The war over blasphemy

July 29th, 2015


Demonstration outside the Saudi embassy in Helsinki, Finland on behalf of Raif Badawi PHOTO/Amnesty Finland via Flickr

Some countries like Iceland are getting rid of outdated blasphemy laws, while other countries like Saudi Arabia are increasing their persecutions under such laws

Two weeks ago, Iceland abolished its 75-year-old blasphemy law. The parliament’s decision was a victory for the unconventional Pirate Party, which made the call to abolish the blasphemy law in Iceland after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in France. Churches in Iceland publically opposed this step, but this didn’t prevent the bill from gaining a vast majority in the Icelandic parliament.

One month before, on June 7, Saudi Arabia’s supreme courts decided to uphold the sentence of 1,000 lashes and 10 years imprisonment on the Saudi activist Raif Badawi. Raif, the founder of the Saudi Liberal network, was originally detained in June 2012 on charges of blasphemy and apostasy. So far Badawi has served three years of his sentence and already received 50 lashes last January. His courageous wife Ensaf Haidar has initiated a huge campaign on his behalf. Raif was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize because of his contribution to freedom in Saudi Arabia. But it seems that all of that is not enough to get him released.

Saudi Arabia isn’t the only country that targets blasphemers and nonbelievers. According to a report published by the Pew Research Institute in 2012, one out of every five countries has anti-blasphemy laws or policies, and one of every 10 countries penalizes apostasy.

Both the Icelandic and the Saudi decisions show contrasting approaches to dealing with blasphemy these days. Countries like Netherlands, Norway, and Iceland are getting rid of their old blasphemy laws. Other countries, like Ireland, are introducing new blasphemy laws. And countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt are increasing their persecution of blasphemers.

The Saudi Hell

Saudi Arabia is the last place an atheist or a blasphemer would like to be in. Not only is atheism classified as an act of terrorism and apostasy and blasphemy are punishable by death, but also because physical punishment is legal in Saudi Arabia. A blasphemer can be tortured and lashed for years before he is handed to the executioner.

Saudi Arabia’s legal system is based on Sharia law, which is basically the instructions of the Quran, Hadith, and some other historic Islamic sources. But the main difference between Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries that apply Sharia law is that Saudi Arabia doesn’t have written laws that define Sharia but leaves it to policemen and judges to interpret and implement the historic Islamic texts. And since the prophet of Islam, Mohamed, had ordered “You shall kill whoever changes his religion, Saudi judges would consider blasphemy an act of apostasy and punish blasphemers by death.

Last April, the former Saudi king Abdullah issued a new decree criminalizing activities considered hostile to the kingdom and now defined as acts of terrorism. The Saudi Interior Ministry followed with a list of groups criminalized by this decree, and atheists were among those groups. The irony here is that terrorism is now punished in Saudi Arabia, according to the new decree, with 20 years imprisonment, while apostasy and blasphemy are punishable by death. But as atheists are considered terrorists as well, they will be punished under both laws.

Raif Badawi isn’t the only one whom Saudi Arabia punished for blasphemy and apostasy. The kingdom has a long list of victims, and it’s hard to know most of the names in the list because of the country’s lack of transparency and efficient civil society. The Saudi Blogger Hamza Kashgari was hunted down in Malaysia, deported to Saudi Arabia, charged with blasphemy because of his anti-religious writings, and kept in prison for 20 months until he recanted his apostasy. The first act Kashgary did after being released was publishing a picture of him together with an Imam, receiving a gift of a copy of the Quran.

Foreign Policy in Focus for more

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

July 29th, 2015


You would have thought that, by now, the Kurds might have learnt their lesson

The Kurds were born to be betrayed. Almost every would-be Middle East statelet was promised freedom after the First World War, and the Kurds even sent a delegation to Versailles to ask for a nation and safe borders.

