2019
September
13
Friday

Today’s stories investigate what happens next for multiple places in the news – Silicon Valley, Afghanistan, U.S. universities; whether religion and politics can mix in a new democracy; and a breakthrough discovery on another planet. 

In cinemas across the United Kingdom tonight, a new film will be pulling in fans by the busload. “Downton Abbey,” the movie, has arrived to celebrate the discreet charm of the aristocracy.

The record-breaking PBS drama, imported from England, was a smash hit for six seasons around the world, attracting 120 million viewers in 220 territories. But it was at home that the series wrung heartstrings the hardest, with its rose-tinted representation of early 20th-century life among the English social elite and their servants.

The fairytale vision of “Downton Abbey” was reassuring. The series delved into the lives and loves of its characters – from both entitled upstairs and deferential downstairs – in a society steeped in tradition. Everyone knew his or her place at home; and abroad, Britain’s preeminence was unchallenged.

That was a vision that appealed to many people in Britain, buffeted by the winds of globalization blowing across an uncertain world, when “Downton Abbey” first came to TV. Nostalgia was comforting. And nostalgia helped build the case that some politicians made for Brexit, the idea of leaving the European Union, before a referendum on the question. Things were better before, they said. And a lot of voters agreed.

But if escapist fantasy met a social need three years ago, it is even more in demand today. Brexit has still not happened, though it has filled the newspapers day after day; three years of increasingly angry debate have rent Britain down the middle; society is profoundly divided and most people on both sides of the divide are heartily sick of the whole issue.

They would probably agree with Hugh Bonneville, who plays family patriarch the Earl of Grantham. It is, he said before the film’s premiere, “great just to escape for a couple of hours from all the nonsense that we are surrounded by.”

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1. Will backlash against Big Tech play into China’s hands?

Could “techlash” go too far? An investigation by 48 states symbolizes bipartisan worry about the market power of a few tech giants. Some experts say the bigger concern is how to keep nurturing U.S. innovation.

Peter

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When new technologies allow a few companies to dominate an industry, Americans push back. Over the past century, regulators have taken on everyone from railroads and Standard Oil to Microsoft.

Now, as a backlash grows against Google, Amazon, Facebook, and others – what some call a “techlash” – tech advocates are sounding a note of caution. There are legitimate concerns about the way Silicon Valley and other tech firms filter the news, invade privacy, or carelessly leave back doors open for cybercriminals to steal data and foreign countries to influence elections, they say. But if government gets too heavy-handed, it could compromise America’s international competitiveness.

That’s what happened in the 1950s and ’60s, when regulators forced AT&T, Xerox, and RCA to license their patented technologies, allowing Japanese companies to catch up and eventually surpass U.S. companies.

Some economists say it’s time to create a new competitiveness policy so the same thing won’t happen with China. But politicians’ current focus on Big Tech’s misdeeds is delaying that much-needed debate, says Robert Atkinson, head of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. “That conversation is treading water right now.”

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Will backlash against Big Tech play into China’s hands?

It’s been a dizzying tailspin. Long lauded for powering the economy, driving down prices, and pushing innovation forward with new devices and services, Big Tech this year finds itself wearing a black hat.

Consumers and politicians alike now criticize technology giants for slanting the news, invading privacy, and carelessly leaving back doors open for cybercriminals to steal data and foreign countries to influence elections. Federal and state authorities are investigating Amazon, Google, and others as possible monopolists over retail sales and ad revenues. The backlash against Silicon Valley has even spawned its own term: “techlash.”

But some tech experts are sounding a cautionary note. While data abuse and antitrust business practices need to be investigated, they say, overzealous prosecution and lawmaking could compromise America’s competitiveness vis-a-vis other nations.

“I worry that the techlash is going to have detrimental effects,” says Robert Atkinson, founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a Washington, D.C., think tank. “Ultimately, that’s playing into the hands of China.”

In the past week, the pressure on Big Tech has intensified. Attorneys general in 48 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have announced antitrust investigations of Google, with at least eight of them also examining Facebook. This comes as the Federal Trade Commission has stepped up its investigation of business practices of Amazon, Apple, and others.

“It’s not surprising that people are very concerned about privacy rights and security of your personal data and also the social effect of the new media platforms,” says Thomas Hazlett, a professor at Clemson University in South Carolina and former chief economist of the Federal Communications Commission. “The question is: How do you best handle that with some kind of regulatory solution … that’s actually going to help?”

The strides China has made in next-generation technologies, such as 5G cellphones, gene editing, biometrics, and other areas, are creating pressures for the U.S. to refocus on competitiveness the way it did with the Soviet Union in the 1950s and ’60s, and with Japan in the 1980s and ’90s. If anything, the threat posed by China could be greater, since it combines the military rivalry of the Soviets with the economic rivalry of the Japanese.

According to one survey of academic research, China has already surpassed the U.S. in the number of published papers in artificial intelligence and is poised to move ahead in the number of papers on that subject most cited by other researchers (a measure of their importance).  

“We do need some serious updating and reexamination of our policies and our public-private partnerships because the challenges are very different than they were when the U.S. council was created in 1986,” says Deborah Wince-Smith, president and CEO of the Council on Competitiveness in Washington.

The current focus on Big Tech’s misdeeds is delaying this needed debate, says Mr. Atkinson of the ITIF. “That conversation is treading water right now.”

Americans have made adjustments before when confronted with new technologies that have given companies powerful sway in the market, says Professor Hazlett, who assigns his students an 1890 article called “The Right to Privacy” – a reaction to the news and gossip from the new mass-market newspapers of the era.

