A Battle Over Prayer in Schools Tests Canada’s Multiculturalism

Written by Dan Levin.
Read the original article on the New York Times.
Image Credit: The New York Times

MISSISSAUGA, Ontario — The troubles began over sermons.

For nearly two decades, Muslim students in the Peel School District, outside Toronto, had been allowed to pray independently on Fridays, part of a policy in many Canadian provinces to accommodate religious beliefs in public schools.

Last fall, the school board decided to standardize the prayer sessions and offer six preapproved sermons that the children could recite, rather than let them use their own.

Muslim students protested, saying the move violated their right to free speech, and the board reversed itself, allowing the children to write their own sermons.

But the dispute unleashed a storm of protest that continued through this spring.

Demonstrators are picketing school board meetings, arguments are eruptingon social media about whether religious accommodation is tantamount to special treatment, and there is a petition drive to abolish prayer in the public schools. In April, a local imam who supported the board received a death threat. The local police now guard the school board’s meetings.

The turmoil is one reflection of how Canada’s growing diversity is encountering powerful headwinds, especially in places with significant Muslim populations.

“Although we have a policy of multiculturalism, for most Canadians there is an expectation that immigrants will conform to the mainstream,” said Jeffrey Reitz, the director of the Ethnic, Immigration and Pluralism Studies program at the University of Toronto. “Religious accommodations have been made to various groups, and you’re going to get a backlash once in a while.”

The problems in the Peel schools are a particular kind of conflict in a diverse society, social scientists say — involving immigrants and minorities who challenge aspects of Canada’s cherished multiculturalism.

In 2015, socially conservative residents in Ontario school districts, some of them Muslimobjected to an updated sex education curriculum because it teaches the names of sex organs and broaches the topic of same-sex relationships.

Since 2013, some Muslim parents in metropolitan Toronto have asked schools to exempt their children from mandatory provincial music classes, citing their belief that Islam forbids listening to or playing musical instruments.

Like its neighbor to the south, Canada is a country of immigrants, helping to fuel a national ethos that celebrates diversity. More than 20 percent of the Canadian population in 2011 was foreign born, a figure that is expected to reach nearly 30 percent by 2031, according to government estimates. In cities like Toronto and Vancouver, the proportion of ethnic minorities could top 60 percent.

The demographic changes have been especially pronounced in metropolitan Toronto, a patchwork of cities and suburban towns bustling with an array of languages and faiths.

School boards like the one in the Peel district are at the forefront of the battles over multiculturalism. The district is among the country’s most diverse, with nearly 60 percent of all residents described as “visible minority,” or nonwhite, according to the 2011 census.

It includes large numbers of Chinese, Filipinos and blacks, but nearly half are categorized as South Asian, a group that includes Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims. The Peel district is home to about 12 percent of Canada’s Muslim population.

In allowing prayer in its schools, the Peel district relied on a provision in the Ontario Human Rights Code that the Ontario Human Rights Commission has interpreted as requiring government-funded schools — both public and Catholic — to “accommodate” students in observing their personal faiths.

Other provinces in Canada have similar policies.

For Farina Siddiqui, 43, a Muslim activist whose children attend public and Catholic schools in the Peel district, allowing students to worship once a week in school is a matter of religious freedom.

“We’re not asking for schools to provide a prayer hall for everyone to practice a religion,” she said. “We just ask for the right to have a space to pray.” She supported permitting the children to write their own sermons.

Tarun Arora, 40, who works for an outsourcing call center company and immigrated to Canada from India in 2003, said school boards should not be endorsing sermons or allowing prayer in his children’s public schools at all. He wants the schools to be completely secular.

“I’m sending my kids to school for education, but the schools are being treated as religious places, and this is not right,” Mr. Arora said.

He is a member of Keep Religion Out of Our Public Schools, also known as Kroops, a group that formed in January when the board decided to allow the children to write their own sermons. The group has protested outside recent school board meetings and says it plans to bring a lawsuit challenging the policy of allowing prayer in the Peel schools, arguing that the law does not explicitly permit it.

Another group with a similar name, Religion Out of Public Schools, began an online petition to eliminate religious congregation and faith clubs in Canadian schools. It has garnered over 6,500 signatures from people across Canada and the United States.

Many of the petition comments specifically criticize Islam. But in interviews, three members of the group, all of them Indian-Canadian, said they opposed the practice of any religion in public schools, not just Islam.

