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Muslim pilgrims cast seven stones at a pillar that symbolizes Satan during the annual haj pilgrimage, as part of a haj pilgrimage rite, on the first day of Eid al-Adha in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca October 26. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

The Eid holiday: What does it celebrate?

By Staff writer / 10.26.12

The Syrian cease-fire pegged to the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha has put the annual observance in the spotlight, bringing it to non-Muslims attention for reasons that have nothing to do with the holiday. But the “Feast of the Sacrifice” is one of the most important holidays on the Muslim calendar, actually trumping the better known festival holiday Eid al-Fitr in importance.

Eid al-Adha is celebrated at the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, or hajj, which each Muslim is supposed to undertake once in his or her life. It is welcomed at daybreak on the first day with a communal prayer and lasts three days.

The holiday commemorates the day when Abraham was commanded by Allah to sacrifice his son, Ishmael. Abraham’s willingness to obey led Allah to permit him to sacrifice a ram in his son’s stead. (In the Judeo-Christian recounting, it is Abraham’s other son, Isaac, who is almost sacrificed.)

Eid al-Adha is celebrated with the sacrifice of an animal, part of which is kept for the family for a feast, part of which is distributed to friends and the poor. It also includes the distribution of gifts and sweets, visits with family, and, for those not in Mecca for the hajj, visits to local mosques and relatives’ graves.  
Today, much like Christmas, Eid al-Adha is also often marked in commercial ways. Gulf News reports that Dubai shopping malls are holding 24-hour “shopping extravaganzas” in honor of the festival holiday.

Incompatible with modernity?

In this video interview with StandAloneMedia (scroll to bottom of page), Reza Aslan, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of California, Riverside, and author of "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam," shares his views on the misperceptions that abound about Muslims, modernity, and democracy.

Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica, Gulf News, the Oxford Dictionary of Islam

Russian prisoners rights activist Valery Borschev gestures during a news conference in Moscow on Wednesday. A respected group of Russian human rights activists has backed claims made by jailed opposition activist Leonid Razvozzhayev that he was tortured into confessing to plotting riots – the same week that Moscow released a report criticizing human rights in the US. (Ivan Sekretarev/AP)

Russian report criticizes US on human rights, US responds 'bring it on'

By Correspondent / 10.24.12

Russian officials claim they are tired of being criticized by the US government for Russia's alleged human rights abuses, democratic deficiencies, and systemic inadequacies, in many cases from a standpoint that's less than objective, often ignorant of cultural relativities, and sometimes downright hypocritical.

So, the Russian Foreign Ministry, at the behest of Russia's State Duma, has decided to give the United States a blast of its own medicine – and, its main author claims, hopefully spark a dialogue – by issuing a well-documented 50-page report on the state of civil rights, electoral democracy, and judicial independence, among other things, inside the US.

It's a professionally written report, based largely on the work of US nongovernment and academic sources, that covers a gamut of social problems that will mostly be familiar to any well-informed American. But the Russian purpose, argues its main author Konstantin Dolgov, is not necessarily to tell Americans anything new but to urge them to change their angle of view and learn to do without the harsh judgements that he sees lurking behind many official US pronouncements on Russia.

"Nobody likes to be hectored," Mr. Dolgov says. "We are a young democracy. We have our problems, but we also have serious achievement that we hope won't be overlooked."

Dolgov, the Foreign Ministry's special representative for human rights, insists it's not an attempt to copy the US State Department's annual reports on human rights around the world, but simply an effort to broaden the conversation by inviting Americans to see that they have plenty of problems in their own country, and should deal with them before lecturing to others.

"They criticize and judge everyone except themselves. We think the US should not try to monopolize the role of leader, teacher, and mentor in the field of human rights," Mr. Dolgov says. "If they want to do this, they should be aware that they are also being monitored."

Dolgov says Russia isn't judging the US, or denying that it's an established democratic state, just that Americans should be aware that they're living in a glass house.

"Nobody is rejecting the historic accomplishments of the US, but at the same time they should be aware that serious problems continue to exist, and some of them are growing," he says.

His preference would be for the US and Russia to discuss differences behind closed doors, in intergovernmental committees that already exist but have fallen into disuse, such as the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission.

As for human rights violations in Russia, that's not his department, he says. The Kremlin has a human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, who deals with domestic matters and produces annual reports of his own.

The idea of trying to induce Americans to look at their own country through the same kind of critical paradigm that their government and media subjects Russia to, was a standard – if spectacularly unsuccessful – method of the former Soviet propaganda machine. But under Vladimir Putin it's back in vogue, with Russians feeling this time that American perceptions of their country are truly unfair. The Kremlin spends vast amounts of money on Russia Today, or RT, an English-language satellite news network with studios in Washington, D.C., and an assertively alternative approach to news coverage of the US and the world.

