The World Today for May 09, 2024

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Guns, Bombs and Morality

IRAQ

Iraq has regained a semblance of stability since the defeat of the Islamic State, the departure of most foreign troops, and the growth of Iranian influence in the capital of Baghdad in recent years. To counter that influence, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates announced last year they would invest $3 billion into infrastructure in the war-torn country, as World Politics Review noted.

Still, as radical Iranian mullahs and ultra-orthodox Muslim sheiks pour money into the country, they are fueling a new kind of instability, and a morality race.

For example, an assassin on a motorcycle recently shot and killed Um Fahad, a well-known Iraqi TikTok personality, presumably for “wearing tight or revealing clothing, or singing and cuddling her young son,” wrote the New York Times. She had 460,000 followers – but conservative Iraqi officials sought to jail her for 90 days for dancing at her six-year-old son’s birthday party.

She was the third such personality killed in less than a year in the country, suggesting that behaviors associated with Western values and secular culture are increasingly coming under fire in the Middle Eastern country, which had been a secular state following independence in 1932, with religion later subordinated to Arab nationalism and the state under Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile, this crackdown has come on the heels of youth-driven civil unrest in Iraq that began before the pandemic, in 2019, over corruption and Iran’s influence in the country.

At the same time, Iraqi lawmakers have also passed a new law that would criminalize homosexuality and alternative gender expressions, reported Agence France-Presse. Those convicted of same-sex relations would face 15 years in prison. Transgender folks could be sentenced to three years in jail. A host of other punishments are included in the legislation. Human rights advocates portrayed the changes as codifying discrimination and violence.

Some Iraqis supported the law because they say it draws its inspiration from Islam. But Baghdad resident Hudhayfah Ali told the Associated Press that he opposed it. “Iraq is a country of multiple sects and religions,” he said. “Iraq is a democratic country, so how can a law be passed against democracy and personal freedom?”

Meanwhile, civil society is not necessarily flourishing in other parts of Iraq like Kurdistan, an independent region where American officials wield significant influence after cooperating closely with Kurdish forces to fight the Islamic State, as the Wilson Center explained. In Kurdistan, freedom of the press is under fire, according to Jurist News. Violence still mars the region, too. Turkey recently claimed to have killed 32 Kurdish terrorists who allegedly aimed to establish a sovereign Kurdish nation on Turkish territory, Reuters wrote. That’s soon after Turkey began strengthening its diplomatic and military relationship with Iraq and making deals for water, the New Arab wrote.

Powerful forces are shaping Iraq, from within and without. Unless it puts its house in order, as analysts noted, Iraq won’t be able to resist or control them, much less obtain the stability it needs to grow.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

The Crossroads

NORTH MACEDONIA

North Macedonia’s right-wing opposition won the parliamentary and presidential elections Wednesday, with its first female president elected, amid dissatisfaction with the ruling Social Democrats (SDSM) and raising questions around North Macedonia’s stalled bid to join the European Union, Reuters reported.

With 92 percent of votes counted, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) party had taken at least 59 seats in the 120-seat parliament while the SDSM’s share fell to 19, Yahoo! reported.

The VMRO-DPMNE’s candidate Gordana Siljanovska Davkova defeated incumbent President Stevo Pendarovski of the SDSM, Bulgarian news website Novinte reported.

Initially met with optimism in 2005, the EU accession process has faltered, overshadowed by persistent issues of corruption and slow economic development. VMRO-DPMNE has capitalized on these grievances, pointing to stalled infrastructure projects in Skopje as emblematic of the government’s shortcomings.

In contrast, the SDSM emphasized the importance of EU integration, framing the election as a choice between continuing on a path toward the EU or moving backward.

Membership of the bloc has been stalled partly because of frictions with neighboring Greece and Bulgaria – both EU nations – but also a failure to pass economic and judicial reforms.

The electoral landscape is further complicated by the need for coalition building, with two ethnic Albanian parties likely to play a decisive role.

Just Say No

THAILAND

Thailand will recriminalize cannabis by the end of the year, according to Priem Minister Srettha Thavisin, a major U-turn for the Southeast Asian nation two years after it became the first in the region to decriminalize the drug for recreational use, the Independent reported.

On Wednesday, Thavisin said cannabis would be re-listed as a narcotic before 2025, demanding that the Ministry of Public Health issue a regulation to allow it only for medical and health purposes.

Cannabis was first allowed for medicinal use in 2018 and later permitted for recreational use in 2022 under a previous government. But in the absence of a comprehensive law, its recreational use increased and also resulted in the rapid growth of a small domestic retail market for marijuana.

