It's open season in Tehran: For five days beginning on May 7, presidential hopefuls are registering to run for president in the country's June 14 presidential election. And the number of entrants into the rough-and-tumble world of Iranian politics is staggering, with more than 200 candidates signed up as of Thursday.
So the race must be wide, wide open, right? Not exactly. While nobody's quite sure who the frontrunners are yet, they will most likely be largely loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as the Associated Press points out.
That's because the country's 12-member Guardian Council will vet the vast array of candidates between May 12 and May 17, applying a rigorous set of standards to narrow the field way down. In 2009, for instance, only four of 475 names made it through the lightning round. So what, exactly, does the Guardian Council look for in whittling down the candidates? Presidential hopefuls can be disqualified for failing to meet a host of criteria enumerated in Article 115 of the Iranian Constitution.
Like its U.S. counterpart, the Iranian Constitution stipulates that a viable candidate must have Iranian citizenship. Not only does the presidential hopeful need to be a citizen (I found no mention of an age limit), but he also must be of "Iranian origin." Candidates who aren't Shiite Muslims or "religious and political personalities" need not apply.
Some of the constitution's conditions read more like a help-wanted ad. A viable candidate, for instance, must have "administrative capacity and resourcefulness" and no criminal record (incidentally, the latter is not a prerequisite to hold the highest office in the United States). The candidate must demonstrate "trustworthiness and piety" and must have a firm "belief in the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran."
Those are high bars to clear -- particularly when compared with the low bars to registering. And that means we won't see much more of some of the more colorful aspirants who have already registered or have been floated as candidates .
On Tuesday, for example, Razieh Omidvar became the first woman this year to throw her hat into the ring. While it is often reported that the constitution explicitly forbids women from running for president, the language is, in fact, a bit more ambiguous. In 2009, the spokesman for the Guardian Council said it "has never announced its opinion on whether a registrant is a man or a woman," suggesting that it is open to interpreting the constitution's language in favor of both male and female participation. Still, Omidvar shouldn't get her hopes up. The spokesman was quick to add, "[w]henever a woman has been disqualified, it has been because she's lacked general competence."
Then there's Mostafa Kavakebian, a reformist politician who was disqualified by the Guardian Council in 2009 and also registered on Tuesday, even picking green as his campaign color in homage to the Green Movement that arose after the country's disputed presidential election four years ago. While his persistence is admirable, Kavakebian is just as unlikely as Omidvar to make the cut a second time around.
Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad's current chief of staff, may be one of the more high-profile contenders. But conservatives in the country, who are locked in a power struggle with Ahmadinejad, predict he will also be knocked off the slate. Though he has yet to register, Ahmadinejad has been grooming Mashaei to take over in what the Guardian describes as a "Putin/Medvedev-style reshuffle."
Meanwhile, Ali Rahimi, a 59-year-old surgeon who graduated from the University of Kentucky, does not seem deterred by the many factors that could keep him out of the running. "I am extremely overqualified,'' he told the Washington Post after registering, "so I want to see what sort of reason they come up with for refusing my candidacy.''
If there's a sure bet in this election, it's that Iranian authorities will find one.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
When Amina Tyler, a 19-year-old Tunisian activist, posted topless photographs of herself on Facebook in March, she caused a global uproar. The tremendous backlash within Tunisia to the images -- which included one of Amina topless, hair short and black, with the words, "Fuck your morals" splashed across her chest -- quickly spilled beyond the country's borders as the feminist protest movement Femen, declared a "topless jihad" in her defense.
But while Amina's name exploded onto the international scene, she herself largely disappeared from the public eye. In April, Amina told Femen's leader, Inna Shevchenko, over Skype that she had been kidnapped by her family, beaten, drugged, and subjected to a virginity test. She also admitted that she had been coerced into doing an interview with the French station Itele in which she declared she didn't want to be associated with Femen. "I will continue the struggle that started in Tunisia," Amina declared during the Skype conversation. I will do a topless protest and then I will leave."
But as recently as May 1, there was still confusion over the whereabouts of the activist. In the Atlantic, Jeffrey Taylor described her as "in hiding" somewhere in the North African country.
On Wednesday, however, the young dissident finally reappeared with another topless photo posted to the Femen Facebook page. So far, the image has generated a number of headlines in the Arabic press but virtual silence in the U.S. media. This time she was blonde, and the words scrawled on her chest were in bright red instead of black. But the message was essentially the same: "No More Moral Lessons."
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After being carried through the streets of London in a flag-draped coffin aboard a gun carriage, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was laid to rest this morning in St. Paul's Cathedral. But the big story of the day wasn't Maggie. No, it was a 19-year-old Texan who stole the show from the deceased Iron Lady.
With a poise reminiscent of the elder Thatcher, Amanda Thatcher, Margaret's granddaughter, delivered a reading from Ephesians that has the British media agog. Amanda, who lives with her mother in Texas, chose a rather militant passage that calls on believers to "put on the whole armour of God." But the reading was a good one, delivered with remarkable grace by a young woman suddenly thrust into the international spotlight. In a tweet that nicely summarized the breathless British media reaction, Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland couldn't help but speculate "whether somewhere a Texas Republican operative is watching Amanda Thatcher thinking 'Wonder if she has political ambitions...'"
Here's the clip:
So who is Amanda Thatcher, and how did Maggie Thatcher's granddaughter end up in Texas of all places? Amanda is the daughter of Mark Thatcher and the Texas heiress Diane Burgdorf, who underwent an ugly, highly public divorce from Mark (Diane went so far as to detail her ex-husband's history of infidelity in a broadside published in a British paper). When Amanda's father became embroiled in an acrimonious business dispute, Diane agreed to move her family to South Africa. But after Mark was arrested in 2004 over his alleged involvement in a coup in Equatorial Guinea, the marriage finally dissolved. Amanda now lives in Texas with her mother, stepfather, and brother Michael. She is reportedly deeply religious, has carried out missionary work in China, and attends the University of Richmond in Virginia.