The official US response to Dolgov's report, expressed by State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland Tuesday, was: Bring it on.

"[The US] is an open book, and we have plenty of nongovernmental organizations of our own that make assessments about our human rights and that represent to the government what they think needs to be done," Ms. Nuland said. "So from that perspective, whether it’s a US NGO watchdog or whether it’s an international watchdog, bring it on."

The Russian report details several different types of discrimination in the US (though, perhaps tellingly, it makes no mention of abuses against LGBT persons), as well as racial profiling, police brutality, Internet censorship, capital punishment, attempts to disenfranchise minorities, violence and abuse within the prison system, and rising right-wing extremism.

It slams the US for "extrajudicial" killings abroad in the drone war, by US forces in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, for CIA "renditions" and "black sites" in other countries, and for keeping suspects incarcerated "perpetually and without charges" at the Guantánamo Bay facility.

The US is also criticized for failing to sign and ratify a raft of international treaties and conventions on human rights; the report lists 17 such documents going back 80 years.

It also veers into Soviet-style criticisms that will sound contentious to many Americans. For example, it cites high unemployment, rising poverty, and growing social inequality in the same context as alleged government abuses. But economic unfairness is widely perceived in the US as a consequence of the free-market system and, however unpleasant, not akin to human or civil rights violations.

It's also all a bit rich coming from officials of a country whose own human rights record has been deteriorating rapidly in recent months, and which was just cited in Credit Suisse's prestigious annual Global Wealth Report as the country with the greatest wealth inequality in the entire world.

"It's understandable that every country wants to look good," says Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, a private Moscow-based political consultancy.

"But our authorities, surrounded by a sea of problems, are trying to shift the accent to other issues, preferably how bad the US is. To divert public attention from persistent evidence of electoral fraud in Russia, why not switch their attention to all the awful violations that occur during elections in the US?"

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney delivers a foreign policy speech at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., in early October. (Charles Dharapak/AP/File)

In debate, Romney reiterates Russia is 'geopolitical foe' of US

By Staff writer / 10.23.12

In last night's US presidential debate on foreign policy, Mitt Romney once again stated his belief that Russia was a "geopolitical foe" of the US, echoing similar comments he made in March of this year. 

When he has accused Russia of being a "geopolitical foe" in the past, Moscow reacted with confusion and irritation, but little expectation of a change in US-Russian relations.

Mr. Romney first called Russia "our No. 1 geopolitical foe" during the Republican primaries in March, soon after an open mic caught President Barack Obama asking Russia's then-President Dmitry Medvedev to dial back their objections to US missile defense plans until after the November elections, when "I'll have more flexibility." ( Continue… )

Activists and North Korean defectors living in South Korea prepare a balloon containing anti-Pyongyang leaflets in Ganghwa, about 37 miles west of Seoul on Oct. 22. (Courtesy of The Freedom North Korea Broadcast/Reuters)

South Korea fails to thwart activists from sending candy and socks to North Korea

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / 10.23.12

Activists in South Korea claimed victory today in their battle to launch tens of thousands of balloons carrying propaganda material to North Korea.

The activists, almost all defectors from North Korea, said they had to skirt South Korean policemen blocking them from their intended launch site and drive to a much less conspicuous site 20 miles south of the border village of Imjingak, the historical tourist area from which they had earlier planned to launch the balloons. 

The activists had chosen Imjingak, which includes a Buddhist shrine, a peace bell, and memorials to those who died in the Korean War, because it is a highly visible site where they could obtain maximum publicity. Local residents objected, however, after North Korea promised “merciless strikes” on the area, several miles south of the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.

The alternative site was on Ganghwa Island, at the mouth of the Han River about 30 miles northwest of Seoul. North Korea’s barren countryside is clearly visible on the other side.

The activists said they avoided policemen in their quest for a new launch site, but left the impression that authorities wanted to let them launch their balloons after having put on an appearance of frustrating their first plan. If the police had really wanted to stop them, one analyst noted anonymously, they would have followed them closely and set up new roadblocks.

There were no signs today of any North Korean effort to fire on the site from which balloons laden with about 120,000 leaflets on human rights abuses and dynastic rule under new leader Kim Jong-un were launched. The balloons, wafted northward on wind currents, also dropped off assorted other items – including dollar bills, candy bars, and socks.

