WTF Friday, 2/20/2015

A few weeks ago, I wondered how 3,172 year old dictator Robert Mugabe would celebrate his birthday (actually, his 91st) this year.

The answer turns out to be: by gorging on Zimbabwe’s precious wildlife. The big day is tomorrow, and the menu reportedly includes ELEPHANT MEAT. This man is leaving no box unchecked in his quest for super-villain status.

I’m at #ISA2015, so that’s all I’ve got for today, but here is a giraffe standing perfectly still to avoid being spotted and eaten by Robert Mugabe.

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(Photo credit: me, 2010.)

“Author Perumal Murugan is dead.”

The conflict between respect for faith and freedom of expression has been a hot topic in the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks. But somehow the story of Tamil writer Perumal Murugan hasn’t made much of an impression outside of India.

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Earlier this month, Murugan announced on his Facebook page that he was killing off his identity as a writer and asked publishers to stop selling copies of his work. He had been hounded by hardline Hindu groups over his 2010 novel, Mathorubhagan. The book (translated into English as One Part Woman in 2013) tells the story of an early 20th century couple from the Gounder caste community in the town of Thiruchengode. Childless and desperate to conceive, they turn to a temple festival at which extra-marital sex is permitted in the hope that the wife will become pregnant with a “god’s child”.

Although its initial release was met with critical acclaim, there were objections that the book insulted Hinduism in its portrayal of the licentious temple festival (which oral histories suggest was an actual custom). Then the local Gounder community in Thiruchengode got on board, complaining that Murugan made them look bad. In late 2014, their protests escalated into book burnings, calls for Murugan’s arrest, and a bandh (a strike… ish) in the area.

I asked political scientist and friend-of-the-blog Pavi Suryanarayan to link this episode into the broader politics of speech policing in India.

She explained that India’s constitutional guarantee of free speech has been repeatedly amended to incorporate so-called “reasonable restrictions” to protect religious feelings. But, although there have been high profile cases of the state banning books under this logic (Rushdie’s Satanic Verses for one), recently it’s been happening without the state’s involvement. In the case of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus, for instance, “the publishing house voluntarily took the book off the shelves to avoid being taken to court by Hindu groups”.

Similarly, the silencing of Murugan was driven by non-state actors; even though he offered to change the book’s setting to a fictional town, the protesters refused to stand down. Pavi warned that this may be a sign of a things to come in Modi’s India:

“The strategy of book burning and protests has taken on more credibility amongst Hindu right-wing groups after the success of the Doniger case. With a BJP government in power, with [Hindu nationalist NGO] RSS shakhas (units) growing at faster rates than ever before, and with right-wing parties keen to make forays into new electoral territories such as Tamil Nadu, book banning seem like a tactic that will have good payoffs in rallying potential Hindu voters.”

Speech policing is always a divisive political issue. And as long as we’re all thinking about it this month anyway, we should probably pay more attention to how it’s handled in the world’s largest and most diverse democracy.

WTF Friday, 6/20/14

Welcome to this week’s WTF Friday, “Let’s All Demonize Refugees and Abused Children” edition.

The day started out promisingly. This morning, in honor of World Refugee Day, Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement:

“It is a time to honor the strength and resilience of refugees around the world and renew our determination to support them as they rebuild their lives and communities. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees now counts the number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced persons at 51 million. That number is staggering by any measure. It represents children, women, and men from Syria, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and now Iraq, who face death, destruction, and dislocation.”

But refugees don’t just come from “Syria, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and now Iraq.” They also come from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico. And many of them come to the United States, including, recently, thousands of children.

Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have “renewed our determination” to support those refugees. Vice President Biden is at this very moment meeting with the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to clear up “confusion” over U.S. immigration policy in order to stem the flow of migrants fleeing the brutal violence that plagues those countries.

The confusion he’s referring to, as best as I can tell, is the optimistic belief that we would actually follow our obligations under U.S. and international law. (Namely, that we would not return refugees to countries where they would face persecution or torture, and would not deport children to situations where they would face abuse, human trafficking, or worse.) Nah, bro, apparently the plan is to “step up detention and deportation.”

And then we have the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, who has just announced a hearing next week on the ways that child refugees and migrants are “gaming” the system. By which he literally means “applying for immigration relief via the processes set forth in U.S. law, and obtaining such relief if the relevant legal standards are met.” To wit:

“Unaccompanied alien minors are not subject to expedited removal under current law, and many – if not a majority – of them are eligible for immigration relief under current law.”