Voted "most likely to change the world" by her high school classmates, Amanda was a favorite of the Iron Lady. The former British prime minister reportedly kept a portrait of her two grandchildren on a mantle alongside a picture of Sir Denis, her beloved late husband. Maggie, the daughter of a fervent lay Methodist preacher, approved of Amanda's turn toward evangelical Christianity, and she cherished her relationship with her granddaughter during her ailing later years. As the Guardian notes in its excellent profile of the young Thatchers, Amanda's religiosity lined up nicely with Maggie's hard-nosed political and social conservatism.
Poised, eloquent, the descendant of conservative royalty, evangelical Christian, and Texas-bred: It all seems to add up to a promising political future. She certainly hit it out of the park in her introduction to the world, and isn't it pretty easy to picture a clip of Amanda's speech at her grandmother's funeral playing a role in a future campaign commercial?
The Republican Party could certainly do worse.
An earlier version of this post referred to the Biblical passage from which Amanda Thatcher read as the Epistles. She read from Ephesians, which is one of the Epistles.
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Kenya's efforts to promote safe sex and combat HIV/AIDS have apparently hit a snag, as religious leaders have accused the government of promoting infidelity instead.
The controversy began when Kenyan health officials teamed up with USAID and a similar agency in the U.K. to sponsor a television advertisement showing two women shopping in the marketplace. One of the women reminds her friend to use a condom while having sex with her boyfriend when her frequently drunk husband is away. The boyfriend is shown in the background, selling shoes and flirting with another woman.
The commercial quickly came under attack from Christian and Muslim leaders who argue that it promotes immorality and infidelity. "The advert depicts this nation as a Sodom and Gomorrah and not one that values the institution of marriage and family," a leader of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya, declared. One woman criticized the ad for using a mother as the main character. "The fact that a mother figure has been used makes it worse because mothers are the people who stand for families and the ones who teach children the good morals," she said. (Past condom ads in Kenya have been decidedly humorous, though they haven't exactly put public-health messages front and center.) The government has since withdrawn the ad.
In an interview with NTV, the head of Kenya's National Aids / STD Control Program (NASCOP), Dr. Peter Cherutich, defended the spot, arguing that Kenyans "cannot bury our heads in the sand." Sexual infidelity is a reality in the country, he explained, and NASCOP is doing its duty by promoting sexual health in light of this fact:
The collaboration that we would like to have with the church is that they become our partners. They teach their congregants and they teach Kenyans how to protect themselves against HIV, by being faithful to their sexual partners. And for those that are not able to be faithful, then they need to use a condom.
"We know for a fact that a big proportion of both men and women have sex outside their regular partnerships," Cherutich told the BBC in another interview. "And so, unfaithfulness, as you would call it, is a reality that we need to address in this country." NASCOP says that it is also trying to fight the stereotype that only men are unfaithful, while emphasizing that the task of using condoms should not be left to men alone.
It's an important conversation -- but one many Kenyans appear ambivalent about having as families gather around the television.
Last week, the Saudi daily Al-Youm reported that Saudi Arabia is considering transitioning away from the state's institutionalized method of executing convicts: beheading by sword. Beheading -- the approach to carrying out death sentences in the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century -- has long been practiced in the kingdom in observance of its strict interpretation of Islamic law, which seeks to mimic practices at the time of Mohammed. But a committee of Saudi government officials recently ruled that execution by firing squad would also be permissible under the national brand of sharia.
"This solution seems practical, especially in light of shortages of official swordsmen," the committee explained in a statement quoted by the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram. The committee also complained that official swordsmen have been known to show up late to executions.
Does this mean those few remaining swordsmen will be out of a job soon? It turns out the Saudi newspaper Okaz asked one of them: Mecca-based executioner Mohammad Saad al-Biishi. He says he's not concerned, citing the fact that he's already received firearms training. In the meantime, he'll keep on with the beheadings.
"I just returned from Ranyah governorate, where one of the judgments was implemented with a blow from a sword," he told the paper.
Even if the transition to firing squad occurs, al-Biishi is optimistic about the future of his profession, and has been apprenticing his son in beheadings. He acknowledges, though, that the government's concerns about a shortage of qualified swordsmen are justified. "This profession is not desired by many," he told Okaz, "despite the salary and personal reward we gain from it."
The execution business in Saudi Arabia is booming. Human rights groups estimate that approximately 70 people were beheaded in the kingdom last year, and 14 so far this year. The January execution of a Sri Lankan national, who was accused of the murder of a 4-year-old in her care as a maid while still a 17-year-old minor, prompted Sri Lanka to recall their ambassador from Riyadh last month.
Marya Hannun contributed to this post.
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With the papal conclave expected to convene early next week, the Vatican has torn a page out of the Chinese playbook for stifling dissent, blocking access to a prominent website, bishopaccountability.org, that documents cases of clergy abuse.
According to the National Catholic Reporter, access to the site, which has become an invaluable resource for journalists covering the sex abuse scandal, is restricted on the Vatican's Internet servers. And when one tries to access the site through the Holy See's network, a message notes that it is blocked because of "hate/racism." That's certainly one way to describe an effort that has posted more than 8,500 pages of documents describing clergy abuse.
As we've written earlier, much of the pre-conclave jockeying plays out in the media, where candidates can be floated and reputations attacked in order to best position one cardinal or another for the papacy. By blocking access to one of the chief sources of information about this dark chapter in the church's history, the Holy See may be seeking to reassert a degree of control over the mud-slinging process in the media.
The NCR says it has filed a request to have the site unblocked. (Hey, it could happen!) We'll keep you updated.
FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images
The Vatican's ongoing sexual abuse scandal and the Catholic Church's often stumbling response is expected to play a major role in the coming papal conclave, and today the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) fired a major shot at the cardinals gathered in the Vatican. The group, which has played a major role in exposing abuse and advocating on behalf victims, released a list of 12 papal candidates that it is calling the "dirty dozen" for their alleged roles in sex crimes and cover-ups.
The 12 prelates have all been identified as serious candidates to succeed Pope Benedict XVI and include several of the frontrunners: Angelo Scola, Marc Ouellet, Leonardo Sandri, Peter Turkson, and Timothy Dolan. While it is difficult to predict the dynamics of a papal election, being slapped with membership in the "dirty dozen" doesn't bode well for these cardinals at a time when the church is looking to clean up its image.
