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Ed Webb

AP Exclusive: Digital police state shackles Chinese minority - 0 views

  • thousands — possibly tens of thousands — of people, rights groups and academics estimate, who have been spirited without trial into secretive detention camps for alleged political crimes that range from having extremist thoughts to merely traveling or studying abroad. The mass disappearances, beginning the past year, are part of a sweeping effort by Chinese authorities to use detentions and data-driven surveillance to impose a digital police state in the region of Xinjiang and over its Uighurs, a 10-million strong, Turkic-speaking Muslim minority that China says has been influenced by Islamic extremism
  • Uighur activists and international human rights groups argue that repressive measures are playing into the hands of the likes of al-Qaida, which has put out Uighur-language recruiting videos condemning Chinese oppression. “So much hate and desire for revenge are building up,” said Rukiye Turdush, a Uighur activist in Canada. “How does terrorism spread? When people have nowhere to run.”
  • While forced indoctrination has been reported throughout Xinjiang, its reach has been felt far beyond China’s borders. In April, calls began trickling into a Uighur teacher’s academy in Egypt, vague but insistent. Uighur parents from a few towns were pleading with their sons and daughters to return to China, but they wouldn’t say why. “The parents kept calling, crying on the phone,” the teacher said. Chinese authorities had extended the scope of the program to Uighur students abroad. And Egypt, once a sanctuary for Uighurs to study Islam, began deporting scores of Uighurs to China.
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  • Shopkeepers in the thronging bazaar don mandatory armored vests and helmets to sell hand-pulled noodles, tailored suits and baby clothes.
  • police depots with flashing lights and foot patrols be built every 500 meters (yards)— a total of 1,130, according to the Hotan government. The AP saw cavalcades of more than 40 armored vehicles including full personnel carriers rumble down city boulevards. Police checkpoints on every other block stop cars to check identification and smartphones for religious content
  • Southern Xinjiang, the vast desert basin from where many of the students came, is one of the most heavily policed places on earth.
  • Xinjiang is now hiring 40 times more police per capita than populous Guangdong Province
  • To enter the Hotan bazaar, shoppers first pass through metal detectors and then place their national identification cards on a reader while having their face scanned. The facial scanner is made by China Electronics Technology Group (CETC), a state-owned defense contractor that has spearheaded China’s fast-growing field of predictive policing with Xinjiang as its test bed. The AP found 27 CETC bids for Xinjiang government contracts, including one soliciting a facial recognition system for facilities and centers in Hotan Prefecture
  • The government’s tracking efforts have extended to vehicles, genes, and even voices. In February, authorities in Xinjiang’s Bayingol prefecture, which includes Korla, required every car to install GPS trackers for real-time monitoring. And since late last year, Xinjiang authorities have required health checks to collect the population’s DNA samples. In May, a regional police official told the AP that Xinjiang had purchased $8.7 million in DNA scanners — enough to analyze several million samples a year.
  • When a Uighur businessman from Kashgar completed a six-month journey to flee China and landed in the United States with his family in January, he was initially ecstatic. He tried calling home, something he hadn’t done in months to spare his family unwanted police questioning. His mother told him his four brothers and his father were in prison because he fled China. She was spared only because she was frail
  • This month, Xinjiang announced it would require every government employee in the region to move into a Uighur home for a week to teach families about ideology and avoiding extremism.
  • AP reporters were later detained by police, interrogated for 11 hours, and accused of “illegal reporting” in the area without seeking prior permission from the Korla government. “The subjects you’re writing about do not promote positive energy,” a local propaganda official explained. Five villagers said they knew authorities had taken away the young student; one said he was definitely alive, the others weren’t sure. When asked, local police denied he existed at all.
Ed Webb

