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Ed Webb

Anti-Muslim hatred ignored by EU, activists say - 0 views

  • The EU has a problem with anti-Muslim hatred and its institutions are doing little to help, some 41 civil society groups have said.
  • The EU and France opposed creating an International Day to Combat Islamophobia at the UN
  • the EU Commission has failed to appoint a new coordinator on anti-Muslim hatred since July last year
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  • "anti-Muslim violence, hate speech, discrimination and marginalisation" were "swiftly proliferating in Europe where Muslims (or those perceived as such) are now being identified as a primary target by political parties and violent far-right movements alike,"
  • EU countries dropped references to the importance of the coordinator on anti-Muslim hatred after Poland said if that was to be in the text, then it wanted a special coordinator on "Christianophobia" in Europe as well
  • French policies paid more attention to combatting antisemitism and the EU Commission has had a coordinator in that role in place since 2015, giving the impression of a "hierarchy" of EU concern, the 41 civil groups pointed out
Ed Webb

National Identity Becoming More Inclusive in U.S., UK, France and Germany | Pew Researc... - 0 views

  • a new Pew Research Center survey finds that views about national identity in the U.S., France, Germany and the UK have become less restrictive and more inclusive in recent years. Compared with 2016 – when a wave of immigration to Europe and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in the U.S. made immigration and diversity a major issue on both sides of the Atlantic – fewer now believe that to truly be American, French, German or British, a person must be born in the country, must be a Christian, has to embrace national customs, or has to speak the dominant language
  • Outside of France, more people say it’s a bigger problem for their country today to not see discrimination where it really does exist than for people to see discrimination where it really is not present.
  • a large majority think Muslims face discrimination.
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  • In every country surveyed, those on the right are more likely than those on the left to prioritize sticking to traditions, to say people today are too easily offended by what others say, and to say the bigger societal problem is seeing discrimination where it does not exist.
  • while those on the left and right are equally likely to say they are proud most of the time in both France and Germany, in the U.S. and UK, those on the right are more than three times as likely to say they are proud most of the time than those on the left
  • issues of pride for some were often sources of shame for others. In the UK, one such issue was the concept of empire. Those on the ideological right praised the historic empire for its role in spreading English and Western culture overseas, while those on the ideological left discussed how the UK had disrupted local cultures and often left chaos in its wake in its former colonies.
  • whereas groups composed of Republicans discussed American history through the lens of opportunity, groups composed of Democrats stressed the inadequacy of how American history is taught – and how it often glosses over racism and inequitable treatment of minority groups. Republican participants, for their part, even brought up how political correctness itself makes them embarrassed to be American – while Democratic participants cited increased diversity as a point of pride
  • While Britons are as ideologically divided as Americans on issues of pride, when it comes to every other cultural issue asked about in this report, Americans stand out for being more ideologically divided than those in the Western European countries surveyed.
  • Younger people – those under 30 – are less likely to place requirements on Christianity, language, birth or adopting the country’s traditions to be part of their country than older age groups. They are also more likely to say their country will be better off if it is open to changes. The notable exception to this pattern is Germany, where opinion differs little by age.
Ed Webb

