Internet chief allays fears over ICANN transition

WASHINGTON, April 10 (UPI) — Fears over control of the Internet came into sharp relief Thursday as lawmakers voted to stall a plan to relinquish U.S. government oversight of a key Internet regulation.  After the Obama administration announced last month its plan to hand off control of oversight responsibility when its contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers ends next year, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., introduced the DOTCOM Act bill, which would delay the transition until the Government Accountability Office could examine the plan.

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9/11 truther Chossudovsky

The tragic events of September 11, 2001 constitute a fundamental landmark in American history. a decisive watershed, a breaking point. Millions of people have been misled regarding the causes and consequences of 9/11.  September 11 2001 opens up an era of crisis, upheaval and militarization of American society.  A far-reaching overhaul of US military doctrine was launched in the wake of 9/11.  Endless wars of aggression under the humanitarian cloak of “counter-terrorism” were set in motion.  9/11 was also a stepping stone towards the relentless repeal of civil liberties, the militarization of law enforcement and the inauguration of “Police State USA”.  September 11, 2001 marks the onslaught of the “Global War on Terrorism” (GWOT), used as a pretext and a justification by the US and its NATO allies to carry out a “war without borders”, a global war of conquest.

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Billboard that says ‘Jesus is Muslim’ upsets some groups

A group plans to protest near a North Side billboard carrying messages about the Islamic faith.  Protesters are specifically opposed to the message “Jesus is Muslim” that some recently saw on the billboard on Cleveland Avenue. The message did not appear on the billboard this afternoon, however.  The messages placed by the Ask a Muslim organization also list the group’s website.

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Far-Right Nationalist Victory In French Polls Leads To Violent Clashes

NF France ProtestsAs we noted last night, French President Hollande’s first election since his gaining power was not going well for the ruling Socialist people. The municipal elections, especially in the South of the country, saw victories for the far-right National Front (FN) party (which is specifically anti-immigration and anti-Europe and often accused of being racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim) as widespread disappointment with the Socialist Party was clear. However, as The Mail reports, riot police were called in several towns on the south coast to guard the winning right-wing party’s offices as “demonstrators are trying to get at the Front representatives and starting fights.” Riot police were also out in force in other parts of the country as anti-fascist demonstrators threatened FN candidates with violence.

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‘Medieval Exile’: The 42 Britons stripped of their citizenship

The government has used little-known powers to strip at least 42 people of their British nationality since 2002, a Bureau investigation has found. Thirty-seven of these cases have occurred under the Coalition government.  The Home Secretary can use powers in the British Nationality Act to remove the citizenship of an individual if she believes their presence in the UK is ‘not conducive to the public good’, or if they have acquired their citizenship by fraud.  The Bureau has identified 18 individuals, of whom 17 were stripped on national security grounds. These cases are often based on evidence which remains secret. Leading immigration lawyer Gareth Peirce has described the process as akin to ‘medieval exile.’  Changes to the law in 2002 allowed Britain’s Home Secretary to deprive dual-nationality Britons of their citizenship on national security grounds, without any prior approval from the courts. This doesn’t just affect people originally born outside Britain. The Bureau has identified five cases so far where British-born people have lost their UK nationality.

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Islamist Outlaws

Saudi Arabia Takes on the Muslim Brotherhood

On March 7, Saudi Arabia took the extraordinary step of declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, on par with Hezbollah and al Qaeda. The move came just two days after the kingdom, together with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, withdrew its ambassador from Qatar because of Qatar’s alleged support of Brotherhood interference in internal politics. Although Saudi Arabia’s dislike of Brotherhood political activities abroad is well known, for decades the kingdom has tolerated (and sometimes even worked with) the local Saudi branch of the Brotherhood. Its sudden reversal is an expression of solidarity with its politically vulnerable allies in the region and a warning to Sunni Islamists within its borders to tread carefully.

This story goes back to the Arab Spring, when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Arabia’s longtime ally, was ousted, and Egypt elected Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood­–linked politician, to fill his shoes. Riyadh feared that the group, now empowered, would try to export the Egyptian revolution regionwide, calling for action against the House of Saud and displacing Saudi’s friends and allies such as the UAE. Those fears were not entirely unfounded.

In Saudi Arabia, members of the Muslim Brotherhood had been at the forefront of the Awakening movement, a push in the early 1990s for political change in response to alleged Saudi government corruption and the basing of U.S. troops in the country. But, as the political science professor Stéphane Lacroix documents in his book Awakening Islam, most members of the Saudi Muslim Brotherhood had quickly fallen into line once the regime began to arrest or sanction its leaders. The Saudi Brotherhood simply had too much to lose: its members helped build the Saudi state and occupied important positions in the religious and educational establishment.

That détente ended with the Arab Spring, when a number of prominent Islamists added their names to a 2011 petition calling for political reforms in the kingdom. They also obliquely criticized the lack of political freedom in Saudi Arabia by lavishing praise on fellow travelers in Tunisia and Egypt. Even Nasir al-Umar, a hard-line Sururi (a blend of Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafism), was singing the praises of democratic change. Then Crown Prince Nayef and future Crown Prince Salman pressed them into silence. According to one person I spoke to on a recent trip to Saudi Arabia, some were forced to sign a pledge to cease criticizing the lack of political freedom in the kingdom. But the renewed détente was fragile, hinging on events in tumultuous Egypt.

