No more excuses: Religion doesn’t condone terrorism in its name

It never made sense to me, that people would fight for a reason that is supposed to bring them together. A wise friend of mine once told me that as humanity evolves and matures, it will come to realize what religion is really about, and will learn to use it as a tool to bring us together rather than to separate us.

My experience, however limited it might be, has shown me that Generation Y and the younger Generation X living in Canada don’t quite understand why people from different backgrounds and beliefs can’t coexist. The most striking image happened in the last year. Quebec held its Reasonable Accomodation Public Consultations. Its purpose was to determine how people from such different backgrounds can coexist. After about two hours of people walking up to the microphone and telling each other off (the Jews this, the Muslims this, this French Québécois that), a young gentleman, probably around 20 years of age, stood up, walked up to the microphone, and basically told that the only way he could see an answer to this question was if all people over 30 would follow the lead of younger people, that he and his friends, who were of seven different cultural backgrounds and 4 different religious backgrounds never had any problems.

But apparently the world isn’t ready to accept such an obvious reality; and so the need to officialise things remains. And, although alone its not enough, that work is coming along splendidly,

UN interfaith conference has rejected what it calls religious terrorism

November 13, 2008 – 22:21

Edith M. Lederer, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

UNITED NATIONS – Countries attending a UN interfaith conference have rejected the use of religion to justify acts of terrorism and other violence that kills and injures innocent civilians.

A declaration by 80 nations expressed concern at what it saw as serious instances of intolerance, discrimination, expressions of hatred and harassment of minority religious communities of all faiths.

It promoted dialogue among nations and called for understanding and respect for diverse religions and cultures.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon read the declaration near the end of the two-day meeting which was initiated by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

It brought 14 world leaders to New York including President Bush, the heads of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Israel’s president.

Ban lauded King Abdullah’s initiative which he said comes at a time when the need for dialogue among religions, cultures and civilizations has never been greater.

Many speakers spoke out against religious extremists, while defending tolerance and freedom of religion.

President Bush, who likely delivered his last address at the UN, echoed this theme saying: “We believe God calls us to live in peace – and to oppose all those who use His name to justify violence and murder.”

Bush said expanding democracy is one of the best ways to safeguard religious freedom and promote peace.

“People who are free to express their opinions can challenge the ideologies of hate,” he said.

“They can defend their religious beliefs and speak out against those seeking to twist them to evil ends. They can prevent their children from falling under the sway of extremists by giving them a more hopeful alternative.”

Among the leaders brought together, at least in the same room, were the Saudi king and Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Peres had rare praise for the Saudi monarch, saying Wednesday his initiative to end the Arab-Israeli conflict inspired hope that all countries in the Middle East could live in peace.

But Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal expressed disappointment Thursday that Peres only talked positively about parts of the Arab peace plan – and didn’t mention others.

The plan calls for Arab recognition of the Jewish state in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from all lands captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

Israel objects to relinquishing all territory and the right of all Palestinians to return, and it wants to keep a unified Jerusalem as its capital.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown stressed the importance of peace in the Middle East, telling the conference Thursday that the creation of a Palestinian state side by side with an Israeli state “can be achieved by goodwill.”

Saudi Arabia has been criticized by Human Rights Watch and others for refusing to allow the public practice of any religion other than Islam and restricting those who do not follow the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.

In light of its sponsorship of the conference, Saud was asked whether Saudi Arabia would now allow the freedom of religion and tolerance called for in the final declaration.

The Saudi minister said this was “an important question” for his country but indicated that the process must be gradual.

“If you bring people together so that they understand that they have the same ethics, they have the same values, this will open the hearts and minds of people for further progress,” Saud told reporters.

“But to say from the beginning you have to transform yourself into something which you aren’t now or nothing else can be achieved is, I think, carrying the argument too far.”

In the declaration, “participating states affirmed their rejection of the use of religion to justify the killing of innocent people and actions on terrorism, violence and coercion, which directly contradict the commitment of all religions to peace, justice and equality.”

Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari called terrorism, discrimination, and violence against women “un-Islamic.”

He urged world leaders to support the moderate Islamic principles advocated by his assassinated wife, Benazir Bhutto – dialogue, tolerance and opposition to extremism.

He urged all countries to unite behind an international agenda in which “hate speech aimed at inciting people against any religion must be unacceptable (and) injustice and discrimination on the mere basis of one’s faith must be discouraged.”

I love Google

I have said it before, I will say it again: I love Google. The health care professional in me is THRILLED at the company’s newest invention: Google Flu Trends.