Muslim Sicily and the First Reconquista - Byzantine Emporia - 0 views

  • the island grew in some ways more cosmopolitan. Sicily had been something of a backwater under Byzantium, lying at the furthest reaches of the empire. Muslim Sicily was much more central to the Islamic world: it enjoyed easy communication with the friendly ports of Syria, Egypt, Spain, and North Africa.
  • The island’s governor transferred the capital to Palermo and undertook a major building program there. Palaces, mosques, baths, and public buildings were erected to make the city worthy of a great kingdom. The population swelled as Palermo drew people from all over, soon making it one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean.
  • Palermo soon began to rival Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, and Cordoba.
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  • The Arabs introduced new crops and irrigation techniques, turning the island into a major producer of pistachios, citrus, sugarcane, and cotton. These cash crops were exported to all the major ports of the Mediterranean.
  • Pirates were expelled from their nest in southern France. Genoa, recovering from complete destruction by Arab pirates in 934, and Pisa, which also suffered devastating raids, began undertaking retaliatory expeditions. They started by clearing out bases on Corsica and Sardinia, and eventually went on to raid Ifriqiya itself.
  • as with the Spanish Reconquista and the Crusades, the reconquest of Sicily was spearheaded by warriors from northern Europe
  • Muslims, Jews, and Byzantine Christians were all allowed a dignity and freedom of worship unheard of elsewhere in either Christian or Islamic lands. Indeed, they were treated with more than just haughty indifference; men of merit were held in high esteem, whatever their religion. Talented Greeks and Arabs were given high positions as administrators, and craftsmen of all faiths were employed by the court.
  • A large army was sent from the empire’s eastern provinces to Italy, where the commanders set about raising auxiliaries. The Normans were always eager for battle and loot, and so a corps of several hundred knights joined the army. Among its leaders was one William de Hauteville, accompanied by two of his younger brothers. The force crossed the Straits of Messina, and met with initial success. But after two years, the expedition fell apart from factional squabbles. First, the Normans abandoned the enterprise. They punched far above their weight and were crucial to several victories, but felt they received an inferior share of the spoils. Then a conflict between the Byzantine general and admiral caused the former to be recalled to Constantinople, dooming any chance of victory.
  • From the papacy’s perspective, the conquest of Muslim Sicily would serve several purposes. First and foremost, it would eliminate a dangerous enemy of Rome. Sicily was the nearest base for the Muslim sea-raiders that had long plagued Christian lands in the western Mediterranean. Arab corsairs had sacked St. Peter’s in 846, and even occupied part of Apulia for several decades. Second, it expanded the influence of Rome within Christendom itself. A long-brewing conflict between eastern and western divisions of the Church was reaching a head around this time. The Greek Patriarch in Constantinople resented papal claims to primacy over all Christendom, and had theological quibbles of his own with the Latin rite. By investing Robert Guiscard as duke of Sicily, the pope was asserting his power in what had long been Constaninople’s purview.
  • The year was 1038, and the Byzantine Empire was at its height. Over the past century it had systematically broken the strength of several powerful enemies, and expanded their borders by hundreds of miles to recover lost territory. The treasury was full, the frontiers were secure, and the army was strong.
  • The new kingdom was the richest and most advanced state of western Europe. In part, this was because it took full advantage of the talents of its Muslim population, which skilled tradesmen, merchants, and scholars. Whatever the pope’s religious motives behind granting the Normans the right to conquer Muslim Sicily, they cared most of all about power. As such, they happily patronized Arabs, Greeks, and Jews alike.
  • Up until the Norman conquest, the Byzantines had been de facto protectors of all Christians in Sicily. They were the last Christian power to rule the island, and had maintained close contacts with the its Christian population throughout the Muslim occupation, launching several expeditions to liberate their coreligionists. The success of the Normans put an end to this, and allowed the Church of Rome to assume authority over Greek Christians in southern Italy. With Latin Christendom directly abutting Muslim Sicily, the papacy took a new concern for Christians living under Islamic rule. The new holy struggle envisaged not just taking back land from Muslims, but winning over the faithful from the Byzantine rite. This dynamic would play out during the Crusades, as western Europeans conquered once-Byzantine lands from the Muslims.
  • Norman governance concerned itself with taxation, military affairs, and justice, but various peoples were free to maintain separate customs and govern themselves at the communal level.
  • an astonishing amalgamation of wildly different styles: architects ornamented northern Gothic buildings with Arab designs, while Greek artists decorated the interiors with Byzantine mosaics. Nor was this fusion a strictly monumental phenomenon: the Tabula Rogeriana, a world atlas composed by an Arab geographer for Roger II, was produced as a bilingual Arabic-Latin text. The Sicilian court attracted scholars from as far afield as England and Baghdad, who then brought bits of its unique culture back to their homelands. This cultural exchange was much more than an accident of circumstance—the Norman kings took an active interest in the culture of the island, and several learned Arabic, Greek, and Sicilian. As late as 1250, the king of Sicily was fluent in all three languages.
  • One side-effect of the Norman reconquista was the gradual disappearance of Greek culture on the island. Southern Italy and Sicily had long maintained a Greek character, as far back as the first Euboean colonies of the 8th century BC. This had persisted under Roman rule, and was revitalized by later Byzantine reconquests.
  • the Normans expelled the last Byzantine garrison from Apulia in 1071, the same year as the siege of Palermo, and never again would a Greek power rule any part of Italy.
  • Over time, the Roman Church replaced Greek clergymen with Latins, and the Sicilian-speaking majority asserted its cultural power.
  • When the First Crusade was preached in 1095, the duke of Normandy and many other nobles took the cross, inspired by their cousins’ example. Within forty years of the Normans gaining a toehold in Muslim Sicily, Toledo and Jerusalem were back in Christian hands. Christian princes on both sides of the Mediterranean were aggressively expanding their domains, and everywhere Islam was in retreat. The Sicilian Reconquista was a precursor to these titanic clashes—itself not a holy war, but the opening act to the great crusading era.
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    Despite its pro-Byzantine biases, even this account has to concede the reality of cultural synthesis and mutual toleration in Muslim and Norman Sicily
Ed Webb

Rinse and Repeat: French Secularism as Political Theater - 0 views

  • Decentralization in certain areas of political, economic, and civic life is part of a broader neoliberal restructuring of France that has accompanied its incorporation into the European Union, beginning in the mid-1970s and accelerating in the 2000s. This neoliberal restructuring combines market-friendly policies with the retraction of the welfare state, eroding French national values of equality, unity, and social solidarity. 
  • the political-economic transformations of the neoliberal era in France have come with a tacit acceptance that the government could, and would, do very little about unemployment
  • Macron, like so many other politicians before him, has responded by scapegoating Islam. Making the threat of Islamist separatism front and center, Macron’s government has committed to a law-and-order paradigm that seeks to re-establish national identity, republican values, and the authority of the Republic.
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  • Republican authority is “reasserted” on Muslim lives and Muslim bodies, all in the name of French secularism
  • Muslim appeals for religious accommodation are claims to civic equality within the existing parameters of laïcité. Yet those appeals have paradoxically become the basis for questioning Muslims’ fitness as proper French citizens. For instance, Macron and other politicians have consistently identified requests for halal meals in school cafeterias as a sign of Muslim separatism
  • in 2021, history repeats itself: Macron wants to create “an Islam of the Enlightenment” and to make sure that imams are trained in France. Politicians on the left and the right are obsessed with Muslims’ sartorial choices, taking headscarves and beards as signs of poor integration at best and of separatism at worst. This is unsurprising; it is how French secularism works
  • When it comes to religious minorities, then, inclusion and exclusion have always gone hand in hand, as have integration and intervention. France is at a particularly punitive moment in this interventionist project, the political theater of both neoliberalism and secularism playing out on the civil liberties of Muslim French and their allies. This has happened before. And, no doubt, it will happen again
Ed Webb

As Discontent Grows in Syria, Assad Struggles to Retain Support of Alawites - 0 views