Free North Korea Radio, one of several short-wave stations operated by activists that broadcasts from here into North Korea, carried several news stories announcing and then justifying the launch.

“We are keeping our promise to the public,” said a statement on the station’s website. “For the love of our brothers and sisters in North Korea, we cannot postpone this launch.” 

This file photo shows Lance Armstrong, center, waving from the podium in July 2002 as he holds the winner's trophy after the 20th and final stage of the Tour de France cycling race between Melun and Paris. Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned for life by cycling's governing body Monday. (Peter Dejong/AP/File)

For fans like me, Lance Armstrong doping saga spoils memories

By Staff Writer / 10.22.12

Thirteen years ago, on an idyllic summer’s afternoon, I stood by the side of a road in the cheesemaking region of Cantal and watched Lance Armstrong speed by, tucked into the peloton, on his way to his first victory in the Tour de France.

It was 1999. A year earlier the Tour had been in tatters, devastated by a doping scandal that had seen police and judges raiding riders’ hotel rooms in the middle of the night, seizing drugs. Armstrong’s successful arrival on the scene after overcoming cancer “is symbolic of the way the Tour de France is emerging from its own battle against disappearance,” said the tour director at the time.

His victory would be “highly symbolic of the combat he fought against death, and that we are fighting against doping,” promised Jean-Marie Leblanc. ( Continue… )

Jeremy Melul is a Stanford grad and creator of Jogabo, a social network for amateur soccer players. Here he hangs out at Start-Up Chile, a government sponsored program whose seed money was a major reason why Mr. Melul left France to grow his career. (Courtesy of Ignacio Espejo)

Good reads: a 'hidden' nuclear crisis, how China sees the US, and 'Chilecon Valley'

By Correspondent / 10.19.12

The world thought that the Cuban missile crisis ended in October 1962 when the United States lifted its quarantine around Cuba and the Soviet Union withdrew its medium-range missiles. However, “the secret crisis still simmered” through November, writes Svetlana Savranskaya in Foreign Policy . Unknown to American intelligence, the Soviets had also delivered almost 100 tactical weapons including 80 nuclear front cruise missiles, 12 nuclear warheads for dual-use Luna short-range rockets, and 6 nuclear bombs for IL-28 bombers.

“Even with the pullout of the strategic missiles, the tacticals would stay, and Soviet documentation reveals the intention of training the Cubans to use them,” writes Ms. Savranskaya, a senior fellow at the National Security Archive.

Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan was tasked with handling the delicate negotiations with Cuba and an angry Fidel Castro, who found out about the US-Soviet agreement on the radio. Savranskaya includes a transcript from the Nov. 22, 1962, meeting between Mr. Castro and Mr. Mikoyan in which Castro expresses his humiliation: “ ‘What do you think we are? A zero on the left, a dirty rag. We tried to help the Soviet Union to get out of a difficult situation.’ ( Continue… )

A traffic light displays the image of Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow February 2012. Mr. Putin said on Wednesday that he plans to drive into Moscow less and work from home more in an effort to help reduce the city's notoriously bad traffic. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

Vladimir Putin joins pajama workforce, decides to work from home

By Correspondent / 10.18.12

Russian President Vladimir Putin has finally decided to do something to help relieve Moscow's paralytic, bumper-to-bumper, round-the-clock, city-wide traffic congestion: He's going to drive less and work from home more often.

And that will, in fact, be a really big help, experts say.

"The president is minimizing his meetings in the Kremlin and is preferring to hold them in [his official residence] Novo Ogaryovo to avoid disturbing Muscovites," Mr. Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov told the independent Interfax news agency Wednesday. ( Continue… )

Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard (l.) shakes hands with India's ruling Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi before their meeting in New Delhi October 17. Gillard is on a three-day state visit to India. (B Mathur/Reuters)

Australia marches ahead with India ties - despite a few trip ups

By Aarti BetigeriCorrespondent / 10.17.12

When it comes to bilateral relations, there are a few surefire ways that countries can chalk up some merit points. Australia, dogged by years of mediocre relations with India, a country it desperately craves a deeper relationship with, has put its big guns forward in trying to cement ties.

This week, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has been visiting the Indian capital New Delhi, in what has been billed as her most important foreign visit of the year, and she has used it to make a solid pitch to win over Indian hearts and minds.

Australia's reputation in India was tarnished in 2009 after a spate of violent attacks on Indians studying there left one man dead. Australian officials spent months in damage control, and hope this visit will draw a line under those events.