Exporting Jihad - The New Yorker - 0 views

  • A friend of Mohamed’s, an unemployed telecommunications engineer named Nabil Selliti, left Douar Hicher to fight in Syria. Oussama Romdhani, who edits the Arab Weekly in Tunis, told me that in the Arab world the most likely radicals are people in technical or scientific fields who lack the kind of humanities education that fosters critical thought. Before Selliti left, Mohamed asked him why he was going off to fight. Selliti replied, “I can’t build anything in this country. But the Islamic State gives us the chance to create, to build bombs, to use technology.” In July, 2013, Selliti blew himself up in a suicide bombing in Iraq.
  • Tourism, one of Tunisia’s major industries, dropped by nearly fifty per cent after June 26th last year, when, on a beach near the resort town of Sousse, a twenty-three-year-old student and break-dancing enthusiast pulled an automatic weapon out of his umbrella and began shooting foreigners; he spared Tunisian workers, who tried to stop him. The terrorist, who had trained at an Islamic State camp in Libya, killed thirty-eight people, thirty of them British tourists, before being shot dead by police.
  • he condemned the Sousse massacre and a terrorist attack in March, 2015, at Tunisia’s national museum, the Bardo, where three gunmen killed two dozen people. The victims were innocents, he said. Kamal still entertained a fantasy of joining a reformed police force. His knowledge of Islam was crude, and his allegiance to isis seemed confused and provisional—an expression of rage, not of ideology. But in Douar Hicher anger was often enough to send young people off to fight
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  • “The youth are lost,” Kamal told me. “There’s no justice.” Douar Hicher, he said, “is the key to Tunisia.” He continued, “If you want to stop terrorism, then bring good schools, bring transportation—because the roads are terrible—and bring jobs for young people, so that Douar Hicher becomes like the parts of Tunisia where you Westerners come to have fun.”
  • revolution opened up a space that Salafis rushed to fill. There were a lot more of them than anyone had realized—eventually, tens of thousands. In February, 2011, Tunisia’s interim government declared an amnesty and freed thousands of prisoners, including many jihadis. Among them was Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi, the co-founder of the Tunisian Combat Group. Within two months, he had started Ansar al-Sharia.
  • “The radical narrative tells you that whatever you’ve learned about Islam is wrong, you have to discard it—we have the new stuff. The old, traditional, moderate Islam doesn’t offer you the adventure of the isis narrative. It doesn’t offer you the temptation to enjoy, maybe, your inner savagery. isis offers a false heaven for sick minds.”
  • Democracy didn’t turn Tunisian youths into jihadis, but it gave them the freedom to act on their unhappiness. By raising and then frustrating expectations, the revolution created conditions for radicalization to thrive. New liberties clashed with the old habits of a police state—young Tunisians were suddenly permitted to join civic and political groups, but the cops harassed them for expressing dissent. Educated Tunisians are twice as likely to be unemployed as uneducated ones, because the economy creates so few professional jobs. A third of recent college graduates can’t find work. Frustration led young people to take to the streets in 2011; a similar desperate impulse is now driving other young people toward jihad.
  • the factors that drive young men and women to adopt Salafi jihadism are diverse and hard to parse: militants reach an overwhelmingly reductive idea by complex and twisted paths. A son of Riyadh grows up hearing Salafi preaching in a state-sanctioned mosque and goes to Syria with the financial aid of a Saudi businessman. A young Sunni in Falluja joins his neighbors in fighting American occupation and “Persian”—Shiite—domination. A Muslim teen-ager in a Paris banlieue finds an antidote to her sense of exclusion and spiritual emptiness in a jihadi online community. Part of the success of isis consists in its ability to attract a wide array of people and make them all look, sound, and think alike.
