2018
September
25
Tuesday

When Italy went to the polls almost eight months ago, the issue that shaped most voters’ decisions was immigration: specifically, the belief that Italy had too much of it. And the populist government that those voters put in place promised to do something about it.

On Monday, Italy’s ruling coalition took a major step toward realizing that goal. It put forward a security decree that would make it more difficult for asylum seekers and migrants seeking humanitarian protection to stay in Italy. It would also allow the deportation of “socially dangerous” migrants, and the stripping of citizenship from citizens convicted of “terrorism.”

“This is a step forward to make Italy safer,” said Interior Minister and far-right League party leader Matteo Salvini.

But could the consequences make Italian immigration more troubled? Members of the center-left Democratic Party and immigration activists say the proposals are only going to drive asylum seekers and those seeking humanitarian refuge underground. That could result in an increase in the amount of illegal immigration.

The head of Italy's bishops' conference, Nunzio Galantino, also weighed in, questioning the government’s decision to put the immigration restrictions into a security bill.

“This means that the immigrant is already judged because of his condition and that he's already considered a public menace, whatever his behavior,” Father Galantino said. “This is a bad sign.”

Now to our five stories for Tuesday.

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1. How one Iowa town made peace with the Mississippi River

River communities often struggle to keep surging floodwaters from destroying property. In Davenport, Iowa, however, residents have instead learned to live with the ebbs and flows of the Mississippi.

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Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Modern Woodmen Park stands along the Mississippi River. During flood events, the baseball stadium can become its own island.

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Life on the Mississippi River can be a mixed blessing. The river has been a vital resource for industry since the first Americans settled along its banks. But the Mississippi has also been a source of anguish, as its waters have repeatedly infiltrated waterfront communities. After the famous flood of 1965 inundated the Upper Mississippi River basin causing $160 million (nearly $1.3 trillion in 2018 dollars) in damages, cities along the river began walling up their communities with the help of federal funds. But Davenport, Iowa, has taken a decidedly different tack. Eschewing levies and flood walls entirely, city planners have designed downtown Davenport to be floodable, lining the city’s nine miles of riverfront with parks, bike trails, and parking lots. As a result, the residents of Davenport have learned to live with the river rather than fighting to control it. “Working with Mother Nature is better than working against Mother Nature,” says former Davenport mayor, Bill Gluba. “At least it has worked for us.”

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How one Iowa town made peace with the Mississippi River

The Fourth of July is an important day for the Quad Cities River Bandits. Thousands of fans flock to Modern Woodmen Park in Davenport, Iowa, to cheer on the home team and watch fireworks.

But the big summer game was a bit different in 2014, says Andrew Chesser, the Bandits’ general manager, when the baseball stadium was transformed into an island in the middle of the Mississippi River. Fans had to ford the floodwaters on a portable bridge to reach the stadium.

“The ballpark was totally surrounded,” says Mr. Chesser. “But it doesn’t inhibit us from operating whatsoever.... It’s just become part of life here.”

Davenport is the only major city on the upper Mississippi River, between the headwaters in Bemidji, Minn., and St. Louis, without levees or a flood wall to hold back the river. Instead of building a barrier between the river and nearby homes and businesses, Davenport designed its downtown to be floodable, lining the city’s nine miles of riverfront with parks, bike trails, parking lots, and a very wet baseball stadium.

As cities around the United States – and the world – deal with more frequent and more powerful flooding as a result of climate change, the town of Davenport offers an adaptive approach to flood plain management. Rather than fighting to control the river, the residents of Davenport have learned to live with it.

“Some of the traditional ways of fortifying rivers – hardened shorelines and engineering solutions – have tons of repercussions that we don’t always take into account,” says Samuel Muñoz, an assistant professor of environmental sciences and engineering at Northeastern University in Boston.

“[Davenport] is an example of one city taking an alternative approach,” says Professor Muñoz. “If more cities and communities along the Mississippi, and other rivers, took alternative approaches it could have a big effect on aggregate.”

SOURCE: Scott County, Iowa; FEMA
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Local leadership says this approach has come with some economic benefits: tourists are attracted to the city’s views and building a wall would be expensive, potentially costing more than current flood clean-ups. And many Davenport residents say it’s important to accept flooding as a part of the city’s history and a way of life along the river.

“When the river comes up, and that happens every year now, we let it take its own course. There is nothing really in there that could be damaged,” says former Davenport mayor, Bill Gluba. “Working with Mother Nature is better than working against Mother Nature.... At least it has worked for us.”

Going with the flow

After the famous flood of 1965 inundated the Upper Mississippi River basin causing $160 million (nearly $1.3 billion in 2018 dollars) in damages, cities along the river began walling up their communities with the help of federal funds. Local Davenport resident Mary Ellen Chamberlin worried that her town could be next.

So Ms. Chamberlin took a week of vacation to drive up and down the Mississippi to inspect the new metal barricades and grass-covered levees sprouting up between communities and the river. She became “repulsed” by the idea of a permanent barrier in Davenport. She would no longer be able to walk along the river, or put her feet in its cool, milk chocolate-colored waters.

“I was born five blocks from the river,” says Chamberlin. “It bothered me that I wouldn’t see it anymore. So I made it my own effort.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Mary Ellen Chamberlain led the original push to keep Davenport levee-free after the flood of 1965, taking her case all the way to then-President Jimmy Carter.

