How Do You Prove Someone’s a Witch in Saudi Arabia?

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Call the religious police’s Anti-Witchcraft Unit and get them to set up a sting operation.


In yet another reminder that the phrase “witch hunts” isn’t only used figuratively these days, the Saudi Interior Ministry announced on Monday that it had beheaded a woman named

Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nasser for practicing “witchcraft and sorcery.” The London-based al-Hayat newspaper, citing the chief of the religious police who arrested the woman after a report from a female investigator, claimsNasser was tricking people into paying $800 per session to have their illnesses cured.

So, how did Saudi authorities prove Nasser was a witch? The government hasn’t gone into detail, but a look at the kingdom’s past witchcraft cases suggests the bar for proving someone guilty isn’t very high. Witch hunting is fairly institutionalized in Saudi Arabia, with the country’s religious police running an Anti-Witchcraft Unit and a sorcery hotline to combat practices like astrology and fortune telling that are considered un-Islamic.

But institutionalized is not the same thing as codified.

A top official in the kingdom’s Ministry of Justice told Human Rights Watchin 2008 that there is no legal definition for witchcraft (Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a penal code) or specific body of evidence that has probative value in witchcraft trials.

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Remembering Basra

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Nine years ago, I drove into Iraq one spring morning. As we leave it’s worth recalling: After all the angry commissions and self-serving memoirs, the war was always more complicated than it seemed.


So much has happened since that it’s a shock to go back and remember. The smell of confusion on that first day of the ground war, when we rose in the middle of the night and drove our rental cars from the Kuwait City airport through the blowing sands until we found an obliging British unit that didn’t mind letting a pack of anxious, unauthorized reporters into Iraq. When we found ourselves facing gunfire — not parades — and little boys throwing stones, and mines placed along the side of Highway 8, the main road to Baghdad, the one that U.S. troops were even then pounding north on.

This was during the period that President George W. Bush so memorably, and incorrectly, referred to as “major combat operations” in his ill-advised victory speech a few months later. Of course, with nine years of hindsight, it’s fair to say it was most likely the safest time for an American to be driving around southern Iraq in a rental car, Motown music blaring, accompanied only by a few friends and a single shared interpreter whose Beirut dialect of Arabic was hardly any help at all in Basra as it turned out.

We did not see what we expected. But then again, who did? Could anyone have imagined where we would be nine years later, as another president and another era finally bring to a close the chaos unleashed that night in the warm air of southern Iraq? Read the rest of this entry »

Formal Global Interdependence – The Historical (and Western) Case for Global Governance

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Statue of Dante in the Piazza di Santa Croce i...
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12 December 2011

NASA image showing the Arctic Ozone Loss

While calls for global governance gathered momentum throughout the 20th Century, its origins are steeped in history. Today, the ISN looks to the past to develop an argument for formal global interdependence.

By Peter Faber for the ISN

Global interdependence is a phrase we’ve all been overexposed to. But as the introduction to this week’s topic reminds us, it can mean different things to different people. To many it means developing a malleable and incorruptible form of cosmopolitan citizenship, while to others it means marching inexorably towards some form of formalized global governance. This latter march, although the European Union pilot project might suggest otherwise, is not a recently developed concept. Some argue it originates with Herodotus, but its modern roots actually lie in the shape-shifting church politics of the European Middle Ages.

Constantinianism’ – The term was a pejorative anti-papal one in the late Middle Ages, but it signaled the first steps away from the Christian universalism (the Christianopolis) of earlier church fathers. As an initial half-step towards the idea of extended secular communities, Constantinianism embodied growing papal claims to secular authority and, more generally, all forms of Church involvement in the secular government of the world. Dante Alighieri further aided in the blurring of Christian and secular constructions of community in his De Monarchia. As the title suggests, it was a pro-imperial text, but its concept of society and of sovereignty transcended other religiously-tainted political visions of the time. Yes, it endorsed the need for ‘big man’ leadership in politics, but it also advocated an extended society of civil peace, order and justice where everyone should be free to seek their individual and common good. That quest would be possible, or so Dante argued, because centralized rule would not be imposed by force, but by bringing out the best in others.

So what did the above ideological ‘tilts’ bequeath subsequent advocates of far-reaching, comprehensive governance? First, the growing secularization of human problems, but not at the expense of destroying the idea of human-wide community. Second, the influential De Monarchia established what is now a wide-spread belief – i.e., that the political answers to human problems are often structural ones. In Dante’s case, the required structural reform was the installation of a universal secular monarch. Only through his presence was the perfection of the earthly city possible. Third, Dante and several other fellow travelers helped bring peace down to Earth. In their view, peace wasn’t an expression or consequence of divine agency; it actually was the consequence of human arrangements. Marsilius of Padua then added one final piece to the then-cutting edge belief that peace, justice and harmony were most possible when connected to potentially large and secular political structures. In Defensor Pacis, he elaborated further on the nature of peace. His peace, however, was an instrumental and civil one; it wasn’t defined by end states. It depended, in other words, on governmental parts that functioned smoothly and interacted properly. Read the rest of this entry »

Storming Of U.K.’s Embassy Summons Memories Of ’79, But There Are Differences

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Iranian students climb over the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979.

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Fresh images of hard-line students storming a foreign embassy in Tehran can’t help but seem like déja vu. It’s even November, just like before.
Before, of course, was just after Iran’s 1979 revolution, when a group of young people calling themselves “students following of the line of Imam” (Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic) stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and ended up holding 52 U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days.

The incident this week in Tehran has inevitably been compared to the events of 32 years ago. But there are differences. The 1979 hostage crisis began spontaneously. What happened on November 29, 2011, seems to have been a calculated move by hard-liners in the regime.