  • Souli wasn’t sure what should be done with returned jihadis, but, like nearly everyone I met, he spoke of the need for a program of rehabilitation for those who come back. No such program exists
  • In its eagerness to modernize, the Ben Ali regime encouraged widespread access to satellite television and the Internet. The sermons of Islamist firebrands from the Gulf, such as the Egyptian-born cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, entered the homes of Tunisians who felt smothered by official secularism. Oussama Romdhani, who was a senior official under Ben Ali—he was referred to as the “propaganda minister”—told me, “Radicals were able to use these tools of communication to recruit and disseminate the narrative, and they did it quite efficiently.”
  • Around 2000, the Tunisian Combat Group, an Al Qaeda affiliate, emerged in Afghanistan, dedicating itself to the overthrow of the Tunisian government. One of its founders, Tarek Maaroufi, provided false passports to two Tunisians who, allegedly on instructions from Osama bin Laden, travelled to northern Afghanistan posing as television journalists and assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Afghan mujahideen commander, on September 9, 2001. The Combat Group’s other leader, known as Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi, was an Al Qaeda commander; when the Americans overthrew the Taliban, in late 2001, he escaped from Tora Bora with bin Laden, only to be arrested in Turkey, in 2003, and extradited to Tunisia. (Sentenced to forty-three years in prison, he seized the chance to radicalize his fellow-prisoners.)
  • Why can’t the police do their job and stop the terrorists but let the smugglers go with a bribe?
  • “Maybe it’s the Tunisian nature—we like risk,” a former jihadi told me. A million Tunisians live and work in Europe. “A lot of drug dealers are Tunisian; many smugglers of goods between Turkey and Greece are Tunisian; a lot of human traffickers in Belgrade are Tunisian. Online hackers—be careful of the Tunisians, there’s a whole network of them.”
  • Walid was vague about his reasons for returning to Tunisia. He mentioned a traumatic incident in which he had seen scores of comrades mowed down by regime soldiers outside Aleppo. He also pointed to the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, in April, 2013, which soon engaged in bitter infighting with the Nusra Front. Walid spoke of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph of the Islamic State, with the personal hatred that Trotskyists once expressed for Stalin. He accused isis of destroying the Syrian resistance and helping the Assad regime. He believed that isis was created by Western powers to undermine Al Qaeda and other true jihadi groups.
  • these aged men from the two Tunisias—Essebsi a haughty remnant of the Francophile élite, Ghannouchi the son of a devout farmer from the provinces—began a series of largely secret conversations, and set Tunisia on a new path. In January, 2014, Ennahdha voluntarily handed over the government to a regime of technocrats. Ghannouchi had put his party’s long-term interests ahead of immediate power. A peaceful compromise like this had never happened in the region. Both old men had to talk their followers back from the brink of confrontation, and some Ennahdha activists regarded Ghannouchi’s strategy as a betrayal.
  • To many Tunisians, Nidaa Tounes feels like the return of the old regime: some of the same politicians, the same business cronies, the same police practices. The Interior Ministry is a hideous seven-story concrete structure that squats in the middle of downtown Tunis, its roof bristling with antennas and satellite dishes, coils of barbed wire barring access from the street. The ministry employs eighty thousand people. There is much talk of reforming Tunisia’s security sector, with the help of Western money and training. (The U.S., seeing a glimmer of hope in a dark region, recently doubled its aid to Tunisia.) But the old habits of a police state persist—during my time in Tunis, I was watched at my hotel, and my interpreter was interrogated on the street.