Combating the flu by deploying the Web

What if Google knew before anyone else that a flu outbreak was putting you at heightened risk of getting sick? And what if it could alert you, your doctor and your local public health officials before the muscle aches and chills kicked in?

That, in essence, is the promise of Google Flu Trends, a Web tool that Google.org, the company’s philanthropic unit, announced Tuesday, just as the flu season was starting.

Google Flu Trends is based on the idea that people feeling sick are likely to turn to the Web for information, searching on Google for phrases like “flu symptoms” or “muscle aches.” Google Flu Trends tracks such queries and charts their ebb and flow, broken down by regions across the United States.

Google.org said this first version of Google Flu Trends “is just a start” and it hoped to “explore other countries, languages, and diseases in the future.”

Early tests suggest that the service might be able to detect regional outbreaks of the flu between a week and 10 days before they are reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Some public health experts say that could help accelerate the response of doctors, hospitals and public health officials to a nasty flu season, reducing the spread of the disease and, potentially, saving lives.

It could also offer a dose of comfort to stricken individuals in knowing that a bug is going around.

“This could conceivably provide as early a warning of an outbreak as any system,” said Lyn Finelli of the influenza division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The earlier the warning, the earlier prevention and control measures can be put in place, and this could prevent cases of influenza,” Finelli said.

Between 5 percent and 20 percent of the population of the United States contracts the flu each year, Finelli said, leading to an average of 36,000 deaths.

Google Flu Trends is the latest indication that the words typed into search engines like Google can be used to track the collective interests and concerns of millions of people, and even to forecast the future.

“This is an example where Google can use the incredible systems that we have to come up with an interesting, predictive result,” said Eric Schmidt, the Google chief executive. “From a technological perspective, it is the beginning.”

The premise behind Google Flu Trends has been validated by an unrelated study indicating that the data collected by Yahoo, Google’s main rival in Internet search, can also help with early detection of the flu. The study, by the University of Iowa College of Medicine, suggested that the technique could be applied to the surveillance of other diseases in the future.

Still, some public health officials note that many health departments already use other techniques, like gathering data from visits to emergency rooms, to keep daily tabs on disease trends in their  communities.

“We don’t have any evidence that this is more timely than our emergency room data,” said Farzad Mostashari, assistant commissioner of the New York City Department of Health.

If Google could provide health officials with more details of how its system works, the data could be an additional way to detect influenza that may prove quite valuable, said Mostashari, who is also chairman of the International Society for Disease Surveillance.

Researchers have long said that the data sprinkled throughout the Web could be used to make predictions. There are commercial Web sites that mine that information to predict airfares and home prices.

But the data collected by search engines is particularly powerful, because the keywords and phrases that people type into search engines represent their most immediate intentions. People may search for “Kauai hotel” when they are planning a vacation and for “foreclosure” when they get in trouble with their mortgage. Those queries express the world’s collective desires and needs, its wants and likes.

Research at Yahoo suggests that increases in searches for certain terms can help predict events. Yahoo has begun using search traffic to make decisions about ranking news articles on its site.

Two years ago, Google began opening up its search data through Google Trends, a tool that allows anyone to track the popularity of search terms. It also offers more sophisticated search traffic tools that marketers can use to test advertising campaigns.

Google Flu Trends is based on the same idea. Google’s engineers created a basket of keywords and phrases related to the flu, including thermometer, flu symptoms, muscle aches, chest congestion and many others. Google then dug into its database, extracted five years of data on those queries and mapped the data onto the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s reports of “influenza-like illness,” which the agency collects from laboratories, health care providers and other sources. Google found an almost perfect correlation between its data and the center’s reports.

“We know it matches very, very well in the way flu developed in the last year,” said Larry Brilliant, executive director of Google.org.

Finelli and Brilliant cautioned that the data needed to be monitored to ensure that the correlation with flu trends remained valid.

Other projects have tried to use information collected from Internet users for public health purposes. A Web site called whoissick.org, for instance, invites people to post information about what ails them and superimposes the results on a map. But the site has received little traffic, so its usefulness is limited.

HealthMap, a project affiliated with the Children’s Hospital in Boston, scours the Web for news articles, blog posts and electronic newsletters to create a map that tracks emerging infectious diseases around the world. It is backed by Google.org, which counts the detection and prevention of disease as one of its main goals.

But Google Flu Trends appears to be the first public project that uses the powerful database of a search engine to track the emergence of a disease. The approach has the potential to detect other diseases.

“In theory, we could use this stream of information to learn about other disease trends as well,” said Philip Polgreen, assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Iowa. Polgreen is a co-author of the study that used Yahoo’s search data to detect influenza, which will be published next month.