But problems have arisen when regulators and policymakers have gotten too aggressive in countering technology. Mr. Atkinson points to San Francisco’s recent ban on facial recognition by police and city government, despite the positive uses the technology has. On Thursday, California’s legislature passed a much less draconian three-year ban on facial recognition technology for police body cameras.

More pernicious, in his view, were antitrust regulators in the 1950s and ’60s, who forced leading technology giants of that time to license their patented technology. That’s how Sony got its hands on AT&T transistor technology and how Japanese copier firms acquired Xerox know-how, allowing the laggards to rapidly catch up to and surpass the U.S. firms. The major reason Japan came to dominate color TVs was because RCA had to license its technology, he says.

That Japanese dominance, in turn, pushed the U.S. to create a national competitiveness council and strategy in the 1980s, which included the funding of research and encouraging tech transfer from national labs and leading universities to U.S. companies. Encouraged by both Republican and Democratic administrations, the competitiveness push lost its focus after the fall of the Soviet Union and Japan’s economic and policy stumbles.

Not everyone is convinced that a new competitiveness policy will help the U.S. compete against China.

“I think it’s very important that the real issues, particularly intellectual property theft and security issues, be litigated,” says Dr. Hazlett, the Clemson professor. But “I don’t trust the government to pick the right winners nor to have the right policy that’s going to support the markets and not hurt consumers. ... That’s just not a task that’s worked well.”

To its advocates, competitiveness policy is a bipartisan issue that could gain strong support once the public’s concerns about Big Tech are dealt with.

“I’m optimistic,” says Ms. Wince-Smith of the Council on Competitiveness. “Both in the Obama administration, I’m very pleased to say, and in the Trump administration there is a dual support and understanding of the importance of investing in the research and development and the manufacturing capability for next-generation microelectronics.”

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2. Amid rubble in Kabul, fatigue with ‘talking while fighting’

“The first law of peace is a cease-fire,” a business owner told the Monitor’s Scott Peterson at the site of a fateful bombing in Kabul. With U.S.-Taliban talks halted, it’s a point of consensus for Afghans.

Peter

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For 10 months, the United States and the Taliban have held negotiations on a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan that would pave the way for an intra-Afghan peace process. The suspension of those talks following a Taliban car bombing in Kabul has created a perilous moment for Afghanistan.

With both the U.S. and Taliban having followed a “fight and talk” strategy, the current high level of violence creates its own self-fulfilling dynamic. And there’s no consensus path forward that addresses the interests of both Americans and Afghans, who are torn between their desire for peace and their distrust of the Taliban.

The Taliban, meanwhile, are sounding relatively upbeat despite the end of the negotiations, says a Western official in Kabul. “That might have been the best deal they [the Americans] could have gotten,” says the official. “If the Taliban had been willing to give more, then they would have given it, but they did not.”

At the site of the Kabul bombing, the owner of an event hall damaged in the attack echoes Afghan government officials. “If they want peace, first all sides should stop the conflict,” he says.

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Amid rubble in Kabul, fatigue with ‘talking while fighting’

When the Taliban car bomb detonated on a busy Kabul street, it ripped through a corner event hall, turning glass into shrapnel that shredded the trousers of the shellshocked owner.

The explosion looked like so many other Taliban suicide attacks: It killed a dozen Afghan civilians, several Afghan intelligence officers, and an American and another NATO soldier who were passing in a convoy.

But the blast on Sept. 5 – and the fact that an American serviceman died – may be the most consequential, since President Donald Trump cited it to abruptly end 10 months of peace talks between the United States and the Taliban that were described as on the cusp of final agreement.

All sides have escalated violence since the summer, pursuing “fight and talk” strategies to gain advantage in the controversial negotiations aimed at withdrawing some 14,000 U.S. troops and ending America’s longest war.

But this attack has proved to be one Taliban strike too far, not only for the White House, but also for many Afghans suspicious that the jihadist insurgents are not serious about peace, and that the Taliban have not tempered their archconservative social views since they were toppled from power in 2001.

“We see the result of their moderation,” laughs the thickly mustachioed event hall owner, who asked not to be named. Around him, workers cleaned up broken glass and stacked metal bars outside the wrecked low-slung halls, which were full of dining tables and chairs draped with festive white and red cloth for wedding celebrations, all covered with detritus from the blast.

The suspension of the talks has left Afghanistan at a perilous crossroads, with the current high level of violence creating its own self-fulfilling dynamic, and no consensus path forward that addresses both American and Afghan interests. Where there is consensus, among Afghans, is in a loss of patience with the practice of talking while shooting.

“The first law of peace is a cease-fire,” says the hall owner, echoing Afghan government officials who were not an official party to the U.S.-Taliban talks, and welcomed their demise.

“If they want peace, first all sides should stop the conflict,” the event hall owner says. The Taliban “are not strong people. If one wants to show power, they should not target civilians.”

Afghans have been torn between their desire for peace and their fear that the secretive U.S.-led negotiations appeared to prioritize a speedy American withdrawal (in exchange for Taliban promises not to let Afghan soil be used for attacking the U.S.) over any Taliban commitment to either a full cease-fire or intra-Afghan peace.

Missed opportunity?

Mr. Trump called off the talks last weekend, saying the death of the American showed the Taliban had sought to “build false leverage” through violence.

If the Taliban could not agree to a cease-fire during peace talks, Mr. Trump tweeted, “they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway.”

He also said that he had planned to bring Taliban leaders and President Ashraf Ghani to finalize the deal at the presidential retreat at Camp David – the same place where, 18 years ago this week, American leaders made plans to topple the Taliban and Al Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks.