  • The inhabitants of Kasserine, however neglected by the state, were passionate advocates for their own rights. They had played a central role in the overthrow of the dictatorship, staging some of the earliest protests after Bouazizi’s self-immolation. In every coffee shop, I was told, half the conversations were about politics. Although Kasserine is a recruiting area for jihadis, Tunisia’s wealthy areas are so remote that the town felt less alienated than Douar Hicher and Ben Gardane.
  • “You feel no interest from the post-revolutionary governments in us here. People feel that the coastal areas, with twenty per cent of the people, are still getting eighty per cent of the wealth. That brings a lot of psychological pressure, to feel that you’re left alone, that there’s no horizon, no hope.”
  • The old methods of surveillance are returning. In the center of Kasserine, I met an imam named Mahfoud Ben Deraa behind the counter of the hardware store he owns. He had just come back from afternoon prayers, but he was dressed like a man who sold paint. “I might get kicked out of the mosque, because last Friday’s sermon was something the government might not like,” the imam told me. He had preached that, since the government had closed mosques after terror attacks, “why, after an alcoholic killed two people, didn’t they close all the bars?” To some, this sounded like a call for Sharia, and after informers reported him to the police the governor’s office sent him a warning: “In the course of monitoring the religious activities and the religious institutions of the region, I hereby inform you that several violations have been reported.” The imam was ordered to open the mosque only during hours of prayer and to change the locks on the main doors to prevent unsupervised use. The warning seemed like overreach on the part of the state—the twitching of an old impulse from the Ben Ali years.
  • “I never thought I would repeat the same demands as five years ago. The old regime has robbed our dreams.”
  • According to the Tunisian Interior Ministry, a hundred thousand Tunisians—one per cent of the population—were arrested in the first half of 2015. Jihadi groups intend their atrocities to provoke an overreaction, and very few governments can resist falling into the trap.
  • New democracies in Latin America and Eastern Europe and Asia have had to struggle with fragile institutions, corruption, and social inequity. Tunisia has all this, plus terrorism and a failed state next door.
  • Ahmed told himself, “If I pray and ask for divine intervention, maybe things will get better.” Praying did not lead him to the moderate democratic Islam of Ennahdha. His thoughts turned more and more extreme, and he became a Salafi. He quit smoking marijuana and grew his beard long and adopted the ankle-length robe called a qamis. He un-friended all his female friends on Facebook, stopped listening to music, and thought about jihad. On Internet forums, he met jihadis who had been in Iraq and gave him suggestions for reading. Ahmed downloaded a book with instructions for making bombs. In the period of lax security under Ennahdha, he fell in with a radical mosque in Tunis. He was corresponding with so many friends who’d gone to Syria that Facebook deactivated his account. Some of them became leaders in the Islamic State, and they wrote of making thirty-five thousand dollars a year and having a gorgeous European wife or two. Ahmed couldn’t get a girlfriend or buy a pack of cigarettes.
  • “Dude, don’t go!” Walid said when they met on the street. “It’s just a trap for young people to die.” To Walid, Ahmed was exactly the type of young person isis exploited—naïve, lost, looking for the shortest path to Heaven. Al Qaeda had comparatively higher standards: some of its recruits had to fill out lengthy application forms in which they were asked to name their favorite Islamic scholars. Walid could answer such questions, but they would stump Ahmed and most other Tunisian jihadis.
  • “We need to reform our country and learn how to make it civilized,” he said. “In Tunisia, when you finish your pack of cigarettes, you’ll throw it on the ground. What we need is an intellectual revolution, a revolution of minds, and that will take not one, not two, but three generations.”
Ed Webb