  • Though the choreographed optics are intended to placate the community, pictures of Assad meeting with the distressed and offering shallow assurances are unlikely to offset the sight of cataclysmic flames devouring their homes. In a video shared on Twitter, an Alawite man films a fire surrounding his home. He sarcastically thanks the state for enabling its spread “because it’s irrelevant if we live or die.” In another video, a group of Alawites is seen criticizing government officials for their indifference, including a minister, whom they claim arrived for a photo op then subsequently drove off to avoid answering questions. The demographic’s small size and geographic concentration guarantees that word of such transgressions spreads quickly. The author’s Alawite sources on the coast echo these frustrations and claim they are widespread. They angrily questioned why neither the state nor its Iranian and Russian allies had assisted, especially given the proximity of the latter’s airbase at Khmeimim to the coastal mountains. 
  • On Oct. 9, state media’s Alikhbaria broadcast a video depicting a handful of Syrian soldiers struggling to put out small fires. Owing to severe water shortages, the troops were forced to use tree branches in lieu of hoses or buckets of water. The video was later shared on Twitter, where it elicited a mixture of mockery and condemnation from opponents of the regime. However, Alawite overrepresentation in the military means that these visuals denote a sense of loss and despair to the community.
  • The armed forces make up a key pillar of Alawite identity and have for nearly a century constituted their main institutional vehicle for attaining upward social mobility and prestige. The community’s loss of more than one third of their men of military age fighting for the regime against an overwhelmingly Sunni armed opposition has further entrenched this interdependence
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  • Conversations within the community center on the divide between the elites and the impoverished Alawites who are commonly linked to the discourse of sacrifice. Economic implosion and the decimation of the Syrian pound have effectively thrust a formerly comfortable middle class into poverty. Whereas Alawites are disproportionately represented in the public sector, the average state salary – a meager 50,000 SYP ($21) per month – means that the vast majority live well below the poverty line, as the average family, according to a Syrian newspaper, requires 700,000 SYP ($304) per month in order to live comfortably. 
  • In October alone, the price of gasoline increased twice, while the cost of diesel – used for residential heat and cooking, in addition to operating bakeries and fueling Syria’s cheapest mode of transportation, microbuses – more than doubled. Basic necessities have become virtually unaffordable.
  • Many of the communities impacted by the fires are subsistence farmers that depend on the profits accrued from harvesting crops such as olives, citrus, and tobacco. They commonly require a mixture of short- and long-term loans from the state’s Agricultural Cooperative Bank. Yet systemic corruption, mismanagement, and a collapsed economy have depleted state coffers, making it unlikely that the regime will compensate those whose homes and livelihoods have been destroyed.
  • in an interview with pro-regime radio station Sham FM, a resident of Alawite al-Fakhoura asserts the funds are being distributed by local officials in a nepotistic fashion. This example illustrates that, in the improbable case that Assad secures the necessary finances, his regime cannot prevent its clientelist networks from capturing them
  • diffusion of power since 2011 has led to unprecedented corruption amid the rise of relatively autonomous war profiteers, from militias to businessmen
  • Outside of individual members hailing from a class of intellectuals, artists, and political dissidents, few Alawites actively joined the uprising in 2011. Those who did generally partook in cross-confessional protests that stressed national unity.
  • In August 2015, the president’s cousin, Suleiman al-Assad, shot and killed a decorated Syrian Air Force colonel in Latakia City in a bout of road rage. According to the colonel’s brother, Suleiman had disparaged the Syrian military before killing the officer. Protests calling for Suleiman’s execution ensued in the Alawite neighborhood of Al-Zira’a. The debasing of the army – viewed as the only buffer between Alawites and a vengeful, sectarian opposition – by a privileged member of the ruling class struck a political nerve.
  • The spread of parasitic pro-regime militias operating with impunity and their disregard for breadlines, gas queues, and ration restrictions, in addition to their harassment of people desperately awaiting their turn, has contributed to an atmosphere in which fights break out. In Latakia and Hama, these fights have reportedly resulted in a few deaths.
  • time-tested tactic of externalizing blame and deflecting responsibility is currently being sustained by several exogenous factors. These include the presence of Turkish and American troops on Syrian soil and their support for rival armed actors, the sporadic persistence of Israeli strikes, and the implementation of U.S. sanctions through the Caesar Act, which collectively breathe life into the regime’s otherwise exhausted rhetoric
  • People considering organizing widespread civil disobedience are deterred by the specter of pre-emptive detention by the dreaded mukhabarat. The regime’s periodic security reshuffling further blurs the ability to identify potentially dangerous agents within their own community, magnifying the perceived threat posed by the omnipresence of informants.
  • the regime’s inability to check its repressive impulses could lead to a situation in which Alawites related to members of the officer corps are arrested and tortured – or worse, disappeared – for public critiques of the government, causing backlash from its own coercive forces
  • the deterioration of living standards could ultimately lead to a breaking point. 
  • Any organized dissent would require the support of its rank-and-file soldiers, most of whom share similar, if not identical, grievances with the wider community, and could thus be sympathetic. This could potentially cause a schism within the Alawite community as familial allegiances are weighed against loyalty to the Assad dynasty and its regime, particularly if ordered to repress protests in Alawite areas.
  • The only conceivable scenario in which Assad’s departure can occur at the hands of the Alawites while salvaging the state and avoiding further regional instability would be through a palace coup led by disgruntled officers and backed by Russia. However, the likelihood that Russia could simply replace or abandon Assad, its growing frustrations notwithstanding, is low, not least due to lack of an alternative.
  • Iranian entrenchment, both within the formal institutions of the regime and the state’s security landscape more broadly, continues to exploit Assad’s tenuous authority in order to obstruct Russian attempts to monopolize patronage.
  • Iran is a force for regime continuity. By creating a parallel network of control that bypasses the state, Iran has thus far been able to reproduce its influence, particularly through its ongoing relations with a patchwork of non-state militias, while resisting Russian efforts at vertically integrating these actors into the formal structures of a centralized Syrian state
  • the regime played the leading role in engineering facts on the ground critical to corroborating the false binary at the heart of its survival: Either accept the stability and security of the state – however perilous – or test the genocidal dispositions of the “jihadist” opposition.
  • This idea – that the president is innocent despite being surrounded by villains – is not uncommon among the Alawites.
  • Apart from the Turkish-backed factions in the north, the threat of Sunni reprisals occupies less of an immediate concern to most Alawites than their ability to secure food, shelter, and transportation amid a shattered economy and unstable currency
Ed Webb

