Global News Blog
The Amazon Basin is often cited as a global repository of biodiversity. But it’s also the last bastion, perhaps, of human cultural diversity. In Smithsonian magazine, Joshua Hammer recounts the recent spotting of what may be the last two isolated tribes in the Colombian Amazon: the Yuri and the Passé. They were spotted from airplanes by experts seeking to confirm their existence and to strengthen protections against outside intrusion.
Mr. Hammer points out that the common term “uncontacted tribes” is not strictly accurate. These tribes first encountered Spanish explorers seeking gold some 500 years ago. They fled deeper into the jungle to avoid slave traders. Around 1900, the rubber boom brought new slave traders into the rain forest and the tribes fled farther.
They were thought to be extinct, but when a jaguar hunter and his guide disappeared in 1969, the search party ran into a village of people painted with zebralike stripes. None of the native guides could recognize their language, but an expert in the United States identified them as Yuri. Then they disappeared again.
Ironically, for governments to protect the privacy of these native peoples, they must know where they are. Roberto Franco, the Colombian historian who was in the airplane that spotted the Yuri and Passé settlements, says: “We must respect their decision not to be our friends – even to hate us.”
Where Africans make strides
Meanwhile, one continent over, Africa has been shedding its isolation posthaste. The Economist takes a survey of the growing dynamism in the region that still populates the bottom of development rankings.
Life expectancies have increased by 10 percent. Foreign investment has tripled in the past decade. In the next 10 years, consumer spending is expected to triple. Average growth of gross domestic product is running about 6 percent, more African children than ever are in school, cellphones are everywhere, and the countries hit worst with the AIDS crisis have seen infections fall by three-quarters.
The Economist gives the main credit to African people themselves. “They are embracing modern technology, voting in ever more elections and pressing their leaders to do better. A sense of hope abounds.”
One sign that governance is improving, too: The correspondent visited 23 African countries to research the survey and wasn’t once asked for a bribe – “inconceivable only ten years ago.”
‘Hey America, how ya doin’?’
Back in these United States, every year Gallup asks hundreds of thousands of Americans to rate their own well-being from emotional and physical health to their work environment and overall life evaluation. The top-ranked state? Hawaii, for the fourth year in a row. (And Gallup didn’t even ask about the weather. The next two states, after all, are Colorado and Minnesota.) Hawaii residents were most likely to “experience daily enjoyment and least likely to have daily worry or stress,” says Alyssa Brown in Gallup’s new report. They also most often rated their lives as “thriving.”
West Virginians were the least “thriving” in the nation, and ranked lowest in overall well-being. Hawaiians also rated their work environments more highly than did residents of any other state. The lowest? Rhode Island. When it comes to healthy eating, getting exercise, and not smoking, Vermont rules and Kentucky takes the hindmost position. For access to basic services, from affordable food to a safe place to exercise, Massachusetts leads and Mississippi lags.
What the pundits don’t know
If you are tempted to argue with TV political pundits, you’re in good company. Morris Fiorina, a prominent political scientist at Stanford University, says his wife hates political season because of his running argument against what he sees as misinformed cable commentators. In The Forum, a political science quarterly, Professor Fiorina outlines what he, as a political scientist, wishes media talking heads could learn:
•US voters are not becoming more polarized. Congress is. Cable TV and talk radio are. But the moderate middle among voters is not shrinking. “Most Americans are not ideologues and do not hold extreme views.” Voters have re-sorted themselves: Conservatives have left the Democratic Party for the GOP and liberals have fled the other way. But that’s a shift of parties, not a shift of views.
•The US electorate is closely divided, but there is little evidence that the divide has grown deeper. Fiorina suspects that when the data is available, the 2012 election will prove to have been less intensely divided than the elections in 2008 or 2004.
•The hundreds of millions of dollars spent on political advertising “probably does not make much difference.” You would never know it from watching TV, but scholars find little evidence of any impact.
•Finally, voters are not stupid. They may be often uninformed and distracted. “Yet the collective electorate manifests a degree of knowledge and wisdom that gives those of us who have studied that electorate for decades some cause for optimism.”
And then he will have dinner with a beauty queen.
Obama’s staff personally invited the newly crowned Miss Israel, Yityish Aynaw – who is the first black Israeli to the hold the title – to a dinner at the home of President Shimon Peres next Thursday, a symbolic nod, perhaps, to the country’s 120,000 Ethiopian Jews, a community that has long faced discrimination in Israel.