In a statement, the young people who claimed responsibility for the attack on the British Embassy called themselves Muslim Student Followers of the Supreme Leader. They referred to the British Embassy as “another nest of spies” and said the action is just one response to Britain’s recent sanctioning of Iran’s central bank, which they say represents a declaration of war.

A follow-up statement referred to the British Embassy as a “nest of plots” and accused it of playing a key role in organizing and provoking the 2009 postelection protests, which the government brutally supressed.

“Nest of spies” was a phrase heard often in the early years of the postrevolution period — and is still used by some — to describe the U.S. Embassy, which was accused of spying on Iranians.

Deep Distrust

Whereas the 1979 students immediately took hostages in the U.S. Embassy, there is confusion over whether the latest group held six British embassy staffers hostage for several hours. The Mehr news agency first reported that they had, but then removed the report from its website.

Later, the hard-line Fars news agency said six diplomatic staff who had been under siege during the attack were released by diplomatic police. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he would not call the six “hostages.”

The storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, led to the cutting of ties between the two governments, forging a deep distrust that continues to this day.

The consequences of the storming of the British Embassy are not clear yet, but the events have no doubt dealt a serious blow to diplomatic ties between the two countries. British Prime Minister David Cameron has already warned of “further and serious consequences.”

Approval Of Senior Officials?

Tensions between London and Tehran have been rising in recent months over Iran’s refusal to halt nuclear activities deemed suspicious by the West. A recent UN report concluding that Iran has worked to acquire a nuclear weapon led to a rare joint resolution by the P5+1 negotiating group — Russia, China, the United States, France, and Britain, along with Germany — aimed at putting more pressure on Tehran.

The attack on the British Embassy appears to have been a reaction to this growing international pressure on the Islamic republic and follows a vote on November 27 in Iran’s parliament — by a large majority — to downgrade diplomatic relations with the U.K. in response to its new sanctions.

Somalia: shocking images aren’t enough

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Marka, Somalia

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Marilyn McHarg, from Médecine sans Frontières, argues that aid groups don’t discuss the reasons for food shortages

Since the media renewed their interest in the decades-old crisis in and around Somalia, we’ve seen a surge of advertisements from aid groups, featuring starving children with visible ribs and staring eyes. The subtext to these ads is simple if you don’t donate, you’re abandoning these children and they’ll die.

Médecine sans Frontières (MSF) is one of the international aid agencies struggling to respond in Somalia and refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. We’re also struggling to define responsible fundraising within a discourse that relies on guilt and superficial messages. Fundraising experts warn us that offering a more complex picture of the difficulties of delivering aid will lead to cynicism and donor fatigue: It’s shock value that works.

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FACTBOX – NATO supply routes into Afghanistan

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NATO Regional Command South, Afghanistan insignia

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By Emma Graham-Harrison | Reuters

Fri, Nov 25, 2011

KABUL (Reuters) – NATO helicopters attacked a military checkpoint in northwest Pakistan on Saturday, killing up to 28 troops and prompting Pakistan to shut the vital supply route for NATO troops fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistani officials said.

NATO supply trucks and fuel tankers bound for Afghanistan were halted at Jamrud town in the Khyber tribal region near the city of Peshawar hours after the raid, officials said.


Following are some facts about the Pakistani supply routes for NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan and the alternatives:


There are two routes into Afghanistan from Pakistan, one across the Khyber Pass to the Afghan border town of Torkham and on to Kabul. The other goes through Pakistan’s Baluchistan province to the border town of Chaman and on to the southern Afghan city, and former Taliban stronghold, of Kandahar.

Between them these two routes account for just under one third of all cargo that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force ships into Afghanistan.

Just over one third of all cargo goes on routes dubbed the “northern distribution network” through Central Asia, and the Caucasus or Russia. The remaining 31 percent is flown in. Read the rest of this entry »

Once Upon a Time in Mogadishu

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A peek into the “pleasant” colonial past of the world’s most dangerous city.


When the great Arab explorer Ibn Battuta landed on Mogadishu’s shores in 1331, he was greeted with a feast fit for a king. Hundreds of camels were slaughtered daily to feed the flourishing port city, where a man could eat for ten. The sultan, clad in silk and fine Jerusalem cloth, was followed by a procession of trumpets and colorful canopies upon which golden birds perched.

How times have changed in Somalia. Today, centuries of European colonization and political strife, coupled with interludes of devastating drought and flooding, have created a failed state that’s become a haven for lawlessness. For years, Somalia was passed between foreign powers: first the Portuguese, then the British, then the French and Italians. Upon its declaration of independence in 1960, the country’s artificially drawn borders proved incapable of anything resembling stability. Now, Somalia remains in a constant state of conflict.

Once known as the “pearl of the Indian Ocean,” tourists flocked by the plane-full until the country descended into civil unrest in the 1990s. Now the only visitors are aid workers and their heavily armed bodyguards. When a Canadian tourist landed in Mogadishu last year, immigration officials thought he was either a spy or insane.

Above, young foreigners enjoy a warm day at Lido Beach. Sydney Oats, a former Royal Air Force (RAF) electrical fitter who was stationed in Mogadishu in 1949, provided this photo, as well as several others. He told Foreign Policy that Lido Beach, with its white beaches and breathtaking view, was the best part of Mogadishu, where young soldiers spent their afternoons nearly every day. Until 1991, when President Siad Barre was overthrown by a coalition of warlords after 22 years in power, Lido Beach was a popular club scene. This week brought news that Somalis are finally returning to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean after years of deserted beaches. But this brief beach-going interlude may be short lived. With pirates patrolling the coastline and the terrorist network al Shabaab arming children with AK-47s, Mogadishu remains arguably the most dangerous city in the world. Read the rest of this entry »