Chamberlin, who was working as a congressional aide at the time, took the issue to her local politicians and, eventually, to then-President Jimmy Carter, who eliminated funding for a wall in Davenport at her request. Since then, a long line of mayors dedicated to preserving the riverfront have assumed that mantle.

“The river is always an issue during the election process,” says Davenport Mayor Frank Klipsch, who was elected in 2016. “Well before my term in office, the community embraced the river. It’s an important part of our identity.”

Locals are occasionally frustrated with Davenport’s approach, but Mr. Gluba, Chamberlin, and Mayor Klipsch can’t think of one Davenport resident who is vocal about wanting a wall. As the Bandit’s Mr. Chesser puts it, living with floods is now a part of Davenport’s nature.

“Davenport still has the pressure, especially after a big flood, but the politicians have had the backbone over the years to resist that drumbeat,” says Nicholas Pinter, associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.

Davenport’s approach has drawn the attention of other cities in the United States and abroad. As co-chair of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, Klipsch was asked to speak at a United Nations conference on water in Bonn, Germany.

For communities that have already invested in levees and flood walls, however, Davenport’s lead may be difficult to follow. Taking down that infrastructure is costly, and many cities have established buildings that would be flooded without that protection.

“The more likely scenario is that the few remaining places without a levee may be more likely to resist pressure [to build one],” says Dr. Pinter, as cities would likely appreciate alternatives. “If you’ve been to Hannibal, the flood walls and levees really alter the connection to the river.”

A tale of two cities

More than 160 miles south, Hannibal, Mo., is only one-fifth the size of Davenport. But Hannibal, the birthplace of Mark Twain, shares a similar small, river-town feel.

But there is a big difference between the two cities. In Hannibal, 34-foot-high levees stand between the town and the river, like an inverted medieval moat. By the time it reaches Hannibal, the Mississippi is running fast and more than half a mile wide, but locals strolling down the city’s main street can’t see the river.

Not only do levees visually block the river, but they also make flooding worse. When the river swells, either from heavy rain or snowmelt, the river naturally wants to expand wider across flood plains. Instead, levees constrict the water to a narrow passage, making the water rise higher and move faster as it flows downstream.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

That effect has stoked animosity between communities and led to so-called levee wars, in which one community will illegally increase levee heights  so the water crests over another town’s smaller levee. Hannibal has been in its own levee war with the Sny Island Levee Drainage District across the river in Illinois, which has built up its levees to an unauthorized height.

“We can’t just continue to wall the river with levees and think that’s going to solve a problem,” says Mark Harvey, standing in front of the grassy walls of the levee in Hannibal. Mr. Harvey is chair of Neighbors of the Mississippi River, a group that campaigns for equitable flood mitigation to prevent levee war losers.

“You might solve your problem short term, but long term you could create a negative impact for generations to come,” says Harvey, adding that he appreciates Davenport’s respect for its neighbors. “If the residents believe that’s fair and equitable to them, that’s an admirable decision.”

But Davenport’s approach requires more work, say municipal employees. When the river crest reaches 13 to 15 feet, which happens two to four times a year, Davenport Public Works closes the roads closest to the water and sets up water pumps. And when the river crests above 17 feet, temporary barriers are deployed throughout town.

“It’s a lot of last minute response, a lot of overtime. It’s exhausting for our crews,” says Public Works director Nicole Gleason. A few years ago, for example, Davenport had a flood that took weeks to recede, and then shortly after employees took down all of the portable barriers and pumps, the area flooded again.

“And then we get criticized for not doing other work like road work,” says Ms. Gleason. “When we have a flood, we delay other critical services. We press a pause button on everything that’s scheduled.”

But even if Public Works is slow to repair a road, the Davenport community realizes what it has gained with the public green space. Residents enjoy frequent citywide events, from festivals and concerts on the waterfront to an annual Father’s Day bike ride.

For residents like Chesser, the number of beautiful days at the river’s edge more than make up for the days when flooding spreads into the city. “I can’t complain if five days a year Mother Nature decides to throw us a curveball,” he says.

This story was made possible in part by a fellowship with the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.

SOURCE: FEMA; Scott County, Iowa
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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2. As would-be voters, college students find they’re courted, thwarted

Many students are too busy to care much about politics, but those who tune in can make the difference in a tight race – so battles are heating up over whether certain voting rules create unfair barriers.

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Scott Bauer/AP
NextGen America campus organizer Simone Williams (l.) speaks with Grace Austin, a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, about how to register to vote. NextGen used therapy dogs to attract students and register them to vote.

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At the University of Southern Maine’s Husky Fest activities fair, as a DJ churns out tunes on the lawn, a steady stream of students stop by two tables where activists are encouraging them to register to vote. All it takes: filling out a card. Young people are expected to have a strong impact on this fall’s elections in Maine, which has had one of the nation’s highest rates of youth turnout in recent years. But in neighboring New Hampshire a debate is raging over how student voters define “home.” A law poised to take effect next summer will require anyone claiming their college address as their residence for the purpose of voting to transfer their driver’s license and re-register their vehicle. In battles over voter ID laws, Republicans typically emphasize concerns about fraud, while Democrats tend to focus on the impact tighter rules have on minorities. Increasingly, however, youth voters are joining the list of those who feel targeted. A lot of young people “don’t even know how to start voting,” so seemingly small barriers can add up to lower turnout, says Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of CIRCLE, a civic-engagement research center at Tufts University.