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Ms. Aynaw, who was crowned last month and will represent Israel at this year’s Miss Earth pageant, has already dazzled the Israeli press with the narrative of her hardscrabble childhood and rags-to-riches rise to beauty-queen stardom – and is now making the rounds in international outlets as well.
"Ten years ago I was walking around barefoot in Ethiopia,” she told Israeli news site Ynet News yesterday. “I never imagined that one day I would be in the land of Israel, meeting the Israeli president and the president of the United States. I could never have imagined such a powerful and exciting situation."
Born near the town of Gondar in northwestern Ethiopia, Aynaw was an orphan by age 10, and immigrated to Israel two years later to live with her grandparents. By the time she was 19, she’d become fluent in Hebrew, won a national student film competition, and was training to be a military police commander in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Aynaw eventually led a cadre of guards, whom she trained to fire guns, man security checkpoints, and find bombs, according to a profile in Tablet, a US-based Jewish magazine.
“I taught them to be human,” Aynaw said of her soldiers, who checked Palestinians driving through military checkpoints. “My soldiers would ask, ‘How can I be so nice when there were instances of a 9-year-old kid or a pregnant woman blowing themselves up at a checkpoint?’ ” She’d tell them: “There are many Palestinians who have a wife waiting at home, a family waiting for dad to bring bread home.”
Aynaw has offered other hints of her politics as well. She told an Israeli news station that she hoped to ask President Obama to release Jonathan Pollard, an American Jew who is currently serving out a life sentence for spying on the US for Israel.
And when a reporter told her that American beauty queens often tout their hopes for “world peace,” she shot back, “to say a sentence like that, in my opinion, is to sound retarded.”
“Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon, China is trying to become a superpower,” she continued. “To say that I want world peace, of course I want it. It’s a dream. But I don’t think it will happen now.”
Ethiopian Jews have a checkered history in Israel. A series of dramatic airlifts in the 1980s and 1990s by the Israeli government brought thousands to the Jewish state, but they, their children, and subsequent waves of African immigrants have faced a hostile – and at times overtly racist – reception.
Today, the average income of an Ethiopian Israeli is half that of Israelis at large, and more than half of employers surveyed in 2010 said they would prefer not to hire an Ethiopian. In January, the Israeli state copped to giving a number of Ethiopian women in Israel long-term birth control shots without their consent.
Aynaw has walked into that fray with diplomatic beauty-queen aplomb.
"It's important that a member of the Ethiopian community win the competition for the first time,” she told a judging panel during the Miss Israel competition. “There are many different communities of many different colors in Israel, and it's important to show that to the world."
As the Tablet profile notes, however, Aynaw is not the first politically charged pick for Miss Israel. Israeli beauty pageants, he writes, have long been a powerful lens for understanding the image Israel wants to project to the world.
In 1952, at the height of tensions between Israel’s European veterans and Middle Eastern Jewish newcomers, Yemen-born Ora Vered became the first Miss Israel of Middle Eastern Jewish descent. In 1993, in the midst of Israel’s tidal wave of Soviet immigration, Kiev-born Jana Khodriker won, and in 1999, the peak of Israel’s optimism that Arab-Israeli peace was imminent, judges crowned Rana Raslan the first Arab Miss Israel.
Now, Israeli diplomats seem intent on building similar goodwill with Aynaw. Leo Vinovezky, Israel's deputy ambassador to Ethiopia, told an Israeli newspaper last week that “this is the Ethiopian Jewry's finest hour."
Aynaw will have her own shot at diplomacy of sorts when she competes in the Miss Earth pageant later this year: The competition will take place in Indonesia, a country with which Israel has no formal diplomatic ties.
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The next leader of the Roman Catholic church combines a Jesuit intellectual mind with a life spent advocating for social justice and the poor, and in 2009 he made headlines for criticizing the government of Argentina for allowing “huge inequities” between the rich and the poor to develop.
After only five rounds of votes in the Sistine Chapel and at roughly 8:30 tonight, the phrase "Habemus Papam" or “We have a pope,” was spoken on the plaza balcony in Vatican City – and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina appeared, dressed in white, to say the Lord’s Prayer.
