Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Oct. 1 2014 1:12 PM

Muslim Writer Attacks Las Vegas-ization of Mecca in Times

A New York Times op-ed today details a conflict within Islam that will resonate with anyone whose hometown has ever been the site of backlash against new construction and sprawl, which is to say, pretty much everyone in the United States who doesn't live in Las Vegas. The piece by Ziauddin Sardar describes a version of the familiar preservationists versus developers debate taking place in one of the highest-stakes locations imaginable—namely, Mecca, a place so important to hundreds of millions of people that its name is a synonym for "a place that is important to people." Writes Sardar:

Pilgrims performing the hajj this week will search in vain for Mecca’s history.
The dominant architectural site in the city is not the Sacred Mosque, where the Kaaba, the symbolic focus of Muslims everywhere, is. It is the obnoxious Makkah Royal Clock Tower hotel, which, at 1,972 feet, is among the world’s tallest buildings. It is part of a mammoth development of skyscrapers that includes luxury shopping malls and hotels catering to the superrich. The skyline is no longer dominated by the rugged outline of encircling peaks. Ancient mountains have been flattened. The city is now surrounded by the brutalism of rectangular steel and concrete structures — an amalgam of Disneyland and Las Vegas.

Given the general association between religion and tradition, the number of historic sites that have been demolished in Mecca to make way for development is shocking. The clocktower skyscraper described above is on the site of a 1781 fortress. Houses belonging to one of Mohammed's wives, one of his closest allies, and his grandson have been torn down to be replaced by bathrooms, a Hilton, and a palace, respectively. Why? Mecca, Sardar explains, is controlled by Saudi interests whose philosophy combines modern materialism with the religious belief that historic sites promote idolatry. (The company performing much of this construction? The Saudi Binladin Group.) Read the whole piece here.

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Oct. 1 2014 11:36 AM

Larry Craig Sanctioned for Financing Bathroom Sex Defense With Campaign Funds

A judge says former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig must pay $242,000 because he improperly used campaign money to pay legal fees after his 2007 Minneapolis Airport arrest for signaling to an undercover officer that he wanted to engage in sexual activity in a bathroom stall.*

"Craig incurred the legal costs after seeking to withdraw his guilty plea to one count of disorderly conduct at the airport during a layover from a return flight to Washington from his home," the Washington Post writes. The senator was arrested in June of 2007 and pleaded guilty on Aug. 8, 2007—but news of the incident didn't become public until Roll Call reported it on Aug. 27, 2007, after which the Craig attempted unsuccessfully to withdraw his plea.

Correction, Oct. 1, 2014: This post originally misstated that Larry Craig was a senator from Montana.

Oct. 1 2014 10:30 AM

Spread of Ebola Appears to Have Been Stopped in Nigeria

The New York Times reports this morning on developments in the West African Ebola outbreak that should be reassuring to anyone concerned about the diagnosis of a man in Dallas with the disease. Namely: The spread of Ebola has apparently been halted in Nigeria, suggesting that an organized response by public health authorities can contain it here as well:

After the first patient — a dying Liberian-American — flew into Lagos on July 20, Ebola spread to 20 other people there and in a smaller city, Port Harcourt.
They have all now died or recovered, and the cure rate — 60 percent — was unusually high for an African outbreak.
Meanwhile, local health workers paid 18,500 face-to-face visits to repeatedly take the temperatures of nearly 900 people who had contact with them. The last confirmed case was detected on Aug. 31, and virtually all contacts have passed the 21-day incubation period without falling ill.

One key to controlling the disease appears to have been the quick response in tracking down potential infections in those who had contact with the country's first patient; Nigeria was also able to isolate patients in well-equipped medical facilities with proper sanitation standards. Meanwhile, as this Guardian piece points out, many American hospitals are already prepared for the possibility of an Ebola case, and the treament of the three American missionaries who were brought back for care was handled without any other individuals becoming infected.

Sept. 30 2014 10:31 PM

FCC Drops NFL Blackout Rules

If you’ve ever tried to turn on your hometown NFL team, only to have the game blacked out because the stadium wasn’t full, you don’t have the Federal Communications Commission to blame anymore. The FCC voted unanimously on Tuesday to eliminate the decades old blackout rule that prohibited the airing of NFL games on cable and satellite that were not sold out, and therefore not being shown on local stations.

