In the Shadow of Fiction: How Television Is Making (Up) Muslim History

In the Shadow of Fiction: How Television Is Making (Up) Muslim History

Posted: 31/08/2012 00:27 BST Updated: 30/10/2012 09:12 GMT

In Channel 4’s Islam: the Untold Story, aired 28 August, British writer Tom Holland – garbed Indiana Jones-style in billowing shirt and trusty hat – treks across the Arabian desert, talking to local Bedouins, and inspecting historical artefacts to investigate the origins of Islam. Muhammed, he concludes, probably never came from Mecca, but from Transjordania; the Qur’an and its teachings are largely borrowed from local religious traditions, Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism; and it is questionable whether ‘Islam’ ever really existed as a distinctive, coherent faith during Muhammed’s reign. Rather, the religion of Islam was an innovation of the Arab empires, cynically manufactured to legitamise its expansion by conquest over much of what we now know as the Middle East.

To vindicate this thesis – based largely on his new book, In the Shadow of the Sword – Holland interviews a handful of sceptical Western scholars of Islam. But his narrative is replete with elementary, often laughable, errors. Perhaps the most glaring is his insistence that Mecca is only mentioned once, ambiguously, in the Qur’an – evidence for Holland that the Prophet never came from Mecca. But this is a strange inaccuracy, for the Qur’an mentions Mecca clearly: “And He it is Who held back their hands from you and your hands from them in the valley of Mecca after He had given you victory over them.” (48:24) He then makes much of the Qur’an’s references to “Becca”, as if this must be a completely different place, oblivious to the fact that in South Arabic, the language used in the south of the Arabian peninsula during the time of Muhammed, the sounds b and m were interchangeable – as documented in 1973 by Princeton University Arabist, professor Philip Hitti.

Holland also argues that the Qur’an’s frequent references to vines and olives points to the existence of an agricultural society. Mecca was barren and lacked agriculture; therefore, hey presto!, Muhammed’s message originated elsewhere. The inference is truly bizarre: neighbouring Medina, where Muhammed emigrated fleeing persecution in Mecca – and where he continued to receive a large bulk of the revelations of the Qur’an – was a thriving “agricultural settlement, with widely scattered palm groves and armed farmsteads.”

Holland’s other pillar of evidence is equally meaningless. Holland visits the site of Sodom, and highlights the Qur’an’s statement that its readers “pass by them in the morning and at night” (47:133-8) Flabbergasted, Holland asks: “What is it doing here – a thousand kilometres from Mecca?” That the Meccans were frequent travelling traders who would have routinely passed through this area – as widely documented by scholars such as William Montgomery Watt in the Encyclopedia of Islam (2008) and Ira Lapidus in his Cambridge University study (1988) – appears to be lost on Holland.

Holland’s lack of familiarity with the wider literature in Western scholarship on Islam is thus painfully obvious to serious historians. Early on, Holland speaks of the study of history in Western universities as based on “scepticism and doubt” – in contrast, presumably, to Muslim historians, who simply shape ‘facts’ to fit their faith. The problem is that even though Holland looks dapper in his Indiana outfit, he is not really a historian – and in his latest work, it shows.

Although for the last nine years Holland has written popular history, the bulk of his writing is fiction – including titles such as The Vampyre (1995), Supping with Panthers (1996), The Sleeper in the Sands (1998), and The Bone Hunter (2001). Yet he has no qualifications in history, and cannot even speak Arabic – which is why he employed a Syriac and Arabic-speaking researcher.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, to find him – in true Indy-style – adopting a 1930s colonial mindset early on, informing viewers that: “To the ancients, the Arabs were regarded as notorious savages.” As if to hit this point home, the only people he finds to endorse orthodox accounts of Islam’s origins are Bedouin Arabs living in the desert. At one symbolic point, Holland prays amongst them, then suddenly – for no apparent reason – extracts himself from the congregation in the middle of the prayer only to peer, wonderingly, around him, as if to underscore the questionable origins of one of Islam’s most sacred rituals.

Strangely, the only other Muslim who makes an appearance to represent the ‘canonical’ view of Islam’s origins is Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University. Troubled by what he conceives as gaps in the historical record, and inconsistencies between the scriptural account and hard evidence on the ground, Holland is confidently informed by Nasr that such an absence of evidence is irrelevant for Muslims who recognise the limits of reason in the face of transcendental realities.

But Channel 4’s sole selection of Nasr as representative of the orthodox historical account is disingenuous. Although he is a renowned philosopher specialising in comparative religion, Islamic esoterism, philosophy of science, and metaphysics, Nasr has contributed little on the minutiae of Islamic history. Through such selective production values and imagery, the film strikes a stark contrast between Western logic and Muslim belief. Muslims are portrayed as steeped in a strange, backward irrationality – out of touch with the modern world with its newfangled, super-scientific methods of historical analysis, and immune to the impact of reason when it comes to longstanding beliefs.

What Channel 4 viewers aren’t told is that the theories Holland regurgitates are not only heavily contested in the wider Western scholarly community, they were almost completely discarded some decades ago. One of their core proponents, Patricia Crone, makes a regular talking-head appearance in the film (as well as being heavily referenced in Holland’s book among others). Holland essentially resurrects their ideas – published back in the 1970s – with unnerving gullibility, accentuating the “black hole” of evidence on early Islam where one should expect abundance.

