In the Chinese region of Xinjiang, home to a large population of the country's Muslim Uighur minority, government workers are encouraging women to cast off their headscarves in the name of good looks. Called "Project Beauty," the government-backed campaign has reportedly taken over the streets of Kashgar, one of the few cities in China where a significant number of women don the veil for religious reasons. De facto beauty police staff street-side stalls and single out veiled women, recording their images with a surveillance camera and even making them watch a re-education film "about the joys of exposing their faces."
The effort is an underhanded campaign to put beauty ideals to work in the name of national security. States have long tried to restrict the veil among Muslim women, often through formal decree. But China is taking something of a soft-power approach and telling China's Muslim women to unveil and show their pretty faces.
What isn't said is that the true aim of that campaign is to make it easier to track members of a restive minority group.
In Russia, big scary men with mustaches and sabers are feeling threatened by little girls wearing religious headwear.
Local Cossack leaders in the city of Rostov in southern Russia were not happy with a local "fashion week," where one of the planned events was a children's hijab show. The controversial event was cancelled, allegedly because of Cossack complaints, according to the Kremlin-backed news service RT.
The Cossacks suggested that the show would be more appropriate in, for instance, the Muslim-dominated Chechnya. Timur Okkert, the head of the international relations department of the Rostov Cossack Host, an essential department in any Cossack host, said that the complaints were based on the complicated ethnic situation in the region and fears of provoking conflict.
Just when you think the story couldn't get any weirder, the Cossacks also came out against using ethnically Russian girls as models. It remains unclear whether they thought using non-ethnic-Russian models would instigate less unrest.
Rostov-on-Don is not far from the Northern Caucasus, where ethnic conflict has been rampant for years. Russian authorities are pumping up security measures in the region before the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics -- most recently by collecting saliva samples from Muslim women in Dagestan in an effort to identify potential suicide bombers, particularly the so-called Black Widows. In October, Naida Asiyalova, a Dagestani woman, detonated a bomb in the southern city of Volgograd, killing herself and six other people.
The Cossacks have been an important force in the Russian security effort. The nomadic people, known for their horsemanship and brutality, have been used by Eastern European rulers dating back to before the Russian empire's founding to protect their interests. Today, they are deployed to patrol Russian streets, often donning traditional garb, and use force when local police is not authorized to do so.
The Cossacks have very particular opinions on what to wear and what not to wear, and it seems that the authorities agree. Following several European courts' decisions banning religious symbols in schools, Russia's Supreme Court prohibited hijabs and other religious symbols in schools in July.
But while the Cossacks's fight against the hijab is part of a larger cultural war in the multi-ethnic Russian society, some would agree they are onto something with trying to ban a children's headscarf show. In Islam, the hijab is a symbol of sexual maturity, and girls usually start wearing the headdress after they have achieved puberty. Rights activists and sociologists have raised concerns about pre-pubescent girls donning the headscarf. When "Project Chastity," an effort to convince girls between the ages of 10 and 15 to wear the headscarf, was launched nationally in Algeria in early 2013, it met with vocal opposition. Sociologist Yousif Hantablawi told Al-Arabiya that the campaign would have a negative impact on little girls, as small children should not be making such life-changing decisions, and that it is wrong to "convince them" to wear a hijab.
In Saudi Arabia, Sheikh 'Abdallah Al-Daoud went even further, proposing that Saudis should start dressing girls younger than two in hijabs "in order to protect [them] from sexual molestation." His comments provoked outrage in the country, including some calls for prosecution.
What would the Cossacks say to a hijab-clad baby crawling along on a catwalk?
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Yemen has sentenced eight sailors for smuggling arms to local rebels. The crew of the Jihan sailors received sentences ranging from one to six years in prison; the alleged mastermind of the operation, tried in absentia, received ten. No one in the Jihan's crew is Iranian, but Tehran's presence was certainly felt during the trial -- and is the answer to what the Jihan and its deadly cargo were doing in the Gulf of Aden in the first place.
On Jan. 23, the Yemeni military, working closely with the U.S. Navy, stopped a 130-foot sailboat off the coast of al Ghaydah, a Yemeni city near the Oman border. A search of the ship, according to Yemeni officials, revealed that it was carrying an entire arsenal of Chinese surface-to-air missiles, C4 explosives, rocket propelled grenades, mortar shells, and other military equipment bound for Houthi rebels, a Shia revivalist movement that has waged an intermittent war for autonomy in Yemen's northern Saada province over the past decade. The eight-person crew of the ship, all Yemenis, was arrested for arms smuggling.
Almost immediately, Iran was fingered as being behind the deal. It wouldn't be the first time -- the Yemeni government has accused Iran of supporting the Houthis for years, with little evidence to show for it. But starting in 2012, as other ships smuggling arms were intercepted, including some shipments being directed through Turkey to mask their origin, U.S. officials started finding the Yemeni accusations more credible. These shipments, Yemeni officials said, contained heavy weapons and the materials for making explosively formed projectiles (EFPs), a lethal variety of roadside bomb that was commonly used by Iranian-allied Shiite militants against U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The timing, though, was strange. After fighting a half-dozen "Saada wars" under President Ali Abdullah Saleh between 2004 and 2010, the Houthis had been relatively quiet since the start of the country's revolution in early 2011, some even coming to the capital, Sanaa, to participate in sit-in protests against the government.
That lull has come to an end this month with a fresh round of fighting between Houthis and Salafists in the city of Dammaj, which was a flashpoint during the Saada wars. Over several decades, Salafism that has spread from Saudi Arabia, along with the kingdom's large patronage network among the Yemeni tribes, has reshaped Yemen's religious landscape. Dammaj's Dar al-Hadith institute, a center of Salafist study, is emblematic of the growth of Salafism in Yemeni society that the Houthi movement was in many ways a reaction against. Clashes over Dar al-Hadith over the past two weeks, which have killed over 100 people and persisted despite attempts to find a diplomatic solution, has drawn the attention of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which announced its "total solidarity with our Sunni brothers in the centre in Dammaj," adding that the Houthis's "crimes against the Sunni people will not pass without punishment or disciplinary action."
Iran has been a vocal supporter of the Houthis, part and parcel with Tehran's self-appointed role as the defender of the Middle East's Shiite communities -- though the Iranian leadership practices a different variation of Shiism than the Houthis. "Salafis Continue Attacking Houthis in Northern Yemen," begins one recent Iranian report on the fighting in Dammaj, "Al-Qaeda threatens Yemeni Shia community," reads another. But Iran's interest in Yemen goes beyond cheerleading and quietly smuggling weapons to the Houthis based on their shared Shia heritage: It's also a contested sphere of influence in the Saudi-Iranian cold war. Iran has also tried to make inroads with Yemen's democracy activists, as well, regardless of their religion. Supporting the Houthis is "an indirect means to attack the Saudis," Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told FP. When it comes to the different sects of Shiism practiced by Iran and the Houthis, Iran "is ecumenical about these things, especially when the shared foe is the Saudi family."