Several of the candidates on the list also represent important regional ambitions within the church. Dolan, for example, is the only viable American candidate. The selection of Sandri, an Argentinean, would cater to a growing Catholic population in Latin America. If selected, Turkson, who is from Ghana, would be the church's first black pope. His selection would also acknowledge the church's growing influence in Africa.
SNAP argues that the 12 prelates represent the "worst choices in terms of protecting kids, healing victims, and exposing corruption." Whether the list will have any lasting impact remains to be seen, but efforts by groups like SNAP are important in shaping public perception of the papal candidates and also affect internal jockeying in the lead-up to the conclave.
In the case of Scola, an Italian cardinal who has been called the "crown prince of Catholicism," SNAP argues that he failed to take the sex abuse scandal seriously when, in 2010, during the scandal's peak, he said that media attacks on Benedict were an "iniquitous humiliation." A conservative close to both Benedict and John Paul II, Scola currently serves as the archbishop of Milan, which in the past has served as a stepping stone to the papacy. But at 71, he's far from a model of youth and vigor.
Ouellet, a Canadian, lands on the list because while he issued apologies to many victims of abuse, he reportedly refused to meet with those victims.
Sandri, the Argentinean, comes under criticism from SNAP for his ties to the disgraced Mexican priest Marcial Maciel, who was convicted of a range of sexual abuses. Sandri was asked in 2004 to read a letter from John Paul II in praise of Maciel and, as the National Catholic Reporter puts it, "few cardinals will probably be excited about the prospect of TV packages on the new pope featuring video of him extolling an abuser priest (though admittedly, the words were not his own)."
Turkson, the Ghanaian, finds himself under fire from SNAP for comments he made about the possibility of the church's sex scandal spreading to Africa, which he deemed unlikely since gays are not tolerated in Africa. "African traditional systems kind of protect or have protected its population against this tendency,” he said in an interview with Christiane Amanpour. "Because in several communities, in several cultures in Africa homosexuality or for that matter any affair between two sexes of the same kind are not countenanced in our society."
Lastly, SNAP objects to Dolan's candidacy on the grounds that he allegedly paid abusive priests to leave the church in silence, in addition to claims that he kept silent in the case of a teacher at a Catholic school in possession of child pornography.
If these are the top candidates to succeed Benedict, it makes you wonder: Will the church ever find someone clean enough to take over?
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Earlier this week, we reported on the controversy in Tunisia and Egypt over some "Harlem Shake" videos, which have provoked arrests and an investigation by the Tunisian Ministry of Education, and the follow-up Harlem Shake protests Egyptians and Tunisians were planning.
Well, they happened.
The video above is from Cairo, outside the offices of the Muslim Brotherhood. Another protest took place outside the Ministry of Education in Tunis, though rain deterred some dancers.
The videos are spreading (here's one from another school, Tunisia's Institute of Applied Sciences and Technology), as is the backlash. Salafist groups have tried to intimidate students making Harlem Shake videos, and, at one school, a protest broke out that was dispersed by police with tear gas.
The videos are clearly becoming more political. In the video from Egypt, for example, a protester is wearing a large fake beard to mock conservative critics. And in the videos from Tunisia there are a number of protesters wearing the Guy Fawkes and gas masks that were popular during the Arab Spring protests of 2011. Unlike so many other flash-in-the-pan memes, the Harlem Shake might be around for a while -- especially if politicians in Egypt and Tunisia keep trying to get rid of it.
As far as holidays go, Valentine's Day seems innocuous enough. But for some Muslim groups, it's a lot more sinister than hearts and flowers.
In Pakistan, for example, the Electronic Media Regulatory Authority wrote a letter this week requiring television and radio stations to censor content related to the holiday, deeming it "not in conformity to our religious and cultural ethos."
Tanzeem-e-Islami, an Islamist organization in the country, took censorship efforts one step further, urging the government to block cell phone service in order to prevent "moral terrorism"-- otherwise known as the swapping of sappy V-Day sentiments. The same group also plastered Karachi with anti-Valentine's billboards (that look suspiciously Valentine's-y) with warnings to citizens like, "Say No to Valentine's Day" (another billboard posted on Twitter declared, "Sorry Valentine's Day, I am 'Muslim'").
It's no surprise, of course, that conservative,
Islamic clerics aren't enamored with this unapologetically consumerist, Western holiday named for a saint and and centered around romance. For many, the holiday
seamlessly intertwines anti-Western sentiment with the threat of loosening
moral values. The spokesman for the Pakistani Islamist organization
Jamaat-e-Islami said as much this week:
This is imposing Western values and cultures on an Islamic society.... Look at the West -- people love their dogs but throw their parents out when they get old. We don't want to be like that.
Pakistan isn't the first Muslim country to wage a war against Valentine's Day. In Indonesia this year, protesters took to the streets with signs reading, "Valentine, Infidel Culture" and, "Are you Muslim? Don't follow Valentine Day." As we noted last year, countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Malaysia, and Uzbekistan don't feel the love this time of year either. And hey, at least Pakistan didn't mark the holiday by banning the color red.
RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images
It may be the biggest news to break in Latin since Julius Caesar's death.
Pope Benedict XVI provided vindication for Latin teachers everywhere on Monday by breaking the news of his upcoming resignation via a speech in the oft-dismissed ancient language:
More satisfying still for those who maintain Latin is not dead, the Huffington Post Italy reports that the news was first broken by a reporter for Italy's ANSA news agency, who apparently beat out journalists from France, Mexico, and Japan thanks to her superior language skills. Giovanna Chirri initially could not reach a Vatican spokesman to confirm the news, AFP reports:
In a heated debate with her editor, the journalist insisted her Latin knowledge was sound and they could alert the news.
The difficult part was "understanding the Latin," he said. "At a certain point, for example, I caught the word 'incapability' in the pope's speech. I turned around and spoke with my Mexican colleague. We noticed that Pope Benedict had a sad look on his face, not his usual look. Something wasn't right. Then, when cardinal Sodano mentioned the 'sadness,' we finally understood."
