News from Jordan, Turkey and Russia

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on September 23, 2014

Anti-government protesters outside the al-Husseini mosque during demonstrations in Amman in January. (Getty Images)

JORDAN – Jordan Plans Crackdown on Unauthorized Mosques to Combat Radical Islam

AMMAN — In a new push to combat radical Islam, Jordanian authorities are developing plans to crack down on the construction of thousands of unauthorized mosques and to place government-appointed imams in their pulpits [minbar].

Of 8,600 mosques in U.S.-allied Jordan – most of them illegally built – 4,500 are led by preachers, or imams, who aren’t appointed by the government, according to official figures.

Imams at legal mosques are selected and paid by the government, one of the ways religious life in Jordan is heavily controlled by the state. As government employees, they are expected to renounce jihadist ideology and rally support for the monarchy during Friday prayers, imams said. The Jordanian government monitors and disseminates suggested weekly sermons to imams on its payroll and instructs them on what to talk to congregations about, and what not to talk about.

With public spaces scarce and also tightly controlled by authorities, mosques are the main gathering places for communities across the small kingdom of about eight million people. But Jamal al-Batayneh, who administers the province of Zarqa for the Ministry of Religious Affairs, said they can also become incubators of radicalism.

Authorities [say] that some [unauthorized] imams [promote/endorse] violence.

To pre-empt construction of unauthorized mosques, officials are hoping to persuade neighborhood leaders to build schools, orphanages or gardens instead. They also want to replace the thousands of unauthorized imams with government-appointed imams, something officials acknowledge will be difficult to do, in part because of a lack of funds.

The country’s intelligence network can’t keep up with the estimated 400 to 500 illegal mosques that are built each year with self-appointed imams the government deems unqualified.

Jordan’s latest effort to combat radical Muslims coincides with a regional [agreement] reached last week at a meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.   Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and representatives of the Persian Gulf bloc of Sunni states, after meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, promised to take military measures against extremist group Islamic State and tackle its “hateful ideology.”

Mr. Kerry is leading diplomatic efforts to build an international coalition against Islamic State, which has captured large tracts of land in both Iraq and neighboring Syria since June. …

The Jordanian government’s plan to regulate mosques is just the latest attempt to stem radical Islam. The kingdom has long relied on an extensive intelligence network to identify and quash suspected extremists.

Zarqa-Jordan-mapEfforts by authorities to control the messages disseminated in mosques are focused on poverty-stricken areas outside Amman, such as the northern city of Zarqa, a longtime extremist stronghold. The city is the birthplace of the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who founded al Qaeda in Iraq – a precursor of Islamic State – before he was killed by U.S. forces in 2006.

Zarqa was a popular jumping-off point for militants going to fight American forces in Iraq in 2003 and it has contributed fighters to the Syrian civil war. The city teems with mosques – an estimated 300, about 80% of them illegally built—that compete for the attention and loyalty of the city’s estimated 700,000 people. The number of mosques is almost double the number of public schools, making them the center of community life.

TURKEY – About 60,000 130,000 Syrian Kurds flee to Turkey from Islamic State advance

SURUC, TURKEY — About 60,000* Syrian Kurds fled into Turkey in the space of 24 hours, a deputy prime minister said on Saturday, as Islamic State militants seized dozens of villages close to the border. [*NOTE: By mid-afternoon Monday, the number of Kurds who have fled over the border into Syria to escape ISIS terrorists reached 130,000 people.]

Syrian Kurds flee Islamic State

Turkish soldiers stand guard as Syrian Kurds cross the border fence into Turkey near the southeastern town of Suruc province. (Reuters)

Turkey opened a stretch of the frontier on Friday after Kurdish civilians fled their homes, fearing an imminent attack on the border town of Ayn al-Arab, also known as Kobani. A Kurdish commander on the ground said Islamic State had advanced to within 9 miles of the town.

Local Kurds said they feared a massacre in Kobani, whose strategic location has been blocking the radical Sunni Muslim militants from consolidating their gains across northern Syria.

The United States has said it is prepared to carry out airstrikes in Syria to stop the advances of Islamic State, which has also seized tracts of territory in neighbouring Iraq and has proclaimed a caliphate in the heart of the Middle East.