Renu Mandhane, the chief commissioner of the Human Rights Commission, which is charged with interpreting the Ontario code, said schools had a duty to accommodate religious belief.

“Accommodation doesn’t equal endorsing or otherwise becoming entangled in religious practice,” Ms. Mandhane said. “Whether that requires prayer space in school, we’ve never said. What’s required is we need to reasonably accommodate a person’s beliefs.”

In an interview, she disputed the argument made by many protesters that the policy benefits only Muslims. She noted that Jews and Christians were already accommodated because their most important days of worship fall on the weekend, when schools are closed.

“In many ways, what we’re seeing in Peel is the edge where human rights and hyperdiversity connect,” Ms. Mandhane continued. “What Peel shows is that even in places with huge racial diversity, you can have people who identify with different communities but disagree about human rights issues.”

To the Peel school board and many Muslims in the district, the strife over religious accommodation is little more than Islamophobia.

At board meetings, protesters have screamed anti-Muslim epithets, while attacks against Muslims who speak out publicly have spread on social media, leading to the stationing of police officers at the meetings and outside schools. The imam who received the death threat also got an online message calling for his mosque to be burned.

During one fraught school board meeting, a man tore up pages of the Quran, stunning a community that had long prized its tradition of tolerance.

“These are people trying to fuel the fire and brew our ignorances,” said Rabia Khedr, executive director of the Muslim Council of Peel, which lobbied the school board in support of the students’ right to pray. “Religious accommodation is not at the exclusion of everybody. It’s at the inclusion of everybody.”

Anver Saloojee, a political-science professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, has another explanation. He noted that many of those speaking out against the religious accommodation policy were members of the Indian diaspora, including some vocal Hindu nationalists, suggesting that in some ways the battle in Canada mirrors South Asia’s historical Hindu-Muslim conflict.

But the groups opposing accommodation, which include people from a variety of races and religions, deny that. Indian-Canadian members of the groups say their concern has nothing to do with a country they left years and in some cases decades ago.

“My religion is Canadian; that’s what gives me the strength to stand up and fight now,” said Ram Subrahmanian, a founder of Keep Religion Out of Our Public Schools.

Shaila Kibria-Carter, 42, a finance manager of Bangladeshi descent, was born and raised in Canada and lives in the nearby town of Brampton. She said that as a Peel district high school student in the 1990s, she prayed in school on Fridays. So did her college-age son. There were never any class disruptions or complaints, she said.

“What these folks are doing is preaching hate,” she said. “We’ve lived in harmony with Sikhs and Hindus and white people all our lives, and now all of a sudden someone is in meetings ripping up a Quran.”

Saudi Crown Prince’s Ascendancy Gives Hope of Reform – But it May be Premature

Written by Martin Chulov.
Read the original article on the Guardian.

Image credit: the Guardian.

On the streets of Riyadh, in its shopping malls and public spaces, Saudi Arabia’s religious police had long been a foreboding presence. They could reach into private lives at will, with powers that few could challenge, enforcing an ultra-conservative brand of Islam as a dogma for society.

For people who had lived in fear of the force, one late winter evening earlier this year came as a watershed. On the side of one of their headquarters in the city’s suburbs, a 10-metre wide emblem of the country’s reform programme – Vision 2030 – had been projected. And no one inside the building dared to block it.

“That was the government saying we are more powerful than you,” said an influential Riyadh businessman. “That was when the people knew that they [the religious police] didn’t matter any more. They had lost the powers to arrest a year earlier. And now they had lost face.”

The sudden fall from grace of one of the influential pillars of the state had taken place as a new and ambitious face of the kingdom, Mohammed bin Salman, continued an ascendancy unparalleled in Saudi Arabia’s modern history.

The 31-year-old prince’s rise was consolidated on Wednesday when his father anointed him as heir to the throne, ousting his nephew in the process and giving the newcomer unfettered powers as a change agent. The new crown prince’s mandate is formidable; overhaul an ailing economy, open up a closed society, and project the influence of a usually cautious country in new and robust ways.

In announcing the move, the king has literally banked his kingdom on the world’s most powerful thirtysomething, adding to his already full list of duties a cluster of roles that are not intended to distract from the most crucial of all – a 15-year reform programme, which many in Riyadh see as the only viable solution to an existential threat.

Private enterprise is being courted, cinemas are in the pipeline, concerts have been held – though only for men – and the touchstone issue of women being allowed to drive is again on the table, senior officials say.