There was some reason for Saudi Arabia to fear for its allies in the region as well. Under Mubarak, Egypt had been a dependable Saudi ally. But Morsi sought to chart a neutral course between Saudi Arabia and Iran, following an early fundraising visit to the kingdom with an attempted rapprochement with Iran. The United Arab Emirates was worried, too. The Brotherhood has had a small presence in UAE since the 1960s, but after 9/11 the government started to see the group as a national security threat. It didn’t help that when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt some members of the UAE branch began agitating for political reforms, going so far as to sign a petition calling for elections and real authority for the UAE’s advisory council. The government responded by arresting group members across the country, including men belonging to an alleged terror cell with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

In response to what they saw as Egyptian meddling, Saudi Arabia tried to economically isolate Morsi and hasten his departure. In May 2013, just two months before the military overthrow of Morsi, the Egyptian finance minister complained to the Saudis that Egypt had only received $1 billion of the $3.5 billion in aid promised after Mubarak’s downfall. When the Egyptian military overthrew Morsi just a year into his rule, Saudi Arabia applauded and quickly promised Egypt a new aid package of $5 billion, together with one from the UAE for $3 billion and from Kuwait for $4 billion. When the new regime massacred Brotherhood protestors in August, the taciturn King Abdullah uncharacteristically voiced his public support for the slaughter as a blow against terrorism. When the new Egyptian government declared the group a terrorist organization in late December 2013, Saudi Arabia followed suit. When UAE decided not to replace its departing ambassador in Qatar — partly to punish Qatar for its refusal to discipline an influential Qatar-based Brotherhood spiritual leader who preached that the UAE is against Islamic rule — Saudi Arabia recalled its own ambassador in solidarity.

Saudi Arabia’s moves have provoked some unhappiness at home. Saudi Islamists, particularly the Brothers, are convinced that Morsi’s overthrow was part of a Saudi plot to roll back Islamist political gains of the past three years. In defiance, they festooned their social media profiles with symbols of Brotherhood resistance and criticized their government for its complicity. The defiance has become more muted recently, after the local press reported that the government was contemplating declaring the Brotherhood a terrorist organization. According to former members of the Saudi Muslim Brotherhood I spoke with, the 25,000 or so members of the Brotherhood in Saudi Arabia reacted to the news of the deliberations by preemptively keeping a low profile, closing some of its gatherings so as not to further stoke the government’s ire. Until the Saudi government actually begins making arrests, its recent announcement is more of a shot across the Brotherhood’s bow than an attempt to sink the ship.

Nevertheless, person after person I interviewed asserted that the level of Islamist anger toward the Saudi government is higher than at any time since the early 1990s. That does not mean Brotherhood leaders will move against the regime in the near term. In the 1990s as now, they have too much to lose institutionally. There is also some benefit in a wait-and-see approach, which is why Salman al-Awda, a prominent Saudi Islamist, is privately counselling his followers to wait for the regime’s factions to sort things out among themselves. But the younger rank-and-file Brothers in Saudi, like those in other Brotherhood franchises outside Egypt, are starting to lose hope in peaceful political change. That frustration can lead to apathy. But it can also lead to violence — and if it does, the Saudi government’s decision to declare the group a terrorist organization will have been a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Saudi Arabia threatens to blockade Qatar over terrorism

Saudi Arabia has threatened to blockade neighbouring Qatar by air, land and sea unless Doha cuts ties with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, closes global channel al-Jazeera, and expels local branches of the US Brookings Institution and Rand Corporation think tanks.  The threat was issued by Riyadh before it withdrew its ambassador to Doha and branded as “terrorist organisations” the brotherhood, Lebanon’s Hizbullah and al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Although the kingdom has long been the font of Sunni ultra-orthodox Salafism and jihadism, it now seeks to contain radical movements and media and other organisations giving them publicity.  King Abdullah has decreed that any Saudi who fights abroad could be jailed for 20-30 years, and those who join, endorse or provide moral or material support to groups classified as “terrorist” or “extremist” will risk prison sentences of five to 30 years.  The decree followed the gazetting of a sweeping new anti- terrorism law prohibiting acts that disturb public order, promote insecurity, undermine national unity or harm the reputation of the kingdom.

While the law and decree are meant to curb jihadi operations on Saudi soil as well as counter non-jihadi dissidence, these legal instruments appear to contradict government policy on foreign jihad.

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Saudi Arabia bans energy drinks, outlaws all forms of advertising

Manama: Saudi Arabia has banned the sale of energy drinks at all public education and health facilities.  The ban, announced by the government following its weekly session on Monday, is also imposed on all cafeterias, eateries and food outlets at government establishments and institutions, public and private gyms and fitness and health clubs in the kingdom.  The decision was taken following an interior ministry study of the “adverse effects of energy drinks,” local media said, without naming any of the brands affected.  A news report by the Saudi Press Agency did not explain the reasons for the study or the decision.  All forms of promoting and advertising for energy drinks, be they through print, audio or visual media or otherwise, are outlawed, the cabinet said.