But, unbeknownst to Channel 4 researchers, he is simply wrong. Petra Sijpestein, Professor of Arabic at Leiden University, remarks: “In the writings of 12 years after the death of Muhammad, Muslims are referred to as a separate religious group, first using the term muhajiroun, migrants who had left hearth and home with a purpose, or Saracens, descendents of Sarah and Abraham. And from around 730AD, terms like Islam, Muslims and specific religious customs such as zakat (charity) were already being practiced and described.”

Yet Holland is a man on a mission. Uncritically parroting the Crone thesis that “there is no hard evidence for the existence of the Koran in any form before the last decade of the seventh century” – he infers that the Arab empires self-servingly concocted Islam as a radically distinct faith. For one thing, there are numerous Qur’anic manuscripts from the first century of hijra, which possess no significant textual deviations. But worse, apart from the fact that Islam has never presented itself as an entirely new religion (rather as a continuation and confirmation of the Jewish and Christian traditions), this theory has almost no currency at all in the very Western universities that Holland claims to admire.

As noted by the late Robert Seargeant, Sir Thomas Adams Professor of Arabic at Cambridge University, Crone’s argument “is not only bitterly anti-Islamic in tone, but anti-Arabian. Its superficial fancies are so ridiculous that at first one wonders if it is just a ‘leg pull’, pure ‘spoof’.” No wonder that the theory of a “reconstructable past” which “relies only on sources outside of Islam”, has “been almost universally rejected” according to Gordon Newsby, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Emory University. This is because, says David Waines, an Islamic Studies professor at Lancaster University, it is “far too tentative and conjectural (and possibly contradictory).”

Serious debate on Islamic historiography is welcome – including re-evaluation of hadith (oral traditions of the Prophet), and re-assessing regressive elements of ‘Shari’ah Law‘ belonging to the cultural conventions of Arab dynasties. Channel 4‘s film distracts from this urgent task by popularising outmoded anti-Arab theories, long ago dismissed by most serious Western academic institutions as Eurocentric Orientalist fictions.

by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed

Israel to create Nazi style concentration camps for thousands of Bedouins

Civil Administration plans to expel thousands of Bedouins from homes, concentrate them in inadequate settlement


 17 Sep 2014

Resident of ‘Ein Karzaliyah in the Jordan Valley. Photo: 'Atef Abu a-Rub, B'Tselem, 8 Jan. 2014
Resident of ‘Ein Karzaliyah in the Jordan Valley. Photo: ‘Atef Abu a-Rub, B’Tselem, 8 Jan. 2014 

The Civil Administration has filed for objections plans for establishing a new settlement in the Jordan Valley, where thousands of Bedouins will be forced to relocate. The Civil Administration is advancing several such plans.

The current plan was drawn up without consulting the residents themselves, ignoring their needs. It is part of the Civil Administration’s repeated attempts to concentrate the Bedouins living in the West Bank’s Area C in “permanent sites”, with a view to annexing most of this area to Israel and leaving it free for Israeli use, including settlement expansion.

The new settlement, to be named Ramat Nu’eimeh, will be built in Area C near Jericho, in the Jordan Valley, and is slated to house about 12,500 people from Bedouin communities in the Jordan Valley and the Ma’ale Adumim area.

The first three plans for the settlement were filed for objections on 25 August 2014. They included a settlement intended for the Rashaydah tribe, which currently lives in the area, and a road running between the two settlement clusters. On 9 September 2014, three more plans were filed – two for building residences and one for constructing a road. Local residents and Israeli human rights organization Bimkom plan to submit several objections to these plans.

Map of the planned settlement "Ramat Nu’eimeh", courtesy of "Bimkom". Click on map to enlarge
Map of the planned settlement “Ramat Nu’eimeh”, courtesy of “Bimkom”. Click on map to enlarge

The plans were made without consulting the residents, who were not notified of the scope of the plans, and were therefore unable to present their position and make their needs known. The plans ignore the residents’ agrarian way of life and will not allow them to continue shepherding as before. The new settlement will be surrounded from all sides, in part by firing zones, settlements and a military checkpoint, leaving the residents without grazing pastures for their livestock. In addition, the plans force different tribes and communities to live together, contrary to traditional practices.

Most Bedouins living in the West Bank arrived there after they left their homes in the Negev desert, in southern Israel, or were expelled from them, in 1948. Ever since Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, they have been forced to relocate several times to allow for Israeli settlements, firing zones, new nature reserves declared, and more. Hundreds of demolition orders have been issued against their homes and entire communities have been repeatedly expelled.

Israeli authorities, and particularly the Civil Administration, which oversees these matters, have refrained from making master plans that meet these residents’ needs and allow them to continue living according to traditional practice. The authorities have never recognized any rights the residents may have to the land. As a result, Bedouin residents suffer from a very low standard of living: they are not connected to the power grid, only some are connected to the water grid, and their access to basic services such as health and education is extremely limited. Their main source of income is shepherding, but the Israeli authorities limit their access to grazing pastures and markets.

According to the Civil Administration, the plan’s objective is to improve the standard of living in these communities and to provide proper housing conditions. The spokesperson of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) said, in response to an article published in Israeli daily Ha’aretz on the matter, that the purpose of the new settlement is to “allow the community to settle in an organized area with proper, suitable infrastructure”.

However, if the Civil Administration had the best interests of these communities in mind, it would have consulted with them in the planning stages and prepared plans that meet their needs and allow them to continue their way of life. Instead, the Administration is forcing upon them a plan that dictates an extreme change to their lifestyle, denies their sources of livelihood, and may destroy their communities.