Turkey's Thirty-Year Coup | The New Yorker - 0 views

  • Within the country, the military saw Gülenists as a considerable threat. Gareth Jenkins, a fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Istanbul, said that, during the nineteen-nineties, the armed forces expelled hundreds of officers on suspicion of harboring links to Gülen. In a cable released by WikiLeaks, an American diplomat wrote that secular officers devised a test: they invited fellow-soldiers and their wives to pool parties, reasoning that women who declined to appear in public wearing swimsuits must be restricted by their religion. According to the diplomat, the Gülenist wives became aware of the tactic and came up with a countermeasure: they started wearing bikinis more revealing than their hosts’. When military inspectors began searching officers’ homes, the Gülenists stocked their refrigerators with decoy bottles of alcohol and planted empties in the trash.
  • Hanefi Avcı, the police chief for Eskişehir Province, told me that he saw Gülenist police, prosecutors, and judges fabricate evidence in political investigations. But when he alerted his superiors he was ignored. “I talked to ministers and I wrote memos and didn’t get any replies,” he said.In 2009, Avcı secretly began writing a book detailing the Gülenists’ activities in the police and judiciary. He described a movement of protean adaptability, whose methods resembled those of terrorist groups and criminal organizations; they framed opponents by planting evidence or blackmailed them with information gleaned from wiretaps. “What made the Gülen movement different is that it was inside the state,” he said, noting that infiltrators in his department had sabotaged the careers of at least ten colleagues. The book, called “Simons Living on the Golden Horn” (the title is an abstruse metaphor for not seeing what is in plain sight), became a best-seller. It seemed especially authoritative because Avcı, a conservative Islamist, had two children in Gülenist schools.
  • The judiciary, emboldened by Ergenekon and Sledgehammer, pursued the investigations ever closer to Erdoğan. In the early months of 2012, police issued a subpoena to Hakan Fidan—the chief of national intelligence and a confidant of the Prime Minister—and arrested Ilker Başbuğ, the country’s highest military officer. “They felt that they could arrest anyone,” Gareth Jenkins said. Erdoğan responded in a way that seemed calculated to hobble the Gülenists: he started closing down their schools—a crucial source of income—and working to restrain the police.
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  • On December 17, 2013, police arrested Zarrab and eighty-eight others, including forty-three government officials. Although they did not arrest any of Erdoğan’s ministers, they detained the sons of three of them, claiming that they were conduits for bribes. Erdoğan’s son Bilal also came under suspicion, after a wiretap captured what was alleged to be a conversation between him and his father. Erdoğan has insisted that the tape was doctored, but it circulated widely on social media, and Turks claimed to recognize his voice.Tayyip Erdoğan: Eighteen people’s homes are being searched right now with this big corruption operation. . . . So I’m saying, whatever you have at home, take it out. O.K.?Bilal: Dad, what could I even have at home? There’s your money in the safe.Tayyip: Yes, that’s what I’m saying.A little while later, the two apparently spoke again.Tayyip: Did you get rid of all of it, or . . . ?Bilal: No, not all of it, Dad. So, there’s something like thirty million euros left that we haven’t been able to liquidate.
  • Western officials told me that they regarded the investigation as a Gülenist attempt to topple Erdoğan’s government—but that the evidence seemed credible.
  • On Christmas Day, 2015, Turkish intelligence breached an encrypted messaging app called ByLock—an apparently homemade network with two hundred thousand users. According to Turkish officials, it was set up not long after Erdoğan began purging suspected Gülenists from the government. When the network was discovered, the server, in Lithuania, quickly closed down, and its users switched to Eagle, another encrypted messaging app. “They went underground,” a Turkish government aide told me.The intelligence officials say that they were able to decrypt the exchanges, and one told me, “Every conversation was about the Gülen community.” By checking the ByLock users’ names against government records, they found that at least forty thousand were civil employees, mostly from the judiciary and the police department. In May, two months before the coup, the government began suspending them.In July, the intelligence department notified the military that it had also identified six hundred officers of the Turkish Army, many of them highly ranked, among the ByLock users. Military officials began planning to expel them at a meeting of senior generals that was scheduled for early the next month. “We think the coup happened in July because they needed to move before they were expelled,” Ibrahim Kalın, the Erdoğan aide, told me.
  • it seems that the plotters staked their operation on capturing or killing Erdoğan and persuading General Akar to join them. “If those things had happened, the coup would have succeeded,” Kalın said. But none of the most senior generals of the Turkish armed forces could be persuaded to join, which may have left the plotters without a military leader. By 4 A.M., the coup plotters were running for their lives.
  • For Erdoğan, though, retribution has always come more easily than apologies. The state of emergency that he declared after the coup gave him dictatorial powers, which he used to carry out a far-reaching crackdown that began with Gülenists but has grown to encompass almost anyone who might pose a threat to his expanded authority.
  • Public criticism of Erdoğan has been almost entirely squelched, either by the outpouring of national support that followed the coup or by the fear of being imprisoned. Erdoğan has closed more than a hundred and thirty media outlets and detained at least forty-three journalists, and the purge is still under way.
Ed Webb