“The action removes Commission protection of the NFL’s current private blackout policy, which requires local broadcast stations to black out a game if a team does not sell a certain percentage of tickets to the game at least 72 hours prior to the game,” the FCC said Tuesday in a statement. The change should be barely noticeable for most NFL fans, as the league has virtually eliminated blackouts in recent years. Last year, the league sold out 99 percent of its games and only two of 256 games went unaired, according to ESPN. That’s in stark contrast to decades past; in the 1970s half of all NFL games were blacked out.

The FCC addressed these changes in the economics of the league:

The Order finds that the Commission’s sports blackout rules are no longer justified in light of the significant changes in the sports industry since these rules were first adopted nearly forty years ago. At that time, ticket sales were the primary source of revenue for the NFL and most NFL games failed to sell out. Today, television revenues have replaced ticket sales as the NFL’s main source of revenue, and blackouts of NFL games are increasingly rare. The NFL is the most profitable sports league in the country, with $6 billion in television revenue per year, and only two games were blacked out last season.

The NFL, however, strongly opposed the change. “While the N.F.L. and its supporters argued that eliminating the blackout rule would endanger the availability of games on free over-the-air television, members of the F.C.C. staff and commissioners said they believed that was unlikely, in part because the current N.F.L. broadcast contract extends through 2022,” the New York Times reports. “The N.F.L., under its agreement with broadcast networks, will still be able to black out a game on broadcast TV. But because of the F.C.C. vote, a cable provider could show a blacked-out game in a market where the broadcast version is blocked.”

Sept. 30 2014 9:35 PM

Israel’s List of Year’s Most Popular Baby Names Leaves Out Number One—Muhammad

The Jewish New Year—Rosh Hashanah—came and went last week. The New Year being a time of reflection in the form of top ten lists of the year’s greatest hits, Israel published a list of the year’s ten most popular baby names in the country. The only problem is—it omitted number one. “According to this list, Yosef was the most popular boy’s name, followed by Daniel, Ori, Itai, Omer, Adam, Noam, Ariel, Eitan and David,” Haaretz reported last week. That's not quite accurate however, as the New York Times pointed out on Tuesday, “Muhammad was by far the most popular name for babies born in Israel last year: 1,986 boys shared the name of the Muslim prophet.”

Sabine Haddad, spokeswoman for Israel’s Population, Immigration and Borders Authority— the department that published the list—told the Times “the missing Muhammads [were] something between a mistake and a misunderstanding."

The list, she said, was simply a response to requests "for Hebrew names" in conjunction with the start of "the Hebrew New Year." It would have been better, she acknowledged, to put an asterisk noting that what she called "obviously Arabic names" were left off. "There was no intention, no political intention," Ms. Haddad said in an interview.

Haaretz notes: “The authority put out a similar list last year, also without citing the fact that it included only Hebrew names, and nor did it issue a separate list relating to the Arab population.” And in that omission Haaretz sees a larger issue at play. Here’s more:

No distinctly-Arab baby name made it to the top 10 of popular baby names in Israel (Yosef and Adam are common among both Jews and Arab-Israelis), although Arabs account for 20% of Israel’s population. On the face of it, the omission smacks of a deliberate attempt to exclude the Arab population of Israel from yet another thing Israeli. Yet this isn’t a matter of simple, blatant racism. It’s worse. It’s denial. Denial of what? First of all of Arabs, of course. Failing to acknowledge the existence of its big Arab population is a much subtler of exclusion, and in a way worse than outright racism: at least when we discriminate, we acknowledge the other.

Sept. 30 2014 7:34 PM

Watch Two Massive Ships Collide in Suez Canal

Two container ships passing through Egypt’s Suez Canal collided near the northern opening of the waterway, officials said on Monday. The two vessels—the German-flagged MV Colombo Express (right) and the Singaporean-flagged MV Maersk Tanjong (left)—collided when the Colombo Express appears to veer left suddenly during an apparent attempt to overtake the Maersk Tanjong.

The slow-motion collision did not result in any casualties, but knocked four of the Colombo Express’ containers into the canal. The crash shut down traffic on the heavily travelled canal for three hours. “The Suez Canal is one of the world's most strategic waterways, facilitating much of the maritime trade between Europe and Asia," Reuters notes.

Sept. 30 2014 5:23 PM

Ebola Diagnosed in Dallas

This post is being updated as new information becomes available.

