The World Today for September 12, 2016


Of Princes and Pilgrims

Millions of people from across the globe are currently making their way to the holy city of Mecca– it’s a miraculous sight.

The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam: The world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are supposed to make the Hajj at least once in their lives, if they are able to.

“And proclaim to mankind the Hajj. They will come to you on foot, on very lean camel, they will come from every deep and distant mountain highway,” the Koran reveals, according to a translation in the New York Times.

During the pilgrimage, believers go to the Grand Mosque and walk around the Kaaba, an ancient shrine in Saudi Arabia that houses a venerated black stone said to mark where Adam and Eve should build an altar.

Muslims have been performing the Hajj for nearly 1,400 years. The lips of multitudes of pilgrims kissing the black stone have worn it smooth.

Unfortunately, the Hajj is not immune from the divisions of the region, however: The cold war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran has been dragged into the pilgrimage, CNN reported.

Iran has banned its citizens from undertaking the pilgrimage to Mecca this year.

Tehran said Saudi Arabia has refused to guarantee the safety of Iranian pilgrims, a necessity given that 464 Iranians were among the almost 800 pilgrims who died in a stampede during the Hajj last year.

Iran claims Saudi Arabian officials were slow to give the Iranians medical attention.

“The heartless and murderous Saudis locked up the injured with the dead in containers – instead of providing medical treatment and helping them or at least quenching their thirst,” said Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently, questioning whether Saudi Arabia should continue to play custodian of the holy sites.

Context suggested there are other factors at play, though.

The ban followed Saudi Arabia’s decision earlier this year to break off diplomatic ties with Tehran after Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy following the execution of a Shiite Muslim cleric by the Saudi regime.

The Dubai-based Gulf News accused Iran of playing politics on the Hajj.

“There is a dangerous trend from modern-day Iran to seek to use Islam for its own political purposes and it has actively sought political destabilization in the Arab world,” the paper editorialized.

Regardless of the politics, around two million more Muslims are still coming, according to PBS. They don’t care about the charges flying from both sides saying the other isn’t Muslim enough.

Instead, the sheer numbers making their way to Mecca suggests the Hajj remains a unifying event in a region where many forces are trying their best to pull people apart.


Russian Whispers

Is Russia making another move to expand, or at least re-establish, its sphere of influence?

Following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive moves to influence affairs in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, Moscow is now set to conduct an eight-day joint operation with Beijing in the South China Sea, Reuters reported.

The naval exercises pull together two countries that are both flouting international criticism to claim disputed territory – with Russia defying sanctions to retain possession of Crimea and China rejecting a July ruling by The Hague that found in favor of the Philippines in its dispute with Beijing over the South China Sea.

Russia has been a strong backer of China’s claims to the disputed waters for some time, while the US has claimed neutrality in the dispute but essentially protected the smaller Southeast Asian nations on the other side of the argument.

The Global Times, which is often a vehicle for China’s more bellicose statements, quoted a think tank expert as saying the move may be connected to the recent action in the Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The islands are administered by Japan, but Beijing says they rightly belong to China, and reportedly sent four naval vessels into Japan’s territorial waters Sunday.

Shoot More, Then Stop

The ceasefire deal for Syria inked by the US and Russia last week spurred a spike in shooting over the weekend, with both government troops and rebel fighters seeking to get in their licks before the scheduled cessation of hostilities comes into force at sundown Monday.

At least 90 people were killed by airstrikes on rebel-held territory in northwestern Syria over the weekend, CNN cited human rights groups as saying. Meanwhile, the rebel group formerly known as the Al Nusra Front and now rebranded as the Syrian Conquest Front is working hard to get other rebels to forget about the planned ceasefire and continue to fight to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The US-Russia ceasefire does not protect the Islamist group – which claims it severed ties to Al Qaeda when it changed its name – from shelling. So the Syrian Conquest Front has every reason to ignore it. Meanwhile, separating the Islamists from the other rebel groups will be easier said than done, as they see the Syrian Conquest Front as an integral part of their struggle against Assad and many families have sons fighting with the Islamist group as well as more secular rebel groups, the paper said.

Delaying the implementation of the ceasefire was expected to result in a spurt in the fighting, so this weekend’s violence doesn’t provide any additional reasons to doubt that the deal can work. But the Guardian notes that “the auguries aren’t good” considering it’s not clear how much influence Russia really has over Assad or how much sway the US holds over Turkey, another big player in the conflict.

Little Victories

When the odds are stacked against you, little victories mean a lot.

That’s why the first victory by opposition parties since 2004 in the Belarus elections over the weekend is notable, even though the government opponents managed to eke out wins for only two out of 110 parliamentary seats. Not only was Belarus known until recently as “Europe’s last dictatorship,” points out Bloomberg, but critics say that President Alexander Lukashenko stacked the deck in his favor.

“We did everything so that there would not be any complaints put before us from the Western side,” said Lukashenko, who released political prisoners last year in order to get the US and Europe to lift most of the sanctions and trade barriers imposed on Belarus.

The two-seat win for the opposition may well be enough to secure Western support for Lukashenko.

However, critics said tight restrictions on campaigning and state control of the media prevented a genuinely free election, according to Deutsche Welle.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is expected to report on the polls Monday.


Wish You Were Here

NASA’s Curiosity rover has sent back some stunning images from Mars – which looks an awful lot like the deserts of Utah and Colorado, it turns out.

Exploring the “Murray Buttes” region of Mars’ Mount Sharp, Curiosity snapped vivid color photographs of the planet’s layered landscape with its Mast Camera last week, according to the science news site

NASA plans to merge the images to create a series of mosaics. But for now the “post cards” of a sort can be viewed here.

While the pictures depict a familiar landscape, Curiosity, which landed near Mount Sharp in 2012, is also endeavoring to ascertain how similar to Earth the Red Planet might have been eons and eons ago.

In 2014, the rover discovered evidence that the ancient Martian lakes once had characteristics that could have supported microbes. Now, it’s drilling and examining the planet’s buttes and mesas to determine how those conditions became drier and less favorable to life.

“Studying these buttes up close has given us a better understanding of ancient sand dunes that formed and were buried, chemically changed by groundwater, exhumed and eroded to form the landscape that we see today,” said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada.

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