World update: April 11 2018


A new study finds that Greenland’s ice is melting more rapidly than previously believed and has been since the 1990s. There’s enough ice covering Greenland to raise ocean levels by about 20 feet, so this is kind of not great news.



In what is likely the least surprising political news of the year–which is saying something in a year when we’ve seen both Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Vladimir Putin “reelected”–Ilham Aliyev was “reelected” to his fourth term as Azerbaijan’s president on Wednesday. With almost two-thirds of the vote in, Aliyev reportedly has just over 86 percent of the vote, definitely the sort of thing you see in legitimate elections all the time. Major opposition parties boycotted the vote, which Aliyev would’ve rigged anyway if they hadn’t. Azerbaijan is a strategically useful US ally, so like all useful US allies its leaders get to do pretty much whatever they want with nary a peep out of Washington, but Aliyev is a hardcore authoritarian with no discernible redeeming features.


Augusta University’s Sudha Ratan examines how other players in Asia–India, Iran, Russia, China–are reacting to the possibility that Donald Trump might reduce the US presence in Afghanistan:

For the other actors in the region, there is no uncertainty about the bottom line.  The White House is looking for an exit and with the departure of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who authored Trump’s Afghanistan strategy, and the appointment of John Bolton, whose focus is on Iran and North Korea, the time line has shortened considerably. China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and India — the other powers in the region — are responding to the uncertainties of the Trump administration policies by aligning their interests, recognizing the limitations of the Afghan government in Kabul, and exploring security options if the United States fully withdraws.

The governor of Afghanistan’s Kunar province, Abdul Ghani Musamim, said on Wednesday that Pakistani forces had fired over 200 rockets across the border and into the province overnight, killing at least one person. There is a Pakistani Taliban presence in Kunar, not that it excuses cross-border shelling. Meanwhile, the Afghan Taliban killed four police officers in attacks on two security outposts in Ghazni province. Late Wednesday night, the Taliban attacked a district compound in Ghazni, killing six security officers but losing an estimated 25 of their own fighters in a fight that stretched into Thursday morning.


Indian soldiers killed four Kashmiri civilians overnight, when they opened fire on a group of protesters in the village of Khudwani. The protesters had apparently surrounded a group of Indian soldiers who were engaged in a firefight with alleged Kashmiri separatists in the village.

Meanwhile, the brutal rape and murder of an eight year old girl in Jammu and Kashmir state earlier this year is raising tensions between Muslims and Hindu nationalists. The girl was a member of the nomadic Muslim Bakarwal people and the eight men who have been arrested for her murder are all Hindu. Hindu nationalists in northern India want all eight released, even though many of them have confessed and there is physical evidence tying them to the crime, and are demanding that the case be taken away from the state police because some of them are Muslim and therefore biased.

In case you’ve ever wondered why there are so many Muslim separatists in Jammu-Kashmir, this situation answers that question pretty well.


The Bangladeshi government is about to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the United Nations refugee office that will set out guidelines for a voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. Why on Earth would any Rohingya refugees want to return to Myanmar, you ask? Well, I’ll have you know that repatriating those fine folks is a top priority for the government that massacred and drove them out in the first place. So there.


Seriously though, there’s no reason for the Rohingya to return absent full citizenship guarantees. You know why I say that? Because the two Reuters reporters who uncovered the massacre for which seven Myanmar soldiers were just sentenced to 10 years in prison are themselves facing prison for reporting on it. And their sentences are probably going to be harsher than the sentences of the soldiers who carried out the massacre.


The Philippine military have killed around 12 members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters this week in clashes on the island of Mindanao. The BIFF, which broke from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front about 10 years ago, is aligned with Abu Sayyaf in its support for ISIS.


South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Wednesday that US and North Korean officials are “holding detailed negotiations” to prepare for a meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un either in late May or early June. Hopefully they’ll try to get a handle on what, exactly, everybody means by “denuclearization,” because the success of the summit kind of hinges on that. But the first order of business seems to be figuring out a neutral site where both leaders will be comfortable meeting. Geneva and Mongolia seem to be the early favorites.



