World update: October 15 2018



It’s been pretty well established by now that the Rohingya genocide was fueled in part by a massive Facebook campaign, but the New York Times reported Monday on just now much of that campaign was run directly by the Myanmar military:

Members of the Myanmar military were the prime operatives behind a systematic campaign on Facebook that stretched back half a decade and that targeted the country’s mostly Muslim Rohingya minority group, the people said. The military exploited Facebook’s wide reach in Myanmar, where it is so broadly used that many of the country’s 18 million internet users confuse the Silicon Valley social media platform with the internet. Human rights groups blame the anti-Rohingya propaganda for inciting murders, rapes and the largest forced human migration in recent history.

While Facebook took down the official accounts of senior Myanmar military leaders in August, the breadth and details of the propaganda campaign — which was hidden behind fake names and sham accounts — went undetected. The campaign, described by five people who asked for anonymity because they feared for their safety, included hundreds of military personnel who created troll accounts and news and celebrity pages on Facebook and then flooded them with incendiary comments and posts timed for peak viewership.


Foreign Policy’s editor-in-chief, Jonathan Tepperman, argues that Xi Jinping is making China seriously uncool:

The miraculous quality of China’s achievements makes what is happening in the country today especially tragic—and alarming. Under the guise of fighting corruption, President Xi Jinping is methodically dismantling virtually every one of the reforms that made China’s spectacular growth possible over the last four decades. In the place of a flawed but highly successful system, he is erecting a colossal cult of personality focused on him alone, concentrating more power in his hands than has any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.

In the short term, Xi’s efforts may make China seem less corrupt and more stable. But by destroying many of the mechanisms that made the Chinese miracle possible, Xi risks reversing those gains and turning China into just another police state (think a gigantic, more open version of North Korea): inefficient, ineffective, brittle, and bellicose. And that should worry not just China’s 1.4 billion citizens but the rest of us as well.

As authoritarian as China has been, it’s been more an oligarchy than a one man show at least since the days of Deng Xaoping. But not so much these days. Whatever your feelings on China past might be, it’s hard to argue that Xi is taking the country in a direction that probably isn’t going to be good in the long run.


North and South Korean officials agreed on Monday to move forward with projects to connect their two countries via road and rail whether the US and the rest of the world likes it or not. This is one of the biggest initiatives South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have discussed in their several Korean summits this year, and it reflects Moon’s desire to see sanctions eased on North Korea as soon as possible. The US maintains that it will not relax sanctions until North Korea has denuclearized, however we’re defining that this week, and has in the past viewed these proposed transportation projects as security risks.



Alex Thurston writes about the emergence of what he calls “post-Salafism,” which holds to Salafi ideas while shedding Salafism’s exclusionary tendencies–its aversion to Sufism, its takfiri approach toward non-Salafis in general:

In January 2018, I sat down for an interview with Mahmoud Dicko, president of the High Islamic Council of Mali (HCIM). As I asked Dicko what I thought were relatively innocuous questions about his positions on theology and Islamic jurisprudence, the conversation grew tense. “You’re going to write that I’m a Wahhabi,” Dicko said, short-circuiting what I had hoped would be a more three-dimensional discussion. “Just go ahead and write that I’m a Wahhabi, if that’s what you want.”

Actually, I’m increasingly unsure that it makes sense to categorize figures such as Dicko as “Wahhabis” or, to use a term more in vogue now, “Salafis.” In terms of Dicko’s own views, I think he still fits what I (in the Nigerian context) and others have identified as core markers of Salafism. These markers include theological literalism and an insistence on deriving legal opinions directly from the Qur’an and the Sunna rather than through the framework of major Sunni jurisprudential schools. But in terms of his political behavior, Dicko may be better categorized as “post-Salafi” – an emerging, amorphous category of Muslim scholars who seem to find Salafi theology and activism too narrow when it comes to confronting complex social and political arenas, and especially in terms of interacting with Sufis. If a core part of Salafism is, as Bernard Haykel has written, a “muscular discourse that is directed at reforming other non-Salafi Muslims,” then post-Salafism downplays this element in favor of postures that facilitate political and social coalitions with other Muslims. Other variants of post-Salafism, finally, are working to pair Salafi theology with a more wide-ranging view of Muslim spirituality.

I don’t know if he’d agree but the way he describes “post-Salafism” seems a bit like a reclamation of the diversity of thought that marked the broad Salafi movement a century or two ago, before the term became more or less a synonym for “Wahhabi” or even “jihadi.” Salafis of the 19th century like Muhammad Abduh weren’t hostile to non-Salafis and they didn’t conceive of Salafism as a narrow set of principles based on society in 7th century Medina. They viewed the early Islamic community as a model (this is what “Salafism” is at its most basic), but the lessons they took from the early community were far different from what, say, ISIS theologians have taken.


ISIS-West Africa has reportedly killed the second of three Red Cross aid workers it abducted in a raid back in March. They killed the first in September and had been threatening to kill another on Monday.


A US airstrike killed four al-Shabab fighters in southern Somalia on Sunday. The strike was apparently in support of a Somali military operation in the area.


Protesters opposed to President Azali Assoumani’s effort to extend term limits, so that he can run again next year, clashed with police on the island of Anjouan on Monday. Thirteen protesters were reportedly arrested but there’s no indication of serious casualties. The Comorian presidency is supposed to rotate among the archipelago nation’s main islands, and Anjouan is next in line. That means that if Assoumani, from Grande Comore, runs again he could deny the island what it sees as its rightful turn in power.



The Russian Orthodox Church is cutting ties with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, in response to decisions the patriarch has taken that could allow the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to separate itself from Moscow’s Patriarchate. Last week a church synod ruled that the Kiev can form an autonomous church with its own patriarchate. But the Ecumenical Patriarch, while taking several steps favorable to the Ukrainian cause, has yet to formally grant Kiev independence from Moscow. Orthodox Christianity isn’t my area, but this is a big deal for church governance. The Russian Church is home to about half of all Orthodox Christians worldwide, which makes it extremely powerful within Orthodoxy even though all the various Orthodox churches are technically co-equal. However, Moscow stands to lose millions of followers if Ukraine does form an independent church, which would obviously shrink that power to some degree.


Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven is, as expected, getting a crack at forming a new government, after center-right Alliance leader Ulf Kristersson’s efforts fizzled out over the weekend. He’s unlikely to have any more luck than Kristersson. Swedish politics are too evenly divided at the moment and the party holding all the cards, the far-right Sweden Democrats, is too toxic to be part of anyone’s coalition.



Another poll shows far right candidate Jair Bolsonaro with a commanding lead, 59-41, heading into his runoff against Fernando Haddad later this month.


A new migrant caravan, roughly 1600 strong, has reportedly left Honduras and crossed into Guatemala on its way to the US border. The Trump administration has urged the governments of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to stop the caravan, but while Guatemalan police confronted the crowd on Monday at the border they did not stop it.


Finally, Foreign Policy looks at some candidates to succeed James Mattis if he is indeed on his way out as Defense Secretary. Bug-eyed psychopath and Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton is high on the list despite concerns about losing him in the Senate. David McCormick, co-CEO of Bridgewater Associates, also appears to be a leading contender. Other names include Dan Coats, Trump’s Director of National Intelligence, and Senator Lindsey Graham if he’s not already on deck to replace Jeff Sessions. Basically my advice would be to start stockpiling clean water and non-perishable foodstuffs now and beat the rush.

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