The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has called for the US Department of EducationÂ (DOE) to drop an investigation into a university’s Middle East studies programme, saying the agency is attempting to mould the curriculum according to the administration’s “ideological standards”.Â
In a letter to school officials in August, the DOE said that the joint Duke University-University of North Carolina Consortium for Middle East Studies offered students a biased curriculum.
DOE Assistant Secretary Robert King wrote in the letter that the programmeÂ included a “considerable emphasis placed on the understanding the positive aspects of Islam” without a similar positive focus on other religions or belief systems in the Middle East or focus on persecuted religious minorities.Â
The letter, which was posted to the public Federal Register last week, concluded that the consortium’s curriculum and programmes, without an overhaul, might be “unqualified” for a $235,000 federal grant it currently receives. That grant, under the Title VI programme, is contingent on displaying a curriculum or centre is a “national resource” forÂ foreign language and international studies.Â
The consortium “offers very little serious instruction preparing individuals to understand the geopolitical challenges to US national security and economic needs but quite a considerable emphasis on advancing ideological priorities,” the DOE letter said.Â
But critics charge the agency is playing politics with the grant money.Â
Kate Ruane,Â the ACLU’sÂ senior legislative council,Â said on Friday that the DOE’s action amounts to censorship, adding theÂ “efforts undermine academic freedom and have no factual or legal basis”.Â
In aÂ letterÂ addressed to DOE Secretary Betsy DeVos, the ACLU said the DOE’s inquiry “raises concerns that the department is injecting the current presidential administration’s long pattern of anti-Muslim bigotry and discrimination into the Title VI funding process.”
The rights group also demanded that the agency turn over all records relating to the investigation.Â
The DOE, in a statement to Al Jazeera, said that the investigation is legal under federal regulations.Â
“It is absurd to be accused of bigotry for recommending the inclusion of religious and ethnic minorities,” DOEÂ Press Secretary Angela Morabito said.Â “Real bigotry would be ignoring or dismissing the existence of religious minorities as immaterial to a full understanding of the region.”
Accusations of anti-Israel bias
DeVos launched the inquiry into the consortium in June, two months after US RepresentativeÂ George Holding, a Republican, requested an investigation after seeing “reports of severe anti-Israeli bias and anti-Semitic rhetoric at the taxpayer-funded conference”.Â
Holding, in an AprilÂ letter to DeVos, said he had received complaints from his constituents about the conference, called “Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities”, which he said featured speakers “actively involved in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement”.Â
DeVos has publicly called the BDS movement “one of the most pernicious threats” of anti-Semitism on college campuses. Â
The ACLU argued that the DOE’sÂ “true objection seems to be that consortium has failed to conform its programming to the Administration’s own ideological standards.”
The rights group also said that universities receiving similar funds are “now on notice thatÂ they must espouse a particular viewpoint regarding Israel to the satisfaction of the government and must tread lightly when it comes to any curricular content that could somehow be perceived as portraying Islam and Muslims in a positive light.”
For its part, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where the consortium is based, rebutted the DOE’s claims in a September 20 response obtained by the News and Observer newspaper.
In the response, Terry Magnuson, a vice chancellor for research at the university, said the consortium will establish an advisory board to review its programmes and activities, but argued that the centre has provided diverse courses and conferences, includingÂ “positive appreciation” for Christianity and Judaism and explorations on the persecution faced by all religious minority groups in the Middle East.Â
Duke University President Vincent Price said on Thursday that the situation “has heightened concern about possible intrusions into academic freedom and curriculum”.Â
“We want to be very clear: no outside entity will determine what Duke faculty will teach, how they teach it, what they choose to research or write about, or who can speak on our campus,”Â he said in aÂ statement.Â
He acknowledged that “government agencies can and do choose what they will support with public funds”.
He added that if Duke accepts Title VI funding, it has “an obligation to understand and abide by the applicable legal guidelines for its use”.Â
The heads of five universities in Massachusetts -Â Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst – decried DOE’s investigation in a letter to the department on Wednesday.Â
“We object strongly to the US Department of Education’s effort to censure the curriculum of Middle East studies courses offered by Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,” the letter said. “By threatening to withhold federal funding, the Department of Education is setting a dangerous precedent, one that puts academic freedom at risk.”
New Daesh leader was informant for US, says counter terrorism report
NEW YORK: The man widely believed to be the new leader of Daesh was once an informant for the US, according to a new report from the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC), a research body at the US military academy of West Point in New York. “Stepping Out from the Shadows: The Interrogation of the Islamic State’s…
NEW YORK: The man widely believed to be the new leader of Daesh was once an informant for the US, according to a new report from the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC), a research body at the US military academy of West Point in New York.
“Stepping Out from the Shadows: The Interrogation of the Islamic State’s Future Caliph” is based on Tactical Interrogation Reports (TIRs) — the paper trail the US military creates when enemy fighters are detained and interrogated — from Al-Mawla’s time in captivity in the late 2000s.