The Secret Language of Cairo's Goldsmiths - Atlas Obscura - 0 views

  • the goldsmiths of Cairo, who use trade-specific terminology for their business dealings. Many of the phrases they use, as he soon discovered, are reworked Hebrew terms, remnants of a time—from at least the 16th century through the early 20th century—when Egyptian Jews were central to the jewelry trade. The find was startling not only because of the intrigue of such “secret” trade languages, but because Jews have not worked in the Egyptian goldsmith market since the 1960s. Their language has outlived their community.
  • the pragmatic focus of writing in trade contexts—which was often unconcerned with literary flourishes and instead existed somewhere between written and spoken language—meant traders were often the first to introduce spoken variables of language into the written word. This linguistic trendsetting was particularly true of trades that cultivated a group identity—goldsmiths being a prime example.
  • In the early 1900s, the goldsmith quarter was also home to Cairo’s large Jewish population, which had resided in Egypt for millennia. The departure of the Jewish community in the 1950s and 1960s was swift and sudden, leaving many Jewish goldsmiths to abandon their businesses or hastily gift them to their non-Jewish assistants and colleagues. Few shop owners operating today will openly discuss this period. It’s not known what percentage of shops in the 1950s would have been Jewish-owned.
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  • combine Hebrew roots with Arabic grammar. For example, some merchants would warn one another about a possible thief by using the word “ganneb.” The term comes from the Hebrew verb ganab, to steal, but is in Arabic’s declarative second verb form. As Rosenbaum would write, “Another term for warning against thieves is enaymak, which is a combination of the Hebrew word עינים=/enayim (eyes) and the Arabic suffixed possessive pronoun -ak for the second person.” Translation: Watch out!
  • the Karaite Jews had a unique relationship to Arabic, which some posit might be one reason their trade phrases integrated so widely within the broader, non-Jewish goldsmith population. “There were not many Jews in Egypt who used Arabic exclusively for every aspect of their lives,” explains Katharine Halls, a scholar of Egyptian Jewry and Arabic-to-English translator who has lived on and off in Egypt for several years during her career. “Egyptian Jews often spoke French, like many wealthier Egyptian families, or Alexandria it was Italian for a while, but the Karaites were generally mono-lingual in Arabic, which made them virtually unique among Jews in Egypt.”
  • The Karaite Jewish goldsmiths likely would have freely trained their non-Jewish staff in the use of such terminology.
Ed Webb

Why Muslim-majority countries need secular citizenship and law-making | openDemocracy - 0 views

  • once a political system is based on a religion, it is almost impossible to define the citizens who do not follow that religion as “first class.” In Iran and Iraq, rising legal and political influence of Shiism has led the discrimination against Sunni citizens, and in Pakistan and Egypt the opposite has happened, to a certain extent. Moreover, several Christian and non-Muslim minorities have faced discrimination by various means, including apostasy and blasphemy laws, in Sudan and Malaysia, among other cases.
  • Truly maintaining equal citizenship to all regardless of their religious identities is crucial for Muslim-majority countries to achieve democratization, consolidate the rule of law, and end sectarian and religious tensions.
  • equal citizenship in Muslim-majority countries will empower those who defend rights of Muslim minorities facing persecution and even ethnic cleansing in such cases as China, India, and Myanmar, and experiencing Islamophobia in western countries. By maintaining the rights of their own minorities, Muslim-majority countries may gain stronger moral and legal grounds to defend rights of Muslim minorities at the global level.
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  • Islamic jurisprudence inherently contradicts democratic politics
  • In the twentieth century, secularist rulers adopted secular legal systems in Turkey, Iraq, Tunisia, and several other Muslim-majority cases. These assertive secularist regimes were mostly authoritarian. Therefore, they did not allow the law-making processes to be truly participatory. Secularism appears to be necessary but not sufficient for participatory legislation, too.
  • As my new book Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison explains, there existed a certain level of separation between religious and political authorities in the first four centuries of Islamic history.That is why the first systematic book about “Islamic” politics was written as late as the mid-eleventh century. It was Mawardi’s The Ordinances of Government. The book argues that an Islamic government is based on a caliph (an Arab man from the Quraish tribe) to rule all Muslims. The caliph holds the entire political and legal authority and stays in power for life. The caliph delegates his legitimate authority to sultans, governors, and judges.The second book, which systematically defines an Islamic political system, was written in the early fourteenth century. It is Ibn Taymiyya’s Sharia-based Governance in Reforming Both the Ruler and His Flock. Instead of the one-man rule of a caliph, this book emphasizes the alliance between the ulema and the state authorities. Ibn Taymiyya interprets the only phrase in the Quran about authority, “uli’l-amr” (4:59), as referring to the ulema and the rulers (though other scholars have interpreted it differently).
  • To implement Mawardi’s idea of caliphate today would imply to establish an extreme autocracy. Ibn Taymiyya’s ideas are not helpful to solve modern political problems either. In fact, the ulema-state alliance is the source of various problems in many Muslim-majority countries.
  • To maintain a certain level of separation between Islam and legal systems may limit the exploitation of Islam for political purposes.
  • recent Islamization (at the political, legal and ideological levels) has weakened secular fundamentals of citizenship and law-making in many Muslim-majority countries.
Ed Webb

Rethinking secularism : Can Europe integrate its Muslims? | openDemocracy - 0 views