Though Riyadh residents who spoke to the Guardian say they will suspend judgment on the reforms until they are delivered, talk of change is starting to resonate. “Something is definitely happening here,” said Sumaya Fayad, a shop assistant in one of Riyadh’s most popular malls. “It feels different. I don’t feel as limited anymore. There has been progress in personal freedoms, because we don’t fear as much anymore.”

Two years into the process of reinvention, the country has opened a war in Yemen, tried to steer another in Syria, opened its economy to foreigners, exposed its biggest asset – the state-owned oil company Aramco – to global markets, spoken out strongly against its regional foe, Iran, and blockaded a former ally, Qatar. Mohammed bin Salman has been given a lead stake in it all, positioning him against powerful figures within the royal family and elsewhere, in a country where disgruntled citizens have been quick to oppose cutbacks in welfare spending and pensions.

The changes have exposed the limits of state authority and highlighted the will of a combustible population, much of which has yet to be convinced that change of this scale is in their interests.

“The problem for them is that the base has always been significantly more conservative than the leadership,” said one western official in Riyadh. “Some of the senior officials are describing what is taking place as cultural revolution disguised as economic reform, but there is a danger that they’ll get ahead of themselves.”

Regardless of the warnings, citadels that had long been seen as too difficult are now being targeted. The accommodation between the hardline clergy, which has defined the national character, and the House of Saud, which has run affairs of state, has been central to the modern kingdom, with both sides relying on the other to retain power.

Mohammed bin Salman has told several global leaders that the arrangement needs to change for the modern state to survive.

Madawi al-Rasheed, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics’ Middle East centre, says: “This has been going on since King Abdullah became king in 2005. Since Salman came to power, we see signs that they are trying to redefine Wahhabism [an ultra-conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam] as a limited religious tradition responsible for personal piety, but having no business whatsoever on the way the kingdom is run.

“But the problem for them [the ruling family] is that it is an accurate assessment to say that Wahhabism is a doctrine that has underpinned the actions of the Islamic State. Saudi religious fatwas and opinions have been used to encourage people to join terror groups.

“What we are seeing is not a reform programme at all. It is cosmopolitan liberalisation. The Wahhabi traditions are deeply embedded in a system that is repressing its own people. They are doing what other dictators do, in allowing certain personal freedoms to make people forget about the big picture.”

Senior Saudi officials acknowledge the need to sideline, even disavow, traditions and practices that gravely limit personal freedoms and human rights, especially among women and minorities.

“We are no longer averse to change,” said one ministerial aide. “We embrace it and we know that we can no longer rely on the developed world to lead the way.”

Some Saudis say small measures are already signalling a new openness to other interpretations of the faith.

“During the recent Riyadh summit, two of the world’s most influential Islamic scholars addressed a social media conference comprised of largely Saudi young men and women,” said Talal Malik, the Saudi-based CEO of conglomerate Alpha1Corp. “The new crown prince … was effectively patronising a global and dynamic vision of Sunni Islam in the kingdom, and showcasing it for Saudi youth as representing their future.

“He has made significant inroads in winning the support of one, if not the, key demographic in the kingdom – its youth, who wish to contribute to building a modern and dynamic G20 country.”

Not all Riyadh youth agree. “You know that the top 11 Twitter handles here are Salafi clerics, right?”, asked a 24-year-old student speaking perfect American English. “We are talking more than 20 million people who hang on their every words. They will not accept this sort of change. Never.”

Brussels’ Secret Weapon in Cyprus Talks: Halloumi Cheese

Written by Simon Marks and Sara Stefanini.
Read the original article on Politico.
Image credit: Politico.

Salty, grillable halloumi cheese from Cyprus is the unlikely star player in the country’s reunification process.

The European Commission is weighing whether to award a special legal protection to the rubbery delicacy on account of the centuries-old techniques used to make it on the divided island. With talks on reunification expected to resume later this month, Brussels’ decision on awarding halloumi a so-called geographical indication turned into an unexpected point of EU leverage in bringing the Greek and Turkish communities together.

While designating protected food names in the EU, from Cognac to Roquefort, is normally left to middle-ranking agricultural officials, the halloumi dossier went right to the highest political echelons of the Commission.

Two senior sources involved in the talks on reunification and halloumi said questions about the cheese are being handled by the cabinet of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who has grasped its geopolitical significance and believes halloumi has the potential to help reunite the island. The big idea is that the Greek Cypriots could finally be pressured into a deal thanks to the potential dividends of a lucrative GI designation as a reward. No deal, no GI.