Thousands of shops and small businesses selling cannabis products have emerged since 2022, with one study projecting the industry could be worth up to $1.2 billion by 2025, according to the Bangkok Post.

But Thavisin has strongly voiced his opposition against the recreational use of cannabis since he took office last year, warning that it could worsen the country’s drug abuse problems.

The prime minister has called on all the government agencies to cooperate in solving the country’s drug problem, demanding “clear results” within 90 days.

Observers noted that changing the rules about marijuana usage will impact the economy, as well as the small businesses catering to cannabis consumers.

The move in Thailand follows one in Canada: The government on Tuesday approved a request by the province of British Columbia to recriminalize the public use of drugs, the New York Times wrote.

Before the change, the province’s residents were allowed to possess small amounts of drugs, including hard heroin and cocaine, without facing criminal charges.

However, following a public backlash and at the request of the province, the new rules prohibit public drug use, while restricting consumption to legal residences, safe injection sites, and other centers established by health authorities.

The changes underscore Canada’s struggle in grappling with the opioid crisis: The initiative sought to change the focus from punishing users to targeting large drug distributors and encouraging treatment.

Critics said they feared the ban will force users into unsafe use of the narcotics and lead to increased arrests.

The Sound and the Fury

EUROPE

Student protests against the war in Gaza spread across Europe this week, with demonstrators demanding their universities cease partnerships with Israeli institutions, a move inspired by demonstrations on American campuses, Al Jazeera reported.

Protests were held in France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands, Finland, Denmark, Italy, and Spain. On many campuses, clashes erupted with law enforcement, after university administrations debated whether to allow the demonstrations or ban them, the Associated Press wrote.

On Tuesday evening, hundreds of students and professors marched in the streets of the Dutch capital, Amsterdam, chanting “Free, free Palestine” and carrying signs reading “End the genocide,” Dutch broadcaster NOS reported.

The march came after police used a bulldozer to bring down barricades at a protest camp set up at the University of Amsterdam (UvA), and arrested 169 people. Demonstrators described the police response as “disproportionate.”

Meanwhile, the UvA argued the protests had turned hostile. Dutch Justice Minister Dilan Yesilgoz said she was “disgusted” by the protesters’ violence.

Also on Tuesday, German police forced the evacuation of around 80 camping in a courtyard inside Berlin’s Free University. Protests in Germany against the war are especially fraught because of the country’s Nazi legacy from World War II.

Meanwhile, police broke into two prestigious Parisian universities, the Institute of Political Studies (SciencesPo) and Sorbonne, on Tuesday to disperse dozens of pro-Palestine students occupying the premises.

Thirteen SciencesPo students have gone on a hunger strike since last week over the war, Le Monde reported.

Over 20 French universities were “evacuated,” French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said last Thursday, adding that police response to the protests would use “total rigor.”

In the UK, meanwhile, the University of Cambridge has allowed some student encampments on its premises. And amid protests in three of Switzerland’s largest cities, the University of Lausanne said “there is no reason to cease” relations with Israeli universities.

DISCOVERIES

Finding Links

In May 2020, 11-year-old Ruby Reynolds and her father, Justin, stumbled upon a remarkable discovery while fossil-hunting on Blue Anchor Beach in Somerset, England.

Through a bit of sleuthing, the family confirmed that the four-inch-long, oval-shaped fossil they had found belonged to an extinct marine reptile known as an ichthyosaur.

But after cooperating with a team of paleontologists, they discovered more pieces of the creature’s jawbone in what they have described as possibly the largest marine reptile ever found, the Washington Post reported.

In their study, the Reynoldses and researchers explained that the remains belonged to a new species of ichthyosaur, named Ichthyotitan severnensis. Piecing together other parts, they suggested that the extinct animal’s jawbone could have been more than six feet long.

This would mean that the I. severnensis could have been around 80 feet in length, but the team can’t fully confirm this without a full skeleton.

Still, the remains were found not far from the nearby beach of Lilstock, where co-author Dean Lomax and his colleagues uncovered the jawbone of another species of ichthyosaur.

They explained that both marine reptiles were from a period called the Rhaetian, which was around the end of the Triassic period some 202 million years ago.

Ichthyosaurs occupied Earth’s seas during the age of the dinosaurs: They emerged around 250 million years ago and their diet probably consisted of squid and fish.

Although they evolved into at least 150 species, their evolution remains a topic of mystery among paleontologists.

The recent find could shed more light on their evolution and how they were able to grow their large bodies before the mass extinction event at the end of the Triassic.

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