In a development that could shake Libya’s chaotic political situation to the core, strongman Khalifa Haftar has reportedly been admitted to a hospital in Paris after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage and collapsing in Benghazi earlier this week. According to these reports, which are being denied by the Libyan National Army, Haftar was rushed to a hospital in Jordan and then flown to Paris. Despite all the talk of elections this year, the likeliest outcome for Libya has for some time been a state under Haftar’s control, either formally or with him serving as commander of the military and thus the real power in the country. But if his situation is as grave as it sounds–and he is 75 years old–that obviously changes everything.

Haftar’s situation could pay immediate dividends for Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of Muammar Gaddafi, who plans to run for president if and when the country holds new elections. Saif al-Islam has a lot of support, especially among former supporters of his father, but it’s going to be a little awkward for him to run when he’s wanted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. It’s also going to be hard for him to run without actually appearing in public, which he hasn’t done since supposedly being released from the custody of one of Libya’s many militias last summer. It’s been so long since anybody has seen him that there are actually rumors that he’s dead.


The Somali government has called a halt to a United Arab Emirates program to help train the Somali military. If you’ve been following along, you know that Somalia and the UAE are in a spat over nearly $10 million that the UAE sent to Somalia in cash, in unmarked bags, on a commercial airliner, ostensibly as part of this training program. Somali authorities seem to have their suspicions that the money was actually meant for UAE-backed separatists in Somaliland. At any rate, Somalia’s refusal to cut ties with Qatar appears to have made its relationship with the UAE untenable.


The Trump administration has removed Chad from its travel ban. The administration says that Chad has improved its cooperation with the US on counterterrorism issues and has improved the security of its passports.


Protesters laid 16 bodies in front of the UN building in Bangui on Wednesday to demand an end to violence in the city. They claim the bodies are of bystanders who were killed a day earlier when UN peacekeepers engaged in a gun battle with armed groups in the CAR capital. That battle was part of the UN’s week-long effort to clear out Bangui’s PK5 neighborhood.



Italian President Sergio Mattarella is thinking about appointing a neutral party to mediate between Italy’s political parties as they struggle to cobble together a governing coalition following last month’s election. Which is interesting, since that’s, you know, kind of supposed to be Mattarella’s job. But I gather the idea would be to find somebody who could meet with party leaders quietly, without it being A Big Deal, in the hopes of finding some common ground. Nobody really wants to have to redo the election.



Western politicians often try to separate extremism from mainstream or “real” Islam. They generally have good reasons for doing this. They want to ease the concerns of the vast majority of Muslims, who may from time to time begin to feel like, say, the United States has declared war on their entire faith. They’re also talking to domestic audiences, trying to tamp down a fevered anti-Islam bigotry that can lead to mistreatment and even violence directed toward Muslim communities in the West. Unfortunately, new research suggests that this kind of rhetoric could have some unfortunate side effects:

Accusing fellow Muslims of apostasy has been one of the main tools of the Islamic State and other militant organizations. Ironically, in his denunciation of ISIS as apostate, [former Secretary of State John] Kerry joined the group in declaring who is and who is not a Muslim, drawing derision and mockery from Muslims. By engaging in a war of accusations, the United States entered a centuries-old debate about who counts as a real Muslim, with potentially violent reprisals for those who don’t. What Kerry may not have reckoned with — but his Muslim audience certainly did — is that the weight of the accusation is deeply dependent on characteristics of the speaker and broader political dynamics.


Many leaders in the region, including King Abdullah of Jordan, have worked to reduce accusations of apostasy in public discourse and the violence that often follows. Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, a center of Islamic learning for more than 1,000 years, refused to declare ISIS and other violent actors apostates, arguing that doing so reinforced the cycle of mutual “excommunication.” By contrast, others, including King Mohammed VI of Morocco have actively called terrorists such as ISIS “non-Muslim.”


State-led efforts to articulate an explicitly “moderate Islam,” can spur precisely the kind of extremist competition it seeks to avoid. When Saudi Arabia asserts itself as the main source of religious leadership, research shows how this may actually prompt extreme groups to compete with it. If this is true of states that legitimize themselves in relation to Islam, consider the ramifications when it is the United States or Germany endorsing a particular religious interpretation.

There are ways for leaders like John Kerry to talk about the relationship between ISIS and other Muslims without adopting, however inadvertently, the rhetoric of takfir. Western leaders need to above all understand that Muslims don’t need John Kerry, or Angela Merkel, etc., to explain to them what “Islam” is or what it’s about. Any attempt to do so is going to be perceived as condescension and will backfire.

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