Mr. Trump instead declared the Afghan talks “dead” on Monday. And in a 9/11 memorial speech on Tuesday, he said that in the previous four days, “we have hit our enemy harder than they have ever been hit before.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking Sunday, said more than 1,000 Taliban had been killed in the previous 10 days.

The collapse of the deal means that Mr. Ghani may be able to take charge of a new peace effort, if he wins a second term in presidential elections due on Sept. 28 – a vote the Taliban have vowed to disrupt.

But the Taliban have so far refused direct talks with the Afghan government, dismissing it as a U.S. puppet. And the palace, despite taking a triumphant public tone after the U.S.-Taliban talks collapsed, has dragged its feet on engaging with the peace process and so far has failed to present a better alternative to a war that in 2018 saw a record 3,800 civilians killed, according to the United Nations. 

“That might have been the best deal they [the Americans] could have gotten,” says a Western official in Kabul who asked not to be named. “The talks had gone on for a very long time, and if the Taliban had been willing to give more, then they would have given it, but they did not.”

Best of a bad situation

The Taliban are not bound by Mr. Trump’s election timeline, nor the Afghan one, and are sounding relatively upbeat, says the official. The Taliban today control or have influence in roughly half the country, though it is not clear if Taliban negotiators can impose a peace deal on all their forces.

The U.S.-Taliban deal reportedly included a reduction of violence – though not a full cease-fire – in the two heavily populated provinces of Kabul and Parwan. U.S. forces were to make an initial withdrawal of 5,400 troops within 135 days, as the first stage of a full pullout within 1 1/2 years.

“If the capital could have gained some respite from the violence while the Americans withdrew, that could have been massive,” says Graeme Smith, an Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“In return for that, you would expect to see, for example, no more 2,000-pound bombs dropping on villages in Taliban areas,” he says. There would almost certainly have had to be negotiated terms for Afghan forces, too, because “now they have helicopters, they go on night raids, they drop bombs – and those are technically Afghan assets, paid for by the U.S.”

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. negotiator, “made the best out of a bad situation,” says Mr. Smith. “It’s like dumpster diving for groceries and trying to cook a feast. You end up with what is in the dumpster.”

A Taliban statement after Mr. Trump halted the talks was measured, but said the U.S. military would remain a target.

“They know that the Afghan government needs to make peace, because these explosions just ... drive the point home,” says the Western official in Kabul.

“So the Taliban are actually not doing too badly at this point in time, despite the fact they are taking such a beating with airstrikes,” says the official. “Now how much longer they can keep that up is a different question.”

Message to the Taliban

For critics of the U.S.-Taliban talks, their collapse was a necessary corrective for a process that had given the insurgents both a sense of victory and a global platform.

“Americans were pursuing the talks, and they have emboldened the Taliban and given them ... courage, to put them in a win-win situation,” says Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan member of parliament. She has been one of the few women to meet the Taliban negotiators, twice this year in Moscow and once in Doha, Qatar.

“They thought that if the process succeeds, they will win, they will be part of the government. If it does not succeed, the Americans will withdraw anyway, so they will win militarily,” says Ms. Koofi.

Mr. Trump’s shutdown of the talks “was something that was needed, so the Taliban would know that everything will not be finalized the way they want,” says Ms. Koofi.

What she learned from her exchanges with Taliban chiefs is that those Taliban on the peace circuit, who talk of their own social evolution, including respecting women’s rights and education for girls, may not speak for all the insurgency.

When Ms. Koofi and other activists in July showed Taliban leaders current photographs of children and civilians killed in their attacks in Ghazni province, and called for a cease-fire, the Taliban asked why they didn’t also show pictures of civilians killed in government strikes that day in Taliban-controlled Wardak.

“I want to see a way out that will result in a dignified peace, not just a peace that shares power with the Taliban, but the Taliban should also respect and accept the diversity of Afghanistan,” says Ms. Koofi.

“First they have to respect a cease-fire – they have to stop killing people,” she says. “Second, the peace negotiation team should be inclusive enough, representative enough, that it will tell the Taliban – and this is exactly what I want to tell them with my participation – that Afghanistan today is represented by me, not anymore by you.”

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3. An unlikely tool to help assault survivors: consumer protection law

What role should transparency play in addressing sexual assault at colleges? Increasingly, a campus crime reporting law is being used to hold schools accountable for communication, and to offer a way forward for survivors.

Peter
Clarence Tabb Jr./Detroit News/AP/File
Morgan McCaul holds a sign showing the years doctor Larry Nassar, who abused her, was reported to Michigan State University as trustees arrive for a university board meeting on April 13, 2018. The government’s $4.5 million fine against MSU is unprecedented.

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The $4.5 million fine leveled against Michigan State University by the U.S. Department of Education may seem paltry to some, given former MSU sports doctor Larry Nassar’s decadeslong sexual abuse. But the Trump administration’s bold action is putting schools across the country on high alert because of the sweeping changes the university must now make. 

One recent college graduate says she’s hopeful the record-setting fine will aid students. “When you’re away from home ... you don’t have anybody really to help you do this,” says Jane Doe, who accuses Florida Atlantic University of not assisting her properly when she reported a sexual assault. She spoke with the Monitor the day before filing a complaint with the Department of Education on Sept. 11.

Ms. Doe’s complaint invokes the Clery Act, the same statute that triggered the fine against MSU. Though decades old, the act has added more layers of protection in recent years, prompting advocates to see it as an increasingly useful tool to address a continuum of sexual violence. Lawyer Laura Dunn, who is helping Ms. Doe, hopes that the strong enforcement of the act will go beyond a high-profile case, “that it will mean true reforms to address all cases.” 

