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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

June
23
Friday

The terror attacks that have struck Europe have come with a notable exception. Italy has not had a major terrorist attack since the 1980s. 

In some ways, the distinction reflects Italy’s different realities. A smaller share of its population is Muslim than in Germany, Britain, or France. But how Italy approaches terrorism also matters: It is using the lessons it learned in tackling the Mafia. That means an attentive, no-nonsense approach. Yet it also involves an important shift in mind-set.

Terrorism aims to present a terrifying picture. During my time as a reporter in Pakistan, however, it became clear that it is also just an industry. It tempts young men with no job prospects. It brings wealth and influence to local bosses. The Osama bin Ladens of today are in some respects the Al Capones of the past. That doesn’t diminish the challenge, but it can change how we see terror, and it can also help in correctly diagnosing the deeper problems and solutions.

1. When laws are drafted behind closed doors, should we worry?

As Senate Republicans roll out their new health-care plan, there's a lot of chatter about the secrecy that has surrounded it. But those concerns might be missing the more important point.  

Mark
 

The 30 Sec. ReadA huge proposed law drafted in secret – that’s the new Senate health-care bill, right? Yes. But it’s the US Constitution, too, the foundation stone of the American government. Back in 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention voted to keep their proceedings under wraps. And for the most part, they did – though everybody kept their eye on the notoriously loose-lipped Ben Franklin. What this shows is that secrecy has marked the US lawmaking process throughout the nation’s history. It can help avoid outside political pressures and give participants the freedom to argue controversial points – and to change their minds. What it doesn’t show, however, is that the way Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has pulled together the proposed Senate health-care bill is normal. It’s just that secrecy per se may not be the issue. A limited number of participants, the lack of bipartisanship, and the rush toward a final vote: All these may be signs of a process outside the bounds of usual US procedure.

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1. When laws are drafted behind closed doors, should we worry?

The Senate Republican health-care bill was drafted behind closed doors. But secrecy has marked the creation of US laws since the Constitution – literally.

At the opening of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, delegates voted to keep their proceedings secret. For the most part, they did. The public did not learn the details of their proposed new US government until after the convention had adjourned.

This doesn’t mean the 2017 process that produced the Senate’s proposed health-care legislation was business as usual. Far from it – in some ways it was the most abnormal drafting of a big legislative package in memory.

What it does mean is that secrecy per se was not the most unusual part of the way Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell assembled the bill. The polarization of the process, the limited number of participants, and the rush to final passage – these may be bigger deviations from the norm.

“I can’t remember seeing anything like this before,” says Chris Edelson, an assistant professor of government in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington.

Political secrecy has a long and fraught history in the United States. Consider the Constitution: Delegates in May 1787 voted to pass their so-called “rule of secrecy” in part because the mood of the country was sour. Politics was marked by divisiveness. It seemed possible the nation might split up.

By keeping proceedings secret, leaders hoped to head off outside political pressures, particularly from state leaders with parochial concerns. They wanted to allow space for delegates to argue, and to change their minds. They wanted to produce a comprehensive agreement they could present to the nation as a package.

For the most part, it worked. Little leaked, in part because some delegates kept close watch over the notoriously loose-lipped Ben Franklin and his convivial dinners. The rest of the country got its first look at the proposed Constitution draft when it was published in a Philadelphia newspaper in September, two days after the convention had adjourned.

Vigorous public debate followed. On June 21, 1788, the Constitution became the law of the land when it was ratified by the ninth state out of 13, New Hampshire.

Secrecy today

Fast-forward 229 years to today. Secrecy as a political tool in America has had its ups and downs. In the context of the US Congress, periods of transparency have followed periods of centralized leadership control.

We're no longer in an era when powerful committee chairmen draw up bills in back rooms with a few of their buddies. But chamber leaders can still exert enormous control – if their party followers allow it, generally speaking.

“Secrecy is not new on Capitol Hill. We’ve always seen negotiations happen behind closed doors. Sometimes it’s the only way to get to agreement,” says Molly Reynolds, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Secret discussions by small groups remain a favored method to begin work on controversial issues. Take the Senate’s 2013 effort on immigration reform.

Four Democrats and four Republicans – the “Gang of Eight” – worked behind closed doors to produce a package in which both sides gave up something to get something.

As a bipartisan group, they then defended their bill in Senate committees and on the floor. It passed with a strong majority – 68 to 32. (The House did not take up the bill, killing it.)

McConnell's select group

Majority Leader McConnell’s approach to health care began in approximately the same manner. But his small group had 13, not eight. 