If there is one thing that both the Greek and Turkish communities can agree on, it’s the financial boost that would come with a geographical indication for the cheese, putting their product into the same elite group as Bordeaux and Cava wines.

Officials close to the file say even the tiniest of movements on the GI authorization for halloumi — from dealing with statements of objections to holding consultations — are being micro-managed by Juncker’s cabinet.

This infuriates Cypriot officials who want to see politics taken out of the decision.

“It’s the political point of view that has been put forward and put in front of the legal one,” said Sozos-Christos Theodoulou, first vice president of the European Communities Trademark Association, which is providing legal advice to producers of halloumi. “The Commission is instrumentalizing the issue. There is no reason to stall the examination of any application.”

“As long as this application is not approved then there are disadvantages to everyone concerned … Things are being stalled in a financially damaging way for Cypriots,” he added.

Divided for more than four decades, talks in recent years to unify the two sides have stalled over matters such as exploration rights for oil and gas off the island’s coast. Other stumbling blocks include the national curriculum and the security and guarantees system that gives Turkey, Greece and the U.K. the power to intervene to protect the island’s independence.

For the Commission, reunifying Cyprus would represent a major coup for the EU project at a moment when further integration and and expansion is being halted by stern resistance among large parts of the population for more Europe and decision-making from Brussels.

Asked if halloumi’s protected status was being used as a carrot in the talks on reunification, a Commission spokesperson said that the “application process for the registration of the names ‘halloumi’/’hellim’ as a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) is following its normal course.”

A protected label would give halloumi producers power to demand a greater premium for their wares and mount legal challenges against what they see as inferior imitations. They could, for example, block non-Cypriot producers in the U.K. and Denmark from marketing halloumi.

Producers from Northern Cyprus, a self-declared state recognized only by Turkey, would win access to the European market as long as they meet Europe’s health and safety standards. They are now limited to selling only to Turkey. GI status for halloumi would apply to producers all over the island of Cyprus.

Cyprus first applied to protect the status of halloumi in 2015 and included the Turkish name for the cheese, hellim, in the application in an effort to officially recognize producers in the north.

In the North, halloumi represents 24 percent of exports, amounting to roughly €30 million per year. The cheese business also employs 16.5 percent of the workforce, thanks to domestic demand as well as exports to Turkey.

Cyprus’ permanent representation to the EU declined to comment.

Fikri Toros, president of the Turkish Cypriot Chamber of Commerce, said the decision on the GI has been complicated by an attempt by the Greek side of the island to make sure that any Turkish hellim is exported through ports in the south. Such demands “are not acceptable to Turkish Cypriots,” he said.

The Greek side, however, says it is essential that halloumi produced in the north is properly cleared for health and safety standards.

How to Hate Each Other Peacefully in a Democracy

Written by Shadi Hamid.
Read the original article on the Atlantic.

Photo Credit: the Atlantic

It is difficult to imagine it now, but continental Europe struggled with foundational divides—with periodic warnings of civil war—as recently as the 1950s. Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands were divided into ideologically opposed subcultures, sometimes called “spiritual families” or “pillars.” These countries became models of “consensual democracy,” where the subcultures agreed to share power through creative political arrangements.

If we have learned anything, though, it is that lessons learned in Europe are not easily applied to the Middle East. Consensual democracy works best when there are multiple centers of power in society, none of which is strong enough to dominate on its own. While this more or less holds true in Lebanon, and even then precariously, it is not applicable in much of the region. In countries like Egypt, Turkey, and to a lesser extent Tunisia, the perception that Islamists are too strong and secularists too weak makes polarization significantly worse than it might otherwise be.

In continental Europe, the lines were also drawn more clearly. In Belgium, for instance, there were distinct groups of Flemish and Walloon that could be plainly identified. Egypt, Turkey, and Tunisia, however, relatively homogenous. More homogeneity is almost always viewed as a positive factor in forging national identity, but it can also have its drawbacks. Islamists and non-Islamists are different, but not different enough. They live in the same cities, go to the same schools, visit each other on holidays, and sit together at family dinners. This can make it better. It can also make it worse.