U.S. forces have bombed the group in Iraq at the request of the government, but it is unclear when or where any military action might take place in Syria, whose president, Bashar al-Assad, Washington says is no longer legitimate.

Kobani-Syria-map_BBCLokman Isa, a 34-year-old farmer, said he had fled with his family and about 30 other families after heavily armed Islamic State militants entered his village of Celebi. He said the Kurdish forces battling them had only light weapons.

“They (Islamic State) have destroyed every place they have gone to. We saw what they did in Iraq — in Sinjar — and we fled in fear,” he told Reuters in the Turkish town of Suruc, where Turkish authorities were setting up a camp.

Sitting in a field after just crossing the border, Abdullah Shiran, a 24-year-old engineer, recounted scenes of horror in his village of Shiran, about six miles from Kobani.

“IS came and attacked and we left with the women but the rest of the men stayed behind … They killed many people in the villages, cutting their throats. We were terrified that they would cut our throats too,” he said.

RUSSIA – BBC Journalists Attacked Investigating Servicemen Deaths in Russia

MOSCOW — The British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) said unidentified men attacked a team of its journalists and destroyed their camera as it was investigating reports of Russian servicemen being killed near the border with Ukraine.

Astrakhan-Russia_BBCThe public-funded broadcaster said its staff were badly beaten by at least three assailants in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan on Tuesday. After four hours of questioning at a local police station afterward, the journalists discovered that their recording equipment, which had been in their vehicle at the police station, had been electronically wiped, the BBC said in a statement.

“The attack on our staff, and the destruction of their equipment and recordings, were clearly part of a coordinated attempt to stop accredited news journalists reporting a legitimate news story,” the BBC said.

The attack comes amid rising pressure on news media whose reporting has been at odds with the Kremlin’s narrative of events in the region. Before the attack, BBC Moscow Correspondent Steven Rosenberg and two colleagues had interviewed the sister of a Russian serviceman who died in August after telling his family he was being sent to southeastern Ukraine, according to an article written by Mr. Rosenberg and published on the BBC website Thursday.

Moscow says its forces aren’t involved in the conflict between pro-Russia rebels and government forces in eastern Ukraine. But officials in Moscow recently said some Russian volunteers, as well as army personnel on vacation, are fighting there.


Steve Rosenberg of the BBC. (Steve Rosenberg / Twitter)

Attacks on foreign journalists in Russia are rare, but beatings and killings of local reporters occur more frequently. Russian journalists investigating the presence of Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine have faced attacks by unknown assailants recently.

Western and Ukrainian officials say Russian army units are fighting in eastern Ukraine. Russian journalists have published several investigations into the claims, which appear to show servicemen were there.

Lev Shlosberg, a local lawmaker and journalist in the western city of Pskov, was badly beaten in August after publishing a story about the funerals of paratroopers from a local regiment who were apparently killed in Ukraine. Television and newspaper reporters who went to the cemetery near Pskov were also attacked by unidentified men.

According to the BBC article on Thursday, as the BBC team was leaving the sister’s village in southern Russia, their car was stopped by traffic police, who checked their trunk and identities, he wrote. After lunching in Astrakhan some 40 miles away, the journalists were confronted and attacked by at least three people.

The assailants knocked the cameraman to the ground and beat him, smashing the camera and taking it away in their car, Mr. Rosenberg wrote. The cameraman suffered a concussion, but all three are now safe and back in Moscow, a BBC spokesman said.

After four hours of questioning at a police station, the journalists discovered that their recording equipment, which was in their vehicle at the police station, had been wiped, the BBC said in a statement.

Russian police said it had opened a criminal case into the incident. Pyotr Rusanov, a spokesman for Astrakhan regional police, said a large police team was searching for the suspects and the camera. “We haven’t managed to detain anyone yet. We’re working on it,” he said by telephone. The BBC on Thursday submitted a complaint to the Russian Foreign Ministry about the attack, the BBC spokesman said. The Foreign Ministry didn’t have an immediate comment. …

(The news briefs above are from wire reports and staff reports posted at The Wall Street Journal on Sept. 19, Reuters and The Wall Street Journal on Sept. 18.)