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A Vitriolic Election Campaign Marked by Anti-Islam Narratives Has Left Many French Muslims Feeling Marginalized

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Strasbourg, France (CNN)Hiba Latreche took a last gulp of water and reached for a date, her eyes flitting between the plates of food before her and her phone screen as it blinked toward 5:42 a.m., the beginning of her fast.

This year, the month of Ramadan coincides with the presidential elections in France, the climax of a campaign that has been marked by anti-Muslim vitriol on a scale not seen for decades.
As France goes to the polls for the presidential run-off on April 24, many French Muslims like Latreche have been facing a difficult question: Do these would-be presidents really represent my interests?
Considering the candidates who entered the race, the answer for many is no.
Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate who will challenge incumbent Emmanuel Macron in Sunday’s final round, lists “eradicating Islamist ideologies” from France as her second manifesto priority.
Eric Zemmour, a former TV pundit convicted three times for hate speech, racial or religious hatred, has said he wants to “save France” from Islam. Center-right candidate Valerie Pecresse declared the headscarf a “sign of a woman’s submission,” claiming with a nationalistic flourish that “Marianne is not a veiled woman.” Zemmour and Pecresse polled fourth and fifth, respectively, in the first round and have been eliminated.
Even Macron found time in his only campaign rallybefore the first round vote to highlight the threat of Islamists and Muslim “separatists” in France, entwiningFrance’s motto of “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” (liberty, equality, brotherhood) with another favored French Republican value: Laicite (secularism).
Only one candidate, the third-placed far-left politician Jean-Luc Melenchon, has historically taken a position more supportive of the Muslim community. First round polling by Ifop suggested that some two thirds of French Muslim voters backed him. He too was eliminated after the first round of voting.
“What’s really scary with this upcoming election is that most of the (top) candidates simply rely on programs based on stigmatization of minorities, on the erosion of our most basic rights and freedom,” Latreche, a law student, said ahead of the first round.
With the “normalization of Islamophobia, we directly face the consequences,” added Latreche, who is also a vocal activist for the civil liberties of young Muslim women.
The French political landscape this year is vastly different from just a few elections ago. With the country’s traditionally heavyweight center-left and center-right forces struggling, the political extremes have profited.
In the first round of the presidential election on April 10, Le Pen and Zemmour, the two far-right candidates with the most extreme policies affecting the lives of Muslims in France, together collected just over 30% of the total votes; Le Pen alone received enough votes to enter the runoff with 23% of the first round votes. Their surge has been accompanied by a clamor of anti-immigrant and anti-Islam narratives that have dominated much of the debate and coverage.

‘We’re constantly being marginalized’

Strasbourg’s Grand Mosque — the largest in France — sits tucked discreetly away on a riverbank in the eastern border city.
Many of the worshipers there say they don’t feel represented by any of the dozens of candidates who competed for the presidency in the first round.
“We’re constantly being marginalized, excluded from society and then being told that we’re not taking part in society,”said Latreche. Being refused agency and choice over her own life and contribution to society, she felt, inevitably had a negative effect on her mental health and that of her friends, she added.
As he entered for evening prayers, Wagner Dino expressed dismay at the choice of candidates.
“There is no one who presents himself, who really has the necessary parameters to put everything in place, to have a France united with Muslims,” he said.
Mosque volunteer Safia Abdouni said she believes none of the candidates “know what we are going through, our daily life and what we really need.”
“I feel that I’m not represented as a young, female student. As a young, female, Muslim student, even less,” she added.
Yet Said Aalla, the president of the Grand Mosque, said that if young Muslims “want to change the situation, that can only happen with the vote.”
Aalla did not express a preference for any of the contenders. As a cleric, he’s prohibited by French law from publicly backing a political candidate.