Tunisia's War on Islam | Foreign Policy - 0 views

  • Ayari had no ties to terrorist groups. But it soon became clear that his appearance had turned him into a suspect in his own right. He was charged with terrorism, detained for several days, and savagely beaten. “The police officer spat in my face and beat me,” the 29-year-old Ayari told me later. “My face was bruised, my mouth was bleeding. A beard and traditional clothing mean ‘terrorism’ for security forces in Tunisia. That’s the bitter reality.”
  • “Today there’s a sort of trivialization of torture, especially in terrorism cases,” said Amna Guellali, the Tunisia director of Human Rights Watch. “When we speak up about the torture of terror suspects, we risk being considered traitors in the holy war against terrorism — and if we denounce torture, we’re considered pro-terrorist.”
  • Inclusion in the terrorism list also prevents people from obtaining copies of their criminal records. Since these have to be included with job applications, this amounts to an employment blacklist as well. This procedure means that hundreds, if not thousands, of Tunisians, most of whom are already from the most vulnerable segments of society, are subject to economic discrimination.
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  • a sort of social persecution of men and women who look religious — something that could further exacerbate Tunisia’s terrorism problem. Alienation pushes these people to the margins of society, making them psychologically fragile and more receptive to radical discourse targeted against the state. “How do you expect people to feel when they’ve been subjected to this sort of treatment?” said Ghaki. “They’ll feel hatred and a desire for vengeance.”
  • experiences frequent harassment by police and security personnel because she wears a face veil, the niqab. She said she once had to wait 45 minutes before she was allowed into a hospital. Though she offered to show her face and allow the security personnel to check her identity, she said they made sure to humiliate her before letting her go inside to visit her ailing relative.
  • While people have gotten used to seeing women wearing the hijab in Tunisia’s streets, niqabi women and bearded men are the country’s new scapegoats. Chaima said that she was once called a terrorist by a group of people in a passing car. “It’s not easy to be who we are in Tunisia,” she said. “Some people want to let us know that we have no place here.”
  • a group of lawmakers tried to exploit the rising fear of terrorism by proposing a law that would make it illegal for women to cover their faces in public. The draft law drew comparisons to a controversial 2010 law passed in France under president Nicolas Sarkozy. This is no coincidence. France is Tunisia’s former colonial power, and French law, culture, and values have had a profound impact on modern Tunisian society, particularly among the upper classes.
  • Decades of forced secularization under the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes made people less accustomed to the sight of traditional clothing and long beards. Displays of conservative religiosity are less common than in other countries in the region, and thus tend to draw scrutiny.
  • This kind of treatment inevitably contributes to the alienation and sense of exclusion felt by many of Tunisia’s most vulnerable people. It should be no surprise if some of them actually end up joining the terrorists who society has already classed them with. Sometimes it seems that the security forces aren’t even trying. Ahmed Sellimi, another of Mona and Tarek’s brothers, went to a police station one day to try to convince them to stop the harassment. “Why are you here?” asked the agent he addressed. “Why don’t you just go the mountains with the rest of the terrorists?”
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.
  • I was caught in a political game involving high-seas tankers and international diplomacy that far exceeded my ability to influence it.
  • 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.
  • Self-censorship ranks as one of an authoritarian regime’s strongest tools, and I was complicit.
  • 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

French police swoop on more suspected Islamists - Yahoo! News - 0 views

  • Some French media had been tipped off about the raids and police did not cordon off the areas ensuring mass coverage.
  • Sarkozy, a former hardline interior minister, has been accused by some opponents of capitalizing on the Islamist threat for electoral purposes even though only 20 percent of voters consider it their main concern, surveys show.
Ed Webb

In Egypt's Sinai desert, Islamic militants gaining new foothold - The Washington Post - 1 views

  • The eclipse of authority has also given rise to Sharia courts run by Islamic scholars who settle disputes according to Islamic law.
  • Even normal people, not just jihadis, would fight and die if Israelis came back
  • n the recent turmoil, militants have been carrying out attacks on lightly armed police officers in recent months and have repeatedly bombed the pipeline that carries natural gas to Israel. Bedouin tribesmen with grievances against the state, meanwhile, have kidnapped foreign tourists and international peacekeepers. Drug runners and human smugglers have also seized the moment, making both lucrative trades increasingly violent.
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  • Ibrahim el-Meneey, a powerful Bedouin tribal elder who lives a few miles from the Israeli border, said that arrangement would be ideal, as long as the military sticks to guarding the road. The tribes, which have stockpiled everything from small arms to antiaircraft missiles, are doing a fine job of dealing with violent human smugglers, drug runners and other miscreants who have taken advantage of the security vacuum over the past year, he said. “Here, it’s all tribes,” Meneey said, sitting on a moonlit sandy patch outside his house, which is close enough to Israel that cell phones roam onto the country’s mobile networks. “Security is very stable.”
  • “The bedouin is a peaceful being,” Meneey said, sipping sweet tea. “But if he feels humiliated, he will never forget. The government has to work quickly to deliver justice.” If the Egyptian government fails to find the right approach to restore security and services, he said: “This could become like a second Afghanistan. It could become an international war.”
  • Sinai leaders say they have increasingly taken on tasks the state is not performing. Roughly six months ago, Hamdeen Abu Faisal, an Islamic scholar, became among the first in the region to set up informal tribunals that settle cases that would normally be the jurisdiction of local courts. “The people started to need someone to sort out their problems,” Faisal said. “There are no functioning courts, police stations or district attorneys.” The courts are not imposing corporal punishments, Faisal said, and are only arbitrating disputes among people who agree in writing to adhere to the decision of the scholars.
Ed Webb