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As would-be voters, college students find they’re courted, thwarted

Dashing out of the rain to grab an iced coffee at the University of New Hampshire, new student Mariah Gonzalez says she plans to vote in the upcoming midterm elections because “it’s going to make a difference.”

The 18-year-old even registered already, by filling out a form in a high school class.

There’s just one hitch. That was in New York State – but Ms. Gonzalez wants to vote in New Hampshire, since being on the basketball team will keep her here pretty much year-round. 

In coming weeks, plenty of advocacy groups will be on campus in Durham helping students like her figure out how to vote locally. This is a swing state, after all, and the case can be made to college students like Gonzalez that their vote might be more significant here than in their home state.

Democrats, in particular, tend to benefit when more young people vote. But many are worried that rumors about two new Republican-backed laws related to proof of residency in New Hampshire – one partially on hold during a court case and another poised to take effect next year – might make students just confused enough to skip the whole process. 

“A lot of students we talk to actually think they can’t vote [here] in this coming election,” says Brian Rogers, a 2015 graduate of Keene State and now a New Hampshire campus organizer with NextGen America, which promotes progressive causes.

Since the birth of American democracy, arguments about who is allowed to vote – and how many hoops they should jump through – have constantly played out in legislatures, courthouses, and polling stations. In the battles over voter ID laws in recent years, Republicans have emphasized concerns about voter fraud, while Democrats have focused on the negative impact tighter rules tend to have on minority or low-income voters. Increasingly, youth voters are joining the list of those who feel targeted.

A lot of young people “don’t even know how to start voting,” so seemingly small barriers can add up to lower turnout, says Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of CIRCLE, a civic-engagement research center at Tufts University. If they don’t have the right ID or paperwork, “being challenged by someone 50 years older when they show up at the poll can be a really negative experience.”

Young people do appear to be registering in larger numbers this cycle – thanks in part to the Parkland student activists and some prominent primary races – but there’s still a big question as to whether their presence at the polls in November will be a trickle or a tidal wave.

Even so, it’s likely to be a stronger current than in the 2014 midterms, which saw the lowest rates of 18- to 29-year-olds registering (46.7 percent) and voting (19.9 percent) in 40 years of tracking.

SOURCE: CIRCLE analysis of Edison Research Exit Polls, 1992-2016; CIRCLE analysis of the 2016 Survey of the Performance of American Elections (SPAE)
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Karen Norris/Staff

Motivating people to vote can require pushing past apathy or disillusionment. “A lot of people ‘do something’ about the issues by complaining,” says Shaman Kirkland, a politically active junior at the University of Southern Maine (USM) in Portland. “[That] negativity makes it hard for the people that are trying to get something done.” 

Of course, until the early 1970s, citizens under 21 weren’t allowed to vote in many states. And some of the disengagement among young people comes simply from the hectic transition to adulthood.

“I haven’t had time to watch the news,” says Shayne Downey an equine student at the University of New Hampshire who recently arrived from Massachusetts and has such a packed schedule that she can’t change out of her riding boots before her next class. “My grandmother’s already pushing me to do it, so I’m going to try to get back home and register.”

 

Stacy Teicher Khadaroo/The Christian Science Monitor
University of Southern Maine students fill in voter registration cards at the Husky Fest activities fair in Portland, Sept. 6.

But specific policies can make it harder or easier for young people to vote.

Six out of 15 strict voter ID states do not accept college IDs: Arizona, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas, according to the Fair Elections Center’s Campus Vote Project.

In Michigan, an in-person appearance in their hometown – either when registering or voting – is required for first-time voters. That often catches students off guard who register by mail and then move away for college. Michigan college Democrats filed a federal lawsuit in August.

It’s easier in states that offer online voting, simple absentee-ballot rules, or automatic registration such as a check box to register when applying for a driver’s license.

High turnout in Maine

Maine allows mail-in and same-day registration. It’s also one of 16 states that lets younger teens pre-register so they are automatically registered when they turn 18.

At USM’s Husky Fest activities fair in early September, all it took for students to register was a few minutes filling in a green card at one of two tables run by liberal advocacy groups. In the first hour, as a live DJ churned out tunes on the lawn, more than a dozen students either registered for the first time or changed their address.

In 2014, Maine had one of the highest rates of youth voter turnout in the nation: 32 percent. This year, it’s among the top 10 states where young people are expected to have a strong impact – including on a competitive governor’s race, CIRCLE reports

But even here, apparent attempts to suppress the student vote have occurred. Shortly before the 2016 presidential election, fliers circulated on several Maine campuses telling students that if they voted locally they would have to pay to re-register their cars, or that it might jeopardize financial aid.

Maddy Smith, who’s staffing the table of Maine Student Action, is taking a year off from Bates College in Lewiston to do political advocacy and encourage students’ involvement.

She hails from Illinois, but Maine “is somewhere where I could see myself staying, and it’s the place where my rights and my ability to move through the world will be most affected,” Ms. Smith says.