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An unlikely tool to help assault survivors: consumer protection law

She only wants to use the name Jane Doe, but the recent college graduate says she has hopes that the record-setting fine leveled against Michigan State University last week will propel reforms across the country. That would potentially spare others what she experienced after reporting sexual assault at her Florida campus last year. 

The U.S. Department of Education’s $4.5 million fine may seem paltry to some, given former MSU sports doctor Larry Nassar’s decadeslong sexual abuse of students. But the Trump administration’s bold action is putting schools across the country on high alert because of the punishment and the sweeping changes the university must now make. 

“When you’re away from home ... you don’t have anybody really to help you do this,” says Ms. Doe, who accuses Florida Atlantic University of not informing and assisting her properly. She shared her story with the Monitor the day before filing a complaint with the Department of Education on Sept. 11.

Ms. Doe says she naively trusted her school to be in her corner, but looking back, it appears to her that staff were more concerned about protecting FAU’s reputation.

Ms. Doe’s complaint invokes an education statute called the Clery Act, the same statute that triggered the fine against MSU. Among its many functions, the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act mandates crime reporting, sets rules for issuing timely warnings about threats, and requires campuses to inform victims about their rights and options. Though decades old, the act has added more layers of protection in recent years, prompting advocates to see it as an increasingly useful tool to address a continuum of sexual violence, ranging from stalking to assault.  

At the heart of the Clery Act is the idea that transparency – keeping the community informed about crimes and the best options for responding to them – leads to better public safety.  

Clery is framed as a consumer protection law, and overseen by the Education Department’s Federal Student Aid office. Unlike Title IX, the civil rights law that’s often in the news because of its rules around handling sexual assault at schools, Clery does not allow for private legal action, so only the Education Department’s enforcement can give it teeth.

Laura Dunn, a lawyer and sexual assault survivors’ advocate in Washington who helped Ms. Doe file her Clery complaint, says she is “amazed” at “how routine it is for schools to outright ignore the Clery Act.” She hopes the MSU enforcement “won’t be a dog and pony show only about this high-profile [Nassar] case, and that it will mean true reforms to address all cases.” 

Schools have dedicated a lot of energy to complying with Title IX in recent years, but survivor advocates are concerned that law will be weakened by new regulations the Education Department will be finalizing soon. That makes Clery enforcement even more essential in their eyes. 

Previously, the largest fine had been nearly $2.4 million for Penn State’s scandal involving sexual abuse by Jerry Sandusky, one of its football coaches. But in MSU’s case, even more potent than the fine is the fact that its access to federal financial aid for students is now conditional on full compliance with Clery reforms, says S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, a consulting company in Thomson, Georgia.

These unprecedented moves are “a signal for all of higher education that enforcement is being stepped up significantly,” he says.

Putting safeguards in place

Mr. Nassar had so many victims partly because when people reported his abuse, some MSU employees receiving the reports didn’t pass the information along as they should have. 

When she announced the fine on Sept. 5, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos also included resolution agreements spelling out what Michigan State must do to comply with both the Clery Act and Title IX. Many of the reforms outlined go beyond the specifics of Mr. Nassar’s crimes, and could be applied proactively on any campus. 

For example, MSU has agreed to hire a Clery compliance officer, set up safeguards and abuse-reporting channels for sports participants, and ensure specialized training of all staff responsible for reporting crime or investigating claims of sexual violence.

As a student in Boca Raton, Ms. Doe had never heard of the Clery Act. Near the end of 2018, the middle of her senior year at FAU, she reported to police and campus officials that she had been raped by a student athlete.

She says he then pressured her to change her story and tell police it was consensual, and that she did so because he made her feel guilty about potentially ruining his life. She had no legal advice and did not understand how that could later undermine her credibility in the eyes of campus investigators, she says.

Once she had time to reflect over winter break, however, Ms. Doe says she talked again to the Student Affairs staff member who served as her campus advocate. She explained, she says, how she had been pressured to recant her police account, and was assured that she could still go forward with a campus investigation. 

For the next several months, though, she was frustrated when she tried to offer evidence to back up her account, because investigators told her they didn’t need it. She also says she was discouraged from getting a lawyer.

Her complaint to the Education Department claims that, according to the Clery Act, she should have been informed about legal assistance options, her right to seek a protective order, and her right to report witness tampering to the police, who had recorded a call with the accused student that could have been used as a basis to continue the investigation.

FAU spokesman Joshua Glanzer emailed a statement in response to a Monitor interview request on Thursday. “The safety of our students is our top priority. ...  We take any accusation of sexual assault seriously and pursue all appropriate measures to ensure that the rights of those involved are protected,” it reads in part. “We are cognizant of the Clery Act’s requirements and we consistently strive to maintain compliance with it and all other laws and regulations.”

The Monitor reached the lawyer of the student athlete, who still attends FAU, and he did not offer a comment.  

One student’s experience

The day FAU decided the case was closed turned out to be just the beginning of a new chapter in Ms. Doe’s experience, as she recounts it. 

On June 17, she got a call from the advocate: Campus investigators did not find the male student responsible for sexual assault.  

Under Clery, campuses must give complainants and respondents simultaneous written notification and explanation of decisions after such investigations. But in her case, Ms. Doe says, the only option to read the lengthy report was to go sit in the advocate’s office and view it on a computer. 

She wasn’t shocked by the outcome, because she knew rape is often difficult to prove. What hurt was for the report “to basically call me a liar and say that I’m lying and he’s telling the truth,” she says. Her complaint, which the Monitor has seen, includes detailed information intended to corroborate her claims. 

“I was crying a lot,” she says, and before she finished reading, the advocate asked if she had thought about harming herself. She mentioned some thoughts had crossed her mind, but then insisted to the advocate, “I wouldn’t ever do anything to actually harm myself,” she says.