The man that believing Roman Catholics call the “successor” of the apostle Peter, and “the vicar of Christ” will go by the name of Pope Francis. He speaks three languages, and is both the first non-European pope in modern times and the first from a developing country.
Mr. Bergoglio was elected in a swift five votes of a conclave of 115 cardinals.
According to John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires in 1936 to an Italian immigrant family. He was educated as a theologian in Germany, cooks his own meals, and eschews the ornate trappings of church power – he travels by bus. He became widely known for his analysis of the negative effect of globalization on parts of the developing world. At the same time, he opposed the once-powerful liberation theology movement that previous popes denounced as flirting with Marxism.
At a gathering of Latin American bishops in 2007, Bergoglio offered that, "We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least. The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers."
Like his predecessor Pope Benedict, who resigned last month – the first head of the Catholic church to do so in 600 years – Pope Francis is said to be a strict conservative on personal morality. He has opposed Argentina’s gay marriage laws, and has been fiercely pro-family. In church terms, though, he is seen as a master conciliator who will be adroit at healing many of the rifts and scandals over finances and pedophile priests that have dogged the Vatican in recent years.
Since 1998 he has been the Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Bergoglio was elected by a conclave that overwhelmingly shares the conservative views of Benedict, who has held sway as an enforcer of orthodoxy in the Vatican since 1982.
As Mr. Allen of the National Catholic Reporter writes, “Either John Paul II or Benedict XVI appointed each of the ... cardinals who will cast a ballot, including 11 Americans, so there will be little ideological clash. No matter what happens, the church almost certainly won't reverse its bans on abortion, gay marriage or women priests.”
The church leader that believing Roman Catholics call the “successor” of the apostle Peter and “the vicar of Christ” will go by the name of Pope Francis and is the first non-European pope in modern times, and the first from a developing country.
The much-awaited choice is something of a surprise, as the new pope was not foreshadowed prominently on the short lists of various experts, though the 76-year old was said to be the runner-up to retiring Pope Benedict in the 2005 conclave.
Cardinal Bergoglio, a Jesuit intellectual who reportedly eschews the ornate trappings of church power – he travels by bus – was elected in a swift five votes of a conclave of 115 cardinals, and immediately appeared to say the Lord’s Prayer to crowds on the Vatican plaza.
Like his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI who resigned last month, the first head of the Catholic church to do so in 600 years, Pope Francis is said to be theologically orthodox and socially conservative. He has opposed Argentina’s gay marriage laws, has been fiercely pro-family, and is also known as an advocate for the poor. In church terms, he is seen as a master conciliator who will be adroit at healing many of the rifts and scandals over finances and pedophile priests that have dogged the Vatican in recent years.
He was elected by a conclave that overwhelmingly shares the conservative views of Benedict who has held sway as an enforcer of orthodoxy in the Vatican since 1982.
As John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter writes, “Either John Paul II or Benedict XVI appointed each of the 117 cardinals who will cast a ballot, including 11 Americans, so there will be little ideological clash. No matter what happens, the church almost certainly won't reverse its bans on abortion, gay marriage or women priests.”
Iran announced today that it will sue Hollywood for creating films the Islamic Republic alleges intentionally “propagate fear of Iran throughout the world,” according to state media reports.
Citing director Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning film “Argo” as “the most recent example of various fear-mongering tactics” used by Hollywood, the semi-official Fars News Agency said French lawyer Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, widely known for defending Venezuelan-born terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (“Carlos the Jackal”), is in Tehran for talks with Iranian government officials to determine where and how a lawsuit should be filed.
“These people [in Hollywood] are using films to propagate global panic about Iran,” Fars cites Ms. Coutant-Peyre as saying. “The act [of the lawsuit] itself is valuable,” added Ms. Coutant-Peyre, “because it can stir interest and discussion among the peoples of the world, until they can discern between what is the truth and what are lies about Iran, and think about them. The dialogue created by Hollywood [about Iran] can’t be one-sided."
It is unclear who will specifically be named in Iran's lawsuit. Ms. Coutant-Peyre said she has prepared a case and will provide more details at a press conference Wednesday, Fars reports.
“Argo” was privately screened in downtown Tehran on Monday as part of a state-organized conference on “Hollywood Deceit," according to state media reports.
Based on a true story about how the CIA, with the help of Canadian officials, smuggled six American diplomats out of Iran after the 1979 takeover of the US Embassy, “Argo” was first screened at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 7, the same day Canada closed its embassy in Tehran and expelled Iran’s diplomats from the Canadian capital, Ottawa.