In New Hampshire: defining 'home'

Next door in New Hampshire, the debate about new residency requirements is largely driven by partisan politics, but it has surfaced another sort of divide – in how people define “home.”

For this election cycle, students and other mobile people like military personnel can claim their New Hampshire address as their “domicile” for voting purposes without transferring their driver’s license or registering vehicles.

But HB1264, which takes effect next summer, will require all who vote to fulfill those residency requirements. Another law, known as SB3, is embroiled in a court battle because of legal penalties it sets up for voters who fail to document residency properly.

“Someone that … has no roots here, has no intention of staying here, should not be deciding [on] the elected officials that represent that community,” says New Hampshire State Rep. Sherman Packard (R), the primary sponsor of HB1264. “All they have to do is get an absentee ballot from their state. Nobody’s denying them the right to vote.”

Opponents of the recent laws say that attitude is counterproductive in a state with an aging population.

For students and young workers, “home is where they currently are … [but it] could end up being the place where they spend the rest of their lives,” says Liz Wester, New Hampshire director of America Votes, a progressive network. “If the state is not allowing students … to participate in electing their officials, then it’s going to be harder for New Hampshire to keep those students.”

College-town turnout in New Hampshire’s Sept. 11 primary suggests that the fight over these laws may have galvanized more local participation. Statewide turnout was up 38 percent over turnout in 2014, but in college towns, it was up 60 to 130 percent, NextGen reports.

Campuses aim to increase engagement

Wherever students want to vote, just raising their civic engagement is a goal for a growing number of college campuses.

Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., has become a model by training peer counselors to greet every incoming student with information about voting locally or in their hometown – often helping them register on the spot. Nearly half of new students last year were registered when they arrived, but after the welcome sessions, that figure rose to 96 percent. A whopping sixty-four percent of Northwestern students voted in 2016.

Maya Patel, a student at the University of Texas at Austin, works with student groups to train voluntary registrars. “It’s a hustle,” she says, to help peers who want to vote in Texas meet an Oct. 9 registration deadline.

As one of nearly 800 campuses participating in the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, UT Austin saw its voting rate climb to 56.5 percent in 2016, from 41.7 percent in 2012. They now hope to raise their midterm voting rate to 30 percent, from 18 percent in 2014.

Ms. Patel has been motivated by watching her immigrant parents become citizens. “Seeing [my dad] be able to vote for the first time was really powerful to me,” she says. “I just believe that democracy only functions when everyone can have their vote and have their say.”

Her next project: helping to write a bill that would require polling places on the state’s large university campuses.

SOURCE: CIRCLE analysis of Edison Research Exit Polls, 1992-2016; CIRCLE analysis of the 2016 Survey of the Performance of American Elections (SPAE)
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Karen Norris/Staff
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3. In a first for Russia, Moscow agrees with locals that their election was rigged

Westerners often assume that Russian politics is wholly corrupt. But the response to blatant ballot stuffing in Russia’s Far East shows limits to what Russia will tolerate – and such fraud may be on its way out.

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It’s the first time in post-Soviet history that a local election has been overturned: In the far eastern province of Primorye, the Central Electoral Commission in Moscow last week declared the gubernatorial election flawed and the results annulled. Few uncritically accept that Russia under President Vladimir Putin is a normal, law-governed democracy. But critics are in two camps: those who insist that it’s a puppet show delivering preordained results; and those who argue that it at least creates spaces for opponents. Some reform has been under way since tens of thousands of Russians in 2011 protested widespread parliamentary election fraud, which was exposed by the use of cellphones and social media. But Primorye might be a warning of turbulence to come. This summer saw huge protests over plans to raise retirement ages, discontent that has expanded to a host of other popular grievances: corruption, rising taxes, unaccountable bureaucrats, and inadequate access to public services. “Public opinion surveys show that support for the authorities has declined substantially in recent months, even for Putin,” says Sergei Davidis, a human rights lawyer. “The whole system is under stress.”

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In a first for Russia, Moscow agrees with locals that their election was rigged

It is fairly common to hear public complaints that fraud is boosting pro-Kremlin candidates in Russian elections. But it is exceedingly rare to see Moscow authorities lend solid support to such complaints.

That’s just what occurred in the far eastern province of Primorsky Krai, or Primorye, last week, after a “miraculous” last-minute voting surge in favor of the Kremlin-backed incumbent governor, Andrei Tarasenko, handed him a narrow victory over his Communist opponent, Andrei Ishchenko.

The Communists, who say this sort of thing happens to them all the time in distant regions, took their usual course of staging some street protests and filing a lawsuit in the local court. Even they were surprised when the Central Electoral Commission in Moscow declared that the election was marred by violations and the results must be annulled. It’s the first time in post-Soviet history that a local election has been overturned.

There will be no earthquake if, when the election is replayed in three months as the law requires, the governorship of the relatively quiet Pacific coast territory should pass from the ruling party, United Russia, to the loyal opposition Communist Party.

“It’s definitely a positive sign. I think Putin understands that Russia needs more political competition.” says Dmitry Babich, a columnist with the state-run Sputnik news agency. “Getting rid of the most obvious violations, like what happened in Primorye, is a necessary first step.”

Few people uncritically accept the official Kremlin assertion that Russia under Mr. Putin is a perfectly normal, law-governed democracy. But critics divide between two camps: those who insist that it’s a stage-managed puppet show designed to deliver preordained results; and those who argue that it at least creates spaces for opponents to have their public say, and might even evolve into a better, more representative system in time.