The advocate stepped away briefly, and soon two police officers arrived. “The next thing I know, I was being put in handcuffs and being put into the back of a car. And then I got taken to a psych ward. ... I didn’t know what the heck was happening,” she says. 

She had to spend a deeply disturbing night there before the psychiatrist interviewed and released her. She found out later that the advocate had made a call ostensibly based on the Baker Act, a Florida law to prevent people with mental illness from harming themselves or others.  

Having this incident on her record could interfere with her longtime desire to become an Air Force officer, Ms. Doe’s Clery complaint notes.

She spent a week compiling evidence into a 19-page appeal letter. Officials declined to change their decision. 

Ms. Doe graduated this summer, and says she hopes her complaint will lead to the university improving its staff training and “being more transparent while they’re doing their investigation, because they weren’t transparent at all.” 

Campuses often have gaps in budgets and training, and many need to do a better job of compliance, says Laura Egan, senior director of programs at the Clery Center, a national nonprofit that provides technical assistance. But there’s also been progress, she says, with “campuses taking a more proactive approach, ahead of finding themselves in a situation where they are under the glare of national attention for doing things poorly.” 

If you need confidential help or information you can contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673.

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4. The Islamist who would be president

Religion and politics are rarely an easy mix. Yet in Tunisia, a nation with a long secular tradition, an Islamist is a leading candidate for president. He’s a profile in contradictions.

Peter

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The issue is fundamental, and universal: Can a holy man lead a country as president? Abdelfattah Mourou, a judge turned politician and co-founder of Tunisia’s Ennahda party, is just the second Islamist to run for president in the Arab world.

He was set to study Islamic law, but first he went to an elite lycee high school that taught French, humanities, theater, and music. As a result, he straddles Tunisia’s great divides. He speaks six languages, but has working-class roots. And he’s just as comfortable talking about gay rights as he is Catholic liturgy.

But even as his charm wins over critics, questions remain whether his larger-than-life personality can paper over the deep-seated suspicions swirling around religious-oriented political groups. It's especially true in Tunisia, with a century-old secular liberal tradition and one of the most relaxed social attitudes toward drinking, music, relationships, and religious freedoms in the Arab world.

Liberals and secular politicians freely admit that “we hate the Islamists, but we love Mourou.” Others say, “Mourou is all of Tunisia put into one man.” But will voters make the distinction between party and person?

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The Islamist who would be president

A polyglot who can joke in German, loves music, has working-class roots, and is just as comfortable talking about gay rights as he is Catholic liturgy.

That makes for a unique candidate of any stripe – let alone an Islamist running for the highest office of an Arab state.

Tunisia’s Abdelfattah Mourou, a judge turned Islamist politician and co-founder of the Ennahda party, is the second Islamist to run for president in the Arab world.

But even as his charm wins over critics, questions remain whether his larger-than-life personality can paper over the deep-seated suspicions and fears swirling around religious-oriented political groups.

The issue is fundamental, and universal: Can a holy man lead a country as president?

The question is especially difficult in Tunisia, with a century-old secular liberal tradition and one of the most relaxed social attitudes toward drinking, music, relationships, and religious freedoms in the Arab world.

Questions linger on the left whether his friendly face masks a deeper conservative agenda.

Born before Tunisia’s independence in 1956, Mr. Mourou grew up in Bab Souika, the rough-and-tumble neighborhood at the gates of Tunis’ 1,300-year-old medina, or old city, that has been the beating heart of Tunisia’s politics, culture, and art.

His father ran a cafe, while his mother worked as a seamstress, putting him in contact with people of all walks of life, what he calls his “true education.”

Contradictions

Mr. Mourou was set to study Islamic law at the University of Ez-Zitouna, which has produced top Islamic scholars for more than a millennium.

But thanks to a scholarship, he first went to Western-oriented Sadiki College, the elite lycee high school that taught French, humanities, theater, and music, and produced the liberal elites of Tunisia, including the independence fighter and the country’s first modern president, Habib Bourguiba himself.

A product of both schools, he straddles Tunisia’s great divides.

“Abdelfattah Mourou represents all these different facets of Tunisian identity that at first glance may seem contradicting,” says Khalil Amiri, a campaign aide.

Mr. Mourou worked as a public defender and a judge before his political activism landed him in prison for two years in the early 1980s under the Bourguiba regime.

“I have been a lawyer, judge, and a prisoner,” he jokes both in private and on the campaign trail, “so no one knows the justice system better.”

He revels in his contradictions.

He can discuss Islamic law, Sufi saints, and the old taverns and dancers in Tunisia. He speaks eloquent Quranic Arabic in interviews, and drops into street slang on the stump.

He has survived being shot at a protest for laborers’ rights, but continues to praise Bourguiba – a man who shuttered Zitouna and cracked down on Islamists – for ending the French occupation.

Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters
A campaign billboard depicts Islamist presidential candidate Abdelfattah Mourou, dressed in his trademark traditional Tunisian jebba, in Tunis, Tunisia, Sept. 11, 2019.

Dressing the part

To this day, Mr. Mourou wears the traditional Tunisian jebba, a cowl-like gown that drapes from the arms with intricate embroidery down the center seam, and a chechia, a red felt fez-like cap – a centuries-old symbol of Tunisian identity.

He began wearing the outfit at the age of 18 as young Tunisians were rushing to wear Italian-tailored suits as a form of rebellion.

Mr. Mourou has worn the jebba at debates and while campaigning. Yet when he met with business leaders this week, he donned a suit and tie – literally slipping in and out of Tunisia’s various identities as casually as a change of clothes.