The Civil Administration has previously forced Bedouin communities into permanent housing: during the 1990s, the Civil Administration built a settlement near the Abu Dis landfill and expelled members of the al-Jahalin tribe from their homes to live at the site in order to make way for the expansion of the Ma’ale Adumim settlement. That site was also planned without consulting the residents. In addition to the harsh impacts of living near a landfill, relocation to the new site destroyed the Bedouin way of life, harming the residents and community life. The land allocated to each family was not large enough to house livestock and the army restricted access to grazing pastures that had been promised. As a result, only 30% of the residents have continued to earn a living as shepherds.

School in Khan al-Ahmar, a Bedouin community slated for demolition near which the Ma’ale Adumim settlement was built. Photo: Anne Paq,, 4 September 2011
School in Khan al-Ahmar, a Bedouin community slated for demolition near which the Ma’ale Adumim settlement was built. Photo: Anne Paq,, 4 September 2011

The current plan is part of concerted efforts made by various Israeli authorities, over decades, to expel thousands of Palestinians living in dozens of communities scattered throughout Area C from their homes. Israeli officials have repeatedly declared their intent to take over Area C in order to create circumstances that would facilitate its annexation to Israel in a permanent agreement, and to annex it de-facto until then.

The Civil Administration’s plan runs counter to the provisions of international humanitarian law, which prohibit the forcible transfer of protected persons, unless it is carried out for their own protection or for an imperative military need. Even when the transfer meets these criteria, it must be temporary. The current case clearly fails to fulfil these conditions. Moreover, as representatives of the occupying power, Israeli authorities have an obligation to work for the benefit and welfare of the residents of the occupied territory. The plan to expel these residents from their homes, as well as impose living conditions on some that would undermine their source of livelihood, is a breach of this duty. It is clearly meant to advance political objectives entirely unrelated to the obligations of an occupying power.

The Civil Administration must withdraw the plans for establishing Ramat Nu’eimeh immediately. It must allow Bedouin communities to pursue their way of life, plan their communities and build their homes lawfully. It must connect them to infrastructure and provide them with basic health and education services.

Contradicting its own ruling, Israel’s Supreme Court legalizes segregated communities

Contradicting its own ruling, Israel’s Supreme Court legalizes segregated communities

The Israeli Supreme Court Wednesday dismissed various petitions against the Admissions Committees Law, which allows admissions committees in hundreds of communities in Israel to reject housing applicants based on their “social suitability.”

By Amjad Iraqi

March 8, 2000 marked a unique moment in Israeli history. In a major decision, the Supreme Court of Israel ruled that the town of Katzir, which was established on state land by the Jewish Agency, could not deny the right of the Arab Ka’adan family to live in the town simply on the basis that they were not Jewish. This was the first time that Palestinian citizens of Israel successfully challenged the legality of “Jewish-only” communities in the state, generating cautious optimism that it could set an important precedent for Palestinian rights in land and housing.

Fifteen years later, on September 17, 2014, these hopes came to an abrupt end. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court dismissed various petitions filed by human rights groups against the Admissions Committees Law, enacted by the Knesset in 2011. The law allows admissions committees in 434 communities in the Negev and the Galilee (about 43 percent of all towns in Israel) to reject housing applicants based on their “social suitability” and the communities’ “social and cultural fabric.” In effect, these committees are now legally permitted to refuse residency based on any “undesired” identity, including Palestinian, Sephardic, African, gay, religious, secular and others.

The Admissions Committees Law is the Israeli right wing’s response to the Supreme Court ruling in the Ka’adan case. Realizing that marginalized groups were increasingly challenging the state’s discriminatory practices, the Knesset under the 2009-12 Netanyahu government sought to turn Israel’s historical policies against these groups into law. Many Knesset members openly declared that the purpose of these laws was to subdue the “threats” posed by Palestinian citizens to the Jewish character of the state. The authors of the Admissions Committees Law even stated that, though deliberately written in neutral language, its main aim was to prevent Arab citizens from living with Jews.

This objective of segregation is not a new phenomenon in Israel, and has in fact been a central, ongoing practice since the state’s establishment in 1948. Legislation ranging from the Absentees Property Law (1950) to the Negev Individual Settlements Law (2011), along with the policies of the Jewish National Fund, Israel Land Authority and the government itself, operate with the explicit goal of securing maximum and privileged control of land for Israel’s Jewish citizens – a process known as “Judaization.” This runs jointly with the state’s goal of minimizing and concentrating non-Jewish communities in Israel, resulting in the mass confiscation of Palestinian land and the containment of Palestinian towns through discriminatory planning, home demolitions and unequal resource allocation.

Protesters outside the village of Hura in the Negev, protesting against the Prawer Plan, November 30, 2013. The Prawer Plan, if implemented, will displace tens of thousands of Bedouin citizens of Israel. (Photo:

Protesters outside the village of Hura in the Negev, protesting against the Prawer Plan, November 30, 2013. The Prawer Plan, if implemented, will displace tens of thousands of Bedouin citizens of Israel. (Photo:

However, what makes the admissions committees case significant is that the Supreme Court – the supposed bastion of Israeli democracy – has upheld this clearly discriminatory law, claiming that it could not determine yet if the law violated constitutional rights. Numerous petitions condemned the law from multiple angles, including nationality, race, religion and sexual orientation, but the court swept them aside. More importantly, the court directly undermined its own landmark ruling in the Ka’adan case, overriding one of the few legal decisions that set a precedent for minority rights in Israel and the struggle against state-sanctioned discrimination.