The unexpected cancellation of the Primorye election result seems likely to rekindle that debate.

For his part, Vladimir Putin is insisting that local authorities need to clean up their reputation for shameless meddling in elections.  Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last week that “the president has stated many times: For him, legitimacy, purity, transparency, and fairness of the election is more important than the candidate whom he backs. Putin has been saying this for long and consistently, this is his principled stance and this is an absolute priority for the president.”

A certain amount of reform has been underway since tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets in 2011 to protest against widespread fraud in parliamentary elections, which was exposed by citizens using new technologies like cellphones to record violations and post them on social media.

Since then, cameras have been installed in all polling stations, and measures have been taken to improve voting transparency. Experts say that has reduced the incidence of some once-common types of fraud, such as ballot-stuffing, carousel voting, and direct intimidation. Local authorities still have leeway to change vote tallies as they are being reported, but that technique appears to have failed spectacularly in Primorye.

The electoral system has been tweaked to lower the threshold for parties to enter parliament, expand the number of official positions subject to popular election, and make it easier to start a party. But the system is still tightly managed from above, and unwanted candidates may be simply excluded from the ballot.

The upset in Primorye might well be a warning of turbulence to come. This summer saw a huge protest movement over plans to raise retirement ages for men and women, discontent which has expanded to a host of other popular grievances: corruption, rising taxes, unaccountable bureaucrats, and inadequate access to public services.

“Public opinion surveys show that support for the authorities has declined substantially in recent months, even for Putin,” says Sergei Davidis, a human rights lawyer and opposition activist. “The whole system is under stress, and that is why we saw the clumsy actions of the authorities in Primorye, which forced the election result to be cancelled.”

Grigory Melkanyants, co-chair of Golos, Russia’s largest grassroots election monitor, says the Kremlin has sent out strict instructions to local authorities to avoid obvious election manipulations, and the decision to overturn the troubled Primorye vote should be taken as a signal that they are serious about that.

“In future, organizers of elections will fear” having the result cancelled as has happened in the Primorye case, he says. “But there are other ways to influence the course of elections, and in many places the authorities have already adopted more subtle methods of control.”

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4. Renewed mosque reclaims traditional role – now, with solar panels

In science, research accidents can lead to breakthroughs. And in the life of a mosque in northern Jordan, a setback in a small renovation project led to no less than a reinventing of its place in society.

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When Ahmed Zoubi, imam of Al Arab Mosque in Zarqa, Jordan, first took a sledgehammer to the nearly century-old edifice, he did not set out to redefine the mosque-community relationship for the 21st century. He was simply looking for ways for the mosque to “go green.” It soon became apparent that the often-expanded mosque was filled with crumbling construction materials, and what began as an attempt to add solar panels turned into a major renovation. Today the mosque has those panels, along with classrooms, prayer halls, a computer lab, medical clinics, and a pharmacy. Most mosques in the Arab world, in contrast to the multifunction Islamic centers in the West and in Southeast Asia, are strictly for one use only: prayer. “But in the early days of Islam and the time of the prophet it wasn’t like that,” says Imam Zoubi. “The mosque was a center for community, a center for life.” On the mosque’s top floor is Zoubi’s design: a rooftop prayer room. “Here, people can breathe and relax, look at the views, bring their children, and feel a sense of space and nature,” Zoubi says. “And, hopefully, peace within themselves.”

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Renewed mosque reclaims traditional role – now, with solar panels

The teacher writes the equation on the whiteboard in a blue-tip marker, a simple proof in preparation for final exams.

Some two dozen young men in the classroom scribble furiously on their notepads. In a half-hour, they will be taking their science course.

Downstairs, a woman is getting a dental exam, and the final touches are being put on a doctor’s clinic and a minor surgery room. Across the way, a group of women are taking a life-skills course. Up on the fifth floor, several men in their sixties and seventies close their eyes and meditate, counting on prayer-beads while feeling the breeze.

This is not a commercial complex, university, or a hospital. This is a mosque. It is what organizers hope will be the future of mosques.

At the Al Arab Mosque in Zarqa, an impoverished city of 1.35 million in northern Jordan that is the country’s second-largest, an imam and neighborhood residents have teamed up and embarked on an experiment bringing the mosque’s traditional role as a community center into the 21st century.

“People today think that in a mosque you have to be quiet, serious, and strict,” says Ahmed Zoubi, imam of the Al Arab Mosque.

“But in the early days of Islam and the time of the prophet it wasn’t like that; the mosque was a center for community, a center for life – and all the noise and laughter that came with it.”

Most mosques in the Arab world, in contrast to the multi-function Islamic centers in the West and in Southeast Asia, are strictly for one use only: prayer.

Mosques are often shuttered and locked between prayer times; any congregation in prayer halls for any purpose other than Koranic memorization is frowned upon or forbidden.

This comes from a 20th-century legacy of both a weakening of religious institutions by colonial powers and of then-newly independent states which, while seeking to assert their authority, feared the use of mosques as a platform for political activity.

Accidental innovation

When Imam Zoubi first took a sledgehammer to the nearly century-old Arab Mosque in 2014, he did not set out to redefine the mosque-community relationship for the 21st century; he simply wanted a bit of sunshine.

