these communities, the report says, “the prospect of greater well-being has come at a high price, which includes cultural homogenisation, family dislocation, challenges to traditional lifestyles and environmental degradation.”

The report points out that “people who feel that they face persistent discrimination, humiliation or marginalization are reacting by asserting their identity more aggressively. However, the report dismisses the notion that a clash of civilizations is inevitable. It emphasizes that “the need to build bridges between Muslims and the West has never been greater”.

In a related development, a recent BBC-sponsored survey of people in 27 countries says that an average of 56% people said they saw positive links between the West and the Islamic world, despite current global tensions. Doug Miller, president of Globescan, the agency which carried out the survey, said the results suggested that the world was not heading towards an inevitable and wide-ranging “clash of civilizations.” Most of the respondents felt the conflict between Muslims and the West was about political power and interests, and not about culture and religion. Interestingly, the most positive responses came from Western countries, saying it is possible to find common ground between Islamic countries and the West.

Loneliness and Alzheimer’s disease

Dementia is emerging as an increasingly worrisome ailment in large parts of the world, especially in Western countries. It is defined as an acquired deterioration in cognitive abilities that impairs the successful performance of daily activities. Loss of memory is the most common cognitive dysfunction in dementia. In addition to memory, other mental faculties, such as language, calculation, visuospatial ability, judgement and problem solving, are also affected. Dementia affects four million people in the United States and involves a total health care cost of $100 billion annually. Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common cause of dementia. In the US, approximately 10% of all persons over the age of 70 experience significant memory loss, and in more than half of the cases the cause is Alzheimer’s disease. In the US the annual cost of caring for a single AD patient in an advanced stage of the disease is estimated at $50,000. In India about 3% of people in the age group of 65-75 suffer from dementia.

A recent study of more than 800 elderly patients in the US, who were followed over a four-year period, has suggested that people who lead lonely lives are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. This was revealed in a paper published in Archives of General Psychiatry in 2007. Social isolation has already been shown to be linked to dementia, but this is the first time researchers have looked at how lonely people actually felt. The study found that the risk of developing AD increased by 51% for each point of the loneliness score. Those with the highest loneliness score of 3.2 had about 2.1 times the risk of developing AD, compared to those with a low score of 1.4. In addition, autopsies were carried out on 90 patients who died during the study to investigate certain physical symptoms of AD, such as deposits of protein outside and around nerve cells.

The leader of the study Professor Robert Wilson, professor of neuropsychology at Rush University Medical Centre in the United States, points out that loneliness may affect systems in the brain dealing with cognition and memory, making lonely people more vulnerable to the effects of age-related decline in neural pathways. Professor Wilson adds that we need to be aware that loneliness has not only an emotional impact on old people but also a physical impact.

The National Institute on Aging at the University of Chicago sponsored a study in 2006, which found that men and women between 50 and 68 who scored the highest on measures of loneliness also had high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease, the number one killer in the US. Lonely people, according to the study, are also susceptible to depression, alcoholism, weak immune system, impaired sleep and suicidal tendencies.

In China six million people suffer from AD, a third of all Alzheimer’s patients in the world, and the number of diagnosed cases is rising. The increase in incidence of AD in China is linked to the erosion of the country’s traditional support networks. Residential patterns in large cities in China, as in other cities around the world, are undergoing a radical transformation. Living in high-rise buildings and apartments breeds individualism and social isolation. This new urban ecology affects old people the most—especially those who live alone and have no one to talk to—and results in loneliness and depression. And depression is a risk factor for AD.

The worrisome increase in AD is related to a set of social, cultural, behavioural and psychological factors. For one thing, people are living longer, thanks to modern medicine and better health care facilities. The significant contributory factors include the breakdown of networks of support provided by the extended family and kin, neighbourhood and the community, accelerated geographical and occupational mobility on the part of the professional class, growing individualism and the increasing trend towards nuclearisation of family. All this makes old people feel increasingly lonely and depressed and susceptible to a variety of physical and psychosomatic ailments, including AD.

Recent researches suggest that the US is becoming increasingly socially isolated. One recent study, for example, found that one-fourth of Americans say they have no one with whom they could share and discuss important personal matters. Paradoxically, modern information and communication technologies—especially the mobile phone and the Internet—seem to facilitate greater communication and connectedness among people. At the same time, personal, face-to-face interaction is being increasingly replaced by virtual or online communication. Michael Lewis, in his book The Future Just Happened (2000) draws attention to the social effects of the Net and observes that the Internet tends to encourage isolation and seclusion among youngsters in relation to the family, neighbourhood and the wider society.

Robert Putnam has described the decline of community in the US in the metaphor of ‘bowling alone.’ He points out that growing social isolation is closely linked to the escalating rate of depression and other signs of worsening mental and physical health.

Circumcision and the prevention of AIDS

HIV infection/AIDS is a global scourge, with cases reported from virtually every country. The current estimate of the number of cases of HIV infection among adults worldwide is over 37 million, two-thirds of whom are in sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly 50% of cases are women. In addition, an estimated 2.5 million children younger than age 15 are living with HIV/AIDS. There are three million deaths from AIDS annually, making it the fourth leading cause of mortality worldwide. The cumulative number of AIDS-related deaths worldwide through the year 2003 exceeds 20 million. In 2006, 2.8 million people in sub-Saharan Africa became infected with HIV, out of which 2.1 million died.