“Perhaps it was a coincidence,” wrote independent film critic Meysam Karimi for the Tehran-based Moviemag website in September. “But for [the embassy closure] to take place during the Toronto Film Festival, right when this film was being screened, somewhat undermines the theory that this happened by accident.”
“Argo” went on to win three Academy Awards at this year's Oscars ceremony, including the top prize for Best Picture, which was presented via live telecast by First Lady Michelle Obama.
Pirated copies of Hollywood films, including “Argo,” are widely available to the Iranian public. They can typically purchase films even before their formal debut in US theaters. Since the film’s release, Iranian state media reports have dismissed the film as anti-Iranian and anti-Islamic “propaganda.”
Private movie critics inside Iran, while acknowledging Ben Affleck’s sophisticated directorial skills, have decried some of the film’s historical inaccuracies and claimed the film portrays Iranians as stereotypically backward and violent.
This is not the first time Iranian officials have complained about the portrayal of Iran in Hollywood cinema.
In 2009, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s cultural adviser demanded that a group of US filmmakers and actors visiting Tehran, including Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Sid Ganis, actress Annette Bening, and former chairman of Universal Pictures Tom Pollock, among others, apologize on behalf of Hollywood for creating “insulting” films such as “300,” an animated film about the battle between Greeks and Persians at Thermopylae in 480 BC, which was distributed by Warner Brothers.
Iran has also complained about the 1991 film “Not Without My Daughter" and the 2008 film “The Wrestler,” in which American actor Mickey Rourke fights a character named "The Ayatollah" who tries to choke him with an Iranian flag.
As 115 Roman Catholic cardinals are locked inside the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the papal conclave – and the official march toward choosing the next pope – has begun. The suspense is building in St. Peter's Square – and the Twittersphere is exploding.
On Day 1, the cardinals celebrated the "Pro eligendo Romano Pontificie" Mass for the election of a pope. On Tuesday afternoon, cardinals gather in the Sistine Chapel chanting the Litany of Saints and the Latin hymn "Veni Creator," imploring saints and the Holy Spirit to help them pick a pope, reports the Associated Press.
Standing under Michelangelo's "Creation" and before his "Last Judgment," each cardinal places his hand on a book of the Gospels and pledges "with the greatest fidelity" never to reveal the details of the conclave. A meditation on the qualities needed for the next pope and the challenges ahead for the church is delivered by Maltese Cardinal Prosper Grech.
The master of liturgical celebrations then cries "Extra omnes," Latin for "all out." Everyone except the cardinals leaves and the voting can begin.
And as these solemn proceedings get underway, you can rest assured that from the bleacher seats of Twitterdom, the commentary will be fast, biting, and occasionally informative. Check out #conclave.
Grant Gallicho tweets: "A couple of Japanese tourists just asked us why all the media are at St. Peter's Square. "Is there a special event happening?"
The Economist tweeted the lead of its papal story: "WANTED: man of God; good at languages; preferably under 75; extensive pastoral experience; no record of covering up clerical sex abuse, deeply spiritual and, mentally, tough as old boots."
Of course the punsters and joksters weren't the only ones on Twitter today. Some of the cardinals also tweeted farewall as their sequester began.
And The Telegraph of London reports that Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, expressed concern on her account saying: "In this electronic age, I worry some cardinals may go into iPad and Twitter withdrawal."
If you're not near a TV or aren't in Rome where you can see the white smoke, there's always a text message for those who need to know immediately. A Catholic organization has set up a website, www.popealarm.com, where folks can register to get a text or email notification when a pope has been chosen.
The WSJ subhead: Conclave watchers play Papal Bracketology as cardinals pick new pope.
Similarly Bloomberg News has a story on the Pope shortlist based on betting sites: "As conclave begins, betting sites have narrowed 115 cardinals down to ten contenders."
In efforts to reduce deforestation levels in the Amazon region, Brazil is at the forefront of an experimental climate-change prevention strategy known as “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation,” or REDD.
In Foreign Affairs, Jeff Tollefson describes the REDD system, which places monetary value on the amount of carbon dioxide that can be stored in trees. Wealthy nations or corporations pay countries to protect their rain forests, and thus offset carbon emissions.