The latest ruling instead illustrates the deteriorating status of Palestinian citizens of Israel at the hands of an increasingly right-wing government and high court. Rather than introducing laws that guarantee equal rights for all of Israel’s citizens, the Knesset has worked to deepen racial inequality and consolidate its discriminatory vision for the state. Meanwhile, the judiciary has allowed the government to carry out this program, choosing not to set precedents on critical cases affecting Palestinian rights. With more discriminatory laws being introduced – including the Prawer Plan Bill, the Contributors to the State Bill, and the Jewish Nation-State Bill – Palestinian citizens and others are left fearing that, despite their best efforts to overturn it, race will continue to be the prime determinant of their rights.

It is therefore up to the public, non-governmental actors and the international community to take a principled stance against this unjust law. Racial separation, especially when engineered by a state, must elicit the same condemnation as other cases have before. Under the segregation laws of the Jim Crow South, gentrification and ghettoization were deliberately used against black Americans in order to keep white neighborhoods economically superior and racially homogenous, the effects of which remain damaging to this day. A more infamous comparison is apartheid South Africa’s Group Areas Act, which legalized the state’s policy of designating land for separate races. Like some of the Israeli law’s proponents today, South Africa’s leaders attempted to sugar-coat their intentions by describing racial separation as a policy of “good neighborliness.” However, such claims cannot conceal the fact that the Israeli Supreme Court’s approval of the Admissions Committees Law has granted legal cover for the principle of segregation and, at worst, has permitted a housing system that disturbingly resembles apartheid.

Amjad Iraqi is a projects and advocacy coordinator at Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.


Test Will ‘Mine’ Hydrates for Natural Gas in Alaska

Test Will ‘Mine’ Hydrates for Natural Gas in Alaska

US team will pump waste carbon dioxide into natural-gas well to extract methane.

By Nicola Jones of Nature magazine


This month, scientists will test a new way to extract methane from beneath the frozen soil of Alaska: they will use waste carbon dioxide from conventional wells to force out the desired natural gas.


The pilot experiment will explore the possibility of `mining’ from gas hydrates: cages of water ice that hold molecules of methane. Such hydrates exist under the sea floor and in sandstone deep beneath the Arctic tundra, holding potentially vast reserves of natural gas. But getting the gas out is tricky and expensive.


The test is to be run by the US Department of Energy (DOE), in conjunction with ConocoPhillips, an oil company based in Houston, Texas, and the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation. The researchers will pump CO2 down a well in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, into a hydrate deposit. If all goes as planned, the CO2molecules will exchange with the methane in the hydrates, leaving the water crystals intact and freeing the methane to flow up the well.


Conventional wells in the Prudhoe Bay gas fields contain a very high concentration of carbon dioxide–about 12 percent of the gas. “You have to find something to do with it,” says Ray Boswell, technology manager for methane hydrates at the DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory in Morgantown, West Virginia. One way to dispose of it is to bury the gas underground. Excess carbon dioxide is already pumped down some conventional wells to encourage extraction of the last bits of natural gas; using it to extract methane from hydrates might be a good idea too.


Fuel test

The test will use the Ignik Sikumi well, which was drilled on an ice platform in Prudhoe Bay last winter. Specialized equipment has been installed, including fibre-optic cables to measure the temperature down the well, and injection pipes for the CO2. “None of this is standard equipment; it had to be built to design,” says Boswell.


ConocoPhillips helped the team to get access to the site. “That’s one of the biggest hurdles–getting industry to let you do an experiment in their field,” says Boswell, who has been working to arrange such tests in Alaska since 2001. “There’s a lot of inertia to overcome. Prudhoe is where they make their money,” he adds.


During the test, the researchers will inject nitrogen gas into the hydrate deposit to try to push away any free water in the system, which would otherwise freeze into hydrates on exposure to CO2 and block up the well. The next phase is to pump in isotopically labeled CO2, and let it `soak’ for a week before seeing what comes back up. This will help to test whether the injected carbon is really swapping places with the carbon in the hydrates. Finally, the team will depressurize the well and attempt to suck up all the methane and carbon dioxide. This will also give them a chance to test extraction using depressurization–sucking liquids out of the hydrate deposits to reduce pressure in the well and coax the methane out of the water crystals. “We’ll continue to depressurize until we run out of time or money, and see how much methane we can get out that way,” says Boswell.


Field of dreams

This is not the first attempt to extract methane from hydrates. In 2002, experiments at the Mallik Field site in northern Canada pumped hot water underground to “melt” hydrates and release the methane. In 2008, further tests at the same site tried depressurization. That scheme seems most likely to be commercially viable, says Boswell. “The tests were very short and the modeling has so many moving parts, no one knows exactly what the production rate will be,” he says. “But the test well produced more than the models said it would.”


The CO2-methane exchange method to be tested at Prudhoe Bay removes the need to either add water or dispose of extracted fluids, and doesn’t risk destabilizing the ground by melting the hydrate. It also has the added bonus of getting rid of unwanted gas, which would offset the price of commercial operations. “It doesn’t have to produce methane at a great rate, because you’re also disposing of CO2,” says Boswell.


“The concept is very alluring,” says Scott Dallimore, a hydrate expert with the Geological Survey of Canada in Sidney, British Columbia. “Gas fields in this area have a relatively high CO2 concentration. If this CO2 can be re-injected while at the same time producing methane, it will be a terrific option.”