Under the blanket ban, energy drinks companies, agents, distributors and promoters are prohibited from sponsoring any sports, social or cultural event or engaging in any process that leads to promotion, the cabinet said, basing its decision on a study by the interior ministry on the negative effects of the drinks.  No energy drinks should be distributed or given away for free to consumers, regardless of their age.  Energy drinks company owners and importers must have warning labels in both Arabic and English on the cans to caution consumers against what the interior ministry claim are harmful effects, the ban said.

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Egypt tightens grip on mosques to curb Islamist dissent

Cairo: Egypt’s military-installed authorities are tightening their grip on mosques by laying down the theme for the weekly Friday sermons, in the latest move to curb Islamist dissent.  The controversial measure comes as Egypt remains deeply polarised after a government crackdown on supporters of Islamist president Mohammad Mursi, who was deposed by the army last July.  Mursi’s supporters have since capitalised on the weekly prayers to garner backing for their protests calling for his reinstatement.

The authorities accuse Islamist groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood to which Mursi belongs, of using mosques to spread their ideology and enrol new recruits across Egypt.  The religious endowments (Waqf) ministry in late 2013 dismissed 55,000 imams (prayer leaders) who did not hail from the state-controlled Al Azhar university, the most prestigious institution in Sunni Islam.

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Google ordered to remove anti-Islamic film from YouTube

(Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court on Wednesday ordered Google Inc to remove from its YouTube video-sharing website an anti-Islamic film that had sparked protests across the Muslim world.

By a 2-1 vote, a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Google’s assertion that the removal of the film “Innocence of Muslims” amounted to a prior restraint of speech that violated the U.S. Constitution.

The plaintiff, Cindy Lee Garcia, had objected to the film after learning that it incorporated a clip she had made for a different movie, which had been partially dubbed and in which she appeared to be asking: “Is your Mohammed a child molester?”  In a statement, Google said: “We strongly disagree with this ruling and will fight it.”  Cris Armenta, a lawyer for Garcia, said she is delighted with the decision.  ”Ordering YouTube and Google to take down the film was the right thing to do,” Armenta said in an email. “The propaganda film differs so radically from anything that Ms. Garcia could have imagined when the director told her that she was being cast in the innocent adventure film.”

The controversial film, billed as a film trailer, depicted the Prophet Mohammed as a fool and a sexual deviant. It sparked a torrent of anti-American unrest among Muslims in Egypt, Libya and other countries in 2012.  That outbreak coincided with an attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya. U.S. and other foreign embassies were also stormed in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.  For many Muslims, any depiction of the prophet is considered blasphemous.  Google had refused to remove the film from YouTube, despite pressure from the White House and others, though it blocked the trailer in Egypt, Libya and certain other countries.

In court filings, Google argued that Garcia appeared in the film for five seconds, and that while she might have legal claims against the director, she should not win a copyright lawsuit against Google.  The film has now become an important part of public debate, Google argued, and should not be taken down.  ”Our laws permit even the vilest criticisms of governments, political leaders, and religious figures as legitimate exercises in free speech,” the company wrote.

But Garcia argued that her performance within the film was independently copyrightable and that she retained an interest in that copyright.  A lower court had refused her request that Google remove the film from YouTube. In Wednesday’s decision, however, 9th Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski said Garcia was likely to prevail on her copyright claim, and having already faced “serious threats against her life,” faced irreparable harm absent an injunction.  He called it a rare and troubling case, given how Garcia had been duped. “It’s disappointing, though perhaps not surprising, that Garcia needed to sue in order to protect herself and her rights,” he wrote.  The case is Garcia vs. Google Inc et al., 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 12-57302.  (Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York and Dan Levine in San Francisco; editing by David Gregorio, G Crosse and Dan Grebler)

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War Death Toll for Afghan Security Forces Is Over 13,000

KABUL, Afghanistan — More than 13,000 Afghan soldiers and police officers have been killed during the war here, far more than previously known, according to Afghan government statistics.  Most of those losses occurred during the past three years as Afghan forces took over a growing share of the responsibility for security in the country, culminating in full Afghan authority last spring.  The numbers also reflect an increased tempo to the conflict. More clashes have taken place as insurgents test the government forces, without as much fear of intervention from the American-led coalition as it prepares to withdraw.

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Erdogan Loses It

Erdogan

The Turkish state changed hands a decade ago, when Islamic conservatives (supported by the liberals) prevailed in elections against the country’s old guard, the rightist nationalists known as Kemalists. It may be about to do so again. The conservative alliance of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the movement of Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim cleric who leads his congregation from self-imposed exile in the United States, has imploded. As it does, the military is gearing up to insert itself into politics once more.

 

The trouble started in 2011, when Erdogan decided to purge most Gülen supporters from the AKP party list ahead of the general election in June. No longer willing to share power with anyone else, Erdogan also ousted most liberals and supporters of the moderate President Abdullah Gül. Then, a subsequent reform of the public administration served as an excuse to remove many Gülenists from key bureaucratic posts.

 

The Gülenists’ response came in February 2012, when a prosecutor believed to be affiliated with the movement tried to summon Hakan Fidan, the head of the National Intelligence Organization and a close confidant of Erdogan, for questioning over his role in then-secret negotiations between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The Gülenists had made their opposition to talks with the Kurdish movement known and wanted to derail them by charging Erdogan’s envoy — and by implication the prime minister himself — with treason.