Ms. Gillard's first step was to announce yesterday that Australia would award its highest civilian honor, the Order of Australia, to India's veteran star cricketer, Sachin Tendulkar. Cricket is played in both countries and is followed with religious fervor in the subcontinent, making Tendulkar one of India’s most popular figures. The decision was questioned at home in Canberra, however it is not the first time Australia has granted the honor to a foreign cricketer.

Next, she launched Oz Fest (www.ozfestindia.com), a $3 million, four-month-long cultural festival that will take Australian artists, musicians, comedians, sportspeople, writers, and more to 18 towns and cities across India, to help convey the notion that Australia is about more than kangaroos and beaches.

Earlier today, Gillard met with her Indian counterpart Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Their talks included the most talked about aspect of the burgeoning relationship: cooperation on a deal for Australia to sell its uranium to India. Australia has an estimated 23 percent of the world's known uranium reserves, and late last year overturned its long-standing refusal to engage with Delhi, a nonsignatory to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty.

The move altered the tenor of the relationship significantly. India has long wanted Australian uranium to power its nuclear ambitions, as it has decided that nuclear is the best way forward to redress its yawning energy deficiency. In 2008 India signed a deal with the US to buy its nuclear technology; a reliable supply of uranium would complete the chain.

The two countries are also working on a free trade agreement, and they are both pitching hard to attract more trade and investment between them. Currently, bilateral trade stands at around $20 billion, and Gillard wants to double that. Australia is rich in natural resources such as LPG and coal, and the country's education and technology industries are also of great interest to the Indians.

The Australian leader also announced a desire for greater military cooperation for the Indian Ocean, which lies between the two countries.

It all points to India's growing importance on the world stage. Australia, a middling power that recently elevated to the world's 12th largest economy, in the past focused primarily on China, but is now looking to diversify with another strong regional relationship. Now, it ranks a relationship with New Delhi as one of its top bilateral priorities, and good economic ties as vital to its future prosperity.

The trip could not have come at a better time for Gillard, who is riding a crest of newfound global popularity as a feminist icon, after making a speech in parliament in which she delivered a stinging smackdown to Australia’s opposition leader Tony Abbott in parliament last week. The video of the speech, in which she brands him as sexist and a misogynist, went viral around the world, prompting the Macquarie Dictionary to update their definition of the word ‘misogyny’, and had even The New Yorker hailing her bravura. The video was played on Indian news channels, helping to raise her profile ahead of her trip.

But just in case Gillard was feeling a bit too superhuman, fate stepped in during today’s visit to the Gandhi Memorial and tripped her up. Spectacularly. 

This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Bryan Cranston (l.) as Jack O’Donnell and Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in 'Argo,' a rescue thriller about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. (Claire Folger/Warner Bros./AP)

Iran sees conspiracy in box office success of Ben Affleck's 'Argo' (+video)

By Roshanak TaghaviCorrespondent / 10.17.12

American moviegoers flocked to theaters this weekend to see Ben Affleck's long-anticipated thriller Argo, which has been generating headlines since it was first screened at the Toronto Film Festival last month. 

Based on a true story about how the CIA smuggled six American diplomats out of Iran after the 1979 takeover of the US Embassy, the film opened on Oct. 12 and came in at No. 2 in box office sales over the weekend, after "Taken 2" (an action film starring Liam Neeson). By Oct. 15, Argo held the top spot. 

But inside Iran, where the decision by a group of Iranian students to storm the US Embassy and hold Americans hostage for 444 days is still controversial and vibrantly debated, the press has paid Argo scant attention. The few comments the film has received are generally negative – Iran's state-run IRNA news agency called Argo "Hollywood’s latest failed attempt to confront the Islamic Revolution" – and replete with complaints that the movie portrays all Iranians as stereotypically aggressive and unrefined and fails to give viewers enough historical context. (Pirated copies of American films typically become available in Iran a few months before the films open in the US, and are easily accessed by the public.)

Argo makes the people of Iran look like they have no self-determination, and indisputably support violence,” writes Meysam Karimi in a lengthy review for the popular Iran-based film magazine website, Moviemag.  “For me, as an Iranian … this makes [the storyline behind] Argo much less believable.”

Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency labels Argo “anti-Iranian" and painted the film as a flop. Citing unidentified "news agencies," it asserted that Argo only managed to reach second place in the US and Canada because the filmmakers artificially boosted sales by purchasing tickets “en masse” and giving them away for free to random people.  

Argo “was unable to become a box office hit in spite of considerable advertisement," Fars wrote. “The filmmakers tried very hard and used a variety of methods to increase ticket sales, but they were unsuccessful. … Even though ‘Taken 2’ was in its second week, Argo still couldn’t beat it to first place in the box office … due to a lack of interest among its own [North American] audience.”