Before his release in 2009, Al-Mawla named 88 extremists involved in terrorist activities, and the information he divulged during his interrogations led US forces in the region to successfully capture or kill dozens of Al-Qaeda fighters, the report claims.
The CTC said it is “highly confident” Al-Mawla became the new leader of Daesh after the previous leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, was killed in a US air raid in Syria in October 2019.
Although Daesh announced that a man called Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Qurashi was Baghdadi’s successor, US officials have also stated that Al-Qurashi’s true identity is actually Al-Mawla — also known as Hajj Abdullah.
Before joining Daesh, Al-Mawla is believed to have been the deputy leader of Al-Qaeda.
While details about the operation resulting in his capture are scarce, the TRIs reveal that he was captured on January 6, 2008.
The following day, US Central Command announced the capture of a wanted individual who “previously served as a judge of an illegal court system involved in ordering and approving abductions and executions.”
In his interrogations, Al-Mawla offered up details of terrorist plots to his interrogators, while minimizing his own involvement. He identified many jihadists by name and offered descriptions of their roles in the terrorist organization and details of their involvement in attacks on US-led coalition forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Al-Mawla — a former officer in Saddam Hussein’s army and once Baghdadi’s speechwriter — emerges from the TIRs as a mysterious personality with a vague past, whose ethnicity could not be determined with certainty. The statements in the reports are rife with contradictory elements and open to a wide range of interpretations. As the authors point out in their introduction: “It is incredibly difficult to ascertain whether what Al-Mawla divulges regarding himself or ISI (the forerunner of Daesh) as an organization is true.”
Details of the specific demographics of Al Mawla’s birthplace of Al-Muhalabiyyah in Iraq’s Tal Afar district are sketchy, but it is generally accepted to have a predominantly Turkmen population. The authors of the report point out that some sources have suggested “this could pose legitimacy problems for him because (Daesh) mostly has Arabs in its senior leadership echelons,” but add that at least two other senior members of the group were reported to have been Turkmen.
Al-Mawla also claimed to have avoided pledging allegiance to ISI because he was a Sufi. The report’s authors cast doubt on that claim, given his quick rise to prominence in the terrorist group and the fact that ISI and Daesh branded Sufism as heresy.
But the authors do believe the TRIs give some valuable insights into Al-Mawla’s personality.
“The fact that he detailed activities and gave testimony against (fellow jihadists) suggests a willingness to offer up fellow members of the group to suit his own ends,” they wrote. “The amount of detail and seeming willingness to share information about fellow organization members suggests either a degree of nonchalance, strategic calculation, or resignation on the part of Al-Mawla regarding operational security.
“He appears to have named individuals in some capacity across all levels of the organization, while describing some individuals in some detail,” they continued.
The US Department of Justice has offered a $10million reward for information about Al-Mawla’s identification or location.
The poisoning of Alexey Navalny: Five key things to know
What happened on the day Navalny fell ill? On August 20, a Thursday, Alexey Navalny, Russia’s leading Kremlin critic, had finished up campaigning for opposition politicians in Siberia for local elections, which were taking place from September 11 to 13. He left Xander Hotel and headed for the Tomsk Bogashevo airport. There, he drank a…
What happened on the day Navalny fell ill?
On August 20, a Thursday, Alexey Navalny, Russia’s leading Kremlin critic, had finished up campaigning for opposition politicians in Siberia for local elections, which were taking place from September 11 to 13.
He left Xander Hotel and headed for the Tomsk Bogashevo airport. There, he drank a cup of tea. He was on the way to Moscow.
In the first half-hour of the flight, he fell ill and witnesses said he screamed in pain. He was later in a coma.
He was airlifted to Germany’s capital, a six-hour flight, to the Berlin Charite hospital.The plane made an emergency landing at Omsk. He received treatment in the Russian city, where doctors said he was too unwell to be moved, but two days later on August 22, a Saturday, they said his life was not in danger.
Was he poisoned?
Navalny’s team believes he was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent, a claim several European countries support.
A laboratory in Germany said it had confirmation on September 2, followed by laboratories in France and Sweden on September 14.
Samples from Navalny have also been sent to the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague for testing.
Russia says there is no evidence to prove Navalny was poisoned, while its ally Belarus has also doubted the claim. The doctors in Omsk said they had not detected poisonous substances in Navalny’s body.
US President Donald Trump has been criticised for towing Russia’s line, saying on September 4 – two days after Germany’s claim to have “unequivocal evidence” – that “we have not had any proof yet”.
How is Navalny’s condition now?
On September 7, more than two weeks after falling ill on the plane, Navalny’s doctors in Germany said he was out of a coma and that his condition was improving. His spokeswoman said, “Gradually, he will be switched off from a ventilator.”