  • In Western Europe, right into the 1990s, and in contrast to India and some Muslim-majority countries for instance, there was a sense across the political spectrum that political secularism was a done deal.
  • By multiculturalism I mean not just the fact of the post-immigration ethno-religious diversity but the presence of a multiculturalist approach to this diversity: the idea that equality must be extended from uniformity of treatment to include respect for difference. This means understanding that the public and the private are interdependent rather than dichotomized as in classical liberalism. This provides the intellectual basis for the public recognition and institutional accommodation of minorities, the reversal of marginalisation and a remaking of national citizenship so that all can have a sense of belonging to it.
  • Liberal political theorists define political secularism as ‘state neutrality’, meaning that the state must not privilege some religions over others but must instead treat them equally and must not identify with any one of them. Multiculturalists contend that a strict policy of non-identification with a particular language, history and culture, however, is impossible for a state to achieve. It is therefore better to interpret state neutrality to mean that connections between state and religion must be inclusive, rather than push religious groups away.
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  • Western Europe may respond, indeed is responding, to Muslim political assertiveness in two opposing ways, based on its response to two controversies that erupted in 1989: the Salman Rushdie affair in the United Kingdom and the headscarf affair in France.
  • too many European governments discourage Muslim self-representation in politics and civil society and prefer to initiate debates about Islam’s relationship to national identity in which Muslims are the objects of discussion rather than participants in it
  • Western Europe will not be able to integrate its growing population of Muslims into its national polities without rethinking political secularism. This will be much easier where moderate secularism and multiculturalism prevail, as opposed to a more radical form of secularism. European nations must oppose radical secularism, antipathy to public religion, and the trampling and alienating effects this tendency is having on religious freedoms and a growing European Muslim population.
  • Just as European citizens and governments must oppose the extreme nationalism that is asserting itself across the continent, they must also turn away from extreme secularism which, apart from in France, is not the Western European way. Affirming its historically moderate secularism, and adapting it to accommodate a multifaith national citizenry, represents Europe’s best chance for finding a way forward.
Ed Webb