The secularism debate

In successive election seasons, hijabs and Muslim women’s headscarves have been easy targets for politicians trying to fire up support for traditional French Republican values.
“Laicite” — or secularism — claims to ensure equality for all by removing markers of difference, rendering all citizens French first and protecting freedom of worship in the private sphere. Religious symbols are banned in primary and secondary schools, public office and state places of work, as well as even in some sports federations.
“Laicite per se is not a problem,” according to Rim-Sarah Alouane, a PhD candidate in comparative law at the University Toulouse-Capitole and a specialist on religious freedoms and human rights in Europe.
“Laicite has been transformed (and) has been weaponized as a tool for political identity in order to target the visibility of Muslims in France, of French Muslims, and especially Muslim women, and the wearing of the headscarf. So it’s more of the modern illiberal interpretation of laicite that is problematic, than laicite itself,” she said.
Today’s laicite debate has put hijabs front and center in France’s culture wars pitting what conservatives describe as “secularism” against religious civil liberties
Le Pen and Zemmour both proposed banning what they refer to as “the hijab,” but neither campaign has offered detail on what exactly such a ban would encompass, or how it would be enforced. In her campaign manifesto, Le Pen has proposed banning in public all “Islamic attire,” a definition that critics say is open to arbitrary and imprecise interpretation. The French government has already banned women from wearing the niqab — a full-face veil with an opening for the eyes.
The Macron government reacted furiously to a diversity campaign funded in part by the European Union last year, which depicted pictures of women wearing the headscarves superimposed over the same images without the head covering. The campaign tagline was, “Beauty is in diversity, as freedom is in hijab.”
The French government demanded an investigation into the campaign and its withdrawal in France. In the words of one minister: “We can’t confuse religious freedom and a campaign for the promotion of the hijab, it’s not acceptable.”
Last month, the French Supreme Court ruled that local bar associations can ban headscarves, and other “religious symbols,” from courtrooms in the name of secularism — forcing hijab-wearing women like Latreche to choose between their career and the public practice of their faith.
“It’s actually extremely demotivating and disheartening to see that, you know, we wouldn’t be able to help to contribute to society and to make it more vibrant despite our abilities,” Latreche said, “just because we are choosing to exercise our rights.
“We (should) have control over our own rights and bodies and beliefs,” she said.
Ludwig Knoepffler, a member of Le Pen’s campaign team, denied that Le Pen’s anti-hijab platform is done “in the name of laicite.” Rather, he said the intent was to combat totalitarianism.
“The idea is to fight the hijab as a political tool used and promoted by Islamist militants,” he said. “If you believe that the Islamist political project is indeed totalitarian, then you have to fight its distinctive signs. The same way you would ban the swastika in the public sphere, as is the case already.”
Le Pen addressed the topic during the presidential debate Wednesday night, calling the headscarf “a uniform imposed by the Islamists.”
Macron accused her of creating a “system of equivalence” among Islamism, terrorism and foreigners that would “create civil war.”

‘Liberte, egalite, fraternite’

Aalla, the mosque president, said France’s Muslims have the same aspirations as other citizens.
“The Muslims of France have been here for several generations, but we still continue to regard them as strangers,” he said.
Aalla decried the idea of a “Muslim vote.” There are Muslims who support all French parties, he said — people that hope to be taken into consideration by politicians, particularly regarding religious freedoms.
For legal scholar Alouane, debate about the headscarf is a fearmongering distraction: “I mean, we have inflation, the price of energy has increased massively, there is poverty, our public services are being dismantled, unemployment and so on… and all we talk about, is a piece of cloth that women wear… like, seriously.”
Aalla said that French Muslims expect France and French society to devote themselves to economic, social questions, to those of housing or discrimination, the questions “that all citizens, Muslims included, expect from their new president.”
But for the French citizens and voters gathering to pray and break their fast amid a darkening political atmosphere, the hopes of many in their community can be summed up in one phrase: “Liberte, egalite, fraternite.”

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Why Australia and the US Care so Much About China’s Security Pact With a Tiny Pacific Island Nation

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When China announced it had inked a security pact with a tiny Pacific island nation this week, there was little fanfare – at least from Beijing.

As China put it, it was a mutually beneficial agreement aimed at creating peace and stability in the Solomon Islands, a country with a population less than half the size of Manhattan that was rocked by violent protests last year.

But other countries saw it differently.

To Australia, New Zealand and the United States, it was Beijing’s latest power play in an ongoing struggle for influence in the Pacific – a move that some claim threatens the very stability of the region.

Speculation had mounted over what would be in the agreement after an unverified leaked draft of the deal appeared online last month.