But under the Treaty of Sèvres, in 1920, they got a little nation in what had been Turkey. Then along came the Turkish nationalist Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who took back the land that the Kurdish nation might have gained. So the victors of the Great War met in Lausanne in 1922-23 and abandoned the Kurds (as well as the Armenians), who were now split between the new Turkish state, French Syria and Iran and British Iraq. That has been their tragedy ever since – and almost every regional power participated in it. The most brutal were the Turks and the Iraqi Arabs, the most cynical the British and the Americans. No wonder the Turks have gone back to bombing the Kurds.

When they rebelled against Saddam Hussein in Iraq in the early 1970s, the Americans supported them, along with the Shah of Iran. Then the US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger engineered an agreement between Iran and Iraq: the Shah would receive a territorial claim and, in return, abandon the Kurds. The Americans closed off their arms supplies. Saddam slaughtered perhaps 182,000 of them. “Foreign policy,” remarked Mr Kissinger, “should not be confused with missionary work.”

The Independent for more

Undercover TV report exposes mass evictions from India’s tiger reserves

July 29th, 2015


Canal Plus has exposed the illegal eviction of villagers such as Jatiya from Kanha Tiger Reserve in the name of conservation

A special undercover investigation by French TV channel Canal Plus has exposed the illegal eviction of thousands of tribal people from Kanha Tiger Reserve in the name of conservation, while more than a hundred thousand tourists are welcomed in every year.

A TV reporter visited families of the Baiga tribe who were evicted from Kanha – home of the “Jungle Book” – in 2014, and found that their lives were devastated after being forced from their homes against their will. The tribespeople have been struggling to survive after being scattered in surrounding villages.

Sukhdev, a Baiga man, was killed after his village was evicted from Kanha in 2014. His body was found after he attempted to buy land for his family.

Interviewed by Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights, in 2012, Sukhdev had said: “We won’t find another place like this. How will we set up home there? How will we raise our children? We need our fields and homes … Won’t we die?”

Survival for more

Not born this way

July 28th, 2015


Ricardo Amunjera, 31 and Marc Themba, 30, the first known gay couple to be married in Namibia, Africa PHOTO / International HIV/Aids Alliance/The Guardian

Other liberation movements have rejected the idea that biology is destiny. So why should gay rights depend on it?

Last month, the US Supreme Court affirmed the rights of same-sex couples to marry. The decision was a major achievement for a liberation movement that began nearly half a century ago. Throughout the struggle for marriage equality, supporters drew parallels with the oppression of African Americans, be that anti-miscegenation laws or legalised segregation. Yet one stark difference between these civil rights movements has escaped notice.

African-American activists aggressively called out arguments about genetic and biological differences as legacies of racist, Nazi science. By contrast, the marriage-equality movement has embraced biological determinism. Gay and lesbian activists have led the way popularising the idea that identity is biologically determined.

The proffered perspective is that sexuality is not a choice, but a way we are born. Getting Americans to believe this was a struggle. In 1977, according to the first Gallup poll on the question, only 13 per cent of Americans believed people were born gay. Even in 1990, only 20 per cent thought of sexuality as biologically innate. Yet since 2011 support has spiked, and today just under half of Americans think that the sexuality of gays and lesbians is determined at birth. Support for gay marriage and support for the idea of being ‘born that way’ closely track one another.

Moving people to understand sexuality as being genetically determined took not just activism, but scholarly research. The first major step came in 1990 when the neurobiologist Simon LeVay, then at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California, autopsied 41 individuals: 19 self-identified gay men, 16 straight men, and nine women. LeVay dug deep into the brain. Earlier research had shown the brain cell group INAH3, the third interstitial nucleus of the hypothalamus, to be associated with sexual attraction among rats. For males, this area is considerably larger than it is for females because male rat foetuses are exposed to higher levels of testosterone than females. If its size explained attraction, LeVay reasoned, then we might expect gay men to have smaller INAH3 than straight men.

The gay men LeVay examined had died of AIDS, as had one-third of the straight men autopsied. The ‘gay plague’ motivated researchers across the world to better understand the character of sexual desire. Some of this research explored the social life of gay communities, and activists were worried about shining a light upon what happened in the dark corners of bath houses. The broader American population overwhelmingly viewed gay sex as unnatural, and sexual licentiousness as perverse. Calling attention to the sexual freedom that characterised gay urban communities would do no good for the sick and dying.