Following current law? Apocalypse, basically.

Memo to the executive and legislative branches: there is no “unless it’s, like, a little inconvenient” exception to the Refugee Convention. Sometimes refugee flows are burdensome, and that’s just the situation. Jordan is currently hosting more than half a million Syrian refugees in a nation of only 6.4 million people. I am sure they would prefer not to have that responsibility! But they do. Life isn’t fair.

And speaking of which, the numbers here are not actually that big. An estimated 52,000 children have come to the United States since October, which is the mass-refugee-flow equivalent of a goddamned hangnail. That’s not even enough kids to sell out a One Direction show. The Met Life stadium can handle 90,000 screaming Harry Styles fans per night, but I’m expected to believe that the entire rest of this great nation can’t take 52,000 kids over a six-month period?

So yeah, happy World Refugee Day, everyone.

WTF?

WTF Friday, 5/9/2014

Yemen’s government deported American journalist Adam Baron yesterday.

Baron, a freelancer who wrote for McClatchy, The Economist, and The Christian Science Monitor, was one of only two foreign journalists officially reporting from Yemen. The other is Iona Craig, who tweeted after Baron’s arrest: “Just waiting for the soldiers to come knocking.”

Soon afterwards, another freelancer, Tik Root, was turned around at the Sanaa airport and sent back to Istanbul.

A clear explanation for Baron’s deportation has not been forthcoming. According to the Yemen Post, officials said that because Baron “roamed Sanaa for reasons not related to work” they “were worried he could have been kidnapped”. Baron tweeted that he was simply told that he was “no longer welcome in Yemen”. According to Buzzfeed’s Gregory D. Johnson, a friend who assisted Baron throughout his ordeal at the immigration office and 10 hour detention was told: “Other journalists are next.”

Johnson links Baron’s expulsion to his dogged reporting on U.S. drone strikes in Yemen. Hannah Allam adds that Baron’s stories “often called into question official versions of events in Yemen”.

Whatever the reason, we are losing an important source of informed, courageous coverage of very difficult times in Yemen. And, as Iona Craig points out, if the Yemeni government is getting rid of observers, we should be wondering: “what are they trying to hide?” 

WTF Friday, 4/25/2014

On April 16, more than 200 teenage girls preparing to sit their final exams were abducted from their government-run boarding school in Chibok in northern Nigeria and taken deep into nearby Sambisa forest. The kidnappers are members of the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, who strongly object to secular education, particularly of girls.

Two days after the abduction, the Nigerian military announced that the girls had been freed in an “on-going search and rescue exercise”. They hadn’t.

In fact, some of the girls managed to escape on their own, but the rest remain unaccounted for and there have been no ransom demands. As Jina Moore documents, the families of the missing students have grown increasingly frustrated with the government’s lack of action. Several days ago, they mounted a private search operation, heading into the forest themselves. They had to turn back empty-handed, lacking the firepower to confront the terrorists directly. But as one father later told a Nigerian newspaper: “If soldiers had accompanied us to the forest, we were optimistic that our missing children would have been rescued.”

BBC reports that at a meeting on national security yesterday, the national government “vowed to do all it can” to rescue the hostages. But for many Nigerians, the delay in action reflects a devastating indifference to the fate of these young women, which, as Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani reminds us, may be bleak.

#BringBackOurGirls is now trending on Twitter, castigating not only the Nigerian state, but the international press for its disinterest in this tragedy. These girls have been missing for over a week; the least we can do is pay attention.

WTF Friday, 4/18/2014

This one’s not funny, but it does tangentially involve George Clooney:

Recent Satellite Sentinel Project imagery of the Nuba Mountains reveals a “significant mobilization of Sudanese armed forces”, including a “a Chinese-made multiple rocket launcher system“. This comes on the heels of Sudan’s Defense Minister’s recent announcement of the opening of the summer military campaign season (no word on whether a giant pair of scissors and a ribbon-cutting ceremony were involved). Even more worryingly, the director of the National Intelligence and Security Services said last week that extra Rapid Support Forces (i.e. janjaweed militias) are being sent to the region to fight against the SPLM-N rebels.

So basically: Add Nuba Mountains to your list of places to be desperately worried about civilians in conflict this week.