Some were concerned the agreement could see Canberra’s worst fear realized: a Chinese military base being built in the Solomon Islands, a first for China in the Pacific. Australia and the US were so worried that they sent delegations to the Pacific island, hoping to stop the agreement.

But China announced the deal had been signed on Tuesday, before the US delegation even had a chance to touch down.

Though details of the final agreement haven’t been released, some onlookers say the agreement makes Australia less safe and threatens to further destabilize the Solomon Islands, where there’s already been backlash over the government’s close relationship with Beijing.

But beyond the political and security fears, experts say the situation is a reality check for Australia and its partners that they need to adopt a different approach to China’s rising influence.

“Australia and the United States still haven’t woken up to the reality of Chinese power and how we’re going to deal with it,” said Hugh White, an emeritus professor of strategic studies at Australian National University, who previously worked as a senior adviser to the Australian defense minister and prime minister. “In both Canberra and Washington, they think that somehow we can make China go away, put China back in its box.”

How the pact came about

Concerns over the pact had been swirling for weeks.

According to a leaked draft document – which CNN has not been able to verify – the Solomons would have the ability to request police or military personnel from China to maintain social order or help with disaster relief.

The agreement appeared to relate to violent protests that rocked the country’s capital Honiara in November last year that were partly sparked by anger over the government’s decision to cut ties with Taiwan and switch allegiance to Beijing.

Protesters targeted parts of Honiara’s Chinatown, prompting Sogavare to request help from Australia under a bilateral security treaty the two countries signed in 2017.

From the Solomon Islands’ perspective, the separate agreement with China may have appealed, as it allowed the country to diversify its security relationship and leverage political posturing in the region, said Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, a political scientist at the University of Hawaii who hails from the Solomon Islands.

But others worry the agreement could be the first stage in a bigger plan – to establish a permanent Chinese military presence on the islands.

The reaction to Tuesday’sannouncement of a signed pact was swift.

In a joint statement, the US, Japan, Australia and New Zealand said the pact poses “serious risks to a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare insisted Wednesday the agreement doesn’t include permission for China to establish a military base, and urged critics to respect the country’s sovereign interests. “We entered into an arrangement with China with our eyes wide open, guided by our national interests,” he said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin stressed that the “open, transparent and inclusive” agreement doesn’t “target any third party.”

But despite the reassurances, there’s still little detail about what’s been signed – and onlookers say that in itself is worrying.

“There’s still a lot we don’t know about what the agreement itself actually says, and also about what it will lead to,” said Australian National University’s White.

Political scientist Kabutaulaka said he thought it was unlikely China would build a conventional military base in the Solomons because it would create a lot of “negative publicity” for Beijing, inside and outside the island nation.

But experts say that doesn’t mean China won’t have a military presence on the island – of some form.

If China does have the ability to bring ships and military personnel to the Solomons as the unverified draft document laid out, then there’s no real need for aphysical military base, Kabutaulaka said.

Mihai Sora, an expert in Australian foreign policy in the Pacific at Australian think tank the Lowy Institute, pointed to Djibouti as a country that signed a security agreement that evolved into a naval base that Beijing refers to as a logistics facility.

The prospect of a Chinese base in the Pacific is unsettling for the US, which also has military bases in the region that are becoming more strategically important as China expands its military presence in the South China Sea. It’s also unsettling for Australia, which potentially faces the prospect of Chinese ships docking not far from home – the Solomons is around 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) from Australia’s northeastern coast.

“It’s probably true that it would mean Australia is less secure as a result of this agreement,” Kabutaulaka said.

But, says White, a Chinese military base in the tiny nation only becomes a real issue for Australia during any potential conflict with China. The significance of any base hinges on how well Australia manages its relationship with China – a relationship that’s become increasingly fraught in recent years.

“In practical terms … I don’t think that does nearly as much damage to Australia’s security as a lot of other people do,” White said. “It is a significant issue if we find ourselves in a major war.”

What the future holds

The lack of public detail about what’s in the pact is not only concerning for the Solomon Islands’ international partners. Inside the small nation, uncertainty about what it contains has already prompted criticism.