Despite this surface-level homogeneity, the underlying principles of consensual democracy—that power should be shared, dispersed, and restrained—can still be useful. A “pure” parliamentary system with only a ceremonial president could have helped alter Egypt’s course. But this is not what Egypt had. From independence onwards, the Egyptian president had always been a towering figure in the country’s politics, casting a shadow on everything else. As the first elected, civilian president in 2012, Morsi was, in fact, weaker than all of his predecessors, yet he still enjoyed disproportionate powers in Egypt’s centralized, top-heavy system. Not surprisingly, then, he became a lightning rod for the opposition. The fact that presidential contests are all or nothing—only one person, after all, can win –heightened the existential tenor of political competition. These dynamics allowed the military to capitalize on the anger that had coalesced around the person of President Morsi.

A parliamentary system, on the other hand, would have put power in the hands of a strong prime minister, who could have more easily been replaced, without necessitating a rejection of the democratic process Egyptians had agreed to less than a year prior. Early elections and no-confidence votes are regular features of parliamentary democracy. Presidents, on the other hand, are generally difficult to impeach, requiring voters to wait four years or longer to express their buyers’ remorse. Despite their claims to the contrary, presidents invariably represent one party—their own. A prime minister is more likely to govern in coalition with other parties, making him accountable to a larger number of stakeholders. All other things being equal, parliamentary systems also make coups against elected leaders less likely. Of course, coups can and will still happen, but here, too, parliamentarism is the better option. Ousted parties can more easily reconstitute themselves in parliamentary systems, as Turkey’s recurring cycle of military intervention followed by Islamist success suggests.

“Designing” better political systems can only take you so far, however. At some point, parties and politicians must work in good faith to lower the political stakes. There are any number of creative possibilities. Parties, for example, can agree to “postpone” debates on the divisive issues that are likely to fracture the unsteady, diverse coalitions that toppled the authoritarian regimes in the first place. This, though, is anathema to how we like to think about democracy’s development. After 30 years of Hosni Mubarak’s rule, it was only natural to expect Egyptians to want to debate anything and everything among themselves; discussions over the role of religion had been suppressed for far too long.

But by instituting an “interim period” before contending with the most divisive issues, democratic competition can be regularized—both sides could, potentially, gain enough trust in each other. Of course, the ideological polarization—over perennial touchstones like alcohol consumption, sex segregation, women’s rights, and educational curricula—would still inevitably come. At least then, though, Egyptians would have had a fighting chance.

* * *

One way to address foundational divides is to build “liberal vetoes” into the political system from the beginning. The most effective way to do this is through permanent guarantees in the constitution. The U.S. Bill of Rights is, in this respect, a towering achievement, imposing clear limits on the desires of the majority. If members of Congress wanted to issue legislation prohibiting Muslims from holding cabinet positions, for instance, they wouldn’t be able to, however large their majority. The constitution wouldn’t allow it. But this raises its own set of difficult questions. After a revolution, who gets to write the constitution?

There are two main possibilities. Historically, elite commissions and committees often drafted constitutions, the most notable example being the United States in 1787. The post-war Japanese constitution, meanwhile, was commissioned by General Douglas MacArthur and drafted by “approximately two dozen Americans during Japan’s postwar occupation, with relatively minor revisions made by Japanese government officials and virtually no public consultation,” writes the legal scholar Alicia Bannon. When Corazon Aquino, Asia’s first female president, led the Philippines’ democratic transition in the 1980s, she appointed a fifty-member commission which drafted a constitution that continues to govern the Philippines to this day. Such top-down approaches have generally fallen out of favor.

Today, the most common approach, adopted by both Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, is to do it democratically. Tunisia directly elected a parliament which doubled as a constituent assembly, while in Egypt, the elected parliament selected the 100 men and women whose sole job was to draft a new constitution. This is the most obvious—and I would argue fair—approach. To the extent that societies should be able to chart their own course, why shouldn’t the population have a say on the basic framework of their political system-to-be? To shut ordinary citizens out is to undermine the legitimacy of any constitutional document, particularly in polarized societies where one group is likely to dominate any appointed body to the exclusion of others. There is simply no way to achieve “fair” representation except through some kind of democratic selection process (which is precisely why we have democracy in the first place). To appoint, rather than elect, a committee also raises the question of who exactly is doing the appointing.Tunisia and Egypt’s constitution-drafting processes were reflective of the international consensus around the need for popular participation and buy-in. The democratic approach to constitution-drafting, however, is problematic for the same reasons that democracy is problematic—it can lead to illiberal outcomes in societies where a large portion, perhaps even a majority, of the population espouse illiberal beliefs and attitudes. If Egypt had directly elected its constituent assembly, close to 75 percent of the members would have been Islamist. As it turned out, 50 percent were—nearly 25 percent less than their actual electoral weight would have suggested. But while Islamists may have seen this as a “concession,” liberals, rightly, saw the constituent assembly as what it still was: an Islamist-dominated body.

