Trump’s new ‘anti-Muslim’ appointee worries civil rights groups

Washington, DC – American civil rights groups have condemned the appointment of a new deputy national security advisor who served on the board of an anti-Muslim group for nearly a decade.

US President Donald Trump appointed Charles M Kupperman last week to assist National Security Advisor John Bolton, saying in a press release that Kupperman “brings to the role more than four decades of national security policy and programme experience”.

Kupperman served on the board of directors for the Center for Security Policy (CSP) between 2001 and 2010, according to tax records. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an Alabama-based hate monitor, designates the CSP as an anti-Muslim hate group, pointing to the group’s promotion of conspiracy theories claiming that Muslims have infiltrated the US government and seek to establish Islamic law in the country.

The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) has called on the Trump administration to revoke Kupperman’s appointment. 

“Once again this is an example of Trump elevating foxes into the hen house, where Islamophobes are well placed to direct our nation’s national security priorities,” Robert McCaw, director of CAIR’s government affairs department, told Al Jazeera.

McCaw argued that Kupperman’s appointment “should absolutely be rescinded” and that he “has no place in the US government”.

In the White House press release, John Bolton was quoted as saying that Kupperman “has been an advisor to me for more than 30 years, including during my tenure as National Security Advisor to President Trump”.

“Charlie’s extensive expertise in defence, arms control and aerospace will help further President Trump’s national security agenda.”

Kupperman has held senior positions in defence contractors Lockheed Martin and Boeing, and served in the administration of former President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump called for a “complete and total shutdown” of Muslims entering the US.

Since coming to office in January 2017, he has issued a slew of executive orders, some of which have been challenged in courts, seeking to bar entry for travellers from several Muslim-majority countries.

In October, during the midterm elections, the Muslim Advocates group released a report documenting 80 instances of political candidates using “clear anti-Muslim” rhetoric in 2017 and 2018. 

‘Not an accident’ 

At the time of publication, the White House had not replied to Al Jazeera’s request for a comment. 

Established in 1988, the Washington, DC-based Center for Security Policy is headed by Frank Gaffney Jr, and has promoted the false claim that the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the US government and American society at large.

Gaffney, who also served in the Reagan administration, has falsely claimed that former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was behind the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, said former President Barack Obama was a covert Muslim, and claimed Hillary Clinton advisor Huma Abedin was a Muslim Brotherhood operative.

Frank Gaffney has built deep ties in the Republican Party [File: Larry Downing/Reuters] 

In 2011, Gaffney called on Congress to create an updated version of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was established in 1938 to seek out Americans with communist ties or sympathies. In his version, however, the committee would root out Muslims supposedly seeking to undermine US institutions.

According to the SPLC, Kupperman is one of several people with ties to the CSP to join the Trump administration.

Others include Kellyanne Conway, whose firm produced a dubious poll for the CSP. It claimed that more than half of American Muslims advocate replacing US law with Islamic law. 

Bolton, who appointed Kupperman, also appeared on Gaffney’s radio programme often, as did US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the SPLC noted. 

Nathan Lean, author of The Islamophobia Industry, said that it is not “an accident that people with clear connections to anti-Muslim hate groups are being elevated in the Trump world”.

“In fact, with John Bolton at the helm of National Security, such an eventuality would be absolutely expected,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Kupperman’s associations with Frank Gaffney are enough to disqualify him from any government post, let alone one in which he is advising a man who is arguably in the president’s ear on a daily basis regarding matters of national security.”

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Miley Cyrus Brought The House Down With Her ‘Heavenly’ Chris Cornell Tribute Performances

Wednesday night’s (January 16) Chris Cornell tribute show boasted no shortage of rock royalty — the late grunge icon‘s former bandmates in Soundgarden, Audioslave, and Temple of the Dog were on hand, as were Foo Fighters, Metallica, Ryan Adams, and more. But perhaps the buzziest performance of the night came from Miley Cyrus, who proved herself a chameleonic star by putting her stamp on a pair of beloved Cornell tunes.

Taking the stage at The Forum in Inglewood, California, Cyrus certainly looked the part of a grunge fan, wearing a sweatshirt bearing Cornell’s image, glossy pants, and platform boots. And as soon as she opened her mouth, she sounded the part, too. Cornell — who died in May 2017 at age 52 — had a formidable range that’s practically untouchable, but the 26-year-old pushed her vocals to the max on “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” headbanging alongside Temple of the Dog and drawing cheers from the shocked crowd.

Sharing a clip of her passionate performance on Instagram, the newly married singer wrote, “Had a heavenly experience with you tonight, Chris. We felt you and heard you…. your words and spirit filled the room…. there was an overwhelming feeling of so much love… we miss you deeply … tonight was an honor.”

Elsewhere during the nearly five-hour tribute concert, Cyrus delivered a soft but soulful performance of Cornell’s 2009 blues ballad “Two Drink Minimum.” “It’s hard to say goodbye,” she wrote alongside a clip from that cover.

In addition to her spine-tingling Cornell tributes, the past few weeks have given us Miley covers ranging from pop (“No Tears Left to Cry“) to Christmas classics (“Happy Xmas (War Is Over)“). So just remember: there’s seemingly no genre this girl can’t absolutely crush.

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Lebanon summit reveals Arab divisions over Syria, Iran

Beirut, Lebanon – As Lebanon prepares to host a regional economic summit this weekend, the meeting has