And he won’t hesitate to tell you that nothing is wrong with that – in Arabic, French, Spanish, German, English, and Italian.

He even surprised viewers and campaign aides earlier this year with impromptu sign language for an entire minute on national television.

“When he was done, he told us, ‘There are people in Tunisia who are never spoken to, and it is our job to reach them,’” says one aide. “We were just shocked – we didn’t even know he could sign.”

Man of the people?

The legend of Mr. Mourou and his work as a public defender lives large in the Tunis neighborhood of Hay At-Tadhamin, one of the most densely populated areas in Africa.

“Abdelfattah defended poor people for free; he defended the rights of single mothers, even prostitutes – he was the people’s champion,” says Mohammed Dhawaidi, in his 60s, as he lines up to see Mr. Mourou campaign in the neighborhood. “He is one of us, and he knows the life we lead.”

As Mr. Mourou stepped out of his motorcade, dozens of men, women, and children lined up to hug him, embracing him like an old friend. Women ululated.

His streetwise toughness surfaced when an angry resident got an inch from his face, screaming at him about Ennahda’s absence between elections and for the traffic his visit created.

Mr. Mourou’s smile disappeared, and after nodding for a few minutes, he said sternly, “Hey guy, that’s enough. Point made.”

On policy, he pushes a tough-on-terrorism approach, calling for a special brigade to “liberate this country’s mountains” from groups such as Al Qaeda. He calls for opening Tunisia’s economy, combating climate change, and boosting digital security.

Yet socially, he has distanced himself from his movement’s more conservative talking points.

There is no talk of drinking, nightclubs, or moral values – trademark issues for Islamists elsewhere.

Mr. Mourou came out against a colonial-era law criminalizing homosexuality on the grounds that it violates “personal freedoms,” at a time when some secular candidates have been using homophobic and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.

“You cannot apply a law that investigates people’s private lives, that spies on people, that violates the sanctity of the body,” he said at a press conference Monday. “The issue of homosexuality is an issue of personal choice, and we must respect a person’s choices.”

History

History hangs over him.

The first and last Islamist to run for president, Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown in a military coup backed by large segments of the Egyptian public in 2013 and died in prison in June.

Ennahda refused to field a candidate in Tunisia’s last presidential elections in 2014.

“Mourou’s candidacy is part of Ennahda’s ongoing struggle to be accepted by the elites in Tunisia and regional powers, to show them that they are pragmatic and not a threat,” says Tarek Tahlawi, a Tunisian political analyst.

Many internal polls show Mr. Mourou running second or third out of the 26 candidates, with a strong possibility he will be among the final two in a runoff.

Liberals and secular politicians freely admit that “we hate the Islamists, but we love Mourou.” Others say, “Mourou is all of Tunisia put into one man.”

But will voters make the distinction between party and person?

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5. ‘It’s not sci-fi anymore.’ Astronomers find water vapor on distant planet.

Planets outside our solar system long existed only in the imagination. But scientists are beginning to piece together models that are more rooted in reality.

Peter

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The atmosphere of K2-18 b, a planet some 111 light-years from Earth, holds water vapor, say scientists in a pair of research papers published this week. This is the first time that water has been detected on a planet whose orbit lies in another star’s ‘habitable zone.’

Scientists aren’t necessarily saying that the world is habitable. But this detection is a big step toward finding one that is, and it represents how quickly exoplanets have gone from being impossible to even identify to something scientists can actually study. 

“It’s not sci-fi anymore,” says Björn Benneke, an exoplanet researcher at the Université de Montréal and lead author on one of the papers. “The really amazing thing about this era is that we’re now actively doing this. We can go and probe each planet by itself and see what’s going on there.”

The new data on K2-18 b’s atmosphere is “definitely a milestone,” agrees Sara Seager, an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is not an author on either paper. “It’s a step in the right direction because we’ve got to see the atmospheres in the hopes that the atmosphere will help tell us what these planets are.”

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‘It’s not sci-fi anymore.’ Astronomers find water vapor on distant planet.

Laura Kreidberg never thought she’d study exoplanets. Sure, when she began graduate school in 2011, the worlds beyond our solar system were all the rage. NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope had launched two years earlier, and detections were flowing in. But Dr. Kreidberg was lukewarm.

“This is just a flash in the pan,” she recalls thinking. We’ll identify some planets, calculate how big they are and how fast they orbit their stars, and then the excitement will die down. Their other features would remain in the realm of imagination, she thought. After all, how much could you really see from so far away?

So when a professor told her that he was trying to study not just exoplanets, but their atmospheres, she thought, “That sounds ridiculous.” But she was intrigued by the challenge.

Today, Dr. Kreidberg is a research fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics studying – you guessed it – exoplanet atmospheres. “So, yeah, it’s totally possible,” she says. “And we’ve done a lot already.” 

Just this week, in fact, two teams independently reported a breakthrough: the detection of water vapor in the atmosphere of an exoplanet orbiting a red dwarf star about 111 light-years away from Earth. 

Astronomers have detected water vapor in distant atmospheres before. But K2-18 b is the first exoplanet that also orbits its star in the habitable zone, the region around a star where it’s not too hot and not too cold for liquid water to exist – thought to be a key ingredient for biological life. It’s also one of the smallest planets for which scientists have been able to make such a detection so far.

“It’s not sci-fi anymore,” says Björn Benneke, an exoplanet researcher at the Université de Montréal and lead author on one of the papers published this week. “The really amazing thing about this era is that we’re now actively doing this. We can go and probe each planet by itself and see what’s going on there.”

