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Penguins of the Lasta-Rica circus, which had to cancel all its events during the COVID-19 pandemic, pay a visit to the Bryansk Regional Art Museum, in Russia
Penguins of the Lasta-Rica circus, which had to cancel all its events during the COVID-19 pandemic, pay a visit to the Bryansk Regional Art Museum, in Russia

Welcome to Friday, where the Biden Administration launches its first military air strike, Israel says it has vaccinated half its population and an Italian politician makes an epic literary error. We also check in around the world for social media alternatives to the mega Silicon Valley platforms.

Islam became a "problem" in France when Muslims became French

Writing in Le Monde, French sociologist Hicham Benaissa questions what has become central issue to President Emmanuel Macron: fighting so-called "separatism" within the Muslim community in France:

There is a new bill before the French National Assembly that calls for "reinforcing the respect of the principles of the Republic," and fight against Islamist "separatism." We already know that among the key aims of current amendments would be to restrict — in the name of secularism — the expression of religious affiliation within different sectors of social life. It may apply to those who work in public services, hospitals and universities, and could impose the principle of religious neutrality on all public sector employees.

The strategy of combining laïcité (a strict French concept of secularism) with France's principle of neutrality is not new. However, the current bill could make people think that the more religious convictions are neutralized, the better one can defend the original 1905 law establishing the separation of Church and State.

A 2004 report by center-right politician François Baroin, entitled "For a new secularism," contributed significantly to establishing the consensus on which the major political views of the future will have been based ever since. Baroin did this by specifically favoring an expansive vision of the principle of neutrality from the 1905 law. This came well before the terrorist attacks that have struck France in recent years. The consensus that has been established is as follows: Secularism would overcome a new problem due to the "new" presence in France of an Islam asserting itself in different areas of social life.

But let's ask ourselves: Is the question of religious expression practiced by a certain number of Muslims in France really "new"? No. We know, for example, that in the 1970s, companies such as Renault or Peugeot set up places of worship for Muslim workers because they saw them as a strong element of social regulation.

As for politicians, Paul Dijoud, secretary of state for immigrant workers from 1974 to 1976, said: "Companies will be invited to set up places where prayer can be practiced and timetables corresponding to the schedule of these prayers. During the Ramadan fast, companies should, as some already do, arrange working conditions compatible with the physical condition of Muslim workers. Finally, company managers must be attentive to the need for cafeterias to allow the Koranic rules involving food to be respected."

If it seems obvious that this kind of talk would cause a scandal today, the question should be: Why has that which did not seem to be a "problem" at the time become one today? In other words, what is really new about the current situation?

The political decisions that characterize the fate of Muslims in France throughout the 1960s and 1970s is that of the myth of return. A "collective lie," said the great Franco-Algerian sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad. This lie consists of believing and making people believe that the presence of Muslims on French soil is temporary, that their fate could only lead them to return to take their rightful place in their homeland.

The myth of return was so strongly inscribed in the minds of the time that a whole series of political initiatives were created: the Teachings of Language and Culture of Origin (ELCO) and aid for return, with the allocation in 1977 of a stipend to do so. There was even the forced return of North African workers to their native land, as unsuccessfully envisioned by former President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.

Here is what we must therefore keep in mind: If allocating prayer rooms or arranging working conditions was not a problem then, it was because the presence of Islam on French soil was perceived as temporary. Let's put it another way: If the religious expressions of Muslim men and women are perceived as problematic today, it is because we know that they are here to stay. Islam gradually became a "problem" as Islam became French.

(The full essay is here in French, soon to be published in English on Worldcrunch)

Hicham Benaissa / Le Monde

• COVID-19 latest: U.S. approves Pfizer vaccine storage at normal freezer temperature. Hong Kong starts its vaccine rollout, prioritizing health care workers and older people, while Israel says it has now vaccinated 50% of its population. With the health crisis largely under control, China sees a boom in cinema, even at half capacity.

• U.S. strikes Syria: The U.S. military struck a site in Syria used by two Iranian-backed militia groups for weapons smuggling in response to rocket attacks on American forces, killing several militants.

• Myanmar coup: More anti-coup protests taking place in Myanmar's commercial capital, Yangon, with multiple reports of violence. The lawyer of prod-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, said he has been denied access to his client.

• Boeing fined over safety obligations: The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has fined Boeing a total of $6.6 million for failing to "improve and prioritize regulatory compliance," just a day after a Boeing 777 flight made an emergency landing in Moscow due to engine trouble and just four days after another Boeing 777 made an emergency landing in Colorado due to right engine failure and falling parts.

• Former Olympic coach charged, then commits suicide: John Geddert, the former U.S. Olympic gymnastics team coach was found dead after being charged with 24 counts of felony including human trafficking and sexual assault of young female athletes.

• Nigeria's kidnapping crisis continues: At least 300 schoolgirls are missing after gunmen raided a dormitory in Nigeria. The 42 people kidnapped from the previous school raid just over a week ago, also in northern Nigeria, are still missing.

• Friday animal news: In Spain, an elephant kills a zookeeper with its trunk; in California, an armed man shoots Lady Gaga's dog walker before taking her two bulldogs hostage. Meanwhile, the ruler of Turkmenistan has devoted a national holiday after the alabai shepherd dog breed, who will also have a beauty contest this year.

