December 12, 2007

News You Might Have Missed * Vol. 6, No. 50

Important but overlooked news from around the world.

QUOTED:

“[W]hen former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan, where did he go? To the Sufi shrine in Lahore.”

— Pakistani anthropologist Akbar Ahmed on Sufism as an antidote to Islamic fundamentalism (see “Islam,” below).

CONTENTS:

*Top Stories*
Oil industry’s Amazon frontier
A man, a dam and a salmon plan
Corruption roils Alaska oil politics

*Australia*
Things looking up for the poor Down Under

*Islam*
The stirrings of Islamo-liberalism


TOP STORIES

* Oil Industry’s Amazon Frontier

Economic development and ecological conservation are once again at odds in the Amazon, where a remote region thick with rare species — and indigenous peoples in “voluntary isolation” — has been opened to extensive oil and gas development.

Environment News Service reports that Brazil’s Petrobras, the U.S. firm Barrett Resources and Spain’s Repsol have all been approved to develop vast territories in the Upper Amazon Basin, in the border regions of Peru and Ecuador.

Activists say that 73 percent of the Peruvian Amazon “is now or soon will be” open to oil development, up from 13 percent in 2004.

Source:

“Oil Developers Permitted to Penetrate Pristine Upper Amazon”
Environment News Service, December 4, 2007

* A Man, a Dam and a Salmon Plan

A federal judge rebuked the government for its latest plan to restore salmon runs along the Columbia and Snake rivers.

According to The Oregonian, U.S. District Judge James A. Redden has declared that the government plan, like two previous plans he also rejected, won’t live up to the Endangered Species Act because it does not provide reasonable options for improving salmon habitat.

The newspaper also writes that the judge has expressed doubts about the government’s “salmon science” — a view shared by Oregon state officials — and may convene his own panel of experts on the topic.

By calling for officials to including the removal of several dams in their plan, Redden has positioned himself squarely against the Bush administration, which has “flatly refused” to consider any dam removals.

If no plan is approved, Redden could declare all dam operations illegal, which would affect everything from irrigation to hydropower throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Source:

“Judge rips latest plan to help salmon”
The Oregonian, December 11, 2007

* Corruption Roils Alaska Politics

With two oil executives headed to jail for giving hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal payments and “benefits” to prominent state politicians, Alaskans can look forward to plenty of court-watching in the months to come.

According to The Christian Science Monitor, the appetite in Alaska extends beyond courtroom voyeurism, however, thanks to an array of oil-related issues — from corrosion in pipelines to disputes over the Exxon Valdez oil spill settlement.

The issue came to a head on November 16, when Alaska’s legislature passed, with the support of Republican Governor Sarah Palin, a dramatic revision of the state’s “tainted” oil tax laws.

The new oil-tax bill is expected to bring in an additional $1.5 billion in revenue to the state, closes loopholes, and limits investment credits and deductions.

One industry official decried the new bill as a “feeding frenzy,” reports the Monitor, which also notes that ConocoPhillips canceled a $300 million refinery-upgrade project in response to the law.

Source:

“Tales of oil industry’s influence in Alaska”
The Christian Science Monitor, December 12, 2007


AUSTRALIA

* Things Looking Up for the Poor Down Under

When Australia’s conservative government was voted out of office last month, much of the world’s media emphasized the possible ramifications for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — or the fact that the former singer of politically charged rockers Midnight Oil is now the nation’s environment minister.

But the changes go much deeper than that.

The newly installed government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is acting quickly to reverse the policies of previous Prime Minister John Howard on a wide range of social justice issues.

This week, the government announced that it would discontinue the controversial “Pacific Solution,” whereby Asian refugees seeking asylum in Australia were held in camps in Papua New Guinea.

The program, instated by Howard in 2001, had been assailed by human rights groups and the United Nations.

Meanwhile, the new government was quick to respond after the Sydney Morning Herald reported that millions of dollars were being wasted by the national welfare system in prosecuting the poor for cases of suspected fraud, sometimes even after the accusation was proved groundless.

“Many of the cases it pursued had absolutely no merit,” one activist told the Herald. “It pressed cases, not to set precedents, but to set a tone.”

Howard had made a get-tough approach on welfare a cornerstone of his unsuccessful re-election campaign.

The new government said it would investigate the alleged abuses.

Finally, Rudd said his government would issue a formal apology to Australia’s Aborigines for the so-called stolen generation of aboriginal youths who were taken from their homes in a decades-long effort to assimilate them.

The indigenous population — only about 470,000 out of 21 million people in Australia — is the poorest group in the nation, reports Agence France-Presse.

Conservatives in Australia oppose any apology, which they say could fuel calls for financial reparations to Aborigines.

Sources:

“Pacific Solution to be abolished”
The Age, December 1, 2007

“Millions lost in fierce legal war on the poor”
Sydney Morning Herald, December 9, 2007

“Govt to review handling of welfare fraud”
Australian Associated Press, December 10, 2007

“New Australian PM pledges quick apology to Aborigines”
Agence France-Presse, November 25, 2007

“Saying sorry won’t mean compo, says Rudd”
News.com.au, November 30, 2007


ISLAM

* The Stirrings of Islamo-Liberalism

Plenty of media attention has been given to fundamentalist Islam and Taliban-style “Islamo-fascism.”

But a trio of recent articles brings to light an overlooked liberal trend in the Muslim world, in the form of emerging pro-democracy movements and an apparent resurgence of Sufism.

The Dutch academic Asef Bayat notes in a recent essay that democracy in the Middle East is impossible without the emergence of a new type of Muslim citizen — “teachers, students, the young, women, workers, artists, and intellectuals” — that can spur a “post-Islamist” interpretation of the Koran supportive of democratic ideals.

Though oppressive governments and religious teachings have impeded “post-Islamism” thus far, Bayat says change can emerge through an informed citizenry that asserts its values through daily cultural practice and activism.

In fact, youth throughout the Middle East and North Africa are coming together to achieve just that, reports Wiretap Magazine, under the banner of a “cyberdemocracy” Web site called Mideast Youth (www.mideastyouth.com/).

The site boasts youth bloggers from Tunisia to Iran, and prides itself for its tolerant discussion of atheism and homosexuality, among other culturally taboo topics.

Wiretap notes that the site also has an activist bent, rallying its members on behalf of imprisoned dissidents in China and Egypt, providing media training to average citizens, and encouraging productive dialogue across cultural, national and ethnic divisions.

Change may not just lie in the future growth of democratic ideals and cultural tolerance, but also in the past, with the re-emergence of the Sufi spiritual tradition.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that Sufism’s influence is widely felt in “Islamic art, literature, music, and architecture” — and beyond, in the United States, where the 800-year-old poetry of the Sufi mystic Jelaluddin Rumi tops bestseller lists.

According to the Monitor, Sufism has produced many of the leading reformers of the Muslim world, including the highly regarded Turkish intellectual Fetullah Gulen, who built a chain of schools, advocates for interfaith dialogue, and is admired as a role model for Turkish youth.

Sufism is considered heretical by purists for its pursuit of spiritual union with the divine.

While banned in Saudi Arabia, it is practiced in Iran, Pakistan, India, and around the world, including the United States, the newspaper reports.

Sources:

“No Democracy in the Middle East Without Muslim Citizenry”
ISIM Review (Netherlands), December 5, 2007

“Sufism may be powerful antidote to Islamic extremism”
Christian Science Monitor, December 5, 2007

“Mideast Digital Detente”
Wiretap.org, November 24, 2007


Editors: Josh Wilson, Will Crain

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