But if gayness was a biologically-determined identity, then blaming the dying would be a lot more difficult. LeVay’s findings helped change the conversation; they were reported in 1991 in Science, the premier scientific journal in the world. Gay men’s INAH3 was closer in size to women’s than it was to straight men’s. It was a major step toward a biological understanding of sexuality.

Aeon for more

Banks and “organized gangs”

July 28th, 2015


A small study again draws the conclusion increasingly shared by economists and human and social scientists, the general rule is: the public debt crisis is in no way due to “mismanagement of public finances” but due to the deregulation of global finance. Besides, “between 2007 and 2011”, writes François Morin (l’Hydre mondiale. L’oligopole bancaire, Lux, 2015), “world public debt grew to 54 percent – an annual rate twice that prior to the financial crisis. Globally, it was necessary to inject phenomenal sums of public funds to recapitalise the banks.”

According to the G20 (Cannes 2011), 28 banks were held to be of central to this system as a whole. Eleven of these were considered to be a hard core which deliberately formed “gangs” to distort competition and manipulate exchange and interest rates to serve the interests of their shareholders – abusing their position of dominance and creating toxic derivatives. There were 16 European banks, 8 American, 3 Japanese and 1 Chinese: JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, HSBC, Deutsche Bank, Groupe Crédit Agricole, BNP Paribas, Barclays PLC, Mitsubishi UFJ FG, Bank of China, Royal Bank of Scotland, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Mizuho FG, Santander, Société Générale, ING Bank, BPCE, Wells Fargo, Sumitomo Mitsui FG, UBS, UniCredit Group, Credit suisse, Nordea, BBVA, Standard Chartered, Bank of New York Mellon, State Street.

Faced with this, states continue to believe that the politics of austerity are the sole solution – the Volker Rule (United States) and the Vickers Rule (Great Britain) being totally insufficient in matters of financial regulation – when the primary question is one of regaining control of monetary sovereignty with a view to reforming the international monetary system. Since the financial liberalisation of the 70s and 80s, systematic crises have repeatedly occurred, explains Morin, each occurrence caused by derivatives products. Well these products were practically non-existent before the 1970s. Moreover, states have abandoned all sovereignty over money during the last 40 years.

L’Humanite for more

Love Matters talks sexy in Singapore

July 28th, 2015


“Just a show of hands: who here has sex for pleasure?” The plenary audience at the 22nd Congress of the World Association for Sexual Health (WAS) are thankfully not a shy bunch – most people raise their hands.

It’s early afternoon in Singapore and, after months of planning and research, Love Matter’s Content Strategist Michelle Chakkalackal is unveiling preliminary findings regarding the effectiveness of using the language of sexual pleasure in the communication of sexual health information.

Acknowledging the show of hands, Michelle continues:

“So if this is the case, why don’t we see the language of pleasure being incorporated in sex education? Even when we have just acknowledged together that people have sex because it feels good. Is it because we don’t have enough quantitative data to support our common hunches?”

It is this discrepancy – and the absence of quantitative data – that Love Matters is seeking to address with its analysis of tens of millions of data points across its sites.

As part of an expert panel called “Put the sexy into sex education”, Michelle revealed that early indicators strongly suggest visitors engage with pleasure-positive messages more often than with traditional sexual health messages, which typically focus on dry facts and risk.

Radio Netherlands Worldwide for more

‘Contemporary no way to look at history’

July 27th, 2015


Dr. Nyla Ali Khan (left) with Jammu and Kashmir Governor Narinder Nath Vohra in July 2013 PHOTO/Only Kashmir

The granddaughter of National Conference founder Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, Nyla Ali Khan has authored several books, including The Life of a Kashmiri Woman — on her grandmother Begum Akbar Jehan, whose death anniversary falls on July 11. She is a visiting professor at the University of Oklahoma, USA.