The Saada conflict is often overlooked amid Yemen's al Qaeda insurgency and Southern separatist movements. But the recent flare-up on Yemen's forgotten battlefield is and the Jihan sentencing are quiet signs that Iranian-Saudi cold war is still heating up where their proxies meet.
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Pope Francis has already become a favorite of progressives with his fairly open-minded statements on homosexuality and birth control. But that adoration may go into overdrive, now that the Pope has adopted a new role as an environmental crusader, too. On Monday, the Pope was photographed with environmental activists holding T-shirts with anti-fracking slogans.
The photographs were taken after a meeting in the Vatican on Monday in which the Pope spoke with a group of Argentine environmental activists to discuss fracking and water contamination. He reportedly told the group he is preparing an encyclical -- a letter addressing a part of Catholic doctrine -- about nature, humans, and environmental pollution.
In the pictures, one of the men standing with the Pope is movie director and Argentine politician Fernando 'Pino' Solanas, known for his activism against "environmental crimes" and his film "Dirty Gold" about mega-mining. In particular, Solanas is a vocal opponent of an August agreement between the Argentine government and Chevron to develop shale oil and gas, which he calls "the largest environmental disaster in the Amazon." Drilling for these resources often requires hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," which is criticized by opponents for relying on toxic fluid and posing water contamination risks.
The Chevron deal is just one instance of American oil companies looking further and further afield to develop shale oil and gas as vast foreign reserves promise imitations of the United States' own shale oil revolution. Particularly in lower-income countries like Argentina, the promise of such a revolution is too lucrative to resist -- especially with so many betting on its potential. The United States Energy Information Administration has ranked Argentina fourth behind Russia, the United States, and China in terms of shale oil reserves. In terms of shale gas reserves, Argentina is ranked second only after China. But the government's embrace of Chevron has been met with fierce protests, some of which have prompted a brutal crackdown from police with tear gas and rubber bullets. Argentina's indigenous Mapuche Indian community has been a firebrand group behind the protests, claiming they weren't consulted on the deal as required by international treaties covering indigenous peoples.
According to one report of the meeting, His Holiness's concern was "clear" when hearing about the Chevron deal in Argentina and other environmental disputes in the region. On Tuesday, Sarah Palin said she was shocked by the pontiff's "liberal" statements. Wait 'til she hears about his new role as the face of Argentina's environmentalist movement.
Saudi authorities have found a novel way of punishing women who defy the country's driving ban: jailing the men who support them.
Around 50 women got behind the wheel on Oct. 26, in an act of civil disobedience. While some of the women were stopped and fined, none were arrested. Instead, police apprehended Tariq al-Mubarak, a male columnist who worked closely with organizers and who had penned an op-ed promoting women's rights.
"This time they are not after women, they are after men who supported the women," women's activist Manal al-Sharif told Foreign Policy. "They're too afraid of people's reaction."
Women have organized against the driving ban twice before, each time eliciting swift and heavy-handed responses from the government. In 1990, authorities suspended women from their jobs and restricted their ability to travel outside of the country. Following a 2011 protest, police inciting international outrage when they jailed Sharif for nine days, and sentenced another woman, Shaima Jastaina, to 10 lashes (Jastaina was later pardoned by the king).
The latest demonstration was the largest and most widely publicized, as women uploaded YouTube videos of themselves driving, and supporters broadcast the event on social media. "The whole country went into an emergency state on Saturday," Sharif said, "As if it was in a war - just because of women drivers."
Yet, the government's official response was markedly tamer than in years past -- in part, perhaps, because of the verbal lashing Saudi delegates received at a U.N. Human Rights Council session last week. Following the demonstration, women reported being followed by secret police, and were criticized for choosing October 26 (Hillary Clinton's birthday) for their protest, but Mubarak remains the only person in custody.
Human Rights Watch characterized his detention as a retaliation against supporters of women's rights.
But the government's focus on Mubarak may bear more pernicious implications: By making one man responsible for the protest, authorities invalidate the women behind the campaign -- implying that the movement will come to little without male support. It's par for the course in a country where women are regarded as the legal minors of male guardians -- unable to marry, go to college, or undergo certain medical procedures without the permission of fathers, husbands, brothers or even sons.
Sharif argues that, since the 2011 protest, public perceptions of women are rapidly changing.
"I see men commenting on the movement," she said. "They say, ‘Oh my god, we never thought a single woman would have the bravery of 1,000 men. You go online, they say, ‘if you want to get your rights, listen to women.'"
The women's driving campaign enjoys broad support, bolstered by the ease and availability of social media. An online petition circulated before the October 26 protest collected nearly 17,000 signatures in one week. Just two years ago, a similar petition only garnered 3,000 signatures. "It showed that the society - and even men - was fed up," Sharif said. "This is huge, because women are realizing how powerful they are."
The next women's driving day is scheduled for November 30.
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Responding to apparent pent-up demand for tacky bachelorette parties, the 38-year old Turkish entrepreneur Haluk Murat Demirel has opened the country's first halal (permissible in Islam) sex shop online. It's not the first such enterprise in the world -- successful predecessors can be found in such varied locales as Bahrain, the Netherlands, and Atlanta, Ga. -- but the existence of such a market still raises some interesting questions. For instance, what makes a sex shop halal? And what's behind their spread?
According to Hamza Yusuf, an American Islamic scholar and co-founder of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, Calif., the trend is, if anything, reflective of the adaptive qualities of capitalism -- not any trend in the Muslim world, where items like herbal aphrodisiacs have been commonplace but under the radar for centuries.
"Muslim countries have all of these but they don't advertise them," he told Foreign Policy by phone. "It all goes back to the monetization of religion."
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Today Pope Francis paid a visit to one of Brazil's notorious favelas, the slums that house more than 20 percent of Brazil's population. Walking amongst the shanty town -- an area so dangerous it's been dubbed Rio's Gaza Strip, Francis seemed at home, telling residents not to give up hope, and doling out kisses to the multiple babies passed his way for a Pope's blessing. It's the kind of ministry -- surrounded by the poor and the marginalized -- that Francis seems to have sought out his whole career. The so-called "Slum Pope" was known for making regular jaunts into similar neighborhoods in Argentina, washing and kissing the feet of drug users there -- but he was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio then.
As Pope, Francis has worked hard to make sure he still gets regular up-close and personal contact with the faithful. He's been something of a one-man wrecking ball when it comes to some of the more excessive trappings of the papacy, and his humility has won him legions of adoring fans -- many of whom turned up in the streets of Rio this week to swarm his famously non-bulletproof, open-topped car and stop traffic, causing security officers to begin shoving them out of the way.