Through its Amazon Fund, Brazil received funding from Norway starting in 2010. Spending almost $152 million, Brazil executed projects that paid landowners to preserve forests and educated farmers and ranchers on sustainable practices. The result: Brazil has seen a plunging rate of deforestation, registering record lows from 2009 to 2012.
Despite the remaining challenges for implementing a universal plan, Mr. Tollefson writes, “at a time when expectations for progress on climate change are falling, Brazil has given the world a glimmer of hope. In many ways, the hard work is just beginning, but the results so far more than justify continuing the experiment.”
Kenya's 'Iron Lady'
During the run-up to Kenya’s March 4 presidential election, the media focused on the two front-runners, Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta. But among the six other candidates, there is one to keep watching: Martha Karua, Kenya’s own “Iron Lady.”
A profile by Al Jazeera details Ms. Karua’s rise in national politics, from a magistrate to a member of parliament and minister for justice under President Mwai Kibaki. She was the only woman to run in this year’s election, during which she pledged to create a universal health-care system and increase Internet access to 50 percent of Kenyans within five years.
“Her manifesto, perhaps reflecting her legal background, emphasises ‘a new spirit of constitutionalism’, prioritising the fight against corruption and respect for national diversity,” Al Jazeera writes.
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Her outspoken condemnation of her fellow candidates, particularly those implicated in stoking the postelection violence in 2007, best explains her Iron Lady nickname. She accuses Mr. Odinga of ethnic cleansing, and Mr. Kenyatta is facing charges of crimes against humanity from the International Criminal Court.
She said he should be cleared of those charges before he can be elected president.
“How do you seek votes, yet grave accusations of causing death, arson and mass displacements are on your head?” she told reporters. “If your cow’s leg is broken, do you strap a plough on it and head to the farm – or do you first get it treated and allow it time to heal?”
Future of drones
Drones have drastically changed the strategy of modern warfare, playing an effective, albeit controversial, role in the US fight against Al Qaeda. The government and private companies are now looking homeward for the next development in drone technology. Potential uses include crop dusting, traffic control, border patrol, and weather forecasting, reports John Horgan in National Geographic. But even with these benefits, people are worried about potential breaches in privacy – and the possibility for errors.
As new, more sophisticated drones take to the skies in the United States, and in other countries where drones are manufactured (such as China, Israel, and Iran), Mr. Horgan says that limiting risk is crucial.
“The invention that escapes our control, proliferating whether or not it benefits humanity, has been a persistent fear of the industrial age – with good reason,” Horgan writes. “Nuclear weapons are too easy an example; consider what cars have done to our landscape over the past century, and it’s fair to wonder who’s in the driver’s seat, them or us."
Depardieu and income inequality
Mr. Depardieu famously renounced his French citizenship after the government promised to impose a new supertax on the wealthy – 75 percent on incomes greater than 1 million euros. French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called Depardieu’s move “pathetic.”
This was the ultimate insult for a man who came from a poor background and built his wealth through acting and entrepreneurial ventures. He’s leaving France, he said in a letter to Mr. Ayrault, “because you believe success, creation, talent, anything different, to be grounds for sanction.”
But 60 percent of his former countrymen support the supertax, drawing “on the republican ideal of taxation as an institution that would foster social cohesion,”writes Ms. Collins. Taxes on the rich are seen as a way to prevent income disparities.
“There’s a very egalitarian idea of what society should be, whatever hypocrisy it entails,” Christine Ockrent, a veteran journalist, told Collins. “It dates back to the French Revolution, which, by the way, was a very bourgeois revolution. The myth of equality is something which strangles any discussion about income.”
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Saudi Arabia’s decision this weekend to sentence two of the country’s most prominent human rights activists to 10 and 11 years in prison, respectively, has sparked a surge of discontent among the kingdom's reformers. In just one indication, an economist-blogger’s poll on Twitter drew 10,000 responses, 85 percent of them opposed to the decision.
While many activists appear undeterred, the sentencing of Mohammad al-Qahtani, together with that of Abdullah al-Hamid, cofounders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), represents a significant step backward in reform efforts.
The small opening for reform created by King Abdullah when he took over in 2005 has been gradually closing since the Arab Spring, says Prof. Gregory Gause, a scholar of Saudi Arabia at the University of Vermont.