The Senate’s approach to health-care reform has been a highly unusual process in other ways, as well.

The first difference was the homogeneity of the working group. All members were white Republican men. No Democrats were invited. Given the subject of the effort, the all-GOP aspect was probably inevitable. Any bill that could credibly qualify as a repeal of Obamacare would likely attract zero Democratic votes.

But McConnell also excluded Republican senators with backgrounds in insurance, including Susan Collins of Maine and Tim Scott of South Carolina, the Senate's only African-American member.

Secret from the start

The second difference was the speed with which McConnell reverted to the secret bill process. He used it from the beginning.

“Often we’ve seen secrecy happen after a more open process has failed to work,” says Dr. Reynolds of Brookings.

Broad immigration efforts, for instance, had already died in the chamber before the Gang of Eight took over.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the non-secret part of the Senate process of considering the health legislation is quite truncated. There are not going to be committee hearings. (Or state ratification conventions, as there were in the case of the Constitution.) Floor debate is limited.

To critics, that means the reason the Senate GOP leadership used secrecy was not to prepare for a difficult debate, but as a means to hustle the bill through as quickly as possible.

“To me watching what’s happened with this legislation, it seems like the goal was to keep this out of the public eye so it could move forward,” says Professor Edelson of American University.

It may also be that McConnell faces bureaucratic imperatives for moving quickly. The vagaries of the budget process mean that he needs to get this out of the way as soon as possible. Or he may just want to clear health care off the Senate's plate, win or lose.

By Peter Grier
Staff writer
( 876 words )
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2. The president and the press

The relationship between the press and the White House might seem unprecedented, but it reflects a change long under way in how Americans perceive their institutions.

Mark
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3. A city without cars? Helsinki tries to persuade Finns to give up their keys.

How do you change car drivers' behavior? It's a question that's been debated from Los Angeles to London for decades. But here's a Nordic twist: What if a city could reengineer itself to make cars a bad investment? Helsinki, Finland, is trying to do just that.   

Mark
 

The 30 Sec. ReadCars are expensive – especially when you factor in how much time they end up sitting around, doing nothing. “On average, a privately owned car is used 4 percent of the time,” says Ville Lehmuskoski, chief executive officer of Helsinki City Transport, the body that oversees the Finnish capital’s public transport infrastructure. “The other 96 percent … represents an enormous loss of resources.” But what if you could realize that lost potential, from an entire city’s worth of cars? That’s what Helsinki is trying to do via a sweeping transformation of its public transportation system. Transit users would specify an origin and a destination via a mobile app, which would then function as both a journey planner and universal payment platform, fusing everything from driverless cars and buses to shared bikes and ferries. If successful, the system would be competitive with private car ownership on cost and convenience. And as important, it could free millions of euros sunk into car ownership “to speed up the economy in a more effective way, or otherwise benefit the society,” says Mr. Lehmuskoski. 

SOURCE: National Land Survey of Finland (www.maanmittauslaitos.fi/en)
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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3. A city without cars? Helsinki tries to persuade Finns to give up their keys.

For years, environmentalists and urban planners on both sides of the Atlantic have been fantasizing about few- or no-car city living, in order to make their municipalities easier and safer places to live, while also reducing their carbon footprint.

The mayors of a number of cities, such as Paris, Athens, and Mexico City, have committed their governments to banning cars by 2025. Others, such as Oslo and London, have imposed partial moratoriums and fees on city driving. But such bans are difficult to enforce and politically contentious.

In Helsinki, Finland, a city that prides itself on its civic-mindedness, municipal authorities are looking at the challenge of phasing out the car in a different way: as a matter of efficiency and incentivization.

“It is a fact that on average, a privately owned car is used 4 percent of the time,” says Ville Lehmuskoski, chief executive officer of Helsinki City Transport, the municipal body responsible for the Finnish capital’s public transport infrastructure. “The other 96 percent – the 96 percent of the time when it is parked there sitting around – represents an enormous loss of resources, particularly money and space.

“If the need for cars in the Helsinki region could be lessened by only 25 percent,” Mr. Lehmuskoski continues, “it would mean 100,000 fewer cars. If the average value of the car is €10,000 [$11,150], that would mean €1 billion [$1.1 billion] could be freed to speed up the economy in a more effective way, or otherwise benefit the society.”

Getting Greater Helsinki’s million-odd, peninsula-centered residents to view the privately owned car as an uneconomic investment of the region’s finite resources, rather than a matter of private convenience, is an offshoot of Finland’s social democratic history and experience.