Which raises the question: now that Francis is no longer a relatively-obscure Argentine Cardinal, but the Bishop of Rome, should he still be pursuing this kind of hands-on evangelizing when it may be coming at a cost to the very people he's hoping to serve?
EPA/LUCA ZENNARO / POOL
He's a self-proclaimed "white American national" who has no family connections to Myanmar and has never visited the country. He's not an expert on its politics either, he tells me -- which becomes clear later in our conversation when he draws a blank on the name of Aung San Suu Kyi, likely the most famous Burmese person alive today, whom he calls a "prime minister candidate" (she's actually planning on staging a run for the presidency).
But something about the 969 movement -- the controversial pro-Buddhist campaign that many hold responsible for the violence that has racked Myanmar in recent months -- has captured the imagination of this man. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, working his day job in the "technology sector," he has taken it upon himself in his spare time to set up both a website -- 969Movement.org -- and a Twitter account devoted to defending the movement in the face of what he says is widespread misinformation.
In a Skype interview with Foreign Policy on Wednesday, he declined to give his name, saying "I still have some safety concerns about being involved in all this."
"Where I see myself ... is promoting the values and the intention of the 969 movement to the English-speaking world," he says. "To a more globalized audience."
EPA/NYEIN CHAN NAING
The July 1 cover of Time magazine for Asia has roused a heated response in Myanmar. Featuring a photo of Buddhist monk Wirathu with the headline "The Face of Buddhist Terror," the cover, pictured above, was used for editions in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific. (The U.S. edition led with "How Service Can Save Us.")
Wirathu has received his fair share of media coverage and visits from Western journalists in recent months. The Mandalay-based monk has garnered attention as a leading voice of the "969" movement, which advocates that Buddhists only do business with other Buddhists. Wirathu's anti-Muslim rhetoric (He told the Global Post yesterday that, "Muslims are like the African carp. They breed quickly and they are very violent and they eat their own kind.") has been identified as one inciting factor in the recent outbreak of anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar, which has killed 250 and diplaced tens of thousands, according to the AP.
Wirathu says he was "unfazed" by the cover, telling the AP that, "a genuine ruby will shine even if you try to sink it in mud," but some of his supporters have not been so blasé. A Facebook group called "We Boycott Time magazine for their choice of Wirathu as ‘Buddhist Terror'" formed in reaction to the article. The group's page asks members to change their profile pictures to an edited cover of Time which calls the magazine "the face of lying, unjust media."
Users have posted messages defending Buddhism: "We are not terrorist, we are peaceful people and hate terrorism," reads one. "For these reason, our Buddhist monks are trying to find ways to avoid from being happening again such kind of unnecessary conflict between different religions."
In a recent interview with the Myanmar Times, a state-run English language newspaper, Wirathu addressed his critics saying, "I really take pity on them. ... They are under the influence of media backed by the Arab world. Europeans and Americans are educated people, but sometimes certain illusions are created by the Arab media."
Time does not seem likely to apologize.
It's open season in Tehran: For five days beginning on May 7, presidential hopefuls are registering to run for president in the country's June 14 presidential election. And the number of entrants into the rough-and-tumble world of Iranian politics is staggering, with more than 200 candidates signed up as of Thursday.
So the race must be wide, wide open, right? Not exactly. While nobody's quite sure who the frontrunners are yet, they will most likely be largely loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as the Associated Press points out.
That's because the country's 12-member Guardian Council will vet the vast array of candidates between May 12 and May 17, applying a rigorous set of standards to narrow the field way down. In 2009, for instance, only four of 475 names made it through the lightning round. So what, exactly, does the Guardian Council look for in whittling down the candidates? Presidential hopefuls can be disqualified for failing to meet a host of criteria enumerated in Article 115 of the Iranian Constitution.
Like its U.S. counterpart, the Iranian Constitution stipulates that a viable candidate must have Iranian citizenship. Not only does the presidential hopeful need to be a citizen (I found no mention of an age limit), but he also must be of "Iranian origin." Candidates who aren't Shiite Muslims or "religious and political personalities" need not apply.
Some of the constitution's conditions read more like a help-wanted ad. A viable candidate, for instance, must have "administrative capacity and resourcefulness" and no criminal record (incidentally, the latter is not a prerequisite to hold the highest office in the United States). The candidate must demonstrate "trustworthiness and piety" and must have a firm "belief in the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran."
Those are high bars to clear -- particularly when compared with the low bars to registering. And that means we won't see much more of some of the more colorful aspirants who have already registered or have been floated as candidates .
On Tuesday, for example, Razieh Omidvar became the first woman this year to throw her hat into the ring. While it is often reported that the constitution explicitly forbids women from running for president, the language is, in fact, a bit more ambiguous. In 2009, the spokesman for the Guardian Council said it "has never announced its opinion on whether a registrant is a man or a woman," suggesting that it is open to interpreting the constitution's language in favor of both male and female participation. Still, Omidvar shouldn't get her hopes up. The spokesman was quick to add, "[w]henever a woman has been disqualified, it has been because she's lacked general competence."
Then there's Mostafa Kavakebian, a reformist politician who was disqualified by the Guardian Council in 2009 and also registered on Tuesday, even picking green as his campaign color in homage to the Green Movement that arose after the country's disputed presidential election four years ago. While his persistence is admirable, Kavakebian is just as unlikely as Omidvar to make the cut a second time around.
Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad's current chief of staff, may be one of the more high-profile contenders. But conservatives in the country, who are locked in a power struggle with Ahmadinejad, predict he will also be knocked off the slate. Though he has yet to register, Ahmadinejad has been grooming Mashaei to take over in what the Guardian describes as a "Putin/Medvedev-style reshuffle."
Meanwhile, Ali Rahimi, a 59-year-old surgeon who graduated from the University of Kentucky, does not seem deterred by the many factors that could keep him out of the running. "I am extremely overqualified,'' he told the Washington Post after registering, "so I want to see what sort of reason they come up with for refusing my candidacy.''
If there's a sure bet in this election, it's that Iranian authorities will find one.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
When Amina Tyler, a 19-year-old Tunisian activist, posted topless photographs of herself on Facebook in March, she caused a global uproar. The tremendous backlash within Tunisia to the images -- which included one of Amina topless, hair short and black, with the words, "Fuck your morals" splashed across her chest -- quickly spilled beyond the country's borders as the feminist protest movement Femen, declared a "topless jihad" in her defense.
But while Amina's name exploded onto the international scene, she herself largely disappeared from the public eye. In April, Amina told Femen's leader, Inna Shevchenko, over Skype that she had been kidnapped by her family, beaten, drugged, and subjected to a virginity test. She also admitted that she had been coerced into doing an interview with the French station Itele in which she declared she didn't want to be associated with Femen. "I will continue the struggle that started in Tunisia," Amina declared during the Skype conversation. I will do a topless protest and then I will leave."