 

Last summer, the rift between the two groups widened as protesters occupied Gezi Park. Gülen-affiliated media criticized Erdogan, comparing him to a “pharaoh.” The government, with its reputation tarnished and Gülenists gaining the upper hand, announced in late 2013 that it would shut down Gülen-operated schools. That would have deprived the movement of its main source of revenue and recruits. Not ready to take the hit lying down, the Gülen movement retaliated by supporting a corruption probe, led by the prosecutor Celal Kara, against relatives of several cabinet ministers and businessmen with close ties to the government. Upping the ante, Erdogan launched a full-scale purge of any suspected Gülen sympathizers from sensitive positions in the bureaucracy, judiciary, and police.

Gülen, of course, insists that he does not wield any power over state officials and claims that his only concern is for the public. Yet in an exceptionally fiery sermon last December, Gülen excoriated those “who turn a blind eye to the thief while punishing those who prosecute the thieves,” beseeching God to “consume their homes with fire, destroy their nests, break their accords.” Even Gülenists do not deny the existence of an informal network of devotees within the state. That was the bargain between the AKP and the Gülenists all along: In return for its support — votes and the endorsement of the AKP by Gülenist media — the Gülen movement would get to staff the state bureaucracy. In fact, the AKP needed the Gülenists’ well-educated cadres to run Turkey, especially its police and judiciary. And since 2008, Gülenist sympathizers in the police and among prosecutors have helped put hundreds of regime opponents in prison.

Now, with the AKP-Gülenist relationship broken, Erdogan accuses his former allies of having established a parallel state that defies the authority of the elected government and of staging a coup against him. His most recent move against the so-called parallel state was his attempt last month to enact a law that would subordinate the judiciary to the executive, disabling his enemies from launching further probes. That will suit the Erdogan family just fine: A prosecutor tried to detain Erdogan’s son at the end of last year. The police, instructed by the government, refused to carry out the order, and the prosecutor was subsequently reassigned. More than 2,000 police officers and nearly 100 prosecutors have been reassigned since last December.

The conflict between Erdogan and the Gülen movement might sound quite byzantine. But remember that this is the land that gave us the term. Indeed, the dispute follows a historical pattern. The Ottoman Sultans feared autonomous powers such as religious congregations. Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinople, was particularly repressive; he curtailed economic freedoms in a bid to disempower religious fraternities. Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the republic, was obsessed with pacifying religious congregations, wanting to ensure that they could never rival the state. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu even defended the ongoing purges by pointing to history. Turkish state tradition, he said, includes the practice of “sacrificing sons for the state,” to eliminate potential rivals for the throne.

Now, leading commentators in the AKP’s media inform that the ruling party hopes to forge new alliances — particularly with the military, its old enemy. But Erdogan should remember that turning to the military to help quash opposition is not risk-free. In 1971, conservative Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel solicited help from the military to quash the left, only to end up out of power. Erdogan has instructed the Ministry of Justice to prepare for a retrial of imprisoned military officers. The generals may very well be acquitted.

It is easy to see how this will play out. After several years of silence, the Turkish General Staff has once again taken to issuing political statements. The military high command has called the judiciary to task after Erdogan’s chief adviser confessed that several military officers had been convicted on trumped-up charges. It has demanded a retrial of the officers and issued sharp condemnations of critics. Many observers fear that the state’s institutional breakdown will invite the generals to intervene and “restore order,” as they have done so many times before. Stoking those fears: In a letter to a newspaper editor last month, Necdet Özel, the chief of the General Staff, wrote that ensuring the functioning of the parliamentary system has been “the basic principle” of the armed forces, stressing that the military is determined to uphold it because “we want peace in our country.” The statement begged the question of what the military will do if there is no peace in the country. Military interventions in the past have always been motivated by an alleged determination to ensure the preservation of democracy.

The return of the old military is not the only risk. There is also a new military to take into account. Since Islamic conservatives won control of the state apparatus and subdued the military in 2007 and 2008, purges from within the military of suspected Islamists — which used to take place once a year — have ceased. It may be inferred from this that there are now likely many within the military who sympathize with Gülen. His message, which combines Islam and Turkish patriotism particularly appeals to officers, who generally hail from conservative family backgrounds. And mass imprisonments of top generals, which have depleted the military’s upper ranks, have made it possible for younger officers to rise further and faster than ever. The Gülenist clout within the military might be considerable. Erdogan would hope that the top brass, to whom he now appeals, will succeed in keeping Gülenists among the lower ranks in check. But he must also fear a move against him by younger officers acting outside the chain of command. That was what happened in 1960, when the authoritarian Prime Minister Adnan Menderes was toppled.

Beyond that, the AKP-Gülenist backbiting represents a massive and collective failure of the Islamic conservative movement, from which none of its components may be able to recover. The corruption charges have deprived the AKP of any remaining moral authority. And the turf war has shattered the government’s reputation for managerial competence. The Gülenists have lost moral capital, too. The movement has always taken pains to show itself as standing above petty politics. But revelations of the extent of its power within the state undermine that point. The Gülenists have shaken Erdogan, but they may have also undone themselves. Their maneuvering does not inspire confidence in all of Turkey: According to a recent poll, only six percent of the public supports the Gülenists’ case against the AKP, whereas 28.5 percent supports the ruling party, and 45 percent thinks that both the AKP and the Gülenists are at fault.