“Helsinki has chosen a different strategy from other European cities,” says Marko Forsblom, chief executive officer of Intelligent Transport Systems, a Finnish transportation think tank. “It has chosen to create such good alternatives to the private car that people voluntarily choose other modes than owning a car. It has chosen to get people to look and think about their cars differently.”

Probably not an outright ban

The notion of banning cars in the Finnish capital is not new. The Green League, which consolidated its foothold as the second largest party in Helsinki in April’s city council election, openly supports such a ban. However, as the preponderance of voters who cast their ballots for the “pro-car” conservative National Coalition Party made clear, an outright ban is not in the works, at least for the moment.

That’s all right with Helsinki’s transportation community. “I don’t believe that cars in Finland or Helsinki will be banned,” says Lehmuskoski. “I believe that walking, cycling, and public transport will be more and more user-friendly so that competitiveness of passenger cars will decrease. Pricing of car traffic may also increase attractiveness of sustainable modes in the future.”

Anne Berner, Finnish minister of Transport and Communications, also discourages the notion that public transport and the private car are incompatible. “There has been a lot of discussion, including heated exchanges, in Helsinki about future transport policy and infrastructure choices,” says Ms. Berner. “But overall I would say that most people see public transport and private car use as complementing each other. Many people also acknowledge that to meet our strict emission targets and cut CO2 emissions, some changes are needed.”

Of course, letting go of the idea of owning a car is easier to do in a city that has one of the more efficient and popular metropolitan and regional transport systems in Europe. As any visitor to the Finnish capital can attest, Helsinki’s trams, subways, and buses are attractive, well maintained, efficient, and nearly always on time.

One of Helsinki City Transport's new Arctic trams crosses Senate Square at sunset.
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Niklas Sjšblom/Courtesy of Helsinki City Transport

The proportion of Helsinki’s population using public transport reached a peak in 1966, when two-thirds of all Helsinkians’ journeys within the metropolitan area were via public transport. That share declined during the 1970s and ’80s as Finland rebounded from the war and more Finns were able to buy cars. Public transport’s share of total journeys bottomed out in 2008 at 42 percent.

Since then, its share has been rising again, a trend the city leaders are happy to encourage.

“I’m very satisfied with the quality of public transport,” says Heidi Silvennoinen, a young architect who lives in Otaniemi, a suburb of Helsinki. “I mostly travel from Otaniemi, which is 15 minutes away. Buses run every 10 minutes during rush hour and every half-hour during the rest of the day and until 5 in the morning.”

“With that level of convenience, why would I need to buy a car?” she adds.

Lessons from World War II and Nokia

Finland has a history of marshaling its spatial and economic resources and thinking out of the box. Witness the way Finland transformed itself from an agricultural society to an industrial-based one after the devastation of World War II. Or how Finns, led by Jorma Ollila, CEO of the telecom giant Nokia, ignited the telecommunications revolution of the 1990s – and helped power the country out of that decade’s economic depression.

Indeed, there is a direct connection between the thinking behind Nokia and the new “mobility as a service” (MaaS) philosophy that Helsinki is trying to bring to the challenge of phasing out the car. As Sampo Hietanen, CEO of MaaS Global, one of the start-ups behind the car rethink, points out, transportation and mobility “are commodities that we need to have to be in contact with each other.”

“I would argue that the potential for productivity gains in mobility will be the biggest driver for economic growth in the next few decades,” says Mr. Hietanen. “Eighty-five percent of the market value of a single-occupancy vehicle that is used 4 percent of the time.”

The ultimate objective of the MaaS “movement” is to provide residents of Helsinki with a range of options so cheap, flexible, and well coordinated that it becomes competitive with private car ownership, in terms of both cost and convenience. Subscribers to MaaS Global, which promotes itself as a “carefree, environmentally sound alternative to owning a car,” would specify an origin and a destination. The MaaS Global app would then function as both a journey planner and universal payment platform, fusing everything from driverless cars and buses to shared bikes and ferries into a “mesh” of mobility.

“It’s a different way of ‘connecting people,’ ” says Hietanen, referencing a former Nokia slogan.

As far as Berner, the minister of Transport, is concerned, this kind of innovative transportation thinking is a moral and environmental imperative for Finland, as well as an economic one. With the rapidly expanding capital’s arterial and ring roads congested with traffic, Finnish authorities are willing to try anything that has a realistic prospect of reducing the number of cars, while providing a similar level of convenience.

Transport planners already have a good “template” to work with, both in terms of the number of car-owning households and the quality of the current public transportation system. As Mr. Forsblom points out, “The fact is, today the majority of households in Helsinki – about 55 percent – are carless.”