“It’s clear to me that the vast majority of ordinary Solomon islanders do not want a base here, or even this deal. A majority do not want China here at all in the first place,” the nation’s opposition leader, Matthew Wale, told Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s The Strategist.

Some have suggested the deal itself could exacerbate tensions between those who support closer China ties and those who do not.

“The discourse about geopolitical competition is creating divisions that could become domestically troubling,” said Kabutaulaka.

“There is also a need for the international community, and for Solomon Islanders in particular, to look at the challenges internally that then created the kinds of things we saw in November of last year, that then in turn created the need for Solomon Islands to sign the security agreement with China.”

Those challenges include economic inequality between islanders, with some taking their anger out on Chinese businesses they see as a symbol of closer ties with the mainland.

But the agreement also sends a much bigger message: that Australia and its allies’ approaches in the region isn’t working.

Australia has long talked up the idea of the “Pacific family.” But according to White, Australia pays little attention to the Pacific unless there’s questions about security.And more than that, Australia and its allies are still stuck in the past, imagining that China’s power can be minimized and those countries can remain the dominant powers in the region, he said.

“More and more over the last few years, Australia has found itself moving to a position where our approach to managing the rise of China is to try and stop it happening,” he said. “That’s not going to work. Australia has to learn to live with Chinese power – and that includes Chinese expanded influence in the southwest Pacific.”

“It just poses a challenge to us to lift our game to maintain our influence there – and that’s something we should be doing anyway.”

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Chinese Court Sentences US Citizen Shadeed Abdulmateen to Death for Murder

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A Chinese court sentenced an American citizen to death on Thursday for allegedly murdering his former girlfriend, state media reported.

Shadeed Abdulmateen, who taught at the Ningbo University of Technology, was charged with the intentional homicide of a 21-year-old Chinese woman surnamed Chen, according to Chinese state media.

After a disagreement over their breakup in June 2019, Abdulmateen arranged to meet and talk with Chen at a bus stop in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, before killing her with a “folding knife,” said the Ningbo Intermediate People’s Court in its verdict.

The court held that the defendant’s “premeditated revenge killing, stabbing and cutting Chen’s face and neck several times, resulting in Chen’s death, was motivated by vile motives, resolute intent and cruel means, and the circumstances of the crime were particularly bad and the consequences particularly serious, and should be punished according to law,” according to public broadcaster CCTV.

The court said it had provided Abdulmateen with his rights to defense, including access to a translator and consular visits, according to state-run tabloid the Global Times.

A spokesperson from the United States Embassy in Beijing said it was aware of a court decision related to a US citizen in China, and that officials were “monitoring the situation,” but would not comment further due to privacy considerations.

China is the world’s top executioner, according to Amnesty International, sentencing thousands to death every year. China does not disclose execution numbers.

Over the past decade, people from Uganda, South Korea, Japan and Kenya have received death sentences for drug crimes. In 2016, the Nigerian senate reportedly heard that 120 of its citizens were on death row in China. And in 2019, China handed down a death sentence to a Canadian citizen accused of smuggling drugs, sending shockwaves around the world.

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Tens of Thousands Without Power in UK in Storm’s Wake

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LONDON (AP) — Tens of thousands of people in Scotland and northern England remained without power Sunday after a storm brought sleet, subzero temperatures and disruptions across much of the U.K.

Icy gusts caused power cuts around the border between Scotland and England, with Northern Powergrid saying it recorded 1,100 instances of damage requiring significant repairs. It said it was trying to restore service to 40,000 customers, while the SP Energy Networks said 21,000 customers remained without power Sunday.

“The storm was well forecasted and despite being prepared, Storm Arwen resulted in damage of a scale and intensity not seen for 15 years,” said Rod Gardner, Northern Powergrid’s major incident manager.

The power cuts came as forecasters issued ice warnings and said the coldest night of the season would hit parts of the U.K. later Sunday, with snowfall expected across the country and temperatures dropping to as low as -10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit) in parts of Scotland and northern England.

Some train routes, including one between the cities of Edinburgh and Newcastle, were cancelled due to damage caused by the storm.

The cold spell came after three people were killed when trees were blown over by strong winds as Storm Arwen hit the U.K. on Friday.

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