The choice of Latin for a major announcement was likely no accident: Benedict has long indicated that he considers a Latin revival important for the future of the Church. In November of last year, he established a Pontifical Academy of Latinity with the goal of promoting the language, saying in a letter at the time that even among priests and seminarians, the study of Latin has become "more and more superficial." He further demonstrated his determination to take Latin into the modern world in January when he began tweeting in the language. Still, Benedictus PP. XVI has just 17,816 followers so far -- the fewest of any of the pope's nine Twitter accounts.
ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images
In the wake of a knife attack at an elementary school reportedly driven by predictions about the coming end of the world, Chinese authorities have detained dozens for spreading rumors about the coming apocalypse.
According to Xinhua, 93 people -- many of them members of a religious group called Almighty God, which promotes belief in the upcoming Dec. 21 Mayan doomsday -- have been detained as potential day of reckoning grows closer. At the same time, authorities have sought to play down any talk about the world ending, ordering media last week to "strictly vet reports on the so-called "end of the world" and "strengthen positive guidance and forcefully guard against the creation and spread of rumors, as well as working up panicked feelings." The order appears to have been taken seriously, with newspapers publishing soothing quotes from various experts arguing that Friday will be like any other day, reports The Telegraph:
"Speaking to Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, Sun Xiaochun, a top professor from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said: "The event will be as destructive as when we throw an old table calendar into the rubbish can at the end of the year."
The idea that Friday will be the end of it all has gained quite a foothold in parts of China. Hebei Province farmer Liu Qiyuan, pictured above, has begun making "survival pods" out of fiberglass and steel for the event, while Business Insider reports that,
"...in Sichuan province, panic buying of candles has swept through two counties in the fear that an ancient Mayan prediction that the world will end on December 21 proves to be true.
"Candles are selling by the hundreds, with buyers constantly coming to the market. Many stores have run out," said Huang Zhaoli, a shopper at the Neijing Wholesale Market, to the West China City Daily newspaper."
The panicky feeling was not helped by an unnerving meteorological phenomenon last week that made it appear that the sky over parts of eastern China contained three suns.
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
Egypt's increasingly influential Salafis won a victory this week by pressuring the government to finally implement a 2009 court ruling, enacted under former President Hosni Mubarak, to ban pornography. On Wednesday, Egyptian Prosector Abdel Maguid Mahmoud instructed authorities to "to take the necessary measures to block any corrupt or corrupting pornographic pictures or scenes inconsistent with the values and traditions of the Egyptian people and the higher interests of the state."
There are already strong reactions, with many on twitter using #EgyPornBan to either advocate mass downloading before the ban is enacted or to question the legitimacy of restricting freedom of expression.
While it has not been made public how and when the ban will actually be enforced, there are those like journalist and presidential advisor, Ayman El-Sayad, who think that the government should be "more concerned about the drafting of Egypt's new constitution" and other more pressing issues.
The ban does have serious consequences, however, as it upholds the ruling that the "freedom of expression and public rights should be restricted by maintaining the fundamentals of religion, morality and patriotism." How Egyptians decide to tackle the issue of who gets to decide what their values are, could have far reaching consequences down the road. There is also the dangerous precedent set by countries such as Russia, China and the United States, who have been accused of using anti-child-pornography laws to implement web censorship.
Egypt's porn ban will make it harder to spread "harmful" content on the internet, but for the Islamist's moral purposes, it probably won't work.
Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
A cleric has issued a fatwa calling for the death of the editor of Morocco's Al-Ahdath Al-Maghribia daily newspaper, Moktar el-Ghzioui, after he went on television proclaiming his opposition to article 490 of the Moroccan penal code, which criminalizes premarital sex. The BBC reported last Thursday that Ghzioui is in fear for his life following his controversial public statements in defense of sex before marriage, which is still taboo in many countries and religions.
A Moroccan imam told the BBC that if the code prohibiting premarital sex was removed, "we will become wild savages. Our society will become a disaster."
Last year, also in Morocco, a judge ordered a 16-year-old girl named Amina Filali to marry the man who raped her. She committed suicide in March, prompting widespread outrage and condemnation of article 475, which allows a rapist to marry his victim in order to escape jail.
Morocco isn't the only country where the prohibition on premarital sex is sometimes violently enforced. Islamists linked to al Qaeda in Mali stoned a couple to death in July for engaging in sex before marriage. The couple reportedly had been living together for some time and had children together.
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The Chinese government has ordered restrictions on Ramadan observances in the northern province of Xinjiang, home to the majority of China's Muslim Uighur minority, leading Uighur leaders to warn of the potential for new violence in the restive region. Al Jazeera reports that party officials and students under the age of 18 have been banned from fasting during the Holy Month while government websites have urged local Communist Party leaders to impose further restrictions on religious activity.
Citing the need to "maint[ain] social stability during the Ramadan period" the Zonglang township in the Kashgar district issued a statement reminding citizens that "It is forbidden for Communist Party cadres, civil officials (including those who have retired) and students to participate in Ramadan religious activities." Others local governments have urged party leaders to enforce the ban by bringing "gifts" of food to local leaders.
Though mosques remain open for prayers, new restrictions have limited services. Foreigners have been banned from entering mosques and Muslims wishing to attend services must first display a national identity card as confirmation of their local residence. Public congregation after the services is prohibited and students are encouraged to avoid public prayer.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress attributed the crackdown to recent ethnic violence in the cities of Kashgar and Hotan but warned the restrictions will incite "the Uighur people to resist [Chinese rule] even further."
Xinjiang province has long history of rebellion against the communist government. Peaceful protests against the closure of independent religious schools and the ban of meshreps broke into violence in February 1997 when security forces opened fire on unarmed demonstrators. Security forces conducted house to house searches, arresting and, human rights activists warned, torturing some prisoners to death. Similar violence broke out in July 2009, killing 197 and injuring more that 1,600. The crackdown was severe, as police brutality, home searches, and mass detentions resulted in at least 43 disappearances.