H/T: Stephanie Schwartz

Egyptian Military Deploys Unstoppable Army of Nationalist Tots

The Egyptian military would like you to know that its primary activities these days consist of kissing adorable small children on the cheek, accepting bouquets of flowers, and dance-marching to a jaunty electro-folk beat.

The children, for their parts, have an absolutely adorable song for you about the prospect of martyrdom and their love for the army, particularly General al-Sisi (note the “I love you Sisi!” in English at the 2:30 mark).

I have to say, this is a big relief. Events of recent weeks, such as the arrest of prominent young activists Alaa and Mona Abd el Fattah and Ahmed Maher, the detention of four al-Jazeera journalists, the raid by security forces on the office of the Egyptian Center for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and the sentencing of 21 schoolgirls to prison for demonstrating in support of deposed president Mohammed Morsi, had made me a bit concerned that the Egyptian military might be wielding its considerable strength to crush dissent and crack down on any potential challenges to its consolidation of political power.

I sure am grateful to the 4 year old girl in army fatigues for setting me straight.

(Hat tip for the video goes to The Arabist, whose posts and very useful Twitter feed were probably originally responsible for bringing many of the other linked stories to my attention as well.)

WTF Friday, 1/3/2014

It’s a new year, but the same old nonsense.

In a super-literal object lesson on the painful and long-lasting effects of war, an Allied bomb dropped during WWII detonated today in Germany, killing one person and injuring eight others. Sadly, this is a fairly regular occurrence. Just two months ago, 20,000 people had to be evacuated from their houses so that authorities could defuse a 4,000 lb. bomb in Dortmund.

And, lest you think North Korea news maxed out on ridiculousness last year, a Chinese newspaper claims that Kim Jong Un’s uncle was not just executed, he was eaten alive by 120 dogs. Guess the unicorns weren’t hungry?

Happy 2014, everyone.

WTF Friday, 10/18/2013

Iran: a criminal justice system so harsh, you could find yourself serving consecutive death sentences.

A man given the death penalty for possession of a kilogram of crystal meth somehow survived his hanging last week, only to be told that the authorities plan to take another whack at it once he recovers. 37 year old Alireza M. was hanged for 12 minutes, declared dead, then sent to the morgue and wrapped in plastic before he revived.

Human rights activists, his family, and anyone with a soul are calling for a pardon, on the grounds that he has suffered enough. But sentencing judge Mohammed Erfan has declared that“The sentence is approved and the sentence is death, so we will follow through with the execution order again”. 

Anyone else visualizing this judge as a creepy cousin to the Munchkin coroner? Keep hanging those meth dealers until they’re “really most sincerely dead”, dude.

The Senate Should Confirm Nina Pillard Already

I wholeheartedly support Cornelia “Nina” Pillard’s nomination for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, because she is awesome. Professor Pillard taught two of my classes at Georgetown, so I can say from personal experience that she is a smart, diligent, judicious thinker. She is also a triathlete with practically-bionic strength. (That is less relevant to her judicial nomination, but still cool. Her exploits in the law school’s gym were legendary amongst my classmates.) The Senate should confirm her already.

I am not the only one who thinks that Pillard would be an asset to the federal bench. Here is Professor Viet Dinh, former deputy Attorney General under George W. Bush, and probably Georgetown’s most famously conservative faculty member, on Pillard’s qualifications:

“She is a fair-minded thinker with enormous respect for the law and for the limited, and essential, role of the federal appellate judge– qualities that make her well prepared to taken on the work of a D.C. Circuit judge. I am confident that she would approach the judicial task of applying law to facts in a fair and meticulous manner.”

And here is a statement from a group of 40 prominent attorneys who practice before the Supreme Court, including several who served in senior roles in the Reagan and Bush justice departments:

“We believe that Professor Pillard would bring to the D.C. Circuit unquestioned professional integrity and intellect, a breadth of experience, and dedication to fairness and the rule of law. We urge her confirmation.”

And yet, if you listen to the Republican members of the judiciary committee and the denizens of the National Review echo chamber, Pillard is some sort of crazed radical who probably shouldn’t be trusted with young minds, let alone federal cases. Never mind that she has assisted dozens of litigants, from all points on the political spectrum, pro bono as part of Georgetown’s Supreme Court Institute. Never mind that she collaborated with Dinh and the Bush Administration to litigate (and win) Nevada Dept. of Human Resources v. Hibbs before the Supreme Court. No, apparently Pillard is “out of the mainstream,” and would be “the most left-wing judge in the history of the republic.”

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