"Everyone hooked on Amazon," titles weekly news magazine L'Express, dedicating a dossier about how the U.S. giant has imposed its presence in France.

The world's social media alternatives to Facebook and Twitter

In the United States, the social media application Parler was the platform of choice for the insurrectionists behind the Jan. 6 capital mob. While the app has been taken off the main servers and app stores (though it is now back online), social movements on all sides of the political spectrum worldwide are trying to leave behind mainstream tech giants like Facebook and Twitter. While some activists and protestors are looking for a place to organize without government surveillance and censorship, politicians are also looking to local alternatives to cement their power.

A wave of new right-wing sites in Poland: Not one but three new social media companies have grown in popularity in Poland, where the populist national government is attempting to "protect freedom of expression on the internet" while combating so-called "political correctness."

• As reported in Le Monde, the Albicla platform was started last month with support from the far-right and pro-government newspaper Gazeta Polska. Its goal is to provide a "free and patriotic discussion forum, devoid of any censorship" and its slogan in English is "Let AlBiCla," a riff on "Let All Be Clear." The platform currently has only 10,000 users, but those notably include the President of the Republic, Andrzej Duda, and many ministers.

• Polfejs, a sort of failed Polish Facebook that first came around in 2017, decided to relaunch with around 17,000 members. This year has also seen the emergence of Wolni Slowianie, a social network started by a group of right-wing survivalists. Using pseudonyms and wearing hoods, they announced their arrival on YouTube.

The app requiring no internet powers #BlackLivesMatter: Bridgefy, created by a San Francisco-based start-up, facilitates communication using Bluetooth, which is particularly useful when authorities have curtailed internet access.

• Relying on what's called a mesh network, users can chat privately with their contacts as well as broadcast a message to anyone within Bluetooth range. Bridgefy became incredibly popular during the 2019-2020 anti-extradition Hong Kong movement; it also saw a large spike in downloads during summer 2020 #BlackLivesMatter protests around the United States.

• Jorge Ríos, who is the CEO and a co-founder of Bridgefy, writes in Rest of World that they had created the app for education and messaging purposes. Bridgefy first gained success in 2017 during Hurricanes Irma and Harvey and the earthquake in Mexico, as people could still communicate despite internet outages.

Indian officials turn to a Twitter alternative: Koo, a microblogging platform, is seeing a growth in Indian government official users following Twitter's refusal to block some 257 tweets, accounts and a hashtag about the recent large-scale protests by farmers.

• These demonstrations started last year over three farm acts passed by the Indian parliament. Claiming that Twitter allowed for the spread of misinformation, the Ministry of Electronics and IT, the National Institute of Electronics and Information Technology and entities including Digital India (a government campaign) and India Post (the postal system) have all flocked to Koo, as reported in The Wire.

• Entrepreneurs Aprameya Radhakrishna and Mayank Bidawatka launched Koo in March 2020 "for Indians to share their views in their mother tongue and have meaningful discussions." Created as part of a government-sponsored start-up challenge, it now has over a million active users.

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Top Italian education official mixes up Dante and Mickey Mouse

Shortly before being appointed Undersecretary for Education, Rossano Sasso dashed off for Rome, amid around-the-clock negotiations in the capital to form Italy's new government. And Sasso made sure to share the moment with his Facebook followers.

"He who stops is lost, a thousand years for every minute," the 45-year-old politician from the southern Puglia region posted, together with a selfie taken in a car. (Here's the Italian original: "Chi si ferma è perduto, mille anni ogni minuto".)

Sasso, a teacher-turned-politician for the far-right Lega party, proudly declared in the post that he was quoting the father of the Italian language, unparalleled national icon and most revered of poets: Dante Alighieri.

The only problem: that quote doesn't come from Dante's Divine Comedy epic, but from a Mickey Mouse comic book.

In 1949 and 1950, Disney published a series of comic books that simplified and summarised Dante — Mickey Mouse's Inferno. In the books, Mickey plays Dante as he visits hell and sees the sentence Sasso cited on a sign, Rome daily La Repubblica explained.

Rossano, who was appointed as undersecretary for Education on Wednesday night, did not explain how he confused Mickey Mouse and Dante. Speaking to La Repubblica, he admitted it was "a distraction," but didn't want to comment on "frivolous things' and that he was now focused on improving Italian schools. He also deleted the Facebook post.

Dante is a sizable component of the national curriculum in Italy, where high school students spend three years studying the Comedy, which helped fuel the irony and rage against Rossano.

But the blunders surrounding Italy's new government, headed by the respected new Prime Minister Mario Draghi, do not stop with Rossano. On Thursday, Italian social media users resurfaced a 2018 interview given by Lucia Borgonzoni, another Lega politician. In the interview, Borgonzoni said she hadn't read a book in three years.

Her post in the newly formed government? Undersecretary for Culture.

➡️ Keep up with all the planet's police reports and plot twists on


Alongside countries like Israel and the UK, Chile has become a model for rapid vaccination, having inoculated 16% of its population in just 21 days. The more than three million people who have gotten the jab in a country of under 19 million stands in contrast to other South American countries, such as Peru in particular, who are making headlines for vacunagate scandals of the rich and powerful cutting the line to get vaccinated before those older and more vulnerable.

It didn't hurt at all.

— Queen Elizabeth said during a video call with health leaders, about the COVID-19 vaccine she and her husband received last January. The monarch urged the public to "think about other people" and get the jab if offered to them.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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