But as recently as May 1, there was still confusion over the whereabouts of the activist. In the Atlantic, Jeffrey Taylor described her as "in hiding" somewhere in the North African country.
On Wednesday, however, the young dissident finally reappeared with another topless photo posted to the Femen Facebook page. So far, the image has generated a number of headlines in the Arabic press but virtual silence in the U.S. media. This time she was blonde, and the words scrawled on her chest were in bright red instead of black. But the message was essentially the same: "No More Moral Lessons."
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After being carried through the streets of London in a flag-draped coffin aboard a gun carriage, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was laid to rest this morning in St. Paul's Cathedral. But the big story of the day wasn't Maggie. No, it was a 19-year-old Texan who stole the show from the deceased Iron Lady.
With a poise reminiscent of the elder Thatcher, Amanda Thatcher, Margaret's granddaughter, delivered a reading from Ephesians that has the British media agog. Amanda, who lives with her mother in Texas, chose a rather militant passage that calls on believers to "put on the whole armour of God." But the reading was a good one, delivered with remarkable grace by a young woman suddenly thrust into the international spotlight. In a tweet that nicely summarized the breathless British media reaction, Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland couldn't help but speculate "whether somewhere a Texas Republican operative is watching Amanda Thatcher thinking 'Wonder if she has political ambitions...'"
Here's the clip:
So who is Amanda Thatcher, and how did Maggie Thatcher's granddaughter end up in Texas of all places? Amanda is the daughter of Mark Thatcher and the Texas heiress Diane Burgdorf, who underwent an ugly, highly public divorce from Mark (Diane went so far as to detail her ex-husband's history of infidelity in a broadside published in a British paper). When Amanda's father became embroiled in an acrimonious business dispute, Diane agreed to move her family to South Africa. But after Mark was arrested in 2004 over his alleged involvement in a coup in Equatorial Guinea, the marriage finally dissolved. Amanda now lives in Texas with her mother, stepfather, and brother Michael. She is reportedly deeply religious, has carried out missionary work in China, and attends the University of Richmond in Virginia.
Voted "most likely to change the world" by her high school classmates, Amanda was a favorite of the Iron Lady. The former British prime minister reportedly kept a portrait of her two grandchildren on a mantle alongside a picture of Sir Denis, her beloved late husband. Maggie, the daughter of a fervent lay Methodist preacher, approved of Amanda's turn toward evangelical Christianity, and she cherished her relationship with her granddaughter during her ailing later years. As the Guardian notes in its excellent profile of the young Thatchers, Amanda's religiosity lined up nicely with Maggie's hard-nosed political and social conservatism.
Poised, eloquent, the descendant of conservative royalty, evangelical Christian, and Texas-bred: It all seems to add up to a promising political future. She certainly hit it out of the park in her introduction to the world, and isn't it pretty easy to picture a clip of Amanda's speech at her grandmother's funeral playing a role in a future campaign commercial?
The Republican Party could certainly do worse.
An earlier version of this post referred to the Biblical passage from which Amanda Thatcher read as the Epistles. She read from Ephesians, which is one of the Epistles.
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Kenya's efforts to promote safe sex and combat HIV/AIDS have apparently hit a snag, as religious leaders have accused the government of promoting infidelity instead.
The controversy began when Kenyan health officials teamed up with USAID and a similar agency in the U.K. to sponsor a television advertisement showing two women shopping in the marketplace. One of the women reminds her friend to use a condom while having sex with her boyfriend when her frequently drunk husband is away. The boyfriend is shown in the background, selling shoes and flirting with another woman.
The commercial quickly came under attack from Christian and Muslim leaders who argue that it promotes immorality and infidelity. "The advert depicts this nation as a Sodom and Gomorrah and not one that values the institution of marriage and family," a leader of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya, declared. One woman criticized the ad for using a mother as the main character. "The fact that a mother figure has been used makes it worse because mothers are the people who stand for families and the ones who teach children the good morals," she said. (Past condom ads in Kenya have been decidedly humorous, though they haven't exactly put public-health messages front and center.) The government has since withdrawn the ad.
In an interview with NTV, the head of Kenya's National Aids / STD Control Program (NASCOP), Dr. Peter Cherutich, defended the spot, arguing that Kenyans "cannot bury our heads in the sand." Sexual infidelity is a reality in the country, he explained, and NASCOP is doing its duty by promoting sexual health in light of this fact:
The collaboration that we would like to have with the church is that they become our partners. They teach their congregants and they teach Kenyans how to protect themselves against HIV, by being faithful to their sexual partners. And for those that are not able to be faithful, then they need to use a condom.
"We know for a fact that a big proportion of both men and women have sex outside their regular partnerships," Cherutich told the BBC in another interview. "And so, unfaithfulness, as you would call it, is a reality that we need to address in this country." NASCOP says that it is also trying to fight the stereotype that only men are unfaithful, while emphasizing that the task of using condoms should not be left to men alone.
It's an important conversation -- but one many Kenyans appear ambivalent about having as families gather around the television.
Last week, the Saudi daily Al-Youm reported that Saudi Arabia is considering transitioning away from the state's institutionalized method of executing convicts: beheading by sword. Beheading -- the approach to carrying out death sentences in the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century -- has long been practiced in the kingdom in observance of its strict interpretation of Islamic law, which seeks to mimic practices at the time of Mohammed. But a committee of Saudi government officials recently ruled that execution by firing squad would also be permissible under the national brand of sharia.
"This solution seems practical, especially in light of shortages of official swordsmen," the committee explained in a statement quoted by the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram. The committee also complained that official swordsmen have been known to show up late to executions.
Does this mean those few remaining swordsmen will be out of a job soon? It turns out the Saudi newspaper Okaz asked one of them: Mecca-based executioner Mohammad Saad al-Biishi. He says he's not concerned, citing the fact that he's already received firearms training. In the meantime, he'll keep on with the beheadings.
"I just returned from Ranyah governorate, where one of the judgments was implemented with a blow from a sword," he told the paper.
Even if the transition to firing squad occurs, al-Biishi is optimistic about the future of his profession, and has been apprenticing his son in beheadings. He acknowledges, though, that the government's concerns about a shortage of qualified swordsmen are justified. "This profession is not desired by many," he told Okaz, "despite the salary and personal reward we gain from it."
The execution business in Saudi Arabia is booming. Human rights groups estimate that approximately 70 people were beheaded in the kingdom last year, and 14 so far this year. The January execution of a Sri Lankan national, who was accused of the murder of a 4-year-old in her care as a maid while still a 17-year-old minor, prompted Sri Lanka to recall their ambassador from Riyadh last month.