Trapped in Iran | 1843 - 0 views

  • Iran has a complicated, and at times paranoid, government. Elected parliamentarians give a veneer of democracy but power ultimately resides with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the regime’s most powerful security force, answers directly to him. Rival arms of the state, including the security forces, jostle for influence. And the rules are unclear.
  • I had gone to report on the impact of American-imposed sanctions. Some news stories were claiming that Tehran was on the brink of collapse, but I saw few signs of it. There was no panic buying. The city looked cleaner and more modern than on my visit three years before. It has the best underground in the Middle East, with locally made trains. Parks and museums were abundant and well-tended, pavements were scrubbed and the city’s many flower-beds immaculately maintained.
  • America’s sanctions had hurt people, of course. Average monthly salaries were worth less than a pair of imported shoes. I saw people sleeping rough or hawking junk on the streets. One former university lecturer I met had been reduced to busking. But few people went hungry and there seemed to be a joie de vivre among many of those I talked to. Cafés, theatres and music halls were packed. An earlier bout of sanctions had forced Tehran’s Symphony Orchestra to disband but I wangled a ticket for the opening night of the reconstituted Philharmonic.
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  • My captors wore no identifying uniforms, but on the second day the doctor told me that he was an officer in the intelligence arm of the Revolutionary Guards. Iran’s security agencies are many tentacled. In 1979 the new Islamic Republic retained much of the existing state apparatus, including the army and a good part of the bureaucracy, but it added another tier to keep existing institutions in check, and the parallel systems have competed ever since. The government’s own intelligence ministry would be unlikely to detain a Western journalist whose entry it had approved. My accusers were from its more powerful rival.
  • Over the course of four days the men spent most of their time glued to phone-screens, watching Bollywood films, or American or Chinese schlock full of street fights, which they accessed through virtual private networks to evade the censorship they were supposed to enforce.
  • Self-censorship ranks as one of an authoritarian regime’s strongest tools, and I was complicit.
  • Despite Iran’s pious reputation, Tehran may well be the least religious capital in the Middle East. Clerics dominate the news headlines and play the communal elders in soap operas, but I never saw them on the street, except on billboards. Unlike most Muslim countries, the call to prayer is almost inaudible. There has been a rampant campaign to build new mosques, yet more people flock to art galleries on Fridays than religious services. With the exception, perhaps, of Tel Aviv, I had visited nowhere in the Middle East where people read as voraciously as Tehran. “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fable of women enslaved to a theocratic caste, is a particular favourite, the owner of one bookstore told me.
  • Life in Iran has always swung both ways. Nothing goes and everything goes. Alcohol is banned but home delivery is faster for wine than for pizza.
  • The space for veil-free living had grown since I last visited. In the safety of their homes, women often removed their head coverings when chatting over the internet. Darkened cinema halls offered respite from the morality police who enforce discipline. In cafés women let their scarves fall languorously. The more brazen simply walked uncovered in the streets, risking imprisonment. And, in an unusual inversion of rebellion, ties have made a reappearance some 40 years after Ayatollah Khomeini denounced them as a symbol of British imperialism.
  • The listing of plays in Tehran was almost as long as London’s West End and I devoured them. Directors are adept at finding ways to evade the censors. A striking number of plays and films I saw were set in prisons – a commentary on the Iranian condition – but under bygone regimes. Opera was taboo, but a performance one evening in the red-cushioned opera house of the former shah, which was billed as Kurdish folk music, included Verdi. Beneath a vast glittering chandelier the audience threw bouquets of flowers at the Iranian singer, who is acclaimed in both Rome and Berlin; for an encore, she finally dared to sing a solo.
  • Of course not everyone got away with pushing at the strictures. In my first week in Tehran the authorities pulled a production of Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” – the play is about suicide, which is forbidden in Islam – and another about poor women reduced to hawking to feed their families. Cafés that hosted live bands risked closure until they had paid off fines. Women without head-coverings who were spotted on one of Tehran’s many surveillance cameras received police summons by text. But the morality police, who drove around town in new green-and-white vans, seemed too stretched to suppress every challenge.
  • as well as being an intelligence officer, he was an academic and wrote a newspaper column
  • It was liberating to have the run of Tehran, without minders, deadlines or chores. But of course, I wasn’t truly free. I policed myself on behalf of the regime, becoming my own jailer and censor, aware that any lapse could have consequences. Sometimes I tried to speak over colleagues or relatives who were saying things that I feared might enrage my captors. I felt the presence of hundreds of electronic eyes. The friendliest faces who greeted me might be informers. And I could not leave Iran. It is an odd experience to know that you can be caught out at any time. But this was the way of Tehran. Some avenues open up, others close. Everyone feels like a captive. There are those who say that it is all a grand plan of the ayatollahs to keep people on edge.
  • I was caught in a political game involving high-seas tankers and international diplomacy that far exceeded my ability to influence it.
  • I feared either that the Revolutionary Guards thought they could use my presence to negotiate some kind of deal, or that I was becoming a pawn in the internal rivalry within the Iranian government. I was beginning to see at first hand the glaring tensions between the two arms of the state. My hotel seemed increasingly nervous about hosting an over-stayer without a passport. In an attempt to evict me one evening, they cut the lights and blamed an unfixable electrical fault. The following morning the Guards arrived to transfer me to another location. En route we were chased by two motorbikes and careened up and down the alleyways of northern Tehran. Only when we pulled into a cul-de-sac did the Guards succeed in shaking them off.
  • A new interrogator – toad-like and clad in leather – told me that the Guards had found incriminating material on my laptop that touched on matters of national security: he had found a note from a conversation I’d had with a government flunkie about smuggling rings connected to the offspring of senior Iranian officials. This proved, he said, that I had crossed the line from journalism to espionage. They were reopening the case.
  • Notes he had discovered on Iran’s spiralling brain drain confirmed, to his mind, that I was seeking to undermine national morale.
  • I wasn’t even sure how genuinely religious many of those I had met were. When we drove about town, Ali talked of his student days, his young family and his passion for British football. Ideology rarely came up. Within the parameters set by the vice squads, Tehran’s dominant culture was defiantly secular. Iran called itself a theocracy, yet religion felt frustratingly hard to locate and the truly religious seemed sidelined, like a minority.
  • For ten nights in Muharram these passion plays were performed with growing fervour. Even an irreverent man who taught me Farsi, who devoted much of his spare time to picking up waitresses in cafés, said Muharram was the one religious occasion he observed. The streets were lined with mokebs, stalls offering tea and dates and decorated with tragic representations of the battlefield using decapitated toy soldiers. At one mokeb, I came across a camel being readied for sacrifice. Many of these rites drew on ancient folklore rather than Muslim practice, akin to the celebration of Easter in the West. Since its inception the clerical regime had sought – and failed – to purify Iran of its non-Islamic elements.
  • “You feel a direct connection between people and God here,” a 40-year-old programme manager told me. He had stopped going to government mosques altogether, he said. Like some other pious Iranians I met, he feared that politics had sullied their religion rather than elevating it.
  • Panahian preached from a cushioned, teak throne beneath a vast chandelier while his acolytes crowded around him on the floor. He projected so much power, I got the feeling that if he’d read from a phone directory his disciples would still have sobbed. “Are you a servant of God or of man?” he said, scanning the crowd for suspects. “Choose between the tyranny of westernisation and God.” After he’d left a woman in a black chador took me aside. I steeled myself for an ideological harangue. Instead, she held up a plastic bag of bread and a plastic container of beans that the Husseiniya distributed after the sermon. “That’s why we came,” she said. “If you ask about the contents of the sermon, no one can tell you. If you ask about the contents of breakfast, they’ll all remember.”
  • the largest and most vibrant Jewish community in the Muslim world. Since the ayatollahs toppled the shah, Iran’s Jewish population has shrunk from 80,000 to around a tenth of that number. The ayatollahs have largely kept the remaining Jews safe, but they have also confiscated some of their property, particularly that of those who have left the country. Tensions between Iran’s Jews and the regime ebb and rise depending on the country’s relationship with Israel. But over time the Islamic Republic seems to have grown more at ease with the community
  • Iran has 22 mikva’ot – pools for ritual immersion. Many of Tehran’s dozen active synagogues are vast and packed with worshippers
  • There was a Jewish café, two kosher restaurants and a maternity hospital funded by the Jewish community in the south of Tehran, where less than 5% of those born were Jewish. A Jewish sports centre was also under construction
  • By rare coincidence the first service of selichot, the penitential prayers recited for a month in the run up to the High Holidays, began on the first day of the solemn month of Muharram. The synagogues were packed. At 1am Iran’s largest synagogue still teemed with families. At 2am the congregation swayed in prayer for Israel and its people. The communal chest-beating was gentler than in the Husseiniya, but more ardent than in Western congregations. Women walked up to the ark and kissed the smooth Isfahani tiles painted with menorahs and stars of David, acting like Shia pilgrims at their shrines. People milled around on the street outside chatting. I must have recited my prayers for forgiveness with conviction.
  • two men in black entered and introduced themselves as officers from another branch of intelligence. They apologised profusely for the difficulties I had faced and blamed the Guards for the inconvenience. They hoped that I had been well treated and expressed outrage that the Guards had made me pay my own hotel bill. They assured me that they’d been working strenuously for weeks to fix matters. My ordeal was over, they said. But could they just ask a few questions first?After 40 minutes of interrogation, they disappeared. Ten minutes later they were back with embarrassed smiles. One awkward matter needed resolving. Because I had overstayed my visa, I needed to pay a fine of 4m toman, about  $200.“Of course, the Guards should be paying since the delay was of their making,” they said.I called Ali and asked him to clear the fine.“No way,” he replied. “Can’t they waive it?”The intelligence officers apologised again but remained insistent. There were regulations. They couldn’t foot the bill for a mistake of the Guards.
  • Only when the flight map on my seat-back screen showed the plane nosing out of Iranian airspace did I begin to breathe normally.
Ed Webb