Commercialization is still a long way off. The U.S. has no urgent need to mine methane hydrates, says Boswell, because it will continue to have access to much cheaper natural-gas resources for some time to come. Japan is much closer to commercialization: the country plans to open a short-term production well in the offshore Nankai Trough in 2013, with the aim of running a longer production test in 2015. The country is “quite eager” to explore the potential of hydrates, says Boswell, because it has few other fossil-fuel resources.


“There’s a perception out there that this is a wild fantasy. That’s not true. I am convinced that the research community has already demonstrated the technical viability of gas-hydrate production,” says Dallimore. “When it comes to the question of commercial viability, things become more complex.”


This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article wasfirst published on January 13, 2012.

How Diversity Makes Us Smarter

How Diversity Makes Us Smarter

Being around people who are different from us makes us more creative, more diligent and harder-working


Edel Rodriguez

In Brief

  • Decades of research by organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers show that socially diverse groups (that is, those with a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation) are more innovative than homogeneous groups.
  • It seems obvious that a group of people with diverse individual expertise would be better than a homogeneous group at solving complex, nonroutine problems. It is less obvious that social diversity should work in the same way—yet the science shows that it does.
  • This is not only because people with different backgrounds bring new information. Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.

The first thing to acknowledge about diversity is that it can be difficult. In the U.S., where the dialogue of inclusion is relatively advanced, even the mention of the word “diversity” can lead to anxiety and conflict. Supreme Court justices disagree on the virtues of diversity and the means for achieving it. Corporations spend billions of dollars to attract and manage diversity both internally and externally, yet they still face discrimination lawsuits, and the leadership ranks of the business world remain predominantly white and male.

It is reasonable to ask what good diversity does us. Diversity of expertise confers benefits that are obvious—you would not think of building a new car without engineers, designers and quality-control experts—but what about social diversity? What good comes from diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation? Research has shown that social diversity in a group can cause discomfort, rougher interactions, a lack of trust, greater perceived interpersonal conflict, lower communication, less cohesion, more concern about disrespect, and other problems. So what is the upside?

The fact is that if you want to build teams or organizations capable of innovating, you need diversity. Diversity enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision making and problem solving. Diversity can improve the bottom line of companies and lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations. Even simply being exposed to diversity can change the way you think. This is not just wishful thinking: it is the conclusion I draw from decades of research from organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers.

Information and Innovation
The key to understanding the positive influence of diversity is the concept of informational diversity. When people are brought together to solve problems in groups, they bring different information, opinions and perspectives. This makes obvious sense when we talk about diversity of disciplinary backgrounds—think again of the interdisciplinary team building a car. The same logic applies to social diversity. People who are different from one another in race, gender and other dimensions bring unique information and experiences to bear on the task at hand. A male and a female engineer might have perspectives as different from one another as an engineer and a physicist—and that is a good thing.

Research on large, innovative organizations has shown repeatedly that this is the case. For example, business professors Cristian Deszö of the University of Maryland and David Ross of Columbia University studied the effect of gender diversity on the top firms in Standard & Poor’s Composite 1500 list, a group designed to reflect the overall U.S. equity market. First, they examined the size and gender composition of firms’ top management teams from 1992 through 2006. Then they looked at the financial performance of the firms. In their words, they found that, on average, “female representation in top management leads to an increase of $42 million in firm value.” They also measured the firms’ “innovation intensity” through the ratio of research and development expenses to assets. They found that companies that prioritized innovation saw greater financial gains when women were part of the top leadership ranks.

Racial diversity can deliver the same kinds of benefits. In a study conducted in 2003, Orlando Richard, a professor of management at the University of Texas at Dallas, and his colleagues surveyed executives at 177 national banks in the U.S., then put together a database comparing financial performance, racial diversity and the emphasis the bank presidents put on innovation. For innovation-focused banks, increases in racial diversity were clearly related to enhanced financial performance.

Evidence for the benefits of diversity can be found well beyond the U.S. In August 2012 a team of researchers at the Credit Suisse Research Institute issued a report in which they examined 2,360 companies globally from 2005 to 2011, looking for a relationship between gender diversity on corporate management boards and financial performance. Sure enough, the researchers found that companies with one or more women on the board delivered higher average returns on equity, lower gearing (that is, net debt to equity) and better average growth.

How Diversity Provokes Thought
Large data-set studies have an obvious limitation: they only show that diversity is correlated with better performance, not that it causes better performance. Research on racial diversity in small groups, however, makes it possible to draw some causal conclusions. Again, the findings are clear: for groups that value innovation and new ideas, diversity helps.

In 2006 Margaret Neale of Stanford University, Gregory Northcraft of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and I set out to examine the impact of racial diversity on small decision-making groups in an experiment where sharing information was a requirement for success. Our subjects were undergraduate students taking business courses at the University of Illinois. We put together three-person groups—some consisting of all white members, others with two whites and one nonwhite member—and had them perform a murder mystery exercise. We made sure that all group members shared a common set of information, but we also gave each member important clues that only he or she knew. To find out who committed the murder, the group members would have to share all the information they collectively possessed during discussion. The groups with racial diversity significantly outperformed the groups with no racial diversity. Being with similar others leads us to think we all hold the same information and share the same perspective. This perspective, which stopped the all-white groups from effectively processing the information, is what hinders creativity and innovation.