Marya Hannun contributed to this post.
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With the papal conclave expected to convene early next week, the Vatican has torn a page out of the Chinese playbook for stifling dissent, blocking access to a prominent website, bishopaccountability.org, that documents cases of clergy abuse.
According to the National Catholic Reporter, access to the site, which has become an invaluable resource for journalists covering the sex abuse scandal, is restricted on the Vatican's Internet servers. And when one tries to access the site through the Holy See's network, a message notes that it is blocked because of "hate/racism." That's certainly one way to describe an effort that has posted more than 8,500 pages of documents describing clergy abuse.
As we've written earlier, much of the pre-conclave jockeying plays out in the media, where candidates can be floated and reputations attacked in order to best position one cardinal or another for the papacy. By blocking access to one of the chief sources of information about this dark chapter in the church's history, the Holy See may be seeking to reassert a degree of control over the mud-slinging process in the media.
The NCR says it has filed a request to have the site unblocked. (Hey, it could happen!) We'll keep you updated.
FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images
The Vatican's ongoing sexual abuse scandal and the Catholic Church's often stumbling response is expected to play a major role in the coming papal conclave, and today the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) fired a major shot at the cardinals gathered in the Vatican. The group, which has played a major role in exposing abuse and advocating on behalf victims, released a list of 12 papal candidates that it is calling the "dirty dozen" for their alleged roles in sex crimes and cover-ups.
The 12 prelates have all been identified as serious candidates to succeed Pope Benedict XVI and include several of the frontrunners: Angelo Scola, Marc Ouellet, Leonardo Sandri, Peter Turkson, and Timothy Dolan. While it is difficult to predict the dynamics of a papal election, being slapped with membership in the "dirty dozen" doesn't bode well for these cardinals at a time when the church is looking to clean up its image.
Several of the candidates on the list also represent important regional ambitions within the church. Dolan, for example, is the only viable American candidate. The selection of Sandri, an Argentinean, would cater to a growing Catholic population in Latin America. If selected, Turkson, who is from Ghana, would be the church's first black pope. His selection would also acknowledge the church's growing influence in Africa.
SNAP argues that the 12 prelates represent the "worst choices in terms of protecting kids, healing victims, and exposing corruption." Whether the list will have any lasting impact remains to be seen, but efforts by groups like SNAP are important in shaping public perception of the papal candidates and also affect internal jockeying in the lead-up to the conclave.
In the case of Scola, an Italian cardinal who has been called the "crown prince of Catholicism," SNAP argues that he failed to take the sex abuse scandal seriously when, in 2010, during the scandal's peak, he said that media attacks on Benedict were an "iniquitous humiliation." A conservative close to both Benedict and John Paul II, Scola currently serves as the archbishop of Milan, which in the past has served as a stepping stone to the papacy. But at 71, he's far from a model of youth and vigor.
Ouellet, a Canadian, lands on the list because while he issued apologies to many victims of abuse, he reportedly refused to meet with those victims.
Sandri, the Argentinean, comes under criticism from SNAP for his ties to the disgraced Mexican priest Marcial Maciel, who was convicted of a range of sexual abuses. Sandri was asked in 2004 to read a letter from John Paul II in praise of Maciel and, as the National Catholic Reporter puts it, "few cardinals will probably be excited about the prospect of TV packages on the new pope featuring video of him extolling an abuser priest (though admittedly, the words were not his own)."
Turkson, the Ghanaian, finds himself under fire from SNAP for comments he made about the possibility of the church's sex scandal spreading to Africa, which he deemed unlikely since gays are not tolerated in Africa. "African traditional systems kind of protect or have protected its population against this tendency,” he said in an interview with Christiane Amanpour. "Because in several communities, in several cultures in Africa homosexuality or for that matter any affair between two sexes of the same kind are not countenanced in our society."
Lastly, SNAP objects to Dolan's candidacy on the grounds that he allegedly paid abusive priests to leave the church in silence, in addition to claims that he kept silent in the case of a teacher at a Catholic school in possession of child pornography.
If these are the top candidates to succeed Benedict, it makes you wonder: Will the church ever find someone clean enough to take over?
VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images
Earlier this week, we reported on the controversy in Tunisia and Egypt over some "Harlem Shake" videos, which have provoked arrests and an investigation by the Tunisian Ministry of Education, and the follow-up Harlem Shake protests Egyptians and Tunisians were planning.
Well, they happened.
The video above is from Cairo, outside the offices of the Muslim Brotherhood. Another protest took place outside the Ministry of Education in Tunis, though rain deterred some dancers.
The videos are spreading (here's one from another school, Tunisia's Institute of Applied Sciences and Technology), as is the backlash. Salafist groups have tried to intimidate students making Harlem Shake videos, and, at one school, a protest broke out that was dispersed by police with tear gas.
The videos are clearly becoming more political. In the video from Egypt, for example, a protester is wearing a large fake beard to mock conservative critics. And in the videos from Tunisia there are a number of protesters wearing the Guy Fawkes and gas masks that were popular during the Arab Spring protests of 2011. Unlike so many other flash-in-the-pan memes, the Harlem Shake might be around for a while -- especially if politicians in Egypt and Tunisia keep trying to get rid of it.
As far as holidays go, Valentine's Day seems innocuous enough. But for some Muslim groups, it's a lot more sinister than hearts and flowers.
In Pakistan, for example, the Electronic Media Regulatory Authority wrote a letter this week requiring television and radio stations to censor content related to the holiday, deeming it "not in conformity to our religious and cultural ethos."
Tanzeem-e-Islami, an Islamist organization in the country, took censorship efforts one step further, urging the government to block cell phone service in order to prevent "moral terrorism"-- otherwise known as the swapping of sappy V-Day sentiments. The same group also plastered Karachi with anti-Valentine's billboards (that look suspiciously Valentine's-y) with warnings to citizens like, "Say No to Valentine's Day" (another billboard posted on Twitter declared, "Sorry Valentine's Day, I am 'Muslim'").
It's no surprise, of course, that conservative,
Islamic clerics aren't enamored with this unapologetically consumerist, Western holiday named for a saint and and centered around romance. For many, the holiday
seamlessly intertwines anti-Western sentiment with the threat of loosening
moral values. The spokesman for the Pakistani Islamist organization
Jamaat-e-Islami said as much this week:
This is imposing Western values and cultures on an Islamic society.... Look at the West -- people love their dogs but throw their parents out when they get old. We don't want to be like that.
Pakistan isn't the first Muslim country to wage a war against Valentine's Day. In Indonesia this year, protesters took to the streets with signs reading, "Valentine, Infidel Culture" and, "Are you Muslim? Don't follow Valentine Day." As we noted last year, countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Malaysia, and Uzbekistan don't feel the love this time of year either. And hey, at least Pakistan didn't mark the holiday by banning the color red.
RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images
It may be the biggest news to break in Latin since Julius Caesar's death.
Pope Benedict XVI provided vindication for Latin teachers everywhere on Monday by breaking the news of his upcoming resignation via a speech in the oft-dismissed ancient language:
More satisfying still for those who maintain Latin is not dead, the Huffington Post Italy reports that the news was first broken by a reporter for Italy's ANSA news agency, who apparently beat out journalists from France, Mexico, and Japan thanks to her superior language skills. Giovanna Chirri initially could not reach a Vatican spokesman to confirm the news, AFP reports:
In a heated debate with her editor, the journalist insisted her Latin knowledge was sound and they could alert the news.
The difficult part was "understanding the Latin," he said. "At a certain point, for example, I caught the word 'incapability' in the pope's speech. I turned around and spoke with my Mexican colleague. We noticed that Pope Benedict had a sad look on his face, not his usual look. Something wasn't right. Then, when cardinal Sodano mentioned the 'sadness,' we finally understood."
The choice of Latin for a major announcement was likely no accident: Benedict has long indicated that he considers a Latin revival important for the future of the Church. In November of last year, he established a Pontifical Academy of Latinity with the goal of promoting the language, saying in a letter at the time that even among priests and seminarians, the study of Latin has become "more and more superficial." He further demonstrated his determination to take Latin into the modern world in January when he began tweeting in the language. Still, Benedictus PP. XVI has just 17,816 followers so far -- the fewest of any of the pope's nine Twitter accounts.
ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images
In the wake of a knife attack at an elementary school reportedly driven by predictions about the coming end of the world, Chinese authorities have detained dozens for spreading rumors about the coming apocalypse.
According to Xinhua, 93 people -- many of them members of a religious group called Almighty God, which promotes belief in the upcoming Dec. 21 Mayan doomsday -- have been detained as potential day of reckoning grows closer. At the same time, authorities have sought to play down any talk about the world ending, ordering media last week to "strictly vet reports on the so-called "end of the world" and "strengthen positive guidance and forcefully guard against the creation and spread of rumors, as well as working up panicked feelings." The order appears to have been taken seriously, with newspapers publishing soothing quotes from various experts arguing that Friday will be like any other day, reports The Telegraph:
"Speaking to Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, Sun Xiaochun, a top professor from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said: "The event will be as destructive as when we throw an old table calendar into the rubbish can at the end of the year."
The idea that Friday will be the end of it all has gained quite a foothold in parts of China. Hebei Province farmer Liu Qiyuan, pictured above, has begun making "survival pods" out of fiberglass and steel for the event, while Business Insider reports that,
"...in Sichuan province, panic buying of candles has swept through two counties in the fear that an ancient Mayan prediction that the world will end on December 21 proves to be true.
"Candles are selling by the hundreds, with buyers constantly coming to the market. Many stores have run out," said Huang Zhaoli, a shopper at the Neijing Wholesale Market, to the West China City Daily newspaper."
The panicky feeling was not helped by an unnerving meteorological phenomenon last week that made it appear that the sky over parts of eastern China contained three suns.
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
Egypt's increasingly influential Salafis won a victory this week by pressuring the government to finally implement a 2009 court ruling, enacted under former President Hosni Mubarak, to ban pornography. On Wednesday, Egyptian Prosector Abdel Maguid Mahmoud instructed authorities to "to take the necessary measures to block any corrupt or corrupting pornographic pictures or scenes inconsistent with the values and traditions of the Egyptian people and the higher interests of the state."
There are already strong reactions, with many on twitter using #EgyPornBan to either advocate mass downloading before the ban is enacted or to question the legitimacy of restricting freedom of expression.
While it has not been made public how and when the ban will actually be enforced, there are those like journalist and presidential advisor, Ayman El-Sayad, who think that the government should be "more concerned about the drafting of Egypt's new constitution" and other more pressing issues.
The ban does have serious consequences, however, as it upholds the ruling that the "freedom of expression and public rights should be restricted by maintaining the fundamentals of religion, morality and patriotism." How Egyptians decide to tackle the issue of who gets to decide what their values are, could have far reaching consequences down the road. There is also the dangerous precedent set by countries such as Russia, China and the United States, who have been accused of using anti-child-pornography laws to implement web censorship.
Egypt's porn ban will make it harder to spread "harmful" content on the internet, but for the Islamist's moral purposes, it probably won't work.
Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
A cleric has issued a fatwa calling for the death of the editor of Morocco's Al-Ahdath Al-Maghribia daily newspaper, Moktar el-Ghzioui, after he went on television proclaiming his opposition to article 490 of the Moroccan penal code, which criminalizes premarital sex. The BBC reported last Thursday that Ghzioui is in fear for his life following his controversial public statements in defense of sex before marriage, which is still taboo in many countries and religions.
A Moroccan imam told the BBC that if the code prohibiting premarital sex was removed, "we will become wild savages. Our society will become a disaster."
Last year, also in Morocco, a judge ordered a 16-year-old girl named Amina Filali to marry the man who raped her. She committed suicide in March, prompting widespread outrage and condemnation of article 475, which allows a rapist to marry his victim in order to escape jail.
Morocco isn't the only country where the prohibition on premarital sex is sometimes violently enforced. Islamists linked to al Qaeda in Mali stoned a couple to death in July for engaging in sex before marriage. The couple reportedly had been living together for some time and had children together.
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
The Chinese government has ordered restrictions on Ramadan observances in the northern province of Xinjiang, home to the majority of China's Muslim Uighur minority, leading Uighur leaders to warn of the potential for new violence in the restive region. Al Jazeera reports that party officials and students under the age of 18 have been banned from fasting during the Holy Month while government websites have urged local Communist Party leaders to impose further restrictions on religious activity.
Citing the need to "maint[ain] social stability during the Ramadan period" the Zonglang township in the Kashgar district issued a statement reminding citizens that "It is forbidden for Communist Party cadres, civil officials (including those who have retired) and students to participate in Ramadan religious activities." Others local governments have urged party leaders to enforce the ban by bringing "gifts" of food to local leaders.
Though mosques remain open for prayers, new restrictions have limited services. Foreigners have been banned from entering mosques and Muslims wishing to attend services must first display a national identity card as confirmation of their local residence. Public congregation after the services is prohibited and students are encouraged to avoid public prayer.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress attributed the crackdown to recent ethnic violence in the cities of Kashgar and Hotan but warned the restrictions will incite "the Uighur people to resist [Chinese rule] even further."