How Mike Pence's Office Meddled in Foreign Aid to Reroute Money to Favored Christian Gr... - 0 views

  • Decisions about U.S. aid are often no longer being governed by career professionals applying a rigorous review of applicants and their capabilities. Over the last two years, political pressure, particularly from the office of Vice President Mike Pence, had seeped into aid deliberations and convinced key decision-makers that unless they fell in line, their jobs could be at stake
  • ProPublica viewed internal emails and conducted interviews with nearly 40 current and former U.S. officials and aid professionals that shed new light on the success of Pence and his allies in influencing the government’s long-standing process for awarding foreign aid.
  • “There are very deliberate procurement guidelines that have developed over a number of years to guard precisely against this kind of behavior,”
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  • USAID regulations state that awards “must be free from political interference or even the appearance of such interference and must be made on the basis of merit, not on the basis of the religious affiliation of a recipient organization, or lack thereof.”
  • In August, as the White House was considering cuts to an array of foreign aid programs, it shielded funding for religious minorities abroad
  • Late in the Obama administration, USAID’s activities in Iraq focused on an effort by the United Nations to restore basic services as soon as cities had been liberated from Islamic State rule. By the end of 2016, the United States had contributed over $115 million to the effort through USAID, and other countries had contributed hundreds of millions of dollars more. U.S. officials credit the U.N.’s work with enabling millions of Iraqis to return to their homes soon after the fighting was done instead of languishing in refugee camps.
  • U.S. officials in Iraq were sensing dissatisfaction among some Iraqi Christians and American religious groups with the U.S. strategy and the U.N.’s work. Trying to head off problems, U.S. officials urged the U.N. in the summer of 2017 to pay special attention to the Nineveh Plains, an ethnically and religiously diverse region of northern Iraq where many of the country’s Christians live. U.N. officials were reluctant, arguing their assistance could go further in dense urban areas like Mosul, as opposed to the Nineveh Plains, a stretch of farmland dotted by small towns and villages.
  • Many career officials at the State Department and USAID supported the broader scope of the U.N.’s work. They acknowledged it wasn’t perfect — it could be slow, and the U.N. was not adept at communicating with local communities — but said the rebuilding had benefited wide swaths of territory that included both Muslims and minority groups.
  • Career officials also expressed concerns at the time that targeting federal funds toward particular minority groups on the basis of religion could be unconstitutional
  • Initially, Pence’s office and political appointees at USAID were focused on helping Christians, with little attention to Yazidis, a small, ancient sect that was targeted in an especially cruel manner by Islamic State militants, said a current official and a former foreign service officer. Over time, career officials “helped educate” political appointees on the extent of the Yazidis’ suffering, in hopes of getting their support for directing some aid at non-Christian groups, the former foreign service officer said. “There was a very ideological focus on Christians, and most of the questions were about Christians,” this person said. “We were trying to get them to focus on others in the minority communities that might need assistance.”
  • While the grant process was being worked out at USAID, Pence blindsided officials in October 2017 when he declared to an influential Christian group in Washington that Trump had ordered diplomats to no longer fund “ineffective” U.N. programs. USAID would now directly help persecuted communities, he said.
  • Mark Green, the head of USAID, expressed discomfort to a colleague about potential interference by Pence into the grant process
  • Pence’s then-chief of staff, Nick Ayers, called Steiger to demand somebody at the agency be punished for the failure to provide aid to Christian groups quickly enough, according to several people familiar with the conversation. Ayers did not respond to requests for comment. Green’s reaction was to remove Maria Longi, a career civil servant and a top official in USAID’s Middle East bureau. Though still on USAID’s payroll, she now teaches national security strategy at the National War College.
  • Concern spread even among Trump appointees that their jobs might be threatened. “What it did instill in the Middle East bureau was fear among the political appointees that they could be thrown out at any time,”
  • Five current or former U.S. officials said involvement in grant decisions by political appointees — particularly by someone as senior as Ferguson — is highly unusual. USAID grants are typically decided by a review committee and a contracting officer, all of whom are career officials.
  • “USAID procurement rules with technical review panels are strict, as they should be, to avoid any political interference on the use of U.S. taxpayer dollars,”
  • Aside from its small size and lack of federal grant experience, Shlama was an unconventional choice for another reason. Last year it received $10,000 in donations from the Clarion Project, a nonprofit organization which researchers at Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative said “advances anti-Muslim content through its web-based and video production platforms.”
  • USAID is now expanding its emphasis on religious minorities far beyond Iraq. In December, a month after his email about White House pressure, Ferguson told USAID mission directors in the Middle East that agency leadership had identified up to $50 million it planned to use in 2019 for “urgent religious freedom and religious persecution challenges,” according to a second email seen by ProPublica. He asked mission directors to submit programming ideas. In a follow-up email in June, also seen by ProPublica, Ferguson wrote that in addition to Iraq, religious and ethnic minority programming was planned for Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia.
Ed Webb

Netanyahu camp adds Arab 'extortion' to right-wing playbook - 0 views

  • The document that Netanyahu’s “natural partners” — Shas, Yahadut HaTorah and HaBayit HaYehudi–National Union — were coaxed to sign Oct. 16 is disturbing. The agreement reads, “If, God forbid, a minority government is sworn in with the support of the Joint List, either from outside the coalition or as a part of it, we will not join the government at any stage, we will vote against it in every vote, and we will do everything we can to topple it.” Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked of the New Right declined to sign the agreement. It is especially worth noting the formula used to appeal to the ultra-Orthodox parties. The expression “God forbid” in this context is reserved for natural disasters or other cataclysmic events, which man alone cannot prevent.
  • Zohar asserts that anyone who cooperates with Arab Knesset members is prone to extortion by them, thereby becoming security threats to the State of Israel. In short, a person cooperating could essentially be considered a traitor. Netanyahu and his Likud associates have a long history of inciting against Israeli Arabs in general and Arab Knesset members in particular. This time, however, it looks like his breaking point is a lot more brittle. Unable to form a government, he is prepared to cross every red line imaginable.
  • “Netanyahu will do everything he can to obtain immunity and avoid prison,” Tibi remarked. “At this point, he is unable to form a government, so he is turning to incitement and the delegitimization of the Arab society.”
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  • Since utterances like “Arabs are heading to the polls in droves,” made on election day in 2015, and “election theft,” alleged during the April 2019 elections, are tired clichés by now, it looks like Netanyahu's new approach will be to try to scare Jewish voters with tales of “extortion” by the Arab parties on security matters
Ed Webb