Other researchers have found similar results. In 2004 Anthony Lising Antonio, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, collaborated with five colleagues from the University of California, Los Angeles, and other institutions to examine the influence of racial and opinion composition in small group discussions. More than 350 students from three universities participated in the study. Group members were asked to discuss a prevailing social issue (either child labor practices or the death penalty) for 15 minutes. The researchers wrote dissenting opinions and had both black and white members deliver them to their groups. When a black person presented a dissenting perspective to a group of whites, the perspective was perceived as more novel and led to broader thinking and consideration of alternatives than when a white person introduced that same dissenting perspective. The lesson: when we hear dissent from someone who is different from us, it provokes more thought than when it comes from someone who looks like us.

This effect is not limited to race. For example, last year professors of management Denise Lewin Loyd of the University of Illinois, Cynthia Wang of Oklahoma State University, Robert B. Lount, Jr., of Ohio State University and I asked 186 people whether they identified as a Democrat or a Republican, then had them read a murder mystery and decide who they thought committed the crime. Next, we asked the subjects to prepare for a meeting with another group member by writing an essay communicating their perspective. More important, in all cases, we told the participants that their partner disagreed with their opinion but that they would need to come to an agreement with the other person. Everyone was told to prepare to convince their meeting partner to come around to their side; half of the subjects, however, were told to prepare to make their case to a member of the opposing political party, and half were told to make their case to a member of their own party.

The result: Democrats who were told that a fellow Democrat disagreed with them prepared less well for the discussion than Democrats who were told that a Republican disagreed with them. Republicans showed the same pattern. When disagreement comes from a socially different person, we are prompted to work harder. Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not.

For this reason, diversity appears to lead to higher-quality scientific research. This year Richard Freeman, an economics professor at Harvard University and director of the Science and Engineering Workforce Project at the National Bureau of Economic Research, along with Wei Huang, a Harvard economics Ph.D. candidate, examined the ethnic identity of the authors of 1.5 million scientific papers written between 1985 and 2008 using Thomson Reuters’s Web of Science, a comprehensive database of published research. They found that papers written by diverse groups receive more citations and have higher impact factors than papers written by people from the same ethnic group. Moreover, they found that stronger papers were associated with a greater number of author addresses; geographical diversity, and a larger number of references, is a reflection of more intellectual diversity.

The Power of Anticipation
Diversity is not only about bringing different perspectives to the table. Simply adding social diversity to a group makes people believe that differences of perspective might exist among them and that belief makes people change their behavior.

Members of a homogeneous group rest somewhat assured that they will agree with one another; that they will understand one another’s perspectives and beliefs; that they will be able to easily come to a consensus. But when members of a group notice that they are socially different from one another, they change their expectations. They anticipate differences of opinion and perspective. They assume they will need to work harder to come to a consensus. This logic helps to explain both the upside and the downside of social diversity: people work harder in diverse environments both cognitively and socially. They might not like it, but the hard work can lead to better outcomes.

In a 2006 study of jury decision making, social psychologist Samuel Sommers of Tufts University found that racially diverse groups exchanged a wider range of information during deliberation about a sexual assault case than all-white groups did. In collaboration with judges and jury administrators in a Michigan courtroom, Sommers conducted mock jury trials with a group of real selected jurors. Although the participants knew the mock jury was a court-sponsored experiment, they did not know that the true purpose of the research was to study the impact of racial diversity on jury decision making.

Sommers composed the six-person juries with either all white jurors or four white and two black jurors. As you might expect, the diverse juries were better at considering case facts, made fewer errors recalling relevant information and displayed a greater openness to discussing the role of race in the case. These improvements did not necessarily happen because the black jurors brought new information to the group—they happened because white jurors changed their behavior in the presence of the black jurors. In the presence of diversity, they were more diligent and open-minded.

Group Exercise
Consider the following scenario: You are writing up a section of a paper for presentation at an upcoming conference. You are anticipating some disagreement and potential difficulty communicating because your collaborator is American and you are Chinese. Because of one social distinction, you may focus on other differences between yourself and that person, such as her or his culture, upbringing and experiences—differences that you would not expect from another Chinese collaborator. How do you prepare for the meeting? In all likelihood, you will work harder on explaining your rationale and anticipating alternatives than you would have otherwise.

This is how diversity works: by promoting hard work and creativity; by encouraging the consideration of alternatives even before any interpersonal interaction takes place. The pain associated with diversity can be thought of as the pain of exercise. You have to push yourself to grow your muscles. The pain, as the old saw goes, produces the gain. In just the same way, we need diversity—in teams, organizations and society as a whole—if we are to change, grow and innovate.

This article was originally published with the title “How Diversity Works.”

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99 Per Cent Of Sweden’s Garbage Is Now Recycled

99 Per Cent Of Sweden’s Garbage Is Now Recycled


There’s a “recycling revolution” happening in Sweden – one that has pushed the country closer to zero waste than ever before. In fact, less than one per cent of Sweden’s household garbage ends up in landfills today.

The Scandinavian country has become so good at managing waste, they have to import garbage from the UK, Italy, Norway and Ireland to feed the country’s 32 waste-to-energy (WTE) plants, a practice that has been in place for years.

“Waste today is a commodity in a different way than it has been. It’s not only waste, it’s a business,” explained Swedish Waste Management communications director Anna-Carin Gripwell in a statement.

Every year, the average Swede produces 461 kilograms of waste, a figure that’s slightly below the half-ton European average. But what makes Sweden different is its use of a somewhat controversial program incinerating over two million tons of trash per year.

It’s also a process responsible for converting half the country’s garbage into energy.