In a press release issued last month, Amnesty International Asia Pacific Director Catherine Baber warned that "The general trend toward repression that we see all over China is particularly pronounced in [Xinjian]." The organization's report on the situation concluded" The ethnic identity of Uighurs is being systematically eroded."
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A man named Muree bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri was beheaded in Saudi Arabia this week after being found in possession of spell books and talismans. Beheading is "God's punishment" for "sorcerers and charlatans," according to a statement that the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice issued in March.
Al-Asiri's execution was the latest accomplishment of Saudi Arabia's Anti-Witchcraft Unit, an elite police force specifically trained to track down and arrest practitioners of magic. The Anti-Witchcraft Unit was part of a larger campaign to exterminate sorcery from the kingdom which began in 2009 and has included a hotline for reporting witch sightings, raids on suspected houses, and lectures to inform the public about the dangers of magicians -- "key causers of religious and social instability in the country," according to the Commission's statement.
Among other things, the trouble is that magic is a broadly-defined category in Saudi law, as Uri Friedman recently explained in FP. It's not unusual for prosecutors in Saudi courts to use "witchcraft" or "sorcery" as catch-all labels for all manner of offenses -- and for defendants to use the same terms as excuses -- because the kingdom is swift to mete out punishments for this kind of deviance.
Because Saudi Arabia does not have a penal code (or a legal definition of witchcraft), it is up to a judge to decide whether someone should be condemned as a witch or a sorcerer. Sometimes all it takes is having a book with foreign writing, items that officers of the Anti-Witchcraft Unit don't recognize, or an accuser with a strong vendetta to lose your head as a convicted magician. In al-Asiri's case, his confession to two counts of adultery may have been the original reason for his arrest.
The Anti-Witchcraft Unit received almost 600 reports of witchcraft in the past few years. Whether or not these are actual cases of people purporting to practice the occult or just a pretext, the government clearly takes the problem seriously.
Though the powerful and prominent Islamist Ennahda
party has sent mixed
messages about its attitude toward Tunisia's 1,500-strong Jewish population,
President Moncef Marzouki's government
has made an extraordinary effort this year
to promote the Hiloula,
an annual pilgrimage to El Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba that
commemorates the death of second-century rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, the father of the
Kabbalah tradition. The two-day event was canceled last year for security
reasons due to the popular uprisings that ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but
it remains "the
barometer of expectations for the coming tourist season," according to the Guardian.
"So far, no more than two hundred Jewish pilgrims have joined the Hiloula.... According to our reporter in El Ghriba, police and journalists outnumbered the pilgrims, mainly Jewish Tunisians, who attended the event."
The Tunisian government has deployed a large security force to the area surrounding the synagogue, the oldest in Africa. Ten years ago, al Qaeda militants bombed the synagogue, killing 21 and wounding 30. Marzouki visited El Ghriba in April for a memorial ceremony, during which he declared that violence against Tunisian Jews was "unacceptable." Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali also voiced his commitment to a tolerant Tunisia:
"Tunisia is an open and tolerant society, we will be proud to have Jewish pilgrims visit El Ghriba as they have in the past."
The government of Israel, on the other hand, apparently sees things differently. The Israeli Prime Minister's Office issued a travel warning earlier this month advising Israelis to avoid Djerba, citing a "specific-high rating" terror threat to Jews and Israelis. Hiloula may end today, but whether Marzouki can convince the rest of the country to practice what he preaches remains uncertain.
The protestors of London's "Occupy" chapter have chosen to camp out in the forecourt of St. Paul's cathedral. The site of the tent city was originally to be further down the road at the home of the London Stock Exchange and rightful equivalent to Wall Street, but Paternoster Square is privately owned property and, right now, it's heavily guarded. But the cathedral locale has become a flashpoint of a larger, unexpected controversy: a schism in the Anglican Church.
A lawsuit has been filed by the City of London Corporation (CLC) to evict the protestors on the grounds that they are blocking traffic. While the demonstrators aren't actually occupying the streets or, more specifically, the highways which are the jurisdiction of the CLC's Planning and Transportation Committee responsible for the suit, committee member Michael Wellbank explained that "encampment on a busy thoroughfare clearly impacts the rights of others."
In fact, the iconic St. Paul's Cathedral closed its doors to worshippers and tourists last week due to safety concerns for the first time since WWII and joined the CLC's lawsuit last Friday. But since the court action could lead to the forceful removal of protesters, and ultimately violence, the cathedral proceeds without three of its clergymen who have already resigned in protest. One of them, Canon Chancellor Giles Frase, explained his decision to the Guardian:
St. Paul was a tentmaker. If you looked around and you tried to recreate where Jesus would be born -- for me, I could imagine Jesus being born in the camp. It is not about my sympathies or what I believe about the camp. I support the right to protest and in a perfect world we could have negotiated. But our legal advice was that this would have implied consent. The church cannot answer peaceful protest with violence.
Church leaders seem divided between general sympathy for the protesters' goals, and a desire to have them advocate those goals somewhere else. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams addressed the controversy for the first time today, saying, "The urgent larger issues raised by the protesters at St. Paul's remain very much on the table and we need -- as a Church and as society as a whole -- to work to make sure that they are properly addressed."
Meanwhile, the bishop of London, Rev. Richard Chartres, was called a hypocrite by angry protestors as he tried to walk a fine line with his remarks supporting both their causes and their peacefully disbanding. On Sunday, he told the crowd, "You have a notice saying, ‘What would Jesus do? That is a question for me as well."
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Niko Alm, an Austrian member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, won the right to wear a pasta strainer on his head in his driver's license photo. He originally applied for the license three years ago, but first had to get approval from a doctor that he was "psychologically fit" to drive.
The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a parody religion whose adherents are known as pastafarians. Pastafarians, whose website stipulates that "the only dogma allowed in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is the rejection of dogma," celebrate the amorphous "Holiday" in December and believe that pirates are "absolute divine beings."