What concerns you the most when you say that the “mauled versions of history are cunningly making their way into mainstream Indian, Pakistani and international political discourses”?

When we read about the political history of Kashmir, about the turbulence and turmoil since 1989, quite a few scholars, analysts and activists have documented the human rights violations and written about the undemocratic processes that occurred in the state over the past several decades… they have written about the institutionalisation of corruption and how institutions in Jammu and Kashmir became dysfunctional over the years. But what I see in a lot of those works of history is the version of statist Indian as well as Pakistani political thought, and when I read other versions which are unofficial or which are not as statist, I do not see a recognition of the very strong Kashmiri nationalist movement, the inception of which was made in 1931. 

We might have ideological differences and a lot of us tend to view history through the subjective lens of contemporary politics, but that is where we go wrong. We can do justice to at least our own history by contextualising events.

You referred to 1931 (agitation against monarchical rule) as a nationalist event, but what qualifies it to be a nationalist event since it was triggered by a man who was not Kashmiri (Qadeer Khan)?

The fact that political players bridged the ideological divide to come together, they recognised that the movement that will bring their people — Muslims of Kashmir valley — out of the misery of illiteracy, poverty and political disenfranchisement would have to be a people’s movement. It could not be led by an outsider. We need to recognise that in 1947 and 1948, the leaps that Jammu and Kashmir made in establishing democratic processes and institutions were not made in any other part of the subcontinent.

When the movement began in 1931, it was for the enfranchisement of the Muslims of Kashmir valley and that was the reason that Molvi Yousuf Shah and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah came together and people of their ilk supported them. So it was to voice the aspirations of the repressed, particularly the peasantry. That is how I see it as a nationalist movement. It was a movement that initially relied on religious discourse and was later transformed because that religious idiom was a very powerful motivating and unifying force. It was deployed very effectively to give legitimacy to a political movement.

With so many narratives, whose version of history is correct or nearer to reality? And how will it be decided whose version is true?

This is a very difficult thing for me to do because I, like you, look at things from a unique vantage point. I look at things from a particular position but I, unlike a lot of other people, recognise that this  gives me certain biases and prejudices. I study the politics of Sheikh Abdullah and I continue to do that, it is a work in progress. I admire his politics, his personality. I admire the unifying force that he became at a time when our state was fragmented. I admire him for the primacy which he gave to Kashmiri identity…  it is at this stage that there came a time when Kashmiri people learned to take pride in themselves, their cultural identity. 

They became a political force to be reckoned with, to be recognised. Recently I did some work on the Quit Kashmir Movement. There was a time when Sheikh Abdullah was seen as a rebel against the state. Every society and individual is dynamic and no political player remains the same throughout. No political player’s identity remains static.

As an academician, how do you see Sheikh Abdullah? Was he a nationalist, or someone who sought refuge in religion using the podium of shrines for his own politics?

Using the podium of shrines to mobilise people — that has been done the world over. Religious institutions have been used in detrimental ways but also to create positive identity politics for mobilising people to recognise their own political rights and to fight for it. Sheikh Abdullah was one politician in South Asia who was able to employ the religious idiom very successfully to mobilise the people to recognise that they were people who were entitled to privileges and rights.

In The Life of a Kashmiri Woman, the protagonist is your maternal grandmother Begum Akbar Jehan. Was her influence instrumental at any point in time in shaping the future of the region?

She was born into a very privileged family, she was half-Austrian … so my grandmother straddled two cultural paradigms and she was a very religious woman.

In 1932, she made the very difficult choice because Sheikh Abdullah then was a young man, a rebel who was trying to make his presence felt. So, she made the difficult decision of marrying someone whose future was unpredictable and unstable… but throughout the 1930s, while he was rebelling against the monarchy, and in 1950s and 1960s when he was a political prisoner of the Government of India, she stood by him. In 1955, when Mirza Afzal Beg created the Plebiscite Front, Begum Akbar Jehan was its unofficial member. Activists of that period will tell you how stifling the atmosphere was, particularly for her and her children.