Coalitions may come and go, but authoritarianism is forever — or so it seems in Turkey. The Turkish Islamists’ failure as managers of the state will most likely catapult the traditional custodians of the state, the rightist nationalists in the military and the bureaucracy who enjoy a considerable following in society, back to power.

 

Swiss Immigration Vote Raises Alarm Across Europe

BERLIN — Swiss and European leaders reacted warily on Monday to Swiss voters’ narrow approval of a proposal to limit the number of foreigners allowed to live and work in Switzerland.  A bare majority voted in a referendum on Sunday to cut immigration quotas and require that Swiss nationals be given priority in hiring. The result could have far-reaching implications for relations between Switzerland and the 28-member European Union, of which it is not a member.  Laurent Fabius, France’s foreign minister, said Monday that the European Union would have to reconsider its relationship with Switzerland.  “It is a vote that causes concern because it means that Switzerland wants to withdraw into itself,” Mr. Fabius told RTL radio.

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Moscow and the Mosque

RUSSIA-POLITICS-PUTINIf Russians were holding their breath in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics, it was with good reason. A Black Sea spa town long favored by Kremlin apparatchiks, Sochi occupies a perilous position on Russia’s southern frontier, just 50 miles west of the North Caucasus Federal District, a cauldron of ethnic strife, nationalist separatism, and state repression since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the last two years alone, violence in this vast mountainous region, including car bombings, assassinations, and clashes between Muslim fighters and Russian security forces, has killed or injured more than 1,500 people.

Islamist militants in the North Caucasus have been making more frequent appeals to Russia’s other Muslims to rise up and join their cause. Last summer, Doku Umarov, an underground commander who claims control over a phantom Caucasus emirate, called on mujahideen in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan — two faraway autonomous republics about 400 miles and 700 miles east of Moscow, respectively — to “spoil” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans to stage the Olympics in Sochi atop “the bones of our ancestors.”

But Umarov’s attempts to provoke a Muslim uprising across Russia against Putin’s government have accomplished little. The Caucasus remains an outlier among Russia’s Muslim-majority territories, which, rather than radical redoubts, are stable, well-integrated, and relatively prosperous regions. Most Muslims in the bulk of the Russian Federation hardly ever express sympathy for their brethren in the restive North Caucasus, and historically, they have shown more interest in accommodating the state than resisting it.

The key question today, however, is how the Kremlin will continue to manage its varied Muslim population and whether it can maintain the allegiances of such a diverse group. The Putin government has worked especially hard to co-opt Muslims for its own political goals, both foreign and domestic. Finding an end to the war in the North Caucasus is one piece of the puzzle. In other regions, stability will depend more on whether Moscow keeps trying to control how Russia’s Muslim citizens interpret Islamic tradition by mandating which religious authorities and practices are sufficiently patriotic and compatible with the state.

Muslims in Russia have increasingly embraced different and competing religious orientations. Government interference in the debates among disparate Muslim communities runs the risk of alienating those who opt for ways of being Muslim that, although perfectly peaceful, conflict with official understandings of Islam. Putting a straitjacket on Islamic interpretation, even if done with the support of one camp of Muslim authorities over another, will not resolve the many policy challenges related to Islam that Russia faces. Instead, the Kremlin will have to accommodate greater pluralism in an ever-changing Islamic landscape.

CONTESTING THE CENSUS

Russia’s Muslims defy easy categorization. Even their demographic profile is the subject of intense dispute. Today, the government, journalists, and civil rights organizations estimate the total population to be some 20 million, or 14 percent of Russia’s overall population of 143 million. That figure would make Russian Muslims not just the second-largest religious group in the country but also the largest Muslim population in all of Europe. Yet the most recent census, in 2010, which asked only for “nationality,” not religious affiliation, suggested that the country has closer to 13 million Muslims, or roughly nine percent of the population.

This smaller figure is the product of only counting members of ethnic groups that have historically identified with Islam, such as the Azeris, the Bashkirs, the Chechens, the Kazakhs, and the Tatars, and listing them all as Muslims. Many Muslim leaders claim that the lower count represents an effort to undermine their political clout, since it fails to reflect Russians’ actual religious affiliations. Despite the official census numbers, even Russian politicians close to Putin, and others from the ethnic republics, regularly invoke the higher figure of 20 million. They do so to make Russia’s claim on membership in the Islamic world look more credible and to pander to their bases in order to secure Muslim electoral support.

Russia’s federal system, inherited from the Soviets, compounds the uncertainty by giving local ethnicities an incentive to overcount their numbers. Take Tatarstan. In the early Soviet period, Lenin and Stalin (an ethnic Georgian) created it and other similar republics as a concession to ethnic nationalism and to rebuff ethnic Russian domination. Today, elites there and elsewhere cling to power by claiming to represent the interests of their self-described nations. But in Tatarstan and other republics, it has always been hard to maintain indigenous majorities, given the large Russian populations and constant emigration; Tatars today officially make up only 53 percent of a population of 3.8 million. Muslim activists and local elites have been accused of pressuring pollsters to manipulate the census and increase the count of Muslim groups.

