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Hot Dogs, Red Bull, and the Latest Conspiracy Theories About Poland's Tragic Plane Crash

Three and a half years later, the debate over what caused a plane carrying top Polish officials to crash near an airport in western Russia, killing 96 people including the president and his wife, is still raging. Today, it's less a back-and-forth between those who think the 2010 crash was an accident and those who believe it was an attack, and more a steady stream of accusations and conspiracy theories from the latter camp. A conference of "independent experts" in Warsaw this week, for instance, put forth evidence involving everything from hot dogs to Red Bull cans to a plane flying backward in fake fog.

These conference attendees aren't exactly fringe figures, either. An April poll found that 32 percent of Poles see an attack as a probable explanation of the catastrophe, and an October poll showed that nearly 17 percent were convinced that this was the case. In yet another manifestation of Poland's age-old distrust of the Russians, many believe the "assassination" was carried out by the Russian government in cooperation with politicians from the ruling centrist party in Poland (the deceased president, Lech Kaczynski, belonged to right-wing opposition circles).

This is the case even though the government published a report in July 2011 that ruled out the possibility of a deliberate attack, instead blaming the crew's inadequate training and poor decision-making, miscommunication with the Russian flight controllers, and external circumstances such as weather and the airport's wooded landscape.

In the face of these findings, a very vocal group of right-wingers has set out to undermine the report, fueling the conspiracy theories believed by a large subsection of Polish society. The efforts are led by a crusading member of parliament named Antoni Macierewicz, along with experts who have contributed to a special parliamentary committee investigating the crash. In recent weeks, the committee has made news with several compromising gaffes, including the so-called "Skypegate" affair in which several panelists tried calling in to a public meeting on Skype, only to be stymied by Internet users who interrupted the calls. At one point, a user called "Vladimir Putin" tried to join the conversation.

Then, on Oct. 21, a group of "independent scientists" -- including several who have worked with the controversial parliamentary commission -- gathered in Warsaw at what Polish news outlets are calling a "mysterious conference" whose exact location was not disclosed. While journalists (and official government experts) were not invited, the two-day event was streamed online so that the public could have access to what the participants called a "scholarly investigation." And as the Polish news service Gazeta.pl has highlighted, this was no ordinary scholarly gathering.

First, there were those who attempted to provide a scientific basis for some of the conspiracy theories currently in circulation. Stefan Bramski from the state-run Institute of Aviation suggested that unidentified "terrorists" had triggered a bomb when the plane was in the air, while also dispersing fake smog above the airport.

One of the conference's international guests, Chris Cieszewski, a professor of fiber supply assessment at the Center for Forest Business at the University of Georgia, brought up an infamous birch tree near the crash site (it has its own Wikipedia page). The Polish government's report claimed that when the jet collided with the tree, a significant portion of the plane's wing broke off. Cieszewski, playing into widespread skepticism about the birch, argued that the tree was damaged at least five days earlier, with someone climbing it, banging it with a hammer, and chopping it with an ax. Cieszewski and a music expert from the University of Warsaw also discussed the sounds that the plane made prior to the crash, dismissing those described in the official report and demonstrating what a crashing plane should sound like ("phew, phew, zoooom!").

The conference put a particular emphasis on empirical evidence. Andrzej Ziolkowski, who works at a public technology research institution, brandished an image of overcooked hot dogs to prove there was an explosion on the plane while it was still in the air. The hull of the plane cracked lengthwise, which Ziolkowski claims could have only been caused by internal pressure from an explosion in the cabin.

"We see this when we boil sausages for breakfast," he said, presenting an image of two hot dogs as an example of how the hull was split. A professor named Jan Obrebski also resorted to culinary evidence, trying to illustrate the damage to the plane by showing an image of a misshapen can of Red Bull (it gives you wings!) -- the irony of which may have been lost on the academic.

Another scientist from a prestigious university in Krakow, Piotr Witakowski, was suspicious of the plane's rudder, which fell off during the crash: "In my opinion the rudder was blasted off, shot off before the plane hit the ground."