A man in Dallas has been diagnosed with Ebola after traveling from West Africa, the Centers for Disease Control says. It's the first case of a patient being diagnosed with the illness on American soil. CDC director Tom Frieden, speaking at a press conference at the organization's Atlanta headquarters, said the man left Liberia—he is not believed to have been involved with disease-fighting efforts there—on Sept. 19 and arrived in the United States on Sept. 20 to visit family. He did not develop symptoms until Sept. 24 and was admitted to a hospital on Sept. 28. He is currently being treated at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. A "handful" of individuals who may have been exposed to the disease are being monitored, Frieden says.

The Ebola virus is transmitted through bodily fluids and not through the air, a point that was emphasized by Frieden today. All three Americans who had previously contracted the disease (and were diagnosed while still in Africa) were treated successfully and released. Two (Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol) were given an experimental drug called ZMapp and the third (Rick Sacra) received a transfusion of Brantly's blood.

Some human trials of an Ebola vaccine have already begun and others are expected to begin early next year. Tests of drugs for patients who are already infected may begin as soon as November.

More than 3,000 people have died during the disease's West African outbreak, which is centered in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

Here's video of today's press conference:

Correction, September 30, 2014: This post originally misstated that the patient had "returned" to the United States from Liberia. The patient's country of residence has not been disclosed.

Sept. 30 2014 2:38 PM

Venezuela Is in a Fight With the Clorox Corporation

The Oakland-based Clorox Company has shut down two factories in Venezuela because it says the country's price controls are too onerous, among other problems—and Venezuela has responded by seizing the facilities with plans to reopen them. From Reuters:

In the latest sign of dissatisfaction from private businesses with [President Nicolas] Maduro's running of the South American OPEC nation's economy, Clorox announced its exit on Monday, saying its business was not viable and that it would sell its assets. ...
The company said operating restrictions imposed by the government, economic uncertainty and supply disruptions would have led to considerable operating losses.

Other multinationals, including Colgate-Palmolive and Avon, have made similar complaints about the Venezeulan economy. Maduro, a close ally of late socialist strongman Hugo Chavez, was elected president by a narrow margin in April of last year.

The United States and Venezuela have not had ambassadors in each others' countries since a 2010 tiff over one American diplomat's critical comments. (Venezuela still sells the United States a great deal of oil.)

Sept. 30 2014 2:18 PM

ISIS’s Latest Weapon: Wheat

While a senior Pentagon official claimed Tuesday that the majority of oil refineries in ISIS-controlled territory in Syria have been destroyed by missile strikes, Reuters reports on another resource that helps the group maintain its foothold in the region: wheat.

The group now controls a large chunk of Iraq’s wheat supplies. The United Nations estimates land under IS control accounts for as much as 40 percent of Iraq’s annual production of wheat, one of the country’s most important food staples alongside barley and rice. ...
The group has begun using the grain to fill its pockets, to deprive opponents – especially members of the Christian and Yazidi minorities – of vital food supplies, and to win over fellow Sunni Muslims as it tightens its grip on captured territory. In Iraq’s northern breadbasket, much as it did in neighboring Syria, IS has kept state employees and wheat silo operators in place to help run its empire.

Because of the logistics of the harvest in Iraq, many farmers who began delivering wheat to Mosul before the area was taken by militants remain unpaid for deliveries. And almost all of Iraq's water comes from sources that run through ISIS-controlled areas, like the Euphrates and the Tigris, giving the group further control over farming. 

Along with crops and oil, ISIS revenue sources include taxes and donations from wealthy supporters in the Gulf states. The latter source is the target of crackdowns, but some counterterrorism experts say such measures are of limited use against the rest of the ISIS economy.

Sept. 30 2014 1:00 PM

California Eliminates Crack/Cocaine Sentencing Disparities

California has eliminated the legal distinction between cocaine and crack for purposes of criminal sentencing. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the California Fair Sentencing Act on Sunday; the bill alters the state's laws such that identical weights of "cocaine" and "cocaine base" (the legal term that often refers to crack) are treated the same. Previously, for example, individuals convicted of possessing at least 14.25 grams of cocaine base were subject to the same property forfeiture laws as those who possessed 28.5 grams of cocaine, while the law now applies only to those convicted of possessing at least 28.5 grams of either substance.

President Obama signed a similar revision to federal law in 2010, though that bill merely reduced and did not eliminate the cocaine/crack disparity.

The subtext of thse reforms, of course, is that while white Americans are much more likely to have used cocaine than black Americans, black Americans are much more often imprisoned for cocaine-related crimes—in part because blacks seem to use crack more often than whites and crack is more heavily criminalized than powder cocaine.