“When waste sits in landfills, leaking methane gas and other greenhouse gasses, it is obviously not good for the environment,” Gripwell said of traditional dump sites. So Sweden focused on developing alternatives to reduce the amount of toxins seeping into the ground.

Importing garbage for energy is good business for Sweden from Sweden on Vimeo.


At the core of Sweden’s program is its waste-management hierarchy designed to curb environmental harm: prevention (reduce), reuse, recycling, recycling alternatives (energy recovery via WTE plants), and lastly, disposal (landfill).

Before garbage can be trucked away to incinerator plants, trash is filtered by home and business owners; organic waste is separated, paper picked from recycling bins, and any objects that can be salvaged and reused pulled aside.

By Swedish law, producers are responsible for handling all costs related to collection and recycling or disposal of their products. If a beverage company sells bottles of pop at stores, the financial onus is on them to pay for bottle collection as well as related recycling or disposal costs.

Rules introduced in the 1990s incentivized companies to take a more proactive, eco-conscious role about what products they take to market. It was also a clever way to alleviate taxpayers of full waste management costs.

According to data collected from Swedish recycling company Returpack, Swedes collectively return 1.5 billion bottles and cans annually. What can’t be reused or recycled usually heads to WTE incineration plants.

Sweden’s waste management hierarchy: reduce, reuse, recycle, energy recovery, then landfill. (Flickr)

WTE plants work by loading furnaces with garbage, burning it to generate steam which is used to spin generator turbines used to produce electricity. That electricity is then transferred to transmission lines and a grid distributes it across the country.

In Helsingborg (population: 132,989), one plant produces enough power to satisfy 40 per cent of the city’s heating needs. Across Sweden, power produced via WTE provides approximately 950,000 homes with heating and 260,000 with electricity.

Recycling and incineration have evolved into efficient garbage-management processes to help the Scandinavian country dramatically cut down the amount of household waste that ends up in landfills. Their efforts are also helping to lower its dependency on fossil fuels.

Sweden’s Östergötland County produced this animation to explain the basics of the EU’s waste-to-energy programs.

“A good number to remember is that three tons of waste contains as much energy as one ton of fuel oil … so there is a lot of energy in waste,” said Göran Skoglund, spokesperson for Öresundskraft, one of the country’s leading energy companies.

So if Sweden burns approximately two million tons of waste annually, that produces roughly 670,000 tons worth of fuel oil energy. And the country needs that fuel to operate its well-developed district heating networks which heat homes in Sweden’s cold winters.

This is why the country has taken advantage of the fact a number of European nations don’t have the capacity to incinerate garbage themselves due to various taxes and bans across the EU that prevent landfill waste. There’s where Sweden comes in to buy garbage other countries can’t dispose of themselves at a reasonable cost.

Packaged garbage waiting for incineration at the Filborna WTE plant.

But trash burning isn’t without controversy. Some critics claim the process as anything but green because it sends more pollution and toxins into the air.

According to a study in the journal of Environmental Science and Technology, more than 40 per cent of the world’s trash is burned, mostly in open air. It’s a process markedly different from the regulated, low-emission processes Sweden has adopted.

Start-up costs for new incineration plants can get pricey and out of reach for some municipalities depending on the integration of processes used to filter ash and flue gas byproducts. Both contain dioxins, an environmental pollutant.

The incineration process isn’t perfect, but technological advancements and introduction of flue-gas cleaning have reduced airborne dioxins to “very small amounts,” according to the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency.

Unless manufacturers stop making products with materials that can’t be reused or tossed into incinerators, a 100 per cent recycling rate is unlikely to be achieved in our lifetime. Goods that are or contain tile, porcelain, insulation, asbestos, and miscellaneous construction and demolition debris can’t be burned safely; they have to be dumped in landfills.

“The world needs to produce less waste,” explained Skoglund.

Sweden’s success handling garbage didn’t come overnight — the latest results are the fruits of a cultural shift decades in the making.

“Starting in the ‘70s, Sweden adopted fairly strict rules and regulations when it comes to handling our waste, both for households and more municipalities and companies,” Gripwell told HuffPost Canada, referring to the country’s “waste hierarchy” now ingrained in Swedish society.

“People rarely question the ‘work’ they have to do,” she said.


Mind-Blowing Recycled Buildings
1 of 7 


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Moeen abuse shows cricket’s dark side

Moeen abuse shows cricket’s dark side

The booing of Moeen Ali at Edgbaston revealed the ugly side of sporting rivalry and suggested intolerance remains in the UK. It should not be ignored

George Dobell at Edgbaston

September 7, 2014

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Dobell: Moeen boos detract from spectacle

It should have been the perfect end to an absorbing summer of international cricket. We had beautiful weather. We had a sell-out crowd. We had a run-soaked T20 that contained outrageous skills and an exciting finish.

We should have gone home talking about MS Dhoni’s decision to turn down singles in the final over. His self-confidence and his preparedness to take responsibility for the team. Or, perhaps, his lack of confidence in his team-mates.

We should have gone home talking about Virat Kohli’s only half-century of the tour in international cricket – the same number as James Anderson – or Eoin Morgan’s brilliant innings. The England captain, so short of runs in international cricket this summer, helped England thrash 81 from the final five overs of their innings and scored 56 in the 15 balls before his dismissal. We might even have witnessed the birth of a new-look England side for both forms of the limited-overs game.