In her study of Kenya’s early-2000s constitution drafting process, Alicia Bannon labels the presumed need for broad participation “the participation myth.” Certain conditions, she argues, can “make broad participation either helpful or undesirable in light of an individual country’s circumstances.” While also citing negative experiences in Nicaragua and Chad, Bannon notes that the broadly participatory process in Kenya was not only expensive, in terms of “expense, time, and opportunity cost,” but also divisive, leading to “ethnic pandering and polarization.”

Lastly, instituting a democratic selection process while, at the same time, agreeing on a limited number of “supraconstitutional principles” is a third, alternative path. Islamists and secularists, however, are unlikely to agree on nonnegotiables. (If they could, then the ideological divide wouldn’t be nearly as large as it is.) In the end, something—or someone—has to give. Either Islamists voluntarily concede some of their preferences, agreeing for example to include only mildly Islamic language, or a supreme body, perhaps one where Islamists are underrepresented, formulates something resembling a “bill of rights” binding on all participants.

This third way would loosely mirror the constitution-drafting process in post-apartheid South Africa. Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress initially wanted to elect a constituent assembly to draft the constitution but gave in to the objections of F.W. de Klerk’s National Party, which feared a new constitution would not adequately protect the white population. In 1993, 26 parties negotiated a set of supra-constitutional principles, similar to the United States’ Bill of Rights, before directly electing a constituent assembly. Mandela and de Klerk soon shared the Nobel Peace Prize.

Practicality aside, the South African model—in part because we know, after the fact, that it was successful—sounds appealing. I should include a major caveat here, however. As a “small-d” democrat, I am deeply uncomfortable with non-democratic solutions that circumscribe self-determination. Democracy is about representing and reflecting the popular will, and to limit or subvert that on something as fundamental as a constitution sets a troubling precedent. Why shouldn’t Egyptians, Jordanians, or Turks have the right to try out an alternative ideological project outside the confines of liberal democracy, however much we might disagree with it? That should be their choice, not anyone else’s. That conversation, however, is moot if democracy fails to take hold in the first place. A democratic approach to constitution drafting in Egypt ended up fueling polarization and pushed liberals to consider—and then support—extra-legal regime change. If we wish to prioritize the survival of democracy in hostile conditions, then some things, at least in the short run, will need to be prioritized over others. These are necessary evils.

Everything you need to know about tomorrow’s important UK election

Written by Chris Graham.
Read the original article on the Telegraph.

Image credit: The Telegraph.

The United Kingdom goes to the polls – again – tomorrow after Theresa May, the Prime Minister, called a snap General Election in April.

Both parties go into the final day of campaigning today with the race apparently much tighter than many expected a month ago.

Despite ruling out a snap election when she took over after the Brexit referendum in June last year, Mrs May announced the vote in the hope that she can capitalise on internal divisions within the Labour Party and bolster the Conservative’s majority in the House of Commons.

The Conservatives enjoyed a large lead at the beginning of the campaign and a good result for Mrs May on Thursday would give her a strong position as she negotiates a “hard Brexit” from the European Union.

Labour continues to trail in the polls – even though the gap has narrowed significantly – but their leader Jeremy Corbyn is hoping to confound the pollsters in the same way Donald Trump did in November.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, are campaigning on an anti-Brexit platform.

The gap between the Conservatives and Labour - the two main parties - is narrowing
The gap between the Conservatives and Labour – the two main parties – is narrowing

Here’s a rundown on the big issues from the election over the past week, why comparisons have been drawn between Mr Corbyn and the US president, and a guide to what you should look out for on election night.

Has the London terror attack affected the election?

Absolutely. The tragic events on Saturday night has had a significant impact on the race.

All the major parties suspended campaigning for 24 hours on Sunday following the attack that killed at least seven people. It was the second time that national campaigning has been suspended during the current election campaign after it was halted for three days in the wake of the Manchester bomb attack on May 22.

The atrocity even prompted calls on social media for the general election to be suspended, forcing Mrs May to stress on Sunday that it would go ahead as planned on Thursday.

However it is the news agenda that has been most significantly affected. With just days until the election, the prime minister, who was previously the Home Secretary, has been forced on the defensive as she faces criticism of her record on counter-terrorism following the third terrorist outrage in the space of three months.