Xinjiang province has long history of rebellion against the communist government. Peaceful protests against the closure of independent religious schools and the ban of meshreps broke into violence in February 1997 when security forces opened fire on unarmed demonstrators. Security forces conducted house to house searches, arresting and, human rights activists warned, torturing some prisoners to death. Similar violence broke out in July 2009, killing 197 and injuring more that 1,600. The crackdown was severe, as police brutality, home searches, and mass detentions resulted in at least 43 disappearances.
In a press release issued last month, Amnesty International Asia Pacific Director Catherine Baber warned that "The general trend toward repression that we see all over China is particularly pronounced in [Xinjian]." The organization's report on the situation concluded" The ethnic identity of Uighurs is being systematically eroded."
Guang Niu/Getty Images
A man named Muree bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri was beheaded in Saudi Arabia this week after being found in possession of spell books and talismans. Beheading is "God's punishment" for "sorcerers and charlatans," according to a statement that the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice issued in March.
Al-Asiri's execution was the latest accomplishment of Saudi Arabia's Anti-Witchcraft Unit, an elite police force specifically trained to track down and arrest practitioners of magic. The Anti-Witchcraft Unit was part of a larger campaign to exterminate sorcery from the kingdom which began in 2009 and has included a hotline for reporting witch sightings, raids on suspected houses, and lectures to inform the public about the dangers of magicians -- "key causers of religious and social instability in the country," according to the Commission's statement.
Among other things, the trouble is that magic is a broadly-defined category in Saudi law, as Uri Friedman recently explained in FP. It's not unusual for prosecutors in Saudi courts to use "witchcraft" or "sorcery" as catch-all labels for all manner of offenses -- and for defendants to use the same terms as excuses -- because the kingdom is swift to mete out punishments for this kind of deviance.
Because Saudi Arabia does not have a penal code (or a legal definition of witchcraft), it is up to a judge to decide whether someone should be condemned as a witch or a sorcerer. Sometimes all it takes is having a book with foreign writing, items that officers of the Anti-Witchcraft Unit don't recognize, or an accuser with a strong vendetta to lose your head as a convicted magician. In al-Asiri's case, his confession to two counts of adultery may have been the original reason for his arrest.
The Anti-Witchcraft Unit received almost 600 reports of witchcraft in the past few years. Whether or not these are actual cases of people purporting to practice the occult or just a pretext, the government clearly takes the problem seriously.
Though the powerful and prominent Islamist Ennahda
party has sent mixed
messages about its attitude toward Tunisia's 1,500-strong Jewish population,
President Moncef Marzouki's government
has made an extraordinary effort this year
to promote the Hiloula,
an annual pilgrimage to El Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba that
commemorates the death of second-century rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, the father of the
Kabbalah tradition. The two-day event was canceled last year for security
reasons due to the popular uprisings that ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but
it remains "the
barometer of expectations for the coming tourist season," according to the Guardian.
"So far, no more than two hundred Jewish pilgrims have joined the Hiloula.... According to our reporter in El Ghriba, police and journalists outnumbered the pilgrims, mainly Jewish Tunisians, who attended the event."
The Tunisian government has deployed a large security force to the area surrounding the synagogue, the oldest in Africa. Ten years ago, al Qaeda militants bombed the synagogue, killing 21 and wounding 30. Marzouki visited El Ghriba in April for a memorial ceremony, during which he declared that violence against Tunisian Jews was "unacceptable." Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali also voiced his commitment to a tolerant Tunisia:
"Tunisia is an open and tolerant society, we will be proud to have Jewish pilgrims visit El Ghriba as they have in the past."
The government of Israel, on the other hand, apparently sees things differently. The Israeli Prime Minister's Office issued a travel warning earlier this month advising Israelis to avoid Djerba, citing a "specific-high rating" terror threat to Jews and Israelis. Hiloula may end today, but whether Marzouki can convince the rest of the country to practice what he preaches remains uncertain.
The protestors of London's "Occupy" chapter have chosen to camp out in the forecourt of St. Paul's cathedral. The site of the tent city was originally to be further down the road at the home of the London Stock Exchange and rightful equivalent to Wall Street, but Paternoster Square is privately owned property and, right now, it's heavily guarded. But the cathedral locale has become a flashpoint of a larger, unexpected controversy: a schism in the Anglican Church.
A lawsuit has been filed by the City of London Corporation (CLC) to evict the protestors on the grounds that they are blocking traffic. While the demonstrators aren't actually occupying the streets or, more specifically, the highways which are the jurisdiction of the CLC's Planning and Transportation Committee responsible for the suit, committee member Michael Wellbank explained that "encampment on a busy thoroughfare clearly impacts the rights of others."
In fact, the iconic St. Paul's Cathedral closed its doors to worshippers and tourists last week due to safety concerns for the first time since WWII and joined the CLC's lawsuit last Friday. But since the court action could lead to the forceful removal of protesters, and ultimately violence, the cathedral proceeds without three of its clergymen who have already resigned in protest. One of them, Canon Chancellor Giles Frase, explained his decision to the Guardian:
St. Paul was a tentmaker. If you looked around and you tried to recreate where Jesus would be born -- for me, I could imagine Jesus being born in the camp. It is not about my sympathies or what I believe about the camp. I support the right to protest and in a perfect world we could have negotiated. But our legal advice was that this would have implied consent. The church cannot answer peaceful protest with violence.
Church leaders seem divided between general sympathy for the protesters' goals, and a desire to have them advocate those goals somewhere else. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams addressed the controversy for the first time today, saying, "The urgent larger issues raised by the protesters at St. Paul's remain very much on the table and we need -- as a Church and as society as a whole -- to work to make sure that they are properly addressed."
Meanwhile, the bishop of London, Rev. Richard Chartres, was called a hypocrite by angry protestors as he tried to walk a fine line with his remarks supporting both their causes and their peacefully disbanding. On Sunday, he told the crowd, "You have a notice saying, ‘What would Jesus do? That is a question for me as well."
CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images
Niko Alm, an Austrian member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, won the right to wear a pasta strainer on his head in his driver's license photo. He originally applied for the license three years ago, but first had to get approval from a doctor that he was "psychologically fit" to drive.
The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a parody religion whose adherents are known as pastafarians. Pastafarians, whose website stipulates that "the only dogma allowed in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is the rejection of dogma," celebrate the amorphous "Holiday" in December and believe that pirates are "absolute divine beings."
Fun as it sounds, the original impetus behind pastafarianism was political -- its founder, Bobby Henderson, then a 25-year-old -- wrote an open letter to the Kansas Board of Education in July, 2005, in protest of the teaching of the Christian theory of intelligent design in schools:
I think we can all look forward to the time when these three theories are given equal time in our science classrooms across the country, and eventually the world; One third time for Intelligent Design, one third time for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism (Pastafarianism), and one third time for logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence.
The Flying Spaghetti Monster's theory of intelligent design was subsequently invoked by pastafarian protesters in a similar situation in Polk County, Florida in 2007.