“The importance of public transport has steadily grown in city planning,” says Pekka Sauri, Helsinki’s deputy mayor. As proof of the city’s commitment to public transport, Mr. Sauri cites the new multibillion-euro light rail line being built to connect several parts of Helsinki with the neighboring city of Espoo, as well as a fast bus line to connect the two metropolises.

Making it easier to ‘let go’

At the same time, officials are trying to make it easier for Helsinkians to let go of their cars – or at least their second cars – and switch to public transport by converting a number of the congested main roads into “city boulevards,” with lower speed limits and high-speed trams. They’re also widening walking areas in the city.

Sauri admits that enabling car mobility is low on his list of city mobility priorities. “The mobility priorities in city planning are, in descending order, walking, cycling, public transport, deliveries, and private cars,” says the longtime city manager.

Surprisingly, many car dealers are open to the government’s push to phase out, or at least deemphasize, the car. “I think it’s understandable that the government would wish to restrict or phase out the car if it is to fulfill its environmental directives,” says Tomi Riihimäki, CEO of Autocompany, a private high-end secondhand auto and boat dealership.

Mr. Riihimäki, who has been in the car business since the 1980s, confirms that attitudes toward car ownership among Helsinkians have changed, particularly among young people. “Many young people have given up driving,” he says. Nevertheless, he says business is good.

One thing he notices is that people are thinking more about what kind of car they want. He also has seen a surge in interest in electric cars, particularly among Millennials.

Riihimäki, who lives in Katajanokka, on the edge of the Helsinki peninsula, notes that he is an avid user of Helsinki’s public transport system. “I use public transport every time I can,” he says. “If anything, I would like to see the city institute more ferries to make better use of our water lines. After all, we are located on a cape.”

On-demand minibus service canceled

But Helsinki’s progress toward a brave new digitalized transport millennium has not been a straight line. Witness the city government’s decision to pull the plug on its much-heralded Kutsuplus. For a year and a half, the pioneering on-demand minibus service had allowed riders to choose their own route and summon a trip in real time with their smartphone.

Ajelo, a local tech start-up, developed the dispatch system, which was able to constantly adapt routes for each bus, aggregate user requests in real time, and calculate journeys to accommodate every passenger – in a sense, what MaaS purports to do. Helsinki Region Transport Authority managed the vehicles. But at the end of 2015, the new system, which charged more than a normal bus but less than a taxi, was abandoned because it required too much of a subsidy.

“It’s unfortunate that Kutsuplus didn’t pan out,” says Forsblom. “Nevertheless, it was a valuable experiment which resulted in a lot of new know-how and changed our thinking about the possibilities of on-demand driven transportation.”

This suits the Finnish government just fine. If Helsinki can serve as an incubator for new ideas in transportation that other countries can use, as it did with telecommunications in the ’90s, so much the better. In fact, the government sees the possibility of leveraging Finnish expertise in transportation into an exportable product that can help lift the country out of its current economic doldrums – just as Nokia did.

As Berner states optimistically, “We have the right ingredients to succeed at this, including the entrepreneurial energy and tech know-how. So hopefully we are seeing the birth of a thriving and exportable mobility ecosystem.”

Or as Forsblom puts it, “Our own domestic problems are rather small, but we’d like to use our experience and ideas to help other cities and societies find a better and more rational way of using their resources.”

After all, Finns figure, if they’ve shown the world how to connect one way, why not another?

By Gordon F. Sander
Correspondent
( 1857 words )
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4. Tech companies caught between American, European ideals

When can France veto the First Amendment? When the internet brings the free-speech values of American tech companies into Europe's backyard, perhaps. In that way, the internet is fueling a larger clash over countries' different visions of fundamental rights. 

Mark
 

The 30 Sec. ReadAmerican technology companies have long advocated preserving the internet as a forum for a free exchange of ideas. That principle resonates throughout the United States. But the World Wide Web extends far beyond US borders. And, increasingly, Silicon Valley companies are struggling to accommodate conflicting ideas of censorship and freedom of speech found around the world. That conflict has become especially pronounced as European leaders consider laws that would penalize tech companies for failing to adequately censor content that has been flagged as inappropriate. To leaders in Britain, France, and Germany, nations that have dealt with an increase in terrorism, it's simply a question of public safety. But in the US, where technology companies are legally protected from liability for content posted to their sites by third parties, many worry that Europe's push for such laws could lead to “censorship creep.” As one analyst tells the Monitor: “The policies and practices we develop now are what will shape our entire [online] infrastructure for the next few decades.”