On September 15, Navalny posted on Instagram that he was breathing alone. He has said he plans to return to Russia.
If he was poisoned, who may have poisoned him and where?
Navalny’s team believes he was poisoned at the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin – a claim the Kremlin has strongly denied.
Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh had initially said she believed Navalny’s tea at the airport was poisoned, but on September 17, his team said the nerve agent was detected on an empty water bottle from his hotel room in the Tomsk, suggesting he was poisoned there and not at the airport.
What effect has the alleged poisoning had?
The alleged attack has widened a rift between Europe and Russia, with Germany and France leading calls for a full investigation but stopping short of outrightly blaming the Russian government.
MEPs have called for sanctions against Russia, saying on September 17, “The poison used, belonging to the ‘Novichok group’, can only be developed in state-owned military laboratories and cannot be acquired by private individuals, which strongly implies that Russian authorities were behind the attack.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry has summoned Germany’s ambassador to Moscow, while the United Kingdom has summoned the Russian envoy over the incident.
For its part, Moscow rejects what it called the politicisation of the issue.
Significantly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is under pressure to halt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, which transfers Russian gas to Germany. Once again, the Kremlin has warned not to involve the Navalny case in any discussion about the pipeline, with Dmitry Peskov saying on September 16, “It should stop being mentioned in the context of any politicisation.”
A timeline of events surrounding the alleged poisoning attack on Navalny:
August 20 – Navalny falls ill on flight; plane makes emergency landing in Omsk; his spokeswoman says he was poisoned, perhaps by the tea he drank at the airport
August 22 – Navalny airlifted to Berlin Charite hospital
September 2 – Germany says it has ‘unequivocal evidence’ Navalny was poisoned, Russia responds by saying the claim is not backed by evidence
September 4 – US President Donald Trump says ‘we do not have any proof yet’
September 6 – Heiko Maas, German foreign minister, threatens action over gas pipeline project, saying, ‘I hope the Russians don’t force us to change our position on Nord Stream 2’
September 7 – German doctors say Navalny is out of an artificial coma
September 11-13 – Russia holds local elections; Navalny’s allies make gains in Siberian cities
September 15 – Navalny posts on Instagram that he is breathing alone
September 16 – Kremlin spokesman warns against politicising Navalny issue in discussions over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project with Germany
September 17 – Navalny’s team now suspects he was poisoned in his hotel room, not the airport, citing traces of nerve agent on an empty water bottle
September 17 – MEPs call for sanctions against Russia
Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan to lend voice to Amazon’s Alexa
Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan will be the first Indian celebrity to lend his voice to Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant starting next year, as the Silicon Valley giant expands its presence in the significant market.The 77-year-old actor has been a household name in India for nearly half a century, and his deep baritone is instantly recognisable…
Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan will be the first Indian celebrity to lend his voice to Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant starting next year, as the Silicon Valley giant expands its presence in the significant market.The 77-year-old actor has been a household name in India for nearly half a century, and his deep baritone is instantly recognisable to listeners in the country of 1.3 billion.Foreign firms such as Amazon have spent tens of billions of dollars in India in recent years as they fight for a piece of the Asian giant’s burgeoning digital economy.In a blog post on Monday, Amazon India said Bachchan’s “voice experience” feature will become available for purchase on Alexa next year.”It will include popular offerings like jokes, weather, shayaris (poetry), motivational quotes, advice and more,” the firm said.Alexa first rolled out celebrity voice option last year with actor Samuel L Jackson, following a similar move by Google the year before, which gave users the option of hearing singer John Legend on the Google Assistant.”I am excited to create this voice experience,” the Bollywood megastar said on Amazon’s blog.”With voice technology, we are building something to engage more effectively with my audience and well-wishers.”His earlier foray into vocal blogging in 2010, Bachchan Bol-Bachchan Speak, allowed fans to listen to pre-recorded messages by the star at the push of a button.In addition to competing with voice-activated devices such as Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant for consumers, Amazon is battling Walmart-backed Flipkart and JioMart, owned by Asia’s richest man Mukesh Ambani, for a share of the online retail market.The tech giant, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, is also trying to win eyeballs with its streaming service that competes with Netflix and Disney+ Hotstar.Bachchan and his family have been among India’s highest-profile coronavirus patients. The superstar, his actor son Abhishek, actress daughter-in-law Aishwarya Rai, and granddaughter Aaradhya were all admitted to hospital in July. All four have since been released.The veteran star returned to work last month filming India’s version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? after authorities eased coronavirus curbs on movie and TV shoots.Nevertheless, with cases in India nearing five million, authorities in Mumbai – the home of Bollywood – have asked production houses to ensure that common facilities are regularly sanitised, masks worn and social distancing “followed as far as possible”.Bachchan’s last film, comedy-drama Gulabo Sitabo, went straight to Amazon’s streaming service in June, after theatres in India shut down in March due to pandemic fears.