A similar tussle takes place in Moscow, which is officially home to 300,000 Muslims of varied ethnicities, out of a total population of between 12 million and 17 million people. Yet the census tells only part of the story. Another two million Muslims live there without registration papers, and some observers claim that two million more Muslim migrants work in the city. Most of these Muslims have come to Moscow to escape woeful economic conditions in their home countries, such as Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. But their temporary and often undocumented status makes them vulnerable to police harassment, exploitation, and racist violence — all factors that undermine the government’s attempts to project tolerance.

The distorted census figures, police intimidation, and bigotry lump all of Russia’s Muslims together into a single group, even though they are in fact a varied lot spread across the country. In places such as Tatarstan, Muslims make up the elites, but in Moscow, most occupy the lowest ranks of the labor force. Although the Russian federal system gives Russian Muslims considerable political influence, government policies, including well-documented cases of police harassment and raids of homes and businesses, marginalize Muslim immigrants, who remain invisible to census takers yet appear highly visible to Muscovites anxious about Muslim immigration.

BEYOND CHECHNYA

This anxiety is fed by Moscow’s long confrontation with Chechen separatists, a conflict that, as it has spread throughout the North Caucasus as a wider Islamist-led insurgency, has fused radicalism and Islam in the minds of the Russian public. As the Volgograd bombings last December showed, militants from the North Caucasus have taken their fight against the government to Russian territory beyond their home region. Yet the government has also capitalized on this fear.

Russia’s security agencies fabricate militants where none exist and accuse local Muslims of extremist ties on the basis of evidence that often hardly goes beyond one’s style of beard or dress. Frequently aided by Muslim clerics close to the state, officials like to blame violence on “Wahhabis,” Muslims who have ostensibly adopted Saudi Arabia’s controversial version of Islam. But the government, the media, and the courts tend to apply the label liberally. They call nonconformists Wahhabis to reinforce the authority of state-backed Muslim clerics, who oppose religious styles that the government deems alien to Russian Islam. Such stigmatized groups include Tablighi Jamaat, the world’s largest Muslim proselytizing organization, which has an underground presence in various Russian cities today, and Hizb ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamic organization that seeks to create a transnational caliphate.

At times, the security agencies have contributed to the extremist threat in more direct ways. Both Putin during his first term as president and his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, used the wars that began in Chechnya in the late 1990s to boost their popularity and to justify an array of authoritarian security measures. As a result of their manipulations, many Russians suspect, with good reason, that the Federal Security Service had a hand in a number of major terrorist attacks that rocked Russia a decade ago, including a series of apartment bombings across the country in 1999 and the Dubrovka Theater crisis in 2002 (in which 40 Chechen militants and some 130 hostages were killed).

Moscow likes to portray violence in the North Caucasus as linked to Islamic insurgencies outside Russia. After the Kremlin launched the second war in Chechnya, in 1999, some Muslim fighters did start to wage a campaign to create a pan-Islamic emirate on Russian soil. But such utopian schemers were responsible for only some of the region’s overall instability. For the most part, armed groups in the Caucasus were engaging in highly localized struggles for power, in which religion was only one of several motivating forces. Often, so-called extremist fighters have been more interested in criminal profit or revenge against government brutality than in Islamist causes.

The truth is, despite the government’s hype and provocations, most Russian Muslims remain firmly attached to their country and its institutions. Elements of transnational Islam may be growing in appeal — Russian Muslims can now shop for the latest international Islamic fashions at specialized stores and attend the annual Moscow Halal Expo — but that does not betray a fundamental shift in loyalty or outlook.

And most Russian Muslims remain indifferent to the blandishments of foreign missionaries. Like other communities in Russia, Muslims have used the freedoms they have won since the demise of communism and atheism to rediscover their religion. But they have mostly rejected offers made by Turkish missionaries, the Saudi government, or other foreigners to replace the Communist Party of the Soviet era with new religious tutors from abroad (notwithstanding Russian Salafists, a deeply conservative cohort that has intellectual ties to Saudi Arabia and that advocates living lives strictly modeled on those of the early companions of the Prophet Muhammad). Outside the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan, which has the closest ties to Arab educational institutions, Russian Muslims have focused on establishing their own religious schools. And in this effort, at least, Muslims have enjoyed the firm support of the state, which has accorded Islam the privileged status of a “traditional” Russian faith. Although formally a secular state, Russia favors the Orthodox Church, but officials also pledge to protect Islam, Buddhism, and even Judaism from foreign influence. In practice, this means lending support to those religious authorities who are willing to work closely with the state to promote patriotism among the faithful.

CATHERINE THE GREAT’S EXAMPLE

The state’s backing of a version of Islam it finds palatable was on display last October, when Russian officials and Islamic scholars in Ufa, the capital of the republic of Bashkortostan, celebrated the 225th anniversary of the Central Ecclesiastical Administration of the Muslims of Russia, an institution created under Catherine the Great to bring Islam under the direction of the state. During Catherine’s rule (1762–96), Russian Muslims gained official recognition for their clerics and mosques. Her government even endorsed Islamic laws in relation to marriage, the family, and public morality. Mullahs and mosque community members frequently turned to the tsarist police to denounce neighbors who committed adultery or failed to attend prayers. Islam became a pillar of a conservative imperial order.