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4. Tech companies caught between American, European ideals

A spate of terrorist attacks in London, and reports that the attackers may have been radicalized online, has prompted leaders of several European countries to propose legislation that would hold technology companies accountable for the distribution of terrorist content on their platforms. 

Google and Facebook have both responded with internally developed strategies to combat the use of their websites to recruit and inspire would-be terrorists. At first glance, these efforts are an attempt to address European concerns, in hopes of preempting legislation that would likely include punitive measures for companies that fail to adequately censor terrorist content.

But on a deeper level, they are an attempt by some of the most prominent gatekeepers of the World Wide Web to balance conflicting US and European ideals around freedom of speech and censorship. And they highlight existing tensions between desires for an open, democratic flow of information and for a platform that doesn’t host hate speech, terrorist propaganda, or other harmful ideas.

“What we’re seeing and grappling with as a society is, what does it mean when potentially every individual has access to a global platform for their ideas and expression?” says Emma Llansó, the director of the Free Expression Project at Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for a free and open internet.

“That’s not something that our societies have had to deal with before, and that’s what’s underlying a lot of these tensions here. The internet famously removes gatekeepers from our ability to access information or express ourselves.”

Mounting pressure

The criticisms that tech companies aren’t doing enough to monitor extremist content started increasing two years ago, particularly after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris in early 2015, say experts. In the past few months, those calls for an online crackdown have grown louder, in the wake of more attacks by terrorists who seem to have been inspired in part by videos they found online.

After recent attacks in London, British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron said they are developing plans to fine internet companies if they fail to remove “extremist” propaganda from their platforms. Ms. May has been a frequent critic of tech companies, and has promised to “regulate cyberspace.” In Germany, meanwhile, a draft law approved by the German cabinet earlier this spring would fine companies up to 50 million Euros if they fail to remove hate speech and fake news within 24 hours of having it reported (companies would have seven days to deal with less clear-cut cases).

With terrorist recruitment increasingly moving into social media and online platforms, such calls are understandable, American critics say, but the sort of laws being proposed in Europe risk tipping the balance toward a dangerous censorship.

“It’s so easy to point to the need for internet companies to do more that that becomes a real rallying cry,” says Daphne Keller, the director of Intermediary Liability at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, and a former associate general counsel to Google. “In European lawmaking, they don’t have very good tech advice on what’s really possible. And the cost of a badly drafted law won’t fall on their constituents, so the temptation to engage in magical thinking is very great.” With a law like the one Germany has proposed, she and other say, the only way to comply with it would be to remove everything flagged, since there’s no time allowed for nuanced decisionmaking.

Silicon Valley response

With the threat of punitive laws looming, Google and Facebook have taken public steps to bolster their policies around extremist content.

Earlier this week, Google announced a four-pronged effort that includes increased use of technology to identify terrorist-related videos, additional human “flaggers” to make decisions about what to remove, warning labels and removal of advertising on potentially objectionable videos, and a revived effort to direct potential terrorist recruits toward counter-radicalization videos.

Facebook made similar announcements last week, including increased use of artificial intelligence to stop the spread of terrorist propaganda and plans to hire 3,000 more people over the next year to review the more nuanced cases.

“Our stance is simple: There’s no place on Facebook for terrorism,” the company announced in its statement.

But the fixes are often far from simple, say experts, and companies walk a fine line as they try to provide a platform that encourages an open exchange of ideas while also seeking to make that platform as safe as possible. Add to that the current legislative environment in Europe, and some observers worry that the pressure will cause companies to remove too much content, and put Google, Facebook, and others in the role of censor.

In the United States, home to both Google and Facebook as well as several other major players in the social media space, issues of censorship are not taken lightly. Freedom of speech is enshrined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, a principle that informs American views of how the internet should be used.

“We’re delegating decisions about the kinds of things that, if it was a Supreme Court decision, would be incredibly sensitive, and we’d be hanging on every word,” says Ms. Keller. “Instead, we have private companies doing it in back rooms.”

Who gets to decide?

Legally, private companies clearly have the right to enforce their own terms of service, and decide what content to remove, but critics say the increased pressure from governments on those companies starts to blur who is making the decisions.

As the European Union puts significant pressure on the major social-media platforms to remove hate speech and “extremist” speech, “We're seeing companies try to placate the EU commission and national governments by adopting changes to their terms of service,” says Danielle Citron, a cyber-harassment expert at the University of Maryland School of Law who has worked with tech companies for a decade.