Police Arrest Student and Venue Owner Organizing an Egypt Gay Concert - 0 views

  • Egyptian police recently arrested a student in the Giza district of Kerdasa for “debauchery” after allegedly organizing a concert for gay people. The Egypt gay concert never happened. Now the student and one other man face legal charges.
  • Egypt’s recent and massive anti-LGBT crackdown began by targeting a musical event when  police arrested several young people who waved a rainbow flag at a Cairo concert in September 2017. The concert was that of Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese band whose name means “A Night Project” in Arabic. Mashrou’ Leila’s lead singer, Hamed Sinno, is openly gay.
  • Since homosexuality is not criminalized in Egypt, people are often arrested and charged with vague crimes like “debauchery,” “immorality” and “blasphemy.”
Ed Webb

Turkey's Alevi community fears more than just IS - 0 views

  • IS isn't the only threat. For nearly 15 years, Justice and Development Party (AKP) governments have instigated anti-Alevi policies and rhetoric and fanned the flames of enmity toward Alevis. Alevis have been resisting state-sponsored efforts at Sunnification and therefore face increasing discrimination at all levels of public life.
  • "Who can guarantee us that the police officers sent to protect us would not be the ones attacking our prayer houses? I mean, what if they are members of the Gulen organization or others? Was it not an active duty police officer who assassinated the Russian ambassador?"
  • Turkey's private security industry has been a burgeoning sector in the last five years. A prominent security expert who owns one of the major companies in Istanbul spoke to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity and said, "The government has been providing certificates for companies who follow an ultranationalist and Islamist line. You cannot find any left-leaning or Alevi companies in this sector, because they cannot receive certificates." In addition, dozens of security firms were shut down after the July 15 coup attempt for their alleged links to the Gulen organization. Plus, it takes months to complete training and paperwork for certification.
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  • this environment of fear, coupled with police surveillance, prevents observant Alevis from visiting the places where they usually congregate
  • Alevis and many secular Turks don't believe the government is even fighting IS
Ed Webb

Turkey Feels Sway of Fethullah Gulen, a Reclusive Cleric - NYTimes.com - 0 views

  • the relationship between Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Gulen has sometimes been tense, with the prime minster, a mercurial and populist leader, sensitive to any challenges to his authority. Analysts say that in recent months Mr. Erdogan and other members of his Justice and Development Party have grown increasingly wary, as high-profile arrests of critics of the Gulen movement have embarrassed the government. There is growing talk of a power struggle.
  • The movement is well known for running a network of schools lauded for their academic rigor and commitment to spreading Turkish language and culture. Gulen followers have been involved in starting one of the largest collections of charter schools in the United States. With their neatly trimmed mustaches, suits and ties, and their missionary zeal, supporters here convey the earnestness of Mormon missionaries or Muslim Peace Corps volunteers. Their eyes moisten at the mention of Mr. Gulen’s name, which is invoked with utmost reverence. Sympathizers say the notion of Mr. Gulen as a cultish puppet master is a malicious caricature. The group consists of an informal network of followers and has no formal organization or official membership, they say. Mr. Gulen communicates in essays and videotaped sermons, which are posted on the Internet and appear in other Gulen-related media outlets. His sympathizers say his goal is the creation of a “golden generation” that would embrace humanism, science and Islam and serve the Turkish state. He has publicly affirmed the importance of complying with Turkey’s secular laws, and mathematics and science competitions at Gulen schools overshadow religious expression, which takes place quietly in “relaxation rooms” that double as prayer spaces.
  • The ascent of Mr. Erdogan’s government since 2002 has radically shifted the balance of power, and analysts say the Gulenists have seized the opportunity to settle old scores and tame their former rivals, including the military.
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  • Mr. Gulen lives in self-imposed exile on a 25-acre haven in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. In 1999, he fled Turkey amid accusations of plotting to overthrow the secular government. Around that time, a taped sermon emerged in the media in which Mr. Gulen was heard advising his followers to “move within the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach all the power centers.”
  • A 2009 cable by the United States ambassador to Turkey at the time, James F. Jeffrey, made public by WikiLeaks, noted that the Gulen movement was strong within the police force and in conflict with the military. It said that the assertion that the Turkish national police is controlled by Gulenists “is impossible to confirm, but we have found no one who disputes it.”
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