In exchange, Islamic authorities were expected to teach their followers that being a good Muslim meant being loyal to the state — then as now, official tolerance came with strings attached. As in the past, today many Muslim clerics also preach against social ills, although now they include alcohol and narcotics. A number of them also focus on foreign policy, echoing the Kremlin’s vision of an alliance among Muslim countries and of Russia as a counterweight to a hegemonic United States.

At the ceremony in Ufa, Putin declared Islam to be “a striking element of the Russian cultural code, an inalienable, organic part of Russian history” and praised the institution for having helped make Muslims “true patriots of our country.” But he warned that “certain political forces” were seeking “to use Islam or, more precisely, its radical currents” to weaken the state. Russian Muslims, Putin added, “have always been united in serving society and their state, defending it from external enemies as well as from any manifestations of extremism.” He called on the assembled clerics to be “louder” in forging unity and harmony within Russia and in the Muslim world at large, to help integrate migrant laborers, and to strengthen Islamic institutions with a distinctively Russian Muslim theology so as to marginalize “informal leaders” whose spurious teachings threaten the country.

Putin’s remarks underscored how Muslims and Russian officialdom have always been engaged in a dialogue about how to police Islam, albeit one in which the state has ultimately had the final say. And sure enough, Talgat Tadzhuddin, the 65-year-old leader of the Central Ecclesiastical Administration, responded enthusiastically to Putin’s instructions. Reiterating Putin’s reference to Muslims’ historic service in defense of the state, the senior mufti noted that his institution was doing everything possible to preserve “traditional Islam” by blocking “the prop­aganda of totalitarian sects and radical currents in our communities.”

PUTIN’S GAMBLE

Although such exchanges represent an attempt by Putin to maintain the state’s tradition of control, they also highlight a dilemma for him, since Russian Muslims do not speak with one voice. Tadzhuddin may have stressed cooperation, but he has a rival: Ravil Gainutdin, the 54-year-old head of the Council of Muftis of Russia, a body of clerics that has competed with the Central Ecclesiastical Administration to act as Russia’s authoritative representative of Islam. Gainutdin did not relish Tadzhuddin’s time in the spotlight with Putin and only made a fleeting appearance at the ceremonies in Ufa. The two Muslim leaders have been battling for years over control of Russia’s Muslim institutions, including numerous regional clerical bodies and schools, in a struggle for prestige, financial resources, and access to state patronage.

Tadzhuddin interpreted the anniversary celebration as an endorsement of his call to unite some 80 regional Islamic organizations in the country under his authority. Gainutdin, for his part, faults Tadzhuddin for supporting a local court’s decision to ban a new translation of the Koran, a ruling that has outraged many Muslim campaigners for civil rights. The danger for Putin is that tapping Tadzhuddin as the official voice of Russian Islam may not only compromise Tadzhuddin’s standing in the eyes of his followers. It could also endanger the Kremlin’s friendly relationship with Gainutdin’s organization and lend weight to those Muslim critics who see persecution as being on the rise. In Tadzhuddin, Putin may be betting on a lame horse.

Such power struggles are playing out throughout Russia today, with mosque leaders challenging one another for supremacy, hurling charges of extremism and heresy, and appealing to state censors and the police to intervene. In a recent case, Seidzhagfar Lutfullin, an imam from Tatarstan who organized a boycott of an Elton John concert in the republic’s capital city late last year, raised the alarm that two of his opponents were disseminating “extremist” views associated with Hizb ut-Tahrir. They were promptly convicted and sentenced to jail.

Such polemic labels mask more subtle and profound debates about what it means to be a Muslim in Russia today. For the past two decades, the quest for an authentic Islam in a post-Soviet world has yielded multiple answers — and deep disagreements. Many Tatars, for example, have embraced the view that they practice an Islam that is a kind of ethnic inheritance, complete with religious leaders whose authority should be reinforced by the government. They see this interpretation as inseparable from their distinctive Tatar identity. But this school of thought quickly brands those who question its precepts as Wahhabis or extremists.

More secular Tatar intellectuals look west to argue that Islam calls for reform along the lines of what is practiced in Europe. Islam, they say, should be compatible with contemporary notions of progress and women’s rights. In their view, Muslims should have broad leeway in deciding which Islamic legal norms have outlived their time.

But both the Tatars’ ethnic and government-sanctioned conceptions of Islam and their more secular, cosmopolitan beliefs are anathema to Russia’s Salafists, who renounce such mainstream interpretations. Largely apolitical and distributed in small pockets throughout the country, the Salafists stand out the most among Russia’s Muslims, not only with their distinctive beards and dress but also because they pose such a bold intellectual challenge to the status quo.

Despite the recent rise of the Salafists, who have drawn inspiration from Saudi Arabian and other sources, it would be misguided to see them as the future of Russian Islam. In Bashkortostan and Tatarstan, Moscow and St. Petersburg, and elsewhere across Russia, all kinds of Sunni and Shiite groups are mixing in new ways, often through immigration from former Soviet republics to the south. For example, even though Salafists reject Sufis (who hold a more mystical interpretation of Islam) and their veneration of saints and shrines, the two groups still meet on the job at construction sites and markets and in Moscow’s overflowing mosques. And both groups pray alongside the sycophants of the state-backed Islamic hierarchies and alongside those who call for civil society, not the state, to organize Muslim affairs.