When Mrs May addressed the nation on Sunday, she rounded on those who “tolerate” extremism as she told them: “Enough is enough.”

In a speech that Mr Corbyn attacked as “political”, she said she would consider longer prison sentences for terrorist offences as well as reviewing the country’s entire counter-terrorism strategy in the face of a changing threat.

On Tuesday, Mrs May vowed to start work on toughening anti-terrorism measures if she is re-elected and promised she would not let human rights laws stand in her way. The Prime Minister will make it easier to deport foreign terror suspects and will extend existing laws that restrict the freedom of British suspects.

She has faced a barrage of questions about why the three Islamist terrorists who killed seven at the weekend were free to do it despite two of them being on the radar of the police or MI5. She has also been taken to task over a 20,000 reduction in police numbers under her watch.

Certain sections of the press, meanwhile, have trained their sights on Mr Corbyn. Amid a slew of recent stories about the Labour leader’s past associations with IRA and Palestinian terrorists, Labour faced fierce headlines on Wednesday, including “Apologists for terror” and “Jezza’s jihadi comrades”.

What has been the reaction to Trump’s tweets?

Mrs May has come under fire for not standing up for London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, in the face of strong criticism from Donald Trump in the hours after the terror attack.

The US President fired off a series of critical tweets over Mr Khan’s handling of the London Bridge terror attack, mocking the mayor’s comments that there was “no reason to be alarmed” over armed police on the streets.

But while Mrs May said Mr Trump’s Twitter attacks were “wrong”, she said Mr Trump’s controversial trip would go ahead.

Tom Brake, foreign affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: “Theresa May has allowed Donald Trump 24 hours to bully the Mayor of London. It isn’t good enough.

“Trump’s attack on Sadiq Khan was not only wrong, it was outrageous. Just as has been shown in so many other areas, when it comes to Trump, Theresa May is meek and mild, not strong and stable.

“It is time for Theresa May to do the right thing and cancel the state visit.”

A YouGov poll of 1,000 Londoners published on Monday found that Mr Khan was more trusted than both Mrs May and national Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to make the right decisions about keeping Britain safe from terrorism.

Is Jeremy Corbyn the British Donald Trump?

They stand at opposite ends of the political spectrum in many ways, yet comparisons between the US president Donald Trump and the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn have been made for months.

As The Telegraph’s Asa Bennett noted in March:

“Both men are just a few years apart in age. They have been part of the system for decades, but that hasn’t stopped them from amassing their own anti-Establishment following. Each man, their supporters say, is a straight talker who speaks truth to power, whose appeal is proven the huge crowds that come to listen.”

Mr Corbyn even seemed to lift some lines from the Trump playbook in February by blasting the BBC for reporting “fake news”.

The Labour leader has been frequently branded unelectable – a trait that was used to describe Mr Trump right up until he won the election in November. When the prime minister called the election in April, it looked set to be a coronation, much like Hillary Clinton was long expected to coast to the presidency. And yet, some polls now have the two candidates neck-and-neck.

Mr Trump’s victory looms over the election. When asked by Politicowhat the odds were on Mr Corbyn winning on Thursday, a veteran BBC producer said: “Zero percent”.

“Except, he quickly added that, in this age of Brexit and Trump, he no longer trusts the polls, or his own political instincts honed over three decades of covering British elections, or anything really.”

How are the polls looking?

With just a day until the election, polls are showing that the gap between Labour and the Conservatives has narrowed further still.

However, different polling companies are forecasting wildly different results.

The latest poll from YouGov has the Tory lead at just four points over Labour, while ICM has it standing at 11 points.

The situation is a far cry from the start of the election campaign, when Mrs May enjoyed a 17.8 point lead and polls indicated a landslide victory.

The Conservatives' crumbling lead
The Conservatives’ crumbling lead CREDIT: TELEGRAPH
But can we even trust the polls?  Not according to Michael Moszynski, a pundit who correctly predicted the results of the EU Referendum, Scottish referendum and 2015 General Election within 0.3 per cent.

Writing in The Telegraph, Mr Moszynski, chief Executive and Founder of London Advertising, said the Conservatives remain “safely on course for a three-figure majority”.

What’s the schedule for election night?