Since being appointed imam of his childhood mosque in Zarqa in 2003, Zoubi had been looking for ways for the mosque to “go green.”

By 2014 he had finally raised the funds to install solar panels, but there was one problem: engineers informed him that the mosque, surrounded by high-rise apartment buildings, was partially in the shade at all times. They would only get 25 percent of their solar potential.

Undeterred, Zoubi arrived at a solution: raise one wing of the mosque several meters to place the solar panels.

Yet another twist threw Zoubi’s plans awry: when construction workers began tearing down the wing, they discovered that the mosque, built in the 1920s and expanded several times, was a hodgepodge of crumbling construction materials – limestone blocks that were chipped away, mud, and concrete.

Much of it was missing support beams, bolts, and even nails. The entire mosque would have to be rebuilt. And all they had was 2,700 Jordanian dinars, or $3,500, in their budget.

Taylor Luck
Ahmed Zoubi, imam of Al Arab Mosque, with the mosque's solar panels in Zarqa, Jordan, Sept. 8, 2018.The mosque was renovated and turned into an open community space, breaking the recent mold of Arab world mosques that serve simply as prayer halls.

“I was both depressed and shocked,” Zoubi says. “I couldn’t believe what I had done: I had demolished our mosque and we had no way of putting it back together.”

Opening closed doors

When Zoubi had almost given up on saving the mosque, the community stepped in; mosque-goers, neighbors, and business owners, mostly working-class with little savings, all chipped in. Women sold gold and furniture. In a few months they were able to raise 150,000 dinars, more than $194,000.

Humbled by the community’s generosity, Zoubi says he wanted to make the mosque reconstruction “count.”

“We decided we didn’t just want to rebuild a mosque, we wanted to change the perception of mosques in the entire country,” Zoubi says.

That perception dated back to the rise of Arab nationalist governments, when religious institutions and the social services they provided were either closed down or marginalized. There would no longer be a role for mosques in education, welfare, healthcare and the economy. These all were now the state’s domain.

“Post-independence, the state became the sole actor dominating every sector, there was no longer any room for civil society, particularly religious institutions,” says H.A. Hellyer, a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and an Islamic studies expert.

With Arab states facing demographic booms, conflict, and economic crises in the 21st century, however, the era of the welfare state is over. There is a void the mosque can fill once again.

Yet they remain shuttered.

“I believe this was an unfortunate loss, as the state cannot be the sole provider forever,” says Mr. Hellyer.

The first mosques

In the first years of Islam and in the centuries that followed, mosques were centers of learning and sciences, as well as cultural centers. They offered medical care and would even feed the community.

At the prophet’s mosque in Medina, one of the first mosques in Islam, the ahl as suffa – people of purity – poor young men would use the mosque as their full-time residence while they were educated and learned a trade to get back on their feet.

Children were known to play games within the mosque’s walls.

It was this history, and the growing needs of working-class communities in the 21st century like his own flock, that inspired Zoubi.

As he set out designing the mosque, Zoubi met with community members to hear about their needs and concerns: difficult access to healthcare, no learning centers or libraries, a lack of public space to take their children.

With these in mind, Zoubi went back with the engineer and designed a mosque specifically tailored to the neighborhood.

A community's needs

Now, Arab Mosque’s floor plans and directory read like a checklist of the community’s needs.

On the ground floor is a main prayer hall opened throughout the day; a separate entrance leads to medical clinics and a pharmacy. On the second floor is a separate prayer hall with LCD TVs and a place for a sign translator for the hearing disabled to follow Friday sermons. The third floor is an educational and cultural center complete with a library, classrooms, and computer lab. The fourth is an additional Friday prayer hall. At the very top is Zoubi’s design: a rooftop prayer room with a panorama view from the highest vantage point for miles around.

It was this last addition from Zoubi that he says aims to provide both spiritual and psychological relief to residents of the congested city.

“Here, people can breathe and relax, look at the views, bring their children, and feel a sense of space and nature,” Zoubi says. “And, hopefully, peace within themselves.”

At sunset maghreb prayers one Saturday, dozens of local residents stopped to look out from the panorama, many taking photos as the sun set over the desert plains stretching beyond Zarqa’s city limits, the orange light casting the sand in shades of pink, violet, and red. Others sat in the corner enjoying the dusk breeze.

For people who want medical attention, the mosque is preparing five medical clinics, a dental clinic, a pharmacy, an emergency room, and a small theater designed for minor surgeries.

Here, any person off the street can be seen by a volunteer doctor or nurse for a symbolic fee of one dinar. Medicine, which is being donated by business owners and Jordanian pharmaceutical companies, will be free.

Wide range of courses

But perhaps the mosque’s most popular and most striking feature is its educational and cultural center, which includes a lecture hall with 75 movie theater-style seats and tables, a library, a computer lab, and even a digital projector with a sound system. 

While teaching Koranic memorization and hosting personal development classes and anti-extremism lectures (Zarqa was also famous for being the hometown of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq), the center’s main subjects are mathematics, sciences, Arabic, and English.  

These courses target teenagers preparing for the comprehensive, year-long admissions test that determines what Jordanian teenagers can study and at which university.