Between the two extremes of being the ‘Lion of Kashmir’ and a villainous character, as his detractors describe him, where does Sheikh Abdullah stand for you?
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The pacification of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Military intervention in schools

July 27th, 2015


(trannslation by ALFIE LAKE)

The city of Rio de Janeiro’s public safety policy figures prominently among the Brazilian government’s public agenda. It involves flooding specific areas with military police to the point of occupying state schools if necessary. This is the context in which a dispute on the premises of the favelas’ public schools is taking place, between the controlling police paradigm and that of education as a right and opportunity.

The city of Rio de Janeiro, by assuming its status as a global city, positions itself on the world stage as Latin America’s shop window. The “marvelous city,” chosen as the host of numerous mega-events, has consolidated corporate management of the city. From the memorable Rolling Stones concert in Copacabana in 2006, via the 2013 World Youth Day that brought with it the visit of Pope Francis, to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games sporting mega-events, these events have served as justification for a devastating intervention of the public-private initiative in the reshaping of the city’s urban spaces.

The implementation of a “pacification” policy is the spearhead to begin a process of gentrification in particular favelas of the city, consolidating a tourist corridor in the south of the city. It takes the experience of the system applied in Bogotá and New York, philosophically based on the broken windows theory and with specific military training actions from Israel. The devising, organization and intelligence work of the pacification policy are carried out by the Security Secretariat of Rio de Janeiro State. Two departments of the Military Police are primarily responsible for its completion: the BOPE Special Operations Battalion and the UPP Police Pacification Units. Under some circumstances the police force also receives the support of the Armed Forces, something that occurred during the occupation of Complexo do Alemão or in the Rocinha favela in 2011.

According to data from Brazil’s Institute of Geography and Statistics, more than 14% of the marvelous city’s inhabitants live in favelas. There are more than 1.5 million people living across 43km2 of informal settlements and the number of favelas reaches almost a thousand, but the eight biggest bring together 40% of all the residents of this type of neighborhood.

Upside Down World for more

50 years ago: 10,000 battle riot police in Athens

July 27th, 2015


Demonstration in Greece, 1965

On July 21, 1965, police in Athens attacked a crowd, estimated by western media at 10,000, demonstrating for the reinstatement of former Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou. King Constantine II removed Papandreou from office on July 15, 1965 claiming the Center Union Party premier had promoted leftism in the military. One man, Sotirias Petrouslas, 25, was killed and at least 130 were injured, along with dozens of tourists, in the police riot. About 100 were arrested.

The crowd of 10,000 had splintered off from a larger mass rally in favor of Papandreou’s reinstatement and the ouster of replacement Prime Minister Athanasiadis-Novas, also a member of Papandreou’s Center Union Party. Minister of Public Order Ioannis Toumbas claimed the demonstrators refused police orders to disperse, and then attacked police. He laid blame for the “disturbance” at the feet of Papandreou, whom he accused, in a nationally broadcast address, of “rabble-rousing.” The demonstrations, which began immediately after Papandreou’s ouster, continued. The General Confederation of Labor announced a 24-hour nationwide general strike for July 27, the following Tuesday.

The July 1965 events are known in Greece as the “the Royal Coup.” Papandreou’s Center Union Party was based on an uneasy combination of liberal and social democratic forces that balanced between the social aspirations of the Greek masses and the most reactionary elements of society grouped around the crown and the military. After winning the elections of 1963 and 1964—the latter by a wide margin—Papandreou sought to consolidate his own power and at the same time appease the right-wing by appointing monarchist officers to high military posts.

King Constantine responded by cultivating disaffected layers within the Center Union Party itself. Right-wing elements seized on allegations in early 1965 that Papandreou’s son, Andreas Papandreou, was a member of a secretive anti-monarchical group of military officers, called ASPIDA. This scandal brought the resignation of Defense Minister Petros Garoufalias. When George Papandreou nominated himself for defense minister, Constantine refused to accept it, forcing his resignation.

World Socialist Web Site for more

Weekend Edition

July 24th, 2015