  • 5pm EST: Polls close at 10pm in the UK and exit polls are expected to be announced at the same time.
  • 6pm EST: The first result should be called within the first hour of counting.
  • 8pm EST: Things start to get serious around 1am BST as the first marginal seats are expected to be called.
  • 10pm-12am EST: The busiest time for results to be announced will be between 3am and 5am BST. Conservative leader Theresa May should find out if she has held the Berkshire seat of Maidenhead around 4am – by that time she will have a good idea about whether she is still Prime Minister.
  • 1.30am EST: At around 6.30am BST on Friday, the loser will be conceding defeat and the winner will be declaring victory.

How and why Islamic State-linked rebels took over part of a Philippine city

Written by Oliver Holmes.
Read the original article on the Guardian.

Image credit: the Guardian

What is happening?

Rebels linked to Islamic State have taken control of several neighbourhoods in the southern Philippine city of Marawi, with army artillery and aerial attacks unable to completely dislodge them after six days.

At least 61 militants and 17 security forces have been killed, according to the armed forces. Nineteen civilians have died.

Tens of thousands of people have fled the city of 200,000.

How did the fighting start?

Acting on intelligence, security forces tried to capture Isnilon Hapilon, an Islamist leader endorsed by Islamic State as their point-man for south-east Asia, where jihadis have attempted to establish a presence outside the Middle East.

Hapilon is on the FBI’s most wanted list, with a $5m reward.

Following the botched raid on Tuesday, militants protecting Hapilon went on a rampage, seizing a hospital, school and cathedral. They overran a jail and released scores of inmates.

President Rodrigo Duterte has declared martial law across Mindanao, a poverty-stricken province of 22 million that has a deep history of armed insurrection.

Who are the gunmen?

The militants are from a little-know group called the Maute, named after two brothers, Omar and Abdullah Maute.

Hapilon previously led another radical faction, the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf, known for bombings and beheadings of hostages as well as links to the group that carried out the 2002 Bali bombings in Indonesia.

The Philippines military says Hapilon has now joined the Maute, which previously ran as as a criminal organisation but has grown increasingly ideological in its objectives, according to analysts.

The Maute was blamed for last year’s bombing in the president’s home city, Davao, which killed 14 people. And Islamic State’s Amaq news agency last week claimed responsibility for the Marawi assault.

Why now?

Sidney Jones, the Jakarta-based director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, says the fighting represents a coalition of various radical Islamist factions in Mindanao that have a history of armed violence over land, resources and control.

Now, she says, they have formed a coalition against a common enemy.

“Duterte and his government have failed to appreciate that a major change has taken place in Mindanao, and these men aren’t motivated just by clan politics or money. The leaders may have been ‘bandits’ in the past, but now, they’re ideologues,” she said.

“They have been convinced by Isis that the answer to Mindanao’s problems is Islamic law,” she added.

In an October report, Jones predicted the current tumult. Facing losses in Syria and Iraq, Isis have increasingly looked to the Philippines to establish a province or “wilayat” in the region, the report said.

Support for Isis in Mindanao “has facilitated cooperation across clan and ethnic lines, widened the extremist recruitment pool to include computer-savvy university students and opened new international communication and possibly funding channels,” it said.

Many Muslims in the Philippines live in Mindanao, a semi-autonomous province, and Marawi is the most populated city in the self-governing region.

What is the government’s plan?

Duterte cut short a visit to Russia when the clashes erupted and has backed a strong military response. “If there’s an open defiance, you will die,” he said on Wednesday. “And if it means many people dying, so be it.”

Duterte, the former mayor from Davao, another city in Mindanao, has seen his year-long presidency characterised by bloodshed, with a “war on drugs” that has left thousands of alleged drug addicts and suspected dealers dead. He has been condemned internationally for supporting vigilantism.

The president has publicly encouraged civilians to kill addicts and said he will not prosecute police for extrajudicial executions.

He has been equally outspoken during the Marawi clashes, reassuring soldiers that he will protect them if they commit abuses during the conflict, including rape.

“If you go down, I go down. But for this martial law and the consequences of martial law and the ramifications of martial law, I and I alone would be responsible, just do your job I will take care of the rest,” Duterte said on Friday, according to a president’s office transcript.

“I’ll imprison you myself,” he said, referring to any soldiers who commit violations, then he joked: “If you had raped three, I will admit it, that’s on me.”

On Sunday, Duterte appealed to other rebel groups in Mindanao, including two Muslim separatist factions and Maoist-led rebels, to join the fight against the Maute, promising them pay and perks, including housing.

There was no immediate reaction from the three groups.