"The last two years have seen a closing of what had been a very small opening of what had been acceptable discourse in Saudi Arabia," says Professor Gause, who chairs UVM's political science department. "I do think it’s a signal … it’s part of the post-Arab Spring Saudi crackdown."
RECOMMENDED: 10 voices for change in Saudi Arabia
On March 9, a judge sentenced Mr. Hamid to 11 years in prison and Mr. Qahtani to 10 years, and also ordered ACPRA to be shut down immediately and its property confiscated. Qahtani, one of 11 activists who established the organization in 2009, had served as head of the organization since 2011 and was recently ranked 47th on Foreign Policy’s 100 Top Global Thinkers list.
ACPRA lobbied hard against the moral and financial corruption of the government and particularly its treatment of political prisoners, whose numbers have been estimated by some to be as high as 30,000. Qahtani was particularly bold in questioning the legitimacy of the government, and even called for the Interior Minister, the crown prince, to be dismissed from his job.
He and Hamid were charged with “breaking allegiance to the ruler and his successor” and “trying to impede the country’s developments.” They have 30 days to launch an appeal.
Qahtani knew he was walking on thin ice, but when this reporter interviewed him in May 2012, he insisted the imperative for reform outweighed the threat of prison.
"I take it as a moral responsibility," said Qahtani at the time. "It's a very difficult time…. But believe me, we can weather it.
"Maybe in 10, 20 years we can look in the eyes of our kids and say, look, we tried," he added.
Hamid has also remained determined, even optimistic.
“To my brothers who are pessimist and pitiful about the ACPRA trial: If we get imprisoned, it’s a huge victory for the project and from prisons candles are lit,” tweeted Hamid the night before he was sentenced.
While Qahtani is well-known internationally, Hamid, who has been jailed previously, is perhaps better known in Saudi. But neither of them have the same level of influence as some Islamists in Saudi, and thus they don't pose a major threat to the government, says Gause.
"In both these cases, it’s interesting that the regime has chosen to make a symbol of these guys because they aren’t a big threat, they don’t have a huge following," he says. "The blowback is more international."
But some influential Islamists appear to be siding with the two sentenced dissidents. Salman al-Oudah, a salafi sheikh with more than 1 million followers on Twitter who has spent some time in jail himself, responded to the sentencing by tweeting that “imprisonments and sacrifices only ingrain ideas, draw people together,” according to a translation by prominent Saudi blogger Eman Al Nafjan (@Saudiwoman).
Islam and democracy
According to Global Voices, which has been running an in-depth report on the trial of Qahtani and Hamid, the judge said Saturday that Al Qaeda and ACPRA are “two sides of the same coin.” The report quoted a tweet from Mohammad al-Abdualkreem that gets to the ideological tension behind the case: “The judge concluded that the social contract theory is invalid and contradicts with the Muslim faith, and that coercive ruling, hereditary monarchy and appointment are fundamental to Islamic practice.”
But that view is increasingly being challenged. Sheikh al-Oudah, for example, has firmly stated that Islam and democracy are indeed compatible.
“To debate and consult the citizen in decisions and policies ... [and] elections, I think Islam gave us that sort of democracy – all caliphs were elected by their people,” he told a small group of journalists – including this reporter – with the International Reporting Project during an interview at his Jeddah home last year.
While loath to allow someone like Qahtani to continue his criticism unchecked, Saudi appears at least somewhat responsive to the changes afoot. For example, Qahtani and Hamid’s trials were supposed to be held in secret, but their lobbying resulted in a public trial. On Saturday, more than 130 supporters were in attendance, as well as major news outlets such as Al Jazeera, according to the Global Voices report.
To be sure though, Saudi Arabia remains one of the world's wealthiest and and most powerful monarchies – and it is still strongly backed by the United States, despite its poor human rights record. It is highly unlikely that it will come tumbling down as a result of this case or anything else in the next week, month, or even year.
"To me the big issue here is – can you get an issue where you get these more 'liberal' technocratic types and long-bearded people and Shia all together on something in Saudi area," says Gause. "The thing that brought down regimes in Tunisia and Egypt is that islamists, secularists, liberalists, and leftists could all get behind, 'We want this regime to fall,' and I don’t see that in Saudi."
RECOMMENDED: 10 voices for change in Saudi Arabia
Where's the beef?