Since terms of service apply globally, this has the effect of making EU speech norms apply to everyone, even though in many cases their definitions of hate speech and extremist speech are very broad – so broad that Professor Citron says they can “easily encompass political dissent” and turn into what she calls “censorship creep.”

“One politician's terrorist speech is another person's political dissent,” she says.

Under that sort of pressure, Citron says, “who becomes the censor is really the government."

Ms. Llansó of CDT says that some moderation by social-media companies is clearly appropriate – but emphasizes the need for both transparency and an avenue for appeals. And she also cautions against making rash decisions due to public fear. In the wake of repeated terrorist attacks, the need for immediate action can seem imperative, and social media companies are an easy and attractive target.

But, says Llansó, there is an even stronger imperative to take the time to get this right, because of the implications it may have on the openness and rules of the internet well into the future.

“We’re not only talking about how do we deal with terrorist propaganda on social-media platforms,” Llansó says. “The policies and practices we develop now are what will shape our entire [online] infrastructure for the next few decades…. These are standards that will be applied to every challenging issue around free speech we encounter in the coming years.”

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5. Ramadan? There's an app for that.

In the Muslim world, this year's Ramadan is showing how technology can significantly change a core religious observance. 

Mark
Volunteers distribute free iftar meals, one of several initiatives funded online as part of Ramadan's spirit of giving. Tkiyet Um Ali's Ramadan food delivery is sponsored by online donations and through its zakat app.
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Courtesy of Tkiyet Um Ali
 

The 30 Sec. ReadWhen it’s time for engineer Omar Hussein to break his daylong Ramadan fast, he doesn’t wait for the call to prayer or watch state-run TV to confirm sunset has arrived. He reaches for his mobile phone … and his Ramadan apps. “I have apps for the call to prayer, for prayer times – this Ramadan I am never late,” Mr. Hussein says in Amman, Jordan, as he rushes off after supplemental evening prayers. “People use technology for all aspects of life,” he says. “We are using technology for devotion to God.” The month of Ramadan – a time of reflection and selflessness – involves a challenging schedule of meals, fasting, and prayer. This year, the proliferation of apps and online programs has been revolutionizing centuries-old traditions, with millions of Muslims worldwide using new technologies to help in their observance. Some of the apps facilitate donations to charity, a central pillar of Ramadan. Says the chief executive officer of a charity that has seen its online donations double: “We are witnessing tremendous growth online and through the app. It is an easier way for people to give back.”

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5. Ramadan? There's an app for that.

Ramadan is a holy month of reflection, prayer, and selflessness.

It is also a month of fasting – and carefully timed schedules. Of particular challenge is the ever-shifting times for sunset, dawn, and prayers.

After fasting all day, families gather at sunset for the iftar meal, individuals offer supplemental prayers throughout the night, and households must prepare the pre-dawn suhour meal before the final call for morning prayers and before the next day’s cycle, steeped in tradition, begins again.

But when the time nears to break his day-long fast, engineer Omar Hussein does not wait for the call to prayer or watch state-run TV to confirm that sunset has arrived.

He reaches for his mobile phone … and his Ramadan apps.

“I have apps for the call to prayer, for prayer times – this Ramadan I am never late,” Mr. Hussein says in Amman one evening as he rushes off after supplemental tarawih prayers. (There’s an app for that.)

“People use technology for all aspects of life,” he says. “We are using technology for devotion to God.”

This Ramadan, the proliferation of apps and online programs have been revolutionizing centuries-old traditions, with technology helping Muslims connect with the spiritual event and organize the 1,400-year-old observance.

Millions of Muslims worldwide now are using Ramadan apps produced by several individuals and groups. One of the most comprehensive is Ramadan 2017, which provides prayer times and fasting schedules for more than 200 countries. It sets alarms to inform users anywhere in the world when to break their fast, and counts down the last minutes to have the suhour meal before the fasting resumes.

Which way is Mecca?

Apps have even updated the centuries-old tradition of families gathering to await the adhan, or sunset call to prayer, from the nearest mosque before iftar.

Muslim Pro-Ramadan 2017, a comprehensive app reportedly used by 30 million Muslims across the world, provides an adhan accurate to the user’s geographic location, a useful tool in Western countries where mosques are not numerous, or in households where boisterous family gatherings can drown out the call to prayer. 

There are even digital updates of the millennia-old practice of prayer groups, maqrah, and well-versed clerics who provide Quranic recitation lessons in the mosque before or after prayer. Apps such as Khatmeh assist in Quranic recitation and give suggestions for additional supplications to recite after each prayer, while the iPhone app iQuran allows worshipers to select and repeat Quranic verses in several languages. Also widely popular among the devout is Dua 2017, a collection of hundreds of special prayers and dua, or supplications, read by leading Islamic clerics and imams.  