Fun as it sounds, the original impetus behind pastafarianism was political -- its founder, Bobby Henderson, then a 25-year-old -- wrote an open letter to the Kansas Board of Education in July, 2005, in protest of the teaching of the Christian theory of intelligent design in schools:
I think we can all look forward to the time when these three theories are given equal time in our science classrooms across the country, and eventually the world; One third time for Intelligent Design, one third time for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism (Pastafarianism), and one third time for logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence.
The Flying Spaghetti Monster's theory of intelligent design was subsequently invoked by pastafarian protesters in a similar situation in Polk County, Florida in 2007.
Alm's request to wear a strainer on his head was a response to Austria's "recognition of confessional headgear in official photographs," according to the BBC.
Alm received his license and is currently working on getting pastafarianism designated as an officially recognized faith.
Just one week after the acquittal of fiery far-right politician Geert Wilders, the Dutch parliament struck another blow against multiculturalism in the Netherlands yesterday with the passage of a bill banning ritual animal slaughter. The bill requires that all animals be stunned before being slaughtered, a requirement that conflicts with halal and kosher stipulations that animals be fully conscious.
The bill was initially proposed by the Party of the Animals, which holds two seats in the 146-seat Dutch parliament and maintains that ritual methods of slaughter are inhumane. It gained support from centrists on similar grounds, but Wilders's Freedom Party has also been a longtime proponent. In fact, it was Wilders who first raised the issue in 2007 when he objected to halal meat being served at a public school in Amsterdam.
The ban has provoked a furious reaction from Jewish and Muslim leaders in the Netherlands and Europe. From Reuters:
"The very fact that there is a discussion about this is very painful for the Jewish community," Netherlands Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs told Reuters. "Those who survived the (second world) war remember the very first law made by the Germans in Holland was the banning of schechita or the Jewish way of slaughtering animals."
It should be noted that a last-minute amendment attached to the bill states that halal and kosher slaughterhouses will be able to apply for special permits if they can show that their methods do not cause more pain than non-ritual methods. But some are skeptical of the permit process's efficacy, and the European Jewish Congress is already considering challenging the law in court.
The bill awaits confirmation in the parliament's upper house, though it passed easily in the lower house and enjoys widespread public support. If passed, it will put the Netherlands in the company of a handful of countries that have outlawed ritual animal slaughter. Revisions to New Zealand's animal welfare code made kosher slaughter illegal as of this May, while bans in a number of Scandinavian and Baltic countries date back to anti-Semitic measures passed before World War II.
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More than a few readers, including Salon's Glenn Greenwald, complained that I hadn't rebutted Hersh's arguments. That wasn't my intention -- I was relaying what Hersh said. I did make two editorial comments: that his speech was a "rambling, conspiracy-laden diatribe" and that it "quickly went downhill" after its opening line. But I imagine that when most reasonable people read the transcript -- I don't have a video, unfortunately -- they will see what I'm talking about. As far as I know, nobody, including Hersh, is disputing my quotes.
I thought it was self-evident that several points Hersh made were off-base and conspiratorial, but perhaps it's worth spelling things out for everyone.
1. The idea that "we're gonna change mosques into cathedrals" is "an attitude that pervades … a large percentage of the Joint Special Operations Command." This is essentially unverifiable unless you do a survey of JSOC personnel. Good luck with that. For now, the weight of evidence suggests that JSOC is on the whole a highly competent and professional organization that has no intention of converting Muslims to Christianity around the world. If it were otherwise, I'm sure we'd be hearing about it from others besides Seymour Hersh.
2. Retired General Stanley McChrystal, who headed JSOC before briefly becoming the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and his successor, Vice Adm. William McRaven, as well as many within JSOC, "are all members of, or at least supporters of, Knights of Malta.… Many of them are members of Opus Dei." McChrystal has already denied being a member of Knights of Malta; McRaven and JSOC have thus far declined to comment. But so what if they were? Everything I've seen tells me that the Knights of Malta are a public service organization, not some kind of Catholic extremist group. And Opus Dei is hardly the secretive cabal of ruthless assassins depicted in The Da Vinci Code. It has a Facebook page.
3. "They do see what they're doing -- and this is not an atypical attitude among some military -- it's a crusade, literally. They see themselves as the protectors of the Christians. They're protecting them from the Muslims [as in] the 13th century. And this is their function." I have no doubt that many in the U.S. military are religious, and yes, I've heard about Jerry Boykin, Erik Prince, and those rifle scopes. But the plural of anecdote is not data -- and acknowledging there are devout Christians in the military and implying that top military leaders are embarking on a "crusade" against Muslims are two very different things. "Zealotry is viewed as being unprofessional [in the SF community]," former Special Forces officer Kalev Sepp told Stars and Stripes. "Anyone who professes religion in an open way like that is suspect to where their real loyalties lie." (Do I really need to explain this?)
4. "They have little insignias, these coins they pass among each other, which are crusader coins.… They have insignia that reflect the whole notion that this is a culture war." I believe Hersh is referring here to challenge coins, a common sight across the U.S. military. They seem pretty innocuous to me.
There's a lot more, but you get the idea. So I'm going to go out on a limb here and just say it: Odds are good that JSOC is not being overrun by Catholic fanatics.
Life in Iraq isn't easy (and hasn't been for a while), but it's still rare to find community leaders imploring Iraqis to leave their home country. But that's exactly what Archbishop Athanasios Dawood of the Syriac Orthodox Church is doing.
"I say clearly and now -- the Christian people should leave their beloved land of our ancestors and escape the premeditated ethnic cleansing," Dawood said in a prepared statement to CNN. "This is better than having them killed one by one." In other interviews, Dawood, who lives in London, evoked the word "genocide" to describe the treatment of Iraqi Christians.
Fifty-eight people were killed in an attack on an Iraqi church last Sunday.
With the exception of the massive exodus of Iraq's large Jewish minority after the creation of Israel in 1948, there was little sectarian violence in Iraq before the U.S. invasion in 2003.
"You know, everybody hates the Christian. Yes, during Saddam Hussein, we were living in peace -- nobody attacked us. We had human rights, we had protection from the government but now nobody protects us," the archbishop told the BBC. "Since 2003, there has been no protection for Christians. We've lost many people and they've bombed our homes, our churches, monasteries."