But perhaps the most far-out theory came from Stefan Bramski, who deduced from the plane's dented nozzle that the jet was actually flying backward -- and hit the ground in that manner.

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What Makes a Sex Shop Halal?

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."

But if halal sex shop owners are motivated by profit, Islam itself has laid the groundwork for the business opportunity. While rigid rules govern pre-marital sexual relations in Muslim culture, the Quran and hadith (a record of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions) make clear that sex within the confines of marriage is not purely for procreation, as it is in some Christian denominations. Muhammad told men not to leave their wives for more than six months so as to avoid sexual neglect, and there are even some well-known references to foreplay in the hadith. As Yusuf explains, "It's not a prudish culture ... but decorum is still very important." For married Muslim couples, specific etiquette governs proper sexual relations, separating haram (forbidden) from halal.

"Online sex shops usually have pornographic pictures, which makes Muslims uncomfortable," Demirel, the Turkish shop owner, told Reuters. "We don't sell vibrators for example, because they are not approved by Islam."

According to Yusuf, there is some disagreement over the degree to which masturbation - and related sex toys -- is prohibited. "Some scholars say it's forbidden, other says it's discouraged," he said. "Those who say it's discouraged say it's only to prevent fornication, or for relief." A section in the Quran, widely understood to ban masturbation, says that the "believers" are those "who protect their sexual organs except from their spouse.... Whoever seeks more beyond that [in sexual gratification], then they are the transgressors." Vibrators and similar toys also don't make it past an Islamic prohibition on the insertion of foreign objects into the body, according to Yusuf. He told FP that even enemas are discouraged.

Abdelaziz Aouragh, the owner of a Dutch halal sex shop called El Asira, told the Los Angeles Times in 2010, "There have been a lot of fatwas [Islamic rulings] concerning ... [sex toys] ... so it's very clear that they are not permissible. I would sell them if it was permissible but it's not." At Aouragh's online boutique, there are even separate places for men and women to log in, in keeping with the Islamic tradition of purdah, or sex segregation.

Halal sex shops also can't display pornographic imagery, since such images expose a person's awrah, the Arabic word for areas forbidden from the public eye. According to Hamza Yusuf, women are not allowed to see the region stretching from the navel to the knees on another woman, and men are permitted to see only a woman's face and hands. Although Turkey is the only Muslim country where porn is technically legal, huge black markets dedicated to it run through Muslim countries with stringent anti-porn policies, with Pakistan leading the entire world in porn-related search in a recent Google analysis.

Perhaps the most straightforward aspect of a halal sex shop is that they supply only halal-certified massage oils, lubricants, and other such items. Halal items using animal byproducts, for instance, cannot include pork and must come from animals killed according to Islamic rules. According to Hamza Yusuf, condoms made with pig fat, for instance, would be haram.

Of course, opening sex shops in some of the world's most sexually conservative environments is not without obstacles. Khadija Ahmed, the female owner of one erotic boutique in Bahrain, told Reuters in 2010 that a customs officer refused to clear some of her shipments of vibration rings.

In some ways, the opening of Turkey's first sex shop reflects the paradoxical changes taking place in Turkish government and society. On the one hand, Turkey is often characterized as a stronghold of secularism in the Middle East and recognized for its imperfect but noteworthy efforts to embrace Western democratic ideals, especially in order to advance its bid to join the European Union. But at the same time, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who graduated from a clerical school and belongs to the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, has stoked debate about the government's "hidden agenda" to Islamize the secular country by introducing measures like alcohol restrictions and making comments about raising "religious youth." The halal sex shop encapsulates this tension and the creative responses it has spawned.

But maybe that's giving it too much credit. As Yusuf pointed out, there's hardly anything revolutionary about products like aphrodisiacs in the Muslim world, and there has even been some coverage of the hush-hush parties in Muslim countries where sex toys can be bought and sold as casually as plastic containers at a Tupperware party. And for now, Demirel seems content with the "unexpected popularity" of site (and the particularly unexpected demand for women's products), which attracted 33,000 visitors on Sunday alone. We already knew that sex sells, but add centuries-old religious traditions to the mix, and you have yourself a great business model.

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