Entering mosques in Amman prior to prayer-time, nearly a third of those gathered to recite prayers hold their phones as they would the Quran itself.

Even Google is taking part in the festivities, having launched a new Android app this Ramadan called Qibla Finder, a detailed chart and augmented reality map pointing users in the direction of the Kabaa in Mecca, toward which all Muslims are to face as they pray.

Facilitating charity

The other pillar of Ramadan is charity.

While good deeds are encouraged throughout the holy month, Muslims who are able are required to provide for the poor during Ramadan in what is called zakat al fitr.

Again, the apps and internet don’t disappoint. Now, charitable organizations are providing ways for Muslims across the world to donate, with the click of a button, to those impacted by war, poverty, and hunger.

One of the largest charitable organizations with an online zakat donations is Tikyet Um Ali, a Jordanian NGO that works to eradicate hunger throughout the country.

All zakat proceeds go directly to Tkiyet Um Ali’s food parcels, providing the daily food needs for 25,000 families – more than 150,000 people – across Jordan. The Iftaa Department, the top Islamic body in Jordan, certifies that donations go to families in need in accordance to sharia law.

Tkiyet Um Ali has seen its online donations double to 10 percent of all the donations it receives for the year; the vast majority of donors are Jordanians abroad, while 10 percent are non-Jordanian Muslims across the world looking to donate to a worthy cause.

Tkiyet Um Ali’s online zakat also has been a tool for wealthy individuals in the Gulf looking to reach impoverished communities.

“We are witnessing tremendous growth online and through the app. It is an easier way for people to give back,” says Samer Balkar, Tkiyet Um Ali CEO.

Worldwide donations for Syrians

For a more specific cause, the Molham Team, a Syrian charitable organization reaching Syrians both within and outside the war-torn country, allows persons to donate their zakat online to individuals with specific needs.

But it has been the organization’s Ramadan appeals that have seen the most interest.

Organizers say they have been receiving increased online donations during the holy month, including $100,000 to provide iftar meals for Syrians in besieged towns and villages, and raising $50,000 for a special Ramadan zakat fund.

“People across the world have shown an interest in donating to help Syrians during the holy month. This Ramadan we have seen donations from the Gulf, Europe, and even Palestine,” says Ahmad Abushaar, the Molhem Team organizer in Amman.

“People are generous during Ramadan, it is like a call to action – and we are using technology to continue this call,” Mr. Abushaar says.

By Taylor Luck
Correspondent
( 802 words )
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Viewfinder

6. Castles in the sand

Sand carver Franco Daga from Italy works on a sculpture during the Sand Sculpture Festival 'Disney Sand Magic' in Ostend, Belgium, on June 22.
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Yves Herman/Reuters
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The Monitor's View

A call to ‘fear-guard’ countries in a pandemic

 

The 30 Sec. ReadOne big lesson learned from the Ebola and Zika outbreaks is the need to prevent panic during a public health emergency. The new phrase is to “fear-guard” a country. During many disease outbreaks, say experts, a “pandemic of fear” can be more devastating to a society and an economy than the disease itself. Business and travel stop. Trust in a government’s ability to handle a crisis evaporates. People stigmatize each other. Most of all, panic can disrupt care and comfort to the sick. “Responding to fear and misinformation will be one of the most critical challenges in handling future pandemics,” states a new report, “Pandemonium,” published by Global Governance Futures. Or as Florence Nightingale, a pioneer in health care, advised nurses in the 19th century: “How very little can be done under the spirit of fear.”

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A call to ‘fear-guard’ countries in a pandemic

Three years after the Ebola epidemic, and two years since the Zika outbreak, experts are more active than ever in pulling together lessons in hopes of not repeating past mistakes during another health crisis. A Senate panel in Washington plans a hearing soon on “pandemic protection.” In May, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a new strategy for pandemic influenza. And the World Health Organization has a new leader promising better preparation and response.

One big lesson learned is the need to prevent panic during a public health emergency. The new phrase is to “fear-guard” a country. During many disease outbreaks, say experts, a “pandemic of fear” can be more devastating to a society and an economy than the disease itself. Business and travel stop. Trust in a government’s ability to handle a crisis evaporates. People stigmatize each other. Most of all, panic can disrupt care and comfort to the sick.

A “contagion of fear” often causes enormous economic disruption. The three countries worst hit by Ebola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea, lost 10 percent of their gross domestic product. Gambia, which had no reported cases of Ebola, saw a 50 percent drop in flights in early 2015.