So impressed was King Abdullah on his visit to the mosque in June, he donated a computer lab and paid for an adjacent land plot for the mosque to open a garden. The monarch reportedly said he had “never seen anything like it.”

It is what residents and organizers hope will be a model for a new way forward.

“Mosques are often places for do-or-don’t-do, laying down laws and punishments, but if they serve an economic, social and educational role, that empowers people to be productive members of the community,” says Zoubi. “That is what Islam calls for.”

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5. The hammocks of Honduras: from inside prisons to city streets

When a Monitor reporter and photographer traveled to Honduras, they noticed hammocks everywhere. But instead of beach-front vistas, their reporting took them to the heart of the country's largest prison – and led to this unexpected photo gallery.

Arthur
Ann Hermes/Staff
A boy hides behind a hammock for sale at a souvenir shop in Valle De Angeles, Honduras. Most of the country's hammocks, which are ubiquitous here, are produced inside prisons.

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Honduras, a Central American nation of 9 million people, has one of the world’s highest homicide rates. Its prisons are known for violence, overcrowding, and historically lax oversight. But they’re also the birthplace of something you might not expect: the majority of the country’s ubiquitous hammocks. On a recent morning at Tamara National Penitentiary, the largest in Honduras, Adrian Vasquez circles a makeshift loom, weaving sky-blue thread into a creation of alternating horizontal and vertical stripes. Around the property, other men lay out damp laundry, run laps on a dirt track, and rehearse Christian rock songs in an open-air church. Prisoners are encouraged to take classes and learn job skills, but the hammock businesses are prisoner-run, with visiting relatives dropping off supplies and picking up finished products to sell or distribute throughout the country. A simple hammock earns a prisoner here about $3, but resale prices range from $10 to $60 across the country.

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The hammocks of Honduras: from inside prisons to city streets

Hammocks are ubiquitous in this mountainous, Central American nation. From quaint crafts markets to bustling metropolitan intersections, the colorful textiles are snapped up by locals and tourists alike. But their origins are more complex than the images of relaxation and siestas that they evoke.

The majority of hammocks in Honduras are informally produced in its roughly 30 prisons, better known for their violence, overcrowding, and historically lax oversight. Honduras has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. In 2016, 59 per 100,000 people were killed, and 96 percent of homicide cases end in impunity.

Just outside the capital, the Tamara National Penitentiary is home to some 5,200 prisoners, the largest in the country. On a recent morning, men lay out damp laundry on the paved road that cuts through the middle of the prison, as if it were a small city. Others keep busy sanding wooden furniture, running laps on a dirt track, or rehearsing Christian rock songs in an open-air church.

[Click the photograph for a gallery of Ann Hermes's images from Honduras. The story continues below.]

Ann Hermes/Staff

Tucked along an orange brick wall, Adrian Vasquez circles a makeshift loom, set up with two wooden poles in the ground. He’s weaving sky-blue thread into a creation of alternating horizontal and vertical stripes. Around the corner, a man pumps a black, hand-turned wheel, filling the alleyway with a rhythmic click-clacking sound. Others feed thin white threads into the contraption, helping spool them into string.

Mr. Vasquez has been in prison for about three months – though he hasn’t been tried or sentenced, yet, he says. He learned how to make his first hammock here, and now produces about three per week. “It passes the time,” he says. Prisoners are encouraged to take classes and learn job skills, but the hammock businesses are entirely prisoner-run, says German Mcniel Rueda, the deputy director of the National Penitentiary Institute. Family members often bring in materials and pick up completed projects to sell around the country. More than 60 percent of Hondurans live below the poverty line. When relatives can’t afford supplies, prisoners will sometimes work with recycled goods, like old t-shirts or plastic bags. A simple hammock earns a prisoner here about $3 dollars, but resale prices range from $10 to $60 across the country.

Julia Guerrero and her daughter hawk hammocks on a sweltering corner in San Pedro Sula. On the opposite side of the street sits a now-shuttered prison, once nicknamed the “University of Crime” for gang activity that overran any semblance of control within its walls. “Business has been tough since the prison closed” last year, says Ms. Guerrero, who has always sourced most of her inventory from Tamara, where a neighbor’s husband is incarcerated. “We used to have people coming from around the world to visit their [jailed] loved ones and they’d buy a hammock from me on their way out.”

Although few customers ask Guerrero about the people behind her hammocks, she says she’s happy her business can give incarcerated Hondurans a purpose. “Whether you’re in jail or not, employment is sacred” here, she says.

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The Monitor's View

Saving Venezuela with the long arm of the law

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On Tuesday, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Paraguay agreed to ask the International Criminal Court to investigate crimes against humanity in Venezuela. Their request is an easy call. Several human-rights bodies have already documented the impunity of Venezuelan officials under President Nicolás Maduro in the killing of hundreds of protesters and political dissidents since 2014. The request is unprecedented on the world stage. It adds to the steady ratcheting up of financial sanctions on the Maduro regime by several nations. While the ICC has not indicated whether it will act, the request shows the urgency of the ongoing refugee crisis – which is reaching Syrian proportions – and the need to prevent Venezuela from imploding into more violence. The official crimes in Venezuela are no longer an internal matter. Latin America’s democracies cannot allow their most desperate neighbor to become a scene of mass atrocities. Indifference is no longer an option. Being neighborly is, even if it means using the long arm of the law across borders.