In December 2006 two major trials were carried out by the US National Institute of Health in Kenya and Uganda. The full data from the trials were published in a paper in The Lancet in February 2007. The paper says that conclusive data shows that circumcision reduces men’s chances of catching HIV by up to 60%. “This is an extraordinary development,” said Dr. Kevin de Cock, Director of the World Health Organisation’s AIDS Department. Circumcision seems to be the most potent intervention in HIV prevention. A joint analysis in 2006 by WHO in Geneva, UNAIDS and other experts around the world found that in sub-Saharan Africa circumcision could avert 2 million new infections and 0.3 million deaths over the subsequent 10 years. These studies lead to the conclusion that “circumcision must now be deemed to be a proven intervention for reducing the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in adult men.”

Medical researches have found circumcision to be a highly effective preventive intervention in respect of several diseases in men and women. There is a strong correlation between circumcision and the absence of cancer of male genitals. A number of studies have documented higher rates of cervical cancer in women who had uncircumcised partners. A recent large international study has provided overwhelming evidence of the link between lack of male circumcision and cervical cancer in the female partner. Sexual relations with uncircumcised males put women at greater risk of a variety of infections.

Legitimising incest?

Incestuous relationships have been universally disapproved across the world and in all ages. However, isolated incidence of incest have been reported among royal families in ancient Egypt, ancient Persia and Rome, Thailand, Japan, Hawaii and among the Inca of highland South America. Pharaoh Ramses II (who lived during the age of Prophet Moses) had married his own daughter. These incidences constitute an exception to the universal existence of incest prohibitions.

Once in a while one hears of stray, isolated cases of incest, which is otherwise considered a pathetic deviation from the normative order of society. According to the BBC Internet News (7 March 2007), Patrick Stuebing, 30, and Susan Karolewski, 22, of Leipzig, Germany, who are real brother and sister, are living together as a couple for the last six years and have four children from this relationship. Their whole family broke apart when they were younger. Patrick did not meet his mother and other members of his family until he was 23. He met his sister Susan for the first time after their mother died and fell in love with her. Susan says she does not feel guilty about their relationship.

Incest is a criminal offence in Germany. Patrick has already served a two-year sentence for committing incest. Three of his children have been taken away by the authorities and placed in the care of foster families. The couple’s lawyer has lodged an appeal with Germany’s highest judicial authority, the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe, in order to overturn the ban on incest. The case has prompted a heated debate in the German media. A ruling from the Constitutional Court is expected in the next few months. Incidentally, France has abolished the law against incest.

Medical research has shown that there is a higher risk of genetic abnormalities when close relatives--especially father and daughter, brother and sister—have a child together. When siblings have children there is a 50% chance that the offspring will be abnormal. The average risk of genetic abnormalities is increased eightfold for brother-sister and parent-child matings. The mortality rate among children born of incest is about twice that of normal children, and among those who survive, genetic defects such as dwarfism, heart deformities, deaf-mutism and severe mental retardation are ten times more common.

Stray, isolated incidents of incest in Western countries, which are reported by the media, should be viewed in the wider social and cultural context of Western societies. There is some evidence from comparative ethology that incest prohibitions in human society have possibly some biological basis. More important, however, is the fact that societal sanction against incest is ingrained in the consciousness of children in the course of socialization. Cultural and moral values in the wider society have a significant bearing on the incest taboo.

The steady erosion of moral and religious values in Western societies is all too evident. This is reflected in increasing sexual permissiveness among men and women, in the growing incidence of cohabitation without marriage and births out of wedlock, in the increasing use of explicit sexual images in advertising, media and the Internet, and in growing gay and lesbian relationships. In France, a survey carried out in 2000 indicated that men had an average of 11.3 sexual partners in their lifetime, compared to 3.4 for women. About half the babies in Sweden are born to unwed mothers. In Britain four out of ten babies were born to unwed mothers in 2004. It is estimated by the Office for National Statistics in London that by 2012 most babies in Britain will be born to unwed mothers. By 2030 eight out of ten births will be outside the fold of marriage.

Family breakdown has a devastating impact on children and adolescents. Studies suggest that the trauma of watching parents split up or having no father around, coupled with an excessive exposure to explicit sexual images on television and the Internet, may speed up puberty in girls. The age at which adolescents in most Western countries mature—around 12 years—has fallen by up to 3 years over the last century. But the early onset of puberty is not being matched by emotional maturity, which could leave youngsters at a greater risk of teenage pregnancy and drug and alcohol abuse.

Islam considers incest as a horrifying transgression of the moral order of society. The prohibition against marrying close relative includes three broad categories: (i) consanguinous (blood relatives, such as parents, siblings, uncle, aunt, etc) (ii) affinal (related by marriage) (iii) lactational (related through milk fosterage and wet nursing). A man’s foster sister, for example, is as unlawful for him as his natural sister.

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