The island that was long shy about eating American beef – nervous about cow bones ground up in hot dogs or imports bearing an agent that some suggested may cause human health problems – allows all of that in now. And this week it got what it wanted in return: talks on trade liberalization. Those talks resumed behind closed doors on Sunday and Monday in Taipei.
Why the change?
“I think the United States has more leverage and Taiwan doesn’t have much,” says Alex Chiang, professor of diplomacy at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “Eventually, it has to give into the US demand. We really need free trade agreements with other countries, especially as the US is one of the big trading partners.”
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There had been several bans on US beef imports to Taiwan over the years. Imports of US beef with bones were completely shut down, to the chagrin of the US in 2003. Then, partly because of changing science and partly because of the political muscle beef has for the US, bans have been lifted since 2010 little by little.
Within months after Taiwan agreed to let in the last critical batch of contested beef in 2012, that with the feed additive ractopamine, US officials agreed to resume talks that could get Taiwan into a regional trade liberalization pact and start negotiations for a two-way free-trade deal.
Those talks, dubbed Trade and Investment Framework Agreement negotiations, were shelved in 2007 as Washington started pointing to where the beef wasn’t.
The United States is Taiwan’s second-biggest export destination after China while Taiwan is the 11th-largest American trade partner. Taiwan had already imported about $128 million of US beef per year before the most recent ban was lifted this summer.
In mid-2012 an official with Washington’s de facto embassy in Taipei said resolving the beef bans represented Taiwan’s general willingness to seek freer trade with the United States.
“When determining with which markets to move forward, I think Washington wants to first eradicate as many unscientific trade barriers as possible before taking the next step,” says Sean King, senior vice president with the political consulting firm Park Strategies in New York.
US officials had said the once banned beef would not cause health problems in humans – for Washington, a matter of science.
The talks between Deputy US Trade Representative Demetrio Marantis and Taiwan’s Vice Economics Minister Cho Shih-chao won’t hand any deals to Taiwan this week. But eventually their closed-door talks could lead Taiwan toward a hard-to-get FTA and admission to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an 11-member free trade agreement being formulated with heavy US influence.
Taiwan is a latecomer because political rival and economic bull China asked other countries to avoid talks with the island until Beijing and Taipei signed their own trade pact in 2010.
South Korea signed a free trade agreement with the United States last year, and Japan is in discussion with the United States about joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Where else is the beef? In Japan and South Korea.
“I don't think the US requires trading partners to import US beef,” says Wai Ho Leong, regional economist with Barclays Capital in Singapore. “It however will demand fair treatment of its beef relative to other [meat] producers.”
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Here’s a riddle for you: When is the discovery of 2,813 dead and rotting pigs in a major city’s water source not a public health problem?
Answer: When the discovery is made in China.
The Shanghai water bureau, which oversees the water consumed in China’s largest city, was insisting on Monday that tap water derived from the Huangpu River met national standards despite the presence of the decomposing pigs.
All I can say is that I am glad I live in Beijing, not Shanghai.
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Truly disgusting photographs of bloated porcine carcasses on a riverbank have appeared in many Chinese papers and websites, drawing attention to what seems – believe it or not – to be a relatively common occurrence.
When pigs die of disease, farmers who cannot be bothered to bury the animals just toss them into the nearest river.
Local residents of one pig-rearing village upstream from Shanghai told the national broadcaster China Central Television on Sunday that disposing of dead pigs in the river was a common practice. “After the pigs died of illness, [they] just dumped them in the river … constantly. Every day,” one villager said.
“They are everywhere and they smell very bad,” the villager added.
Thousands of pigs in the Shanghai area have succumbed to epidemic disease in recent months, according to the Jiaxing Daily, a government-run paper in a hog-raising region southwest of Shanghai.
Last week the paper reported that more than 18,000 pigs had died since the beginning of the year in Zhulin, a village in the Jiaxing district. It was not immediately clear how many of them had been legally disposed of and how many had been thrown into the river.
But in a report last week, the paper quoted one pig farmer as saying that “when things are busy,” he and his fellow farmers do not bother to call the local veterinary services to take the corpses away and just “throw them away where we can.” In the summer, he added, the smell of rotting meat is sometimes so strong that villagers cannot open their windows.
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More worryingly, the paper said, many readers had called the editorial desk’s hotline to report pig carcasses abandoned by the roadside or in water channels that had mysteriously lost their hind legs overnight.
“What if they were cooked in a restaurant?” the newspaper article wondered.