Moviemag, the privately owned online film magazine, is more sober in its assessment of the film, acknowledging Ben Affleck’s strong directorial skill and the film’s attention-grabbing story line and giving the film a four out of five star rating.

"If I were to set aside issues [with how Iran is portrayed], I must admit that Argo is one of this year’s best movies, and expect it to be awarded an Oscar for Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Alan Arkin’s role," he writes. 

“Without a doubt, a non-Iranian viewer will highly enjoy seeing Argo because the story is strong and keeps the viewer’s attention through to the end,” he adds. “But for an Iranian who counts this subject as part of our country’s history, the view may be a bit different.”

Almost all coverage of Argo also noted that the film’s Toronto Film Festival debut, Sept. 7, is the same day Canada closed its embassy this year in Tehran and announced the expulsion of Iran’s diplomats from Ottawa.    

“Perhaps it was a coincidence,” writes Mr. Karimi for Moviemag. “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.”

Follow Roshanak Taghavi on Twitter at @RoshanakT.

(This article was updated after first posting to correct the spelling of the capital of Canada.)

Computer expert Gary McKinnon poses after arriving at the High Court in London in this January 2009 file photo. (Andrew Winning/Reuters/File)

Britain nixes extradition of NASA hacker Gary McKinnon to US

By Staff writer / 10.16.12

The British government today announced that Gary McKinnon, a British hacker with a condition that has been diagnosed as Asperger's syndrome, will not be extradited to the United States. But while the decision is nominally about his human rights, it may also be a byproduct of a longstanding debate over the US-Britain extradition treaty, which British critics say is weighted too much in favor of US interests.

British Home Secretary Theresa May today told the House of Commons that she had withdrawn the extradition order against Mr. McKinnon after determining that extraditing him would violate his human rights, BBC News reports.

Mr McKinnon is accused of serious crimes. But there is also no doubt that he is seriously ill. He has Asperger's syndrome, and suffers from depressive illness. The legal question before me is now whether the extent of that illness is sufficient to preclude extradition.

After careful consideration of all of the relevant material, I have concluded that Mr McKinnon's extradition would give rise to such a high risk of him ending his life that a decision to extradite would be incompatible with Mr McKinnon's human rights.

Ms. May said that it would now be up to the director of public prosecutions to determine whether McKinnon would face charges in Britain.

McKinnon is accused of breaking into nearly 100 NASA and US military computers between 2001 and 2002, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage, and is charged in Virginia and New Jersey on eight counts of computer fraud. Lawyers for McKinnon said that he was merely looking for evidence of UFOs and did not have any criminal intent. The Daily Telegraph reported in 2009 that McKinnon's supporters say he is being made a scapegoat for US failures to secure its computers, which McKinnon has called "ridiculously easy" to hack.

US lawyer David Rivkin, an adviser to the Reagan and Bush administrations, told the BBC that the decision to deny extradition for McKinnon on health grounds was "laughable" and that "under that logic, anybody who claims some kind of physical or mental problem can commit crimes with impunity and get away with it." British solicitor Edward Fitzgerald told The Guardian that he felt McKinnon's case turned on his alleged high suicide risk.

While May said in her statement that the "sole issue" before her was McKinnon's human rights, her decision not to extradite McKinnon comes amid public debate in Britain over the country's extradition responsibilities, particularly those in its treaty with the US.

Critics say that the US-Britain treaty, enacted in 2003, favors US interests over British ones. The Guardian's Owen Bowcott points out that between January 2004 and October 2012, 92 people have been extradited from Britain to the US, while only 43 have made the opposite trip. He also notes, however, that between January 2004 and December 2011, Britain made 57 requests for extradition and 40 extraditions took place, while the US made 134 requests during that same period, and only 75 extraditions occurred.

In announcing her decision on McKinnon, May called the US-Britain treaty "broadly sound," reports The Guardian.  But May added that she would introduce a new "forum bar" to the extradition process, which would allow a court to deny extradition if it deemed a British trial more fair to the accused than a trial overseas, reports The Guardian. May also said that she planned to end the home secretary's ability to deny extradition on human rights grounds – the very grounds she used to bar McKinnon's extradition – arguing that such discretion would be better placed in the courts than in the government's hands. 

May's proposed reforms to the US extradition process are just part of a broader overhaul by the British government to its approach to international justice. The Washington Post reports that May also announced that Britain would be opting out of more than 100 criminal justice measures with the European Union and reinstating selected measures. The Post writes that the move "appeared aimed at satisfying Conservative lawmakers who have grown increasingly skeptical of the E.U.’s reach in British affairs."

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