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Saving Venezuela with the long arm of the law

Two years ago, Africa reached a milestone in neighborly concern. A special court set up by the 54-nation African Union convicted a former dictator in Chad of crimes against humanity. Now many countries in Latin America want to do something similar, all in the name of regional solidarity for democracy and rule of law.

On Sept. 25, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Paraguay agreed to ask the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate crimes against humanity in Venezuela. Together the six countries represent about three-quarters of Latin America’s population.

Their request is an easy call. Several human-rights bodies have already documented the impunity of Venezuelan officials under President Nicolás Maduro in the killing of hundreds of protesters and political dissidents since 2014. Amnesty International, for example, found 22 percent of homicides committed in 2016 were by government security officers. And Mr. Maduro’s harsh rule and high-level corruption have also led to mass hunger and the exodus of more than 7 percent of the population to surrounding nations. A new poll found 20.5 percent of Venezuelans would leave the country if Maduro stays in power and the economy does not improve.

The request by the six countries to seek ICC prosecution is unprecedented on the world stage. It adds to the steady ratcheting up of financial sanctions on the Maduro regime by various nations, such as the United States. While the ICC has not indicated if it will act, the request nonetheless signifies the urgency of the ongoing refugee crisis – which is reaching Syrian proportions – and the need to prevent Venezuela from imploding into more violence.

The official crimes in Venezuela are no longer an internal matter. Latin America’s democracies cannot allow their most desperate neighbor to become a scene of mass atrocities, tarnishing the image of the region. Indifference is no longer an option. Being neighborly is, even if it means using the long arm of the law across borders to save Venezuela.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Praying about mental health

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Today’s contributor was healed of hereditary bipolar disorder as she learned more about the nature of God as the gentle, consistent divine Mind.

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Praying about mental health

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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As she looked out the window, my friend saw a path leading deep into the dark woods. She felt deeply tempted to go down it. She had recently lost someone very dear to her, and the idea of getting hopelessly lost in the foreboding woods seemed to offer a solution. If she died, too, she could be with her friend again.

“I saw that I could make a choice,” my friend told me. “I chose not to go down that path. I realized I wanted to live.” She made a point of not even looking out the window at the path, because she wanted to be steadfast in her commitment to choosing life. About two weeks later, however, my friend happened to look out that window again, and she was surprised by what she saw. So many plants had sprung up that the path had almost completely disappeared. My friend went forward with her life, embracing new opportunities for friendship and spiritual growth.

To me this points to a helpful way to approach mental health issues. Whatever the label for the issue – depression, anxiety, compulsive behaviors, or something else – you may have dealt with it yourself or know someone who has. If we ourselves are beckoned to go down one of these paths, it might even feel as though we are powerless to resist.

I know I felt that way once. My family has a history of bipolar disorder, and in my early 20s, I found myself going down that same path into mental illness. All I could think, over and over again, was, “I’m losing my mind.” I felt powerless to stop it.

However, I’d also just found out about Christian Science, and I’d learned from reading “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, that God is Mind. I’d also learned that since there is only one God, there can be only one Mind, the divine Mind we all reflect as God’s spiritual creation.

In fact, Science and Health explains that Mind is infinite: “All is infinite Mind and its infinite manifestation, for God is All-in-all” (p. 468). When we recognize this God-created, God-sustained intelligence as limitless and supreme, confusion and powerlessness fade, much like when a fog lifts and we see the landscape that was always there – just hidden from view. Then we see stability, health, and peace as the reality.

Realizing this was a sanity saver, because it meant that I didn’t have a little mind of my own that could go crazy. Gradually, instead of feeling consumed by thoughts that I felt I had no power over, I came to realize that I did have a choice – and the ability to make that choice. Every time I was tempted to think, “I’m losing my mind,” instead I prayed, “God is my Mind. God can’t lose His Mind, so neither can I.”

I found freedom in consciously acknowledging that Mind, God, was my Mind. It had to be, since there is only one Mind. As this spiritual fact became more real to me, the fear and the bipolar symptoms faded, and I found release from those tortured thoughts. I was healed. Never again have I been troubled with the fear that I was going crazy.

Making the choice to take the path out of darkness might not seem easy, but it is doable. God is always there to support us. When we open our hearts and ask for God’s help, the divine presence, which is already with us, becomes tangible. We find we have what we need. It might be courage, or strength, or faith, but whatever it is, it will be there.

Each of us is equipped by God to make the right choice, and this will keep us safe. In the Bible it says, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19, New International Version). Making the choice to recognize and embrace Mind’s presence and allness will erase and replace the scary, challenging thoughts that would try to control us. This is refusing to take the path of darkness. And as we refuse that path, it will inevitably close – and we’ll find freedom.

Adapted from an article published in the Christian Science Sentinel’s online TeenConnect section, Aug. 8, 2018.

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Viewfinder

And now to get home

Reuters
Vehicles jam an expressway near a toll station at the end of the Mid-Autumn Festival holiday in Zhengzhou, China.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( September 26th, 2018 )

Thank you for accompanying our exploration of the world today. Please come back tomorrow, when we will look at how well the Trump administration is fulfilling promises to grant visas to Afghans who aided the US military during the conflict in Afghanistan.

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