With breakthroughs like these, scientists have begun to bring some aspects of those distant worlds into focus, but the data they can gather are still limited. Exoplanets largely remain shrouded in mystery, and studying them requires a flexible mind.

“It’s kind of some mental gymnastics that you have to do to imagine the planet as a real place,” says Dr. Kreidberg, who wasn’t involved in either study. “It’s hard sometimes to really grasp the reality of these planets that are so foreign compared to anything that we’ve seen in the solar system, that are so far away that we can’t actually see them.” 

Twinkle, twinkle

Most known exoplanets are too distant to image directly, even by our most powerful space telescopes. So astronomers typically take an indirect approach, known as the transit method.  

When an orbiting planet passes in front of its star, the star’s light dims ever so slightly. Imagine watching a mosquito pass a street lamp from a mile or so away, explains Hannah Wakeford, an exoplanet researcher at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, who was not part of either study. Starlight dimming at regular intervals suggests that the star hosts an orbiting planet.

But how can you tell anything about the planet – let alone its atmosphere – from such a subtle indication? 

Ironically, it’s the atmosphere’s transparency that enables scientists to detect it. When light passes through a gas, certain wavelengths are absorbed. Scientists can look at the light spectra to determine what’s in the atmosphere.

“The atmosphere is really the only accessible feature that we can observe for exoplanets that will give us any handle on their composition,” says Laura Schaefer, an exoplanet researcher at Stanford University who was not part of either study. And that, in turn, could potentially reveal surface conditions, habitability, or even, perhaps, if the planet is inhabited.

A lot of questions swirl around K2-18 b. The big one that everyone wants to know – could anything live there? – is still unanswerable. Although water vapor in the atmosphere of a planet in the habitable zone of its star is a good sign, researchers don’t know if K2-18 b actually has liquid water or any other characteristics thought necessarily for life as we know it to exist.

One of the research teams, however, did find that in a likely model of K2-18 b, liquid water rain clouds might form in the atmosphere. That scenario opens up the possibility of a sort of water cycle existing, explains Dr. Benneke, the study’s lead author. But, he says, that rain – if it exists – probably wouldn’t reach any kind of surface because the atmosphere is so thick.

K2-18 b sheds light on an exoplanet mystery that scientists have been puzzling over. Many exoplanets discovered so far don’t seem to be much like anything in our solar system, so scientists don’t have a model to use to figure out what they might look like. K2-18 b sits in that same not-so-sweet spot. Nearly twice the size of Earth and nearly nine times as massive, K2-18 b lies in a category somewhere between Earth, our solar system’s biggest rocky planet, and Neptune, our smallest gas giant. But that’s a puzzlingly large gap.

One of the new papers (the one published in Nature Astronomy) calls K2-18 b a “super Earth” while the other (uploaded to arXiv and led by Dr. Benneke) places it more in the “mini Neptune” camp. 

Which is it? Dr. Benneke says maybe it’s actually a sort of hybrid planet, with a rocky core and vast envelope of hydrogen. But outside scientists like Dr. Kreidberg point out that all that hydrogen gas would probably make it more Neptune-like, with the higher pressures deep in its atmosphere possibly creating a liquid hydrogen layer above any kind of rocky surface. 

Still, the new data on K2-18 b’s atmosphere is “definitely a milestone,” says Sara Seager, an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who isn’t an author on either paper. “It’s a step in the right direction because we’ve got to see the atmospheres in the hopes that the atmosphere will help tell us what these planets are.”

‘Seeing is believing’

It’s not easy to be pushing the boundaries of discovery. Just ask Dr. Seager. Today, she is the deputy science director for NASA’s newest exoplanet-hunting space telescope, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, which launched in April 2018. But two decades ago, her research was not so readily embraced.

Many scientists were skeptical that exoplanets were even detectable, let alone that someone could study their atmospheres. Instead, they suggested that perhaps the star’s variability caused it to dim, rather than a passing planet.

“It was a little awkward, actually, that even people on my thesis committee questioned the viability of the field,” Dr. Seager says. She was asked why she put clouds in models of atmospheres when exoplanet atmospheres weren’t even detectable. Dr. Seager earned her Ph.D. in 1999, but, she says, “today there are entire Ph.D. theses on clouds in exoplanet atmospheres.”

“What changed is that we got data,” Dr. Seager says. “Seeing is believing.”

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The Monitor's View

Elections that shape identity, not just shift power

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For the second time since its revolution in the 2011 Arab Spring, Tunisia will elect a new president Sunday. In the Arab world, which is mostly autocratic or chaotic, that alone is quite a feat. Tunisia’s success is matched only by Iraq’s progress in democracy since 2003.

Yet what stands out in both countries is a parallel rise in national identity. Elections have led people to unite around a shared stake in deciding their civic interests in a civil way rather than fighting over differences within Islam or the role of Islam in governance. Given an opportunity to vote for leaders making pledges on issues from security to corruption, voters take on a secular, patriotic solidarity, polls show.

People in both Tunisia and Iraq still wear many “hats” – Muslim, Arab, tribal, regional, etc. Yet by uniting around a democratic process to solve problems together, they create a bond that defines a wider identity, one based on civic ideals. As messy as their democracy may be, they are trying to see themselves in the greater good.

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Elections that shape identity, not just shift power

For the second time since its revolution in the 2011 Arab Spring, Tunisia will elect a new president Sunday. In the Arab world, which is mostly autocratic or chaotic, that alone is quite a feat. Tunisia’s success is matched only by Iraq’s progress in democracy since 2003.

Yet what stands out in both countries is a parallel rise in national identity. Elections have led people to unite around a shared stake in deciding their civic interests in a civil way rather than fighting over differences within Islam or the role of Islam in governance. Given an opportunity to vote for leaders making pledges on issues from security to corruption, voters take on a secular, patriotic solidarity, polls show.