Two new studies help point to solutions.

One, sponsored by the World Bank and the Wellcome Trust, calls for an end to the cycle of “panic and neglect” to disease outbreaks. The report states; “Pandemics attract a lot of attention when they are at their height; but once the worst is over, the sense of urgency disappears, both at the global and country level, and we start all over again.”

One global problem is that only one-third of countries have the ability to detect and respond to public health emergencies. But for all countries, which are more connected and interdependent than ever, fear can spread “extraordinarily rapidly,” the report adds.

The other report, titled “Pandemonium” and published by Global Governance Futures, says improved institutions and better financing are not enough to deal with the effects of fear in an outbreak. It suggests non-health sectors, such as religious institutions and other community influencers, should help. News media, for example, can agree beforehand on how to deal with rumors and avoid sensationalism and gross generalizations. Social media giants such as Facebook could have guidelines on how to deal with misinformation during a crisis.

“Responding to fear and misinformation will be one of the most critical challenges in handling future pandemics,” the report states.

Or as Florence Nightingale, a pioneer in health care, advised nurses in the 19th century: “How very little can be done under the spirit of fear.”

By The Monitor's Editorial Board
( 429 words )
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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.

The joy of true beauty

 

When efforts to become more attractive involve surgical enhancements, one mother wants to help her daughters find beauty beyond the physical. One definition of beauty includes this: “joy and gladness; order; prosperity; peace; holiness.” These attributes suggest that what’s beautiful is actually of a spiritual nature. Aren’t we all able to express the love, joy, and grace that make up true beauty?

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The joy of true beauty

Efforts to obtain what one might call bodily perfection can verge on the extreme. Many young women especially are convinced that an embellishment, procedure, or reconstruction effort is needed to reach a physical ideal. Issues of self-worth and self-acceptance may be at the core of this. As I learned more about the popularity of these enhancements, my heart went out to my daughters and all the world’s young women. I felt that bringing healing to this issue starts with an understanding of what true beauty is.

One definition of “beauty” reads: “joy and gladness; order; prosperity; peace; holiness.” These attributes point to beauty as a spiritual quality we can cultivate from within.

The saying “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” became real to me as I watched my younger daughter, a fourth-grader, delightfully discover a new store. In her excitement she bubbled with laughter, and her joy was contagious. Everyone in the store lit up smiling. Her joy continued nonstop, for about 30 minutes! Some might say they’d like to bottle that.

I felt we were witnessing her true beauty – pure joy that filled the whole atmosphere with lightness and love. It really had nothing to do with her physical appearance. We were simply seeing the spiritual essence of a beautiful child.

This reminded me of one of Christ Jesus’ sayings: “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). Doesn’t this indicate that we already possess the deepest, most beautiful, and highest sense of ourselves that we could ever have – that we naturally reflect the goodness that is God?

The Monitor’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy, put it this way: “God fashions all things, after His own likeness. Life is reflected in existence, Truth in truthfulness, God in goodness, which impart their own peace and permanence. Love, redolent with unselfishness, bathes all in beauty and light” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 516).

Truthfully, we are all the children of God. We all reflect divine intelligence, love, beauty, and grace. Even though we have varying backgrounds and look different, we all have the same divine parentage. There’s a verse from a Christian Science hymn that lovingly encourages us to think about our heritage in this spiritual way:

You are God’s purpose, His great design.
Beautiful, blameless, His child divine.
Holding your thoughts to the good and the true,
Spirit will form you anew. (Peter B. Allen, “Christian Science Hymnal: Hymns 430-603,” No. 565).

Having a material view of ourselves and striving to reach physical perfection leads us to be too self-critical. But a spiritual view helps each one of us – man, woman, and child – to see that our true beauty is our spiritual identity, as “God’s reflection, needing no cultivation, but ever beautiful and complete” (Science and Health, p. 527).

Being more convinced of this myself, I feel I can better help my daughters understand and appreciate the joy of true beauty in themselves and others.

By Stefanie Milligan
( 487 words )
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In Our Next Issue

( June 26th, 2017 )

Have a great weekend. If you're looking for a movie, Monitor film critic Peter Rainer says that to call "The Big Sick" "the best comedy of the year is to skimp on its appeal." Based on the life of Kumail Nanjiani, a Pakistani comic, and his wife, Emily Gordon, a television comedy writer, "it's about the fraught courtship of two cultures."

We'll see you Monday, when we'll be looking at the US Supreme Court's term and the potentially landmark cases still left to be decided.

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