Eden Naby and Jamsheed K. Chosky wrote in Foreign Policy last week that there may not be a Christian population left in Iraq by the end of the century. Iran, which also has a (shrinking) Christian minority, is suffering the same fate.
But it isn't only from those countries that Middle Eastern Christians are leaving. Long-time Middle East journalist Robert Fisk pointed out last month (before the massacre in Baghdad) that Christian populations are shrinking across the region, from Palestine to Lebanon to Egypt. "This is, however, not so much a flight of fear, more a chronicle of a death foretold," Fisk writes. "Christians are being outbred by the majority Muslim populations in their countries and they are almost hopelessly divided."
In Michigan, Iraqi Christians rallied today, calling on the United States to put a stop to violence against their coreligionists.
The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has affected every aspect of society in that country. As many people have written, the U.S. government seems to have been wholly unprepared for what lay ahead in Iraq. It's hard to imagine that George W. Bush, with his own deep Christian faith, expected the catastrophe in store for Iraqi Christians.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
In yet another scandal for the Catholic Church, Italian authorities are investigating the Vatican Bank on suspicion of money laundering:
The Bank of Italy investigation was prompted by two wire transfers which the Vatican Bank asked Credito Artigiano to carry out, the Bank of Italy said.
The Vatican Bank did not provide enough information about the transfers -- one for 20 million euros (about $26 million), and one for 3 million euros (about $4 million) -- to comply with the law, prompting the Bank of Italy to suspend them automatically, it said.
The Vatican Bank is subject to particularly stringent anti-money laundering regulations because Italian law does not consider it to operate within the European Union.
This is not the first time the bank, formally known as the Institute for Works of Religion, has been under suspicion. The bank has been accused in the past of laundering money for the Sicilian mafia and the Gambino crime family as well as helping Croatia's pro-Nazi wartime government steal the assets of Holocaust victims.
The current investigation could add more fuel to the current debate over Vatican sovereignty, which was prompted by the pope's recent visit to Britain. Anti-pope campaigners like the British LGBT activist Peter Tatchell argue that the Holy See's officially recognized sovereignty and observer status at the United Nations give it unwarranted authority in international debates over subjects like birth control, abortion and homosexuality while protecting priests and Vatican officials from prosecution.
As I wrote in a recent explainer piece, the Holy See has worked hard to cement its sovereign status since it was first recognized under a treaty with Benito Mussolini's Italy in 1929. It currently enjoys diplomatic relations with 176 countries in spite of the fact that has no fixed population and controls virtually no territory, usually prerequisites for statehood.
But in light of the fact that Vatican sovereignty can be used as a tool to protect both accused pedophiles and money launderers, it might be time to consider whether the Catholic Church deserves a special recognition under international law not granted to any other religion.
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A history teacher has been suspended in France for spending "too much" class time on teaching the Holocaust.
Here's a classic example of where France goes wrong. A July report condemned Catherine Pederzoli for "lacking distance, neutrality and secularism" and that by spending so much time on the Holocaust she was "brainwashing" her students.
For the past fifteen years, Pederzoli has organized annual trips for students to death camps in Poland and the Czech Republic. The number of students she was allowed to take had been cut in half, prompting her students to hold a protest when French Minister of Education Luc Chatel visited the school. Pederzoli was accused of inciting the protests.
Here's how ridiculous the report was:
The ministry's report cites that in meeting with investigators, the teacher used the word "Holocaust" 14 times while using the more neutral term "massacre" only twice.
Seriously? She's brainwashing her students because she used an internationally recognized term for the heinous crimes committed against Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and other "undesirables" by Nazi Germany? It's hard to imagine a more preposterous condemnation.
France's republican tradition means that it doesn't officially recognize differences between demographic groups, and that secularism is the overriding state virtue. But that deliberate non-recognition --"I can't see you!" -- itself leads directly to policies that are often used, intentionally or not, in an anti-Semitic or Islamophobic manner.
A far-right party in Austria has sparked outrage by launching an online video game which allows players to shoot down minarets and muezzins calling for prayer.
The game's name, "Moschee Baba," translates to the not particularly clever "Bye Bye Mosque." It was created by the infamous Austian Freedom Party to promote the candidacy of Gerhard Kurzmann, running in local elections in Styria. Unsurprisingly, there aren't even any "mosques with minarets" in Styria, and there are only four in the entire country.
Freedom Party Secretary Herbert Kickl defended the game by saying that the game didn't even involve shooting, but "the pushing of a stop-button to halt a bad political decision." Yeah, a stop button that just so happens to appear in the middle of an circle closely resembling a crosshair.
(Apparently the end sequence translates to "Game Over. Styria is now full of minarets and mosques!" which reminds me at least of the infamous "All your base are belong to us" meme.)
Even as President Barack Obama brought the debate over the so-called "Ground Zero mosque" to the national level last weekend, Muslim residents of a very different city were launching their own version of the Cordoba initiative. In the real Cordoba:
Muslims in Spain are campaigning to be allowed to worship alongside Christians in Cordoba Cathedral -- formerly the Great Mosque of Cordoba.
Today, at the original Cordoba mosque in Spain, there is no call to prayer, only the ringing of church bells. That's because the former mosque is now a working Catholic cathedral, performing a daily mass.
Until the city was reconquered by Christian armies in the 13th century, Cordoba was a key symbol of Spanish Muslim culture. The Mosque of Cordoba, in particular, drew countless worshippers to the region. If the activists get their way, Cordoba's historical reputation may soon be restored.
kojotomoto / Flickr.com
Politico's Ben Smith raised the question yesterday that's now on many minds in Washington: Why hasn't Barack Hussein Obama weigh in on the
Ground Zero Burlington Coat Factory Mosque Community Center controversy?
True, he's been busy shooting hoops with NBA all-stars, raising money for embattled congressional Democrats, and most likely spending his days staring into the economic abyss. But, as Smith writes, "This is, clearly, classic Obama turf" -- it allows him to rise about the petty politics of the moment and make a moving statement on religious freedom.