Alm's request to wear a strainer on his head was a response to Austria's "recognition of confessional headgear in official photographs," according to the BBC.
Alm received his license and is currently working on getting pastafarianism designated as an officially recognized faith.
Just one week after the acquittal of fiery far-right politician Geert Wilders, the Dutch parliament struck another blow against multiculturalism in the Netherlands yesterday with the passage of a bill banning ritual animal slaughter. The bill requires that all animals be stunned before being slaughtered, a requirement that conflicts with halal and kosher stipulations that animals be fully conscious.
The bill was initially proposed by the Party of the Animals, which holds two seats in the 146-seat Dutch parliament and maintains that ritual methods of slaughter are inhumane. It gained support from centrists on similar grounds, but Wilders's Freedom Party has also been a longtime proponent. In fact, it was Wilders who first raised the issue in 2007 when he objected to halal meat being served at a public school in Amsterdam.
The ban has provoked a furious reaction from Jewish and Muslim leaders in the Netherlands and Europe. From Reuters:
"The very fact that there is a discussion about this is very painful for the Jewish community," Netherlands Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs told Reuters. "Those who survived the (second world) war remember the very first law made by the Germans in Holland was the banning of schechita or the Jewish way of slaughtering animals."
It should be noted that a last-minute amendment attached to the bill states that halal and kosher slaughterhouses will be able to apply for special permits if they can show that their methods do not cause more pain than non-ritual methods. But some are skeptical of the permit process's efficacy, and the European Jewish Congress is already considering challenging the law in court.
The bill awaits confirmation in the parliament's upper house, though it passed easily in the lower house and enjoys widespread public support. If passed, it will put the Netherlands in the company of a handful of countries that have outlawed ritual animal slaughter. Revisions to New Zealand's animal welfare code made kosher slaughter illegal as of this May, while bans in a number of Scandinavian and Baltic countries date back to anti-Semitic measures passed before World War II.
PHIL NIJHUIS/AFP/Getty Images
More than a few readers, including Salon's Glenn Greenwald, complained that I hadn't rebutted Hersh's arguments. That wasn't my intention -- I was relaying what Hersh said. I did make two editorial comments: that his speech was a "rambling, conspiracy-laden diatribe" and that it "quickly went downhill" after its opening line. But I imagine that when most reasonable people read the transcript -- I don't have a video, unfortunately -- they will see what I'm talking about. As far as I know, nobody, including Hersh, is disputing my quotes.
I thought it was self-evident that several points Hersh made were off-base and conspiratorial, but perhaps it's worth spelling things out for everyone.
1. The idea that "we're gonna change mosques into cathedrals" is "an attitude that pervades … a large percentage of the Joint Special Operations Command." This is essentially unverifiable unless you do a survey of JSOC personnel. Good luck with that. For now, the weight of evidence suggests that JSOC is on the whole a highly competent and professional organization that has no intention of converting Muslims to Christianity around the world. If it were otherwise, I'm sure we'd be hearing about it from others besides Seymour Hersh.
2. Retired General Stanley McChrystal, who headed JSOC before briefly becoming the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and his successor, Vice Adm. William McRaven, as well as many within JSOC, "are all members of, or at least supporters of, Knights of Malta.… Many of them are members of Opus Dei." McChrystal has already denied being a member of Knights of Malta; McRaven and JSOC have thus far declined to comment. But so what if they were? Everything I've seen tells me that the Knights of Malta are a public service organization, not some kind of Catholic extremist group. And Opus Dei is hardly the secretive cabal of ruthless assassins depicted in The Da Vinci Code. It has a Facebook page.
3. "They do see what they're doing -- and this is not an atypical attitude among some military -- it's a crusade, literally. They see themselves as the protectors of the Christians. They're protecting them from the Muslims [as in] the 13th century. And this is their function." I have no doubt that many in the U.S. military are religious, and yes, I've heard about Jerry Boykin, Erik Prince, and those rifle scopes. But the plural of anecdote is not data -- and acknowledging there are devout Christians in the military and implying that top military leaders are embarking on a "crusade" against Muslims are two very different things. "Zealotry is viewed as being unprofessional [in the SF community]," former Special Forces officer Kalev Sepp told Stars and Stripes. "Anyone who professes religion in an open way like that is suspect to where their real loyalties lie." (Do I really need to explain this?)
4. "They have little insignias, these coins they pass among each other, which are crusader coins.… They have insignia that reflect the whole notion that this is a culture war." I believe Hersh is referring here to challenge coins, a common sight across the U.S. military. They seem pretty innocuous to me.
There's a lot more, but you get the idea. So I'm going to go out on a limb here and just say it: Odds are good that JSOC is not being overrun by Catholic fanatics.
Life in Iraq isn't easy (and hasn't been for a while), but it's still rare to find community leaders imploring Iraqis to leave their home country. But that's exactly what Archbishop Athanasios Dawood of the Syriac Orthodox Church is doing.
"I say clearly and now -- the Christian people should leave their beloved land of our ancestors and escape the premeditated ethnic cleansing," Dawood said in a prepared statement to CNN. "This is better than having them killed one by one." In other interviews, Dawood, who lives in London, evoked the word "genocide" to describe the treatment of Iraqi Christians.
Fifty-eight people were killed in an attack on an Iraqi church last Sunday.
With the exception of the massive exodus of Iraq's large Jewish minority after the creation of Israel in 1948, there was little sectarian violence in Iraq before the U.S. invasion in 2003.
"You know, everybody hates the Christian. Yes, during Saddam Hussein, we were living in peace -- nobody attacked us. We had human rights, we had protection from the government but now nobody protects us," the archbishop told the BBC. "Since 2003, there has been no protection for Christians. We've lost many people and they've bombed our homes, our churches, monasteries."
Eden Naby and Jamsheed K. Chosky wrote in Foreign Policy last week that there may not be a Christian population left in Iraq by the end of the century. Iran, which also has a (shrinking) Christian minority, is suffering the same fate.
But it isn't only from those countries that Middle Eastern Christians are leaving. Long-time Middle East journalist Robert Fisk pointed out last month (before the massacre in Baghdad) that Christian populations are shrinking across the region, from Palestine to Lebanon to Egypt. "This is, however, not so much a flight of fear, more a chronicle of a death foretold," Fisk writes. "Christians are being outbred by the majority Muslim populations in their countries and they are almost hopelessly divided."
In Michigan, Iraqi Christians rallied today, calling on the United States to put a stop to violence against their coreligionists.
The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has affected every aspect of society in that country. As many people have written, the U.S. government seems to have been wholly unprepared for what lay ahead in Iraq. It's hard to imagine that George W. Bush, with his own deep Christian faith, expected the catastrophe in store for Iraqi Christians.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
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