For all the emerging pluralism, dissent, and rediscovery of Islam in Russia, it would be a mistake to either exaggerate the scale of this religious revival or equate it with militancy. A 2010 poll by the respected Russian Public Opinion Research Center found Muslims to be generally less enthusiastic about religious holidays, literature, and rites than Orthodox Christians are. In Tatarstan, a 2012 survey revealed that only six percent of Muslims there identified themselves as “deeply religious,” with another 17 percent admitting to being “doubtful,” if still Muslim at all. Although Muslim women in Tatarstan have practiced various kinds of veiling since the early 1990s, only seven percent of them wear the hijab.

If militancy is bred in war zones such as the Caucasus, Tatarstan has little reason to worry. With its lucrative oil industry, solid agricultural base, and strong manufacturing sector, Tatarstan ranked fourth among Russian regions for quality of life in a recent poll, after Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the greater Moscow area. Respondents who expressed the most fervent religious devotion were not the angry young men that Russian and Western journalists tend to caricature: they were instead female pensioners in the countryside. A starker contrast could not be drawn with the war-scarred republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia, where, in addition to there being ubiquitous violence, at least one-third of the population is unemployed and despair and anxiety reign.

Saudi Women Find a Way

“I changed my baby brother’s Pampers, and now? I’m a 42-year-old mother, and I need him to sign off when I travel abroad?” My divorced Saudi friend and I were sharing tea in Riyadh’s Al Faisaliah Hotel, and she could not hide her disgust. A striking beauty of regal bearing, she has a high-powered international job and limited patience for her culture’s suffocating “protections” for women.  Yet even this worldly skeptic could see signs of progress for the kingdom’s women. “It’s changing,” she insisted. “We are in a correctional phase.” On a recent trip to Riyadh and Jeddah, that is an opinion I encountered time and again from Saudis and westerners alike. “The country is on a trajectory of modernization, if not too fast,” recently departed U.S. Ambassador James Smith told me. Together with his wife, Janet, a former professor at the National War College, Smith has spent nearly five years steeped in kingdom culture. “There is an imbalance politically that ever so slightly favors the modernizers” and, he continued, “an emerging critical mass of daughters — on campuses and in jobs — who will make a difference.”

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Mississippi Most Religious State, Vermont Least Religious

PRINCETON, NJ — Religiousness across the U.S. in 2013 remained similar to previous years. With 61% of its residents classified as very religious, Mississippi held on to its position as the most religious state, while Vermont, with 22% very religious residents, remained the least religious. The most religious states were in the South, except for Utah, while the least religious states were clustered in New England and the West.

Most Religious States, Based on % Very Religious, 2013Least Religious States, Based on % Very Religious, 2013

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The escorts who want to rebrand male prostitution as a business

josh624

Most people think of male prostitution as dangerous, degrading and exploitative work. But there are some who are attempting to reinvent it as a profession free of stigma by using all the tools of modern business, writes Mobeen Azhar.  ”The aim is to be the best escort in the world.” Josh Brandon’s conviction is punctuated by a strong Welsh valleys accent. The twentysomething moved to London four years ago with dreams of modelling and celebrity.  But soon after his arrival he began working as an escort. Now he has a price list which includes hourly rates and a discount for block booking. He issues loyalty cards so customers who pay for nine “appointments” get their tenth free.  ”I have a very professional booking system and I offer complete discretion,” he says. “My business model serves my clients and it serves me.”

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Erdogan: Corruption case an attempted coup by judiciary

ANKARA, Turkey, Jan. 4 (UPI) — Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Saturday an investigation into corruption in his government is a coup attempt by the judiciary.  ”In this process, there has been a coup attempt by the judiciary in Turkey,” Euronews quoted Erdogan as telling a group of journalists.  ”There has been an attempt to seize the sovereignty from the people and transfer it to the judiciary.”  The corruption investigation has weakened Erdogan, Euronews said. He also suggested that a way could be found to retry military officers convicted of plotting a coup, suggesting he feels he needs help from Turkey’s powerful military, Today’s Zaman reported.  Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said Friday no general amnesty would be granted the officers convicted of the coup attempt. Their supporters accused police and judges Thursday of fabricating evidence.  Erdogan’s Freedom and Justice Party is moderately Islamist. This has put his government at odds with the military, which sees itself as the defender of the secular legacy of Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish state.

‘Day of rage’: Police, protesters clash in Israel at plans to evict 40,000 Bedouins

day of rage

Hundreds gathered in Israel on Saturday to rally against the government’s plans to resettle some 40,000 Bedouins. The proposal has triggered accusations of “discrimination” and “ethnic cleansing” from activist groups, also sparking a protest in the UK.  The demonstrations were organized as part of an international “Day of Rage” against the proposed law which would arrange for Bedouin settlements to be created in southern Israel’s Negev Desert, also known as the Prawer-Begin plan.  The Prawer Plan would see up to 40,000 (according to local media) and up to 70,000 (according to the Guardian) Bedouin removed from their homes in Negev, southern Israel. The plan also provided for the demolition of about 40 villages and confiscation of 70,000 hectares of land.  The Israeli government has said the Bedouins will be re-homed and granted compensation for the move. However, the UK-based charity, Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said that the plan heralds “the forced displacement of Palestinians from their homes and land, and systematic discrimination and separation.”

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