Of course, Republicans are probably salivating at the prospect. Sadly, polls show that a large majority of Americans think the facility shouldn't be built, and it's the perfect wedge issue for the midterm elections. So it would be rational, albeit cowardly, for Obama to remain silent on what is, technically speaking, a local issue (and by the way, there are no legal grounds to prevent the Cordoba Initiative folks from building).
Time's Adam Sorensen speculates that Obama might just be "biding his time for the right moment." He'd better speak out soon. Terrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann has been noting on his Twitter feed that al Qaeda sympathizers on the Internet are loving this debate, because, according to one supporter, "More pressure on the Ummah simply means more explosions... Adding pressure undoubtedly benefits us... This is what we want." Another reads, "Actually, this benefits us... let them complicate the situation so that we see the arrival.. of a new Faisal Shahzad."
Developing... and not in a good way.
Shannon Stapleton-Pool/Getty Images
Manhattan's proposed Cordoba House -- described on its website as a project that "is about promoting integration, tolerance of difference and community cohesion through arts and culture" -- has been the target of heated right-wing attacks lately, ostensibly because a Muslim center near Ground Zero is "offensive" to the victims of the attacks.
But opponents have apparently noticed perhaps an even more insidious threat: Muslims praying inside the Pentagon. As Justin Elliott noted recently in Salon, the holy month of Ramadan has been observed, right in the heart of the U.S. defense establishment. Elliott points to a 2007 article from the Washington Times that exposes the reasons behind this nefarious plot:
"We live in a great nation," said master of ceremonies Air Force Lt. Col. Timothy Oldenburg, a Muslim. "Yes, it is our First Amendment right do that — to practice our religion the way we feel, to worship God and to come to the Pentagon and celebrate Ramadan."
This shocking lack of security begs the question: has the Pentagon itself secretly been shrouded in Sharia fairy dust powder? God only knows the horrors that could result from the free exercise of First Amendment rights!
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
A court case in India might could give a whole new meaning to the phrase "masters of the universe":
Can Hindu deities have demat accounts to enable them transact in shares and debentures on the stock market?
The Bombay High Court will decide the issue after a religious trust filed a petition challenging the decision of National Securities Depository Ltd (NSDL) to refuse it permission for opening demat accounts in the names of five Hindu deities.
The deities of the Sangli-based trust "Ganpati Panchayatam Sansthan" are Lord Ganesh, Chintamaneshwardev, Chintamaneshwaridevi, Suryanarayandev and Laxminarayandev. The trust, belonging to the Patwardhan family, the erstwhile royals of Sangli, had obtained PAN cards in the names of deities in 2008.
In Inida, a "demat account" is one in which shares are held in electronic form rather than in certificates, which seems appropriate for metaphysical beings. If Lord Ganesh and co. do win their case, I know the perfect banker for them.
Hat tip: Marginal Revolution
The latest reality TV sensation in Malaysia may strike Western viewers as an unlikely candidate to join the ranks of Ryan Seacrest and Heidi Klum: Hasan Mahmood, who wears a turban during each episode of his recently launched television series, "Young Imam," is the former grand mufti of Malaysia's national mosque.
At first glance, "Young Imam" looks fairly similar to its Western counterparts (it is often described as a relative of "American Idol"): each week, Mahmood winnows down a pool of young Malaysians competing for a glitzy prize package. But the similarities stop there. Instead of vying for premium record deals or glossy magazine spreads, the eager contestants on this show are competing for a shot at becoming the country's next leading religious leader. The winner will walk away with a scholarship to al-Madinah University in Saudi Arabia, a job at a Kuala Lumpur mosque, and a fully-paid Haj pilgrimage to Mecca. They are judged on everything from their musical chops (when reciting the Koran) to their academic credentials (when interpreting the Koran).
In a country where extremist strains of Islam appear to be gaining traction (the government has recently issued warnings over the presence of al-Qaeda recruiters, and controversies over Shariah law are attracting increasing attention), the show's religious theme might be interpreted as another sign of the radicalization of Islam in Malaysia. "Young Imam," however, appears to project an intentionally moderate version of the religion. The content of the show was coordinated jointly by religious authorities and media producers and has gained a widespread following of Muslim viewers. One young fan credits the show with promoting a new and positive image of Islam:
These young imams are modern, and we need that. Muslims these days are very progressive... After 9/11, it's good for us to show the true picture of Islam.
But for many viewers, the appeal of "Young Imam" seems to have very little to do with theology. Among the show's most devoted fans are older Malaysian mothers, who are thrilled to have finally found the jackpot of eligible bachelors: the marriage proposals -- sent on behalf of their daughters -- are already flooding in.
SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
Love was momentarily in the air in Saudi Arabia -- until the cops showed up. AP reports this morning that a young Saudi man from Riyadh will face 90 lashes and four months in the slammer as punishment for "engaging in immoral movements" (read: kissing) at a local mall. The unnamed culprit and his female companions (who have yet to be sentenced) are the latest victims of Saudi Arabia's Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice -- a moniker that seems best suited to the pages of an Orwellian novel, not the text of a modern legal system. And, unless he can prove royal lineage of some kind, he certainly doesn't have the clout to make his prosecutors backtrack -- a feat a Saudi tribesman managed last year after being beaten for smooching his wife in public.
The arrest is a telling indicator of the slow-pace of modernization in Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah has professed to support more lenient law enforcement, much to the chagrin of his hard-line cohorts. Short of throwing out ancient practice altogether (which, as Juan Cole explains, would flout a long history of Islamic tradition on the Peninsula), Saudis are looking for incremental ways to ease some of the kingdom's most stringent guidelines.
Just this week, two prominent clerics proposed an innovative -- and downright bizarre -- strategy for loosening the prohibition against gender mixing among unrelated men and women. In a newly released fatwa, they urged Saudi women to distribute their breast milk to adult males. That's right: for drinking. According to Islamic law, women can mix unveiled in the presence of men they have breast-fed (because nursing precludes future sexual relations). By donating their milk, women in essence "adopt" their male acquaintances, opening the door for greater, not to mention more modern, interaction.
Regardless of whether or not Saudi men and women embrace the edict, I see a great new "got milk?" ad somewhere down the road...
HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images
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