Tunisia’s opportunity to further shape its identity is reflected in the number of presidential candidates: 26. The diversity on the list – populist TV tycoon, feminist, Islamist, technocrat, free-market advocate, leftist, and so on – gives voters ample freedom to choose the country’s future. In addition, the candidates held three debates, an unheard-of public event in the Arab world.

In the 2014 legislative elections, political battle lines were largely between supporters of secular rule and the Islamist party of Ennahda. Since then Ennahda has rebranded itself as a “Muslim democratic party.” One reason is that Tunisians care more about jobs and services than a government imposing Islam on a society with wide social divisions.

In Iraq, too, since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the overthrow of an Islamic State enclave in 2016, the country has tried to move away from sectarian battles. In an election last year, which resulted in the fourth successive peaceful transfer of power, issues of everyday governance were more important than religion divides.

Remarkably, polls show the minority Sunnis have more trust in a largely Shiite-led government than do Shiites. The percentage of Sunnis who identify first as “Iraqi” keeps rising. And a large majority of both Sunni and Shiites say they feel safe in their neighborhoods and that it is better to separate religion from politics, according to polling by the Independent Institute for Administration and Civil Society Studies.

People in both Tunisia and Iraq still wear many “hats” – Muslim, Arab, tribal, regional, etc. Yet by uniting around a democratic process to solve problems together, they create a bond that defines a wider identity, one based on civic ideals. As messy as their democracy may be, they are trying to see themselves in the greater good.

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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.

Nurturing our kids’ independence – with joy!

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Caught off guard by her own trepidation when it was time for her son to start preschool, a mother found encouragement in a Bible story about another mother-son duo. Our children may not always be in our care physically, but they are never beyond the reach of their Father-Mother God’s loving care.

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Nurturing our kids’ independence – with joy!

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Backpack on, paperwork filled out, hugs given – our child was ready for his first day of preschool.

The question was: Was I?

I was confident in our well-researched choice of preschool and loved the teachers. I knew my son was ready for the opportunity to learn and grow with other children in this new setting. But I was caught off guard by my own trepidation – that day would be the longest I had been away from him since his birth.

As parents, we are used to managing the moment-by-moment care of our children from day one. And yet, at one point or another, the time comes to place these beloved small persons into the hands of other caretakers for an increasing amount of time. These are joyful milestones, but we may also wonder, Will our children be safe and thrive, physically and emotionally, while not in our physical care?

While it’s natural and important to be wise about the quality of our children’s care and surroundings, we also have a right to challenge oppressive fear that would try to rob us of the joys of watching our children become increasingly independent. Not every moment of parenting will be filled with bliss. But we don’t have to feel trapped by fear.

When faced with my own feelings of fear and helplessness as a parent – like on that first day of preschool – I have often found a meaningful, encouraging example in Hagar, a biblical woman who learned this lesson in a powerful way.

The book of Genesis recounts that Hagar, one of Abraham’s wives, gave birth to Ishmael. But after Ishmael mocked the son of Abraham’s first wife, both Hagar and Ishmael were sent away. They then found themselves alone in the wilderness with no water. Unable to bear the possibility of her child’s seemingly certain death, Hagar placed Ishmael under a shrub and began to weep.

In that moment of utter helplessness and despair, though, the Bible tells us that “God heard the voice of the lad” (Genesis 21:17, emphasis added), comforted Hagar, and met the needs of both. Not only were Hagar and Ishmael sustained in the wilderness, but they both went on to experience fruitful and abundant lives.

It may seem like a stretch to liken Hagar’s situation, stranded in the wilderness with no water, to the fears of sending one’s child to school and gradually relinquishing moment-by-moment care. And yet, it seems to me that there’s a relevant lesson here. Perhaps in placing her child under a shrub and stepping away, Hagar was facing the realization that she would not always be able to meet her child’s every need in every moment, albeit in a most horrifying circumstance.

In that moment of learning her own limits as a parent, though, there is a promise for each one of us: No matter how alone we feel, no matter how helpless the situation seems, God, divine Love, speaks not only to us but to our children as well.

In “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of this newspaper and the discoverer of Christian Science, wrote, “Father-Mother is the name for Deity, which indicates His tender relationship to His spiritual creation” (p. 332). Our children may not always be in our care physically, but as the spiritual offspring of the Divine, they are never beyond the reach of their Father-Mother God’s loving care.

We can expect their “wilderness prayers” – their sincere, innocent desire to feel comforted, loved, and at peace in challenging situations – as well as ours, to be turned into fruitful and abundant possibilities. We can trust that all of us can feel and experience God’s tender care in tangible ways.

We will face challenging moments as we help our children learn to navigate the world with increasing independence – just as I did that first morning of preschool drop-off. But in those moments where we start to feel afraid and helpless, we can let our first step be to remember the experience of Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness. Our Father-Mother God is hearing our prayers, and quieting our fears with the promise that She is hearing and responding to our children’s needs. We can humbly listen for divine guidance on how to proceed with wisdom and joy. It’s as true today as it was thousands of years ago, and we can live that promise every day.

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Viewfinder

Photos of the week

Kin Cheung/AP
Photojournalists strive to capture moments that tell a full story, bringing news from the remotest corners of the globe in an instant. Through them we learn more about the world, and ourselves. Here is a roundup of photos from this week that Monitor photo editors found the most compelling.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( September 16th, 2019 )

Thanks for joining us and have a great weekend. Next week, we’ll begin a week of special coverage on climate change leading up to the United Nations summit.

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