Either way, this should have been a brilliant advert for cricket. But instead there was a sour end to the summer. An unsettling end. An end that suggested, for all the progress we think we have made in creating a multicultural society in the UK, we have a long way to go.


  Moeen Ali picked up a wicket in his opening over, England v India, only T20, Edgbaston, September 7, 2014

Moeen Ali’s contributions were not universally appreciated at Edgbaston, the ground where he began his career © AFP 




Because, in the middle of Birmingham on a bright afternoon in 2014, we saw at least one player subjected to abuse from a far from insubstantial section of the crowd on the basis of either his religion or his national or ethnic origin.

Moeen Ali was booed when he came out to bat. He was booed when he came on to bowl. He was booed most times he touched the ball. And he was booed either because he is a player of Asian origin playing for England – Ravi Bopara also attracted some boos, though far fewer – because he is Muslim or, perhaps most pertinently, because he is of Pakistani origin and the vast majority of the crowd were India supporters.

On the back of every ticket and inside every match programme it states: “Spectators shall not engage in any conduct, act towards or speak to any player, umpire, referee or other official or other spectators in a manner which offends, insults, humiliates, intimidates, threatens, disparages or vilifies that other person on the basis of that other person’s race, religion, colour, national or ethnic origin.”

By such a definition, it is impossible to justify these boos. It is inappropriate to dismiss them as “banter” – an invidious description used to excuse sexism, homophobia, bullying and racism in many walks of life – and it is inappropriate to dismiss them as a symptom of any rivalry that exists between Pakistan and India.

Nor should we link this with the booing experienced by Stuart Broad in Australia and James Anderson and Ravi Jadeja this summer. Those jeers, unappealing though they were, do not stem from a dislike of origin or religion. They reflected specific issues.

Nor should we fool ourselves that these are pantomime boos. Just as the monkey chants that used to shame football grounds in the UK were unacceptable, so it must be unacceptable to hear a player derided for their religion or origin. It is not funny.

And let us not mistake this issue with any pretence that this is simply a manifestation of support for India. Spectators are free to support whichever side they like and the passion for cricket from spectators of Asian origin in the UK is of huge benefit to the game. But there is a chasm between supporting one side and denigrating the players of the opposition. It would be irresponsible to link the two.

What, it might be asked, would be the reaction if an all-white crowd booed a player of Asian origin? What would be the implications if a black player was booed each time he touched the ball? If such behaviours are deemed unacceptable – and, thankfully, in this day and age, they are – why should the booing of a man on the basis of his religion or origin be any different?

Moeen was born in Birmingham and he graduated through Warwickshire’s youth system. He has a mixed-heritage family with a white grandmother from the Birmingham area. His religion or ethnicity should not be issues and he has previously said that such behaviour does not affect him.

But there is an irony that Moeen has spoken of being a role model. He has spoken of showing that it is possible to be British, Muslim and proud of both. He has spoken of encouraging other Asian cricketers into mainstream league and club cricket in the UK. He has, despite his relative youth and inexperience, spoken only of inclusivity and unity. He makes an unlikely villain.

The episode proved difficult for the ground authorities to handle. Had the stewards started to eject those involved, the situation could have deteriorated. Had Morgan, who denied any knowledge of the booing, led his team from the pitch, the situation could have deteriorated.

But just because a situation is difficult, it does not mean it should be avoided. This sort of episode should not happen. It must not happen. And if we find it unacceptable – and we really should – we must not ignore it. Whatever the many mistakes of the past, 21st century Britain cannot be accepting of intolerance based around race, religion, colour, national or ethnic origin, sexual orientation or any other such issue.

Cricket can unite. In Afghanistan and the Caribbean and LA and Ireland, it has been shown to bring people from differing backgrounds together. It does it in league teams around the country every week. Here it provided a peek behind the façade of multicultural Britain. It was an ugly, depressing sight. And it should not be ignored.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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West Bank Rabbi Dov Lior: Jewish law permits destruction of Gaza

West Bank Rabbi Dov Lior: Jewish law permits destruction of Gaza

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Rabbi Dov Lior, a leading West Bank rabbi who endorsed a book justifying the killing of non-Jews, issued a religious ruling saying that Jewish law permits the destruction of Gaza to keep southern Israel safe.

Lior, chief rabbi of the Kiryat Arba settlement, issued the opinion after receiving questions about Jewish law’s position on harming civilians during wartime.

“At a time of war, the nation under attack is allowed to punish the enemy population with measures it finds suitable, such as blocking supplies or electricity, as well as shelling the entire area according to the army minister’s judgment, and not to needlessly endanger soldiers but rather to take crushing deterring steps to exterminate the enemy,” Lior said in his opinion.

“The defense minister may even order the destruction of Gaza so that the south should no longer suffer, and to prevent harm to members of our people who have long been suffering from the enemies surrounding us,” he wrote.

The opinion cited the Maharal, an important 16th-century rabbi, Talmudic scholar and philosopher.

Lior was arrested in 2011 after months of refusing to appear for questioning for his endorsement of the book “Torat Hamelech,” or “The King’s Torah,” by Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, which justifies killing non-Jews.

Meretz party leader Zahava Gal-On asked Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to launch an investigation against Lior for incitement.

Another West Bank rabbi, Yitzchak Ginsburgh, dean of the Od Yosef Chai yeshiva in Yitzhar, said in a post on his Twitter account, “In time of war, it is unethical for a nation to endanger the lives of its own soldiers in order to ensure the safety of inhabitants in enemy territory, after having been warned to evacuat