Muslim Causes Versus National Interest: Muslim Nations Make Risky Bets - LobeLog - 0 views

  • For more than half a year, Saudi Arabia has been deporting large numbers of Rohingya who arrived in the kingdom either on pilgrimage visas or using false travel documents, often the only way they were able to leave either Myanmar or Bangladesh. The expulsions of Rohingya as well as hundreds of thousands of other foreign workers coupled with the introduction of fees on their dependents and restrictions on the sectors in which they can be employed are part of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to reform the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy and increase job opportunities.
  • The deportations together with Saudi endorsement of the clampdown in Xinjiang that has put an estimated one million Uyghurs in re-education camps, where they are indoctrinated to prioritize communist party ideology and President Xi Jinping thought above their Islamic faith, suggests that the kingdom is not willing to compromise its economic interests even if they call into question its moral claim to leadership of the Islamic world.
  • A majority of Muslim countries reluctant to criticize China take heart from the fact that the custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, has taken the lead in shielding China from Muslim criticism
Ed Webb

How Copt football players face discrimination in Egypt's national game - Al Arabiya Eng... - 0 views

  • “There are approximately ten million Christians out of Egypt’s ninety million citizens, yet Egypt’s Olympic mission to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics, which comprised 122 players, did not include a single Copt. Egypt’s 2012 London delegation also did not include any Copts. Additionally, not a single Egyptian Christian player, coach or trainer can be found on any club in the country’s premier league,” stated the complaint, adding that over the past four decades only a few Coptic athletes were included in official sports competitions.
  • For Coptic MP Emad Gad, the academy offers a solution to the problems Christians suffer not only in sports but in general. “Copts are being treated with suspicion all the time by average citizens while the state considers them a security file that needs to be handled with caution,” he said. “That is why they decided to stay away from anything state-affiliated including mainstream football clubs.”
  • The name of Christian footballer Hani Ramzi is always mentioned to refute allegations of discrimination. “For years, nobody was aware I was Christian and it never mattered,” said Ramzi. “I do not deny that some players are sectarian, but this is extremely rare and we do not want to generalize. I spent 20 years in football in Egypt and never had a problem.” Ramzi argued that many Christian families are reluctant to send their children for tests in the clubs for fear they would be rejected for their religion, especially if this is obvious from their names.
Ed Webb

What It's Like to Live in a Surveillance State - The New York Times - 0 views

  • when it comes to indigenous Uighurs in the vast western region of Xinjiang, the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) has updated its old totalitarian methods with cutting-edge technology
  • The Qing Empire conquered Xinjiang in the 18th century. The territory then slipped from Beijing’s control, until the Communists reoccupied it with Soviet help in 1949. Today, several Central Asian peoples, including Uighurs, Kazakhs and Kyrghyz, make up about half of the region’s population; the remainder are Han and Hui, who arrived from eastern China starting in the mid-20th century
  • the C.C.P. has since subjected the entire Uighur population of some 11 million to arbitrary arrest, draconian surveillance or systemic discrimination. Uighurs are culturally Muslim, and the government often cites the threat of foreign Islamist ideology to justify its security policies
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  • A law now bans face coverings — but also “abnormal” beards. A Uighur village party chief was demoted for not smoking, on grounds that this failing displayed an insufficient “commitment to secularization.” Officials in the city of Kashgar, in southwest Xinjiang, recently jailed several prominent Uighur businessmen for not praying enough at a funeral — a sign of “extremism,” they claimed.
  • Uighurs’ DNA is collected during state-run medical checkups. Local authorities now install a GPS tracking system in all vehicles. Government spy apps must be loaded on mobile phones. All communication software is banned except WeChat, which grants the police access to users’ calls, texts and other shared content. When Uighurs buy a kitchen knife, their ID data is etched on the blade as a QR code
  • The C.C.P., once quite liberal in its approach to diversity, seems to be redefining Chinese identity in the image of the majority Han — its version, perhaps, of the nativism that appears to be sweeping other parts of the world. With ethnic difference itself now defined as a threat to the Chinese state, local leaders like Mr. Chen feel empowered to target Uighurs and their culture wholesale
  • There’s an old Chinese joke about Uighurs being the Silk Road’s consummate entrepreneurs: When the first Chinese astronaut steps off his spaceship onto the moon, he will find a Uighur already there selling lamb kebabs. And so even as Mr. Chen cracks down in Xinjiang, the Chinese government touts the region as the gateway for its much-vaunted “one belt, one road” initiative, Mr. Xi’s signature foreign policy project. The grand idea combines a plan to spend billions of dollars in development loans and transport investment across Eurasia with a strategic bid to establish China’s diplomatic primacy in Asia.
  • How does the party think that directives banning fasting during Ramadan in Xinjiang, requiring Uighur shops to sell alcohol and prohibiting Muslim parents from giving their children Islamic names will go over with governments and peoples from Pakistan to Turkey? The Chinese government may be calculating that money can buy these states’ quiet acceptance. But the thousands of Uighur refugees in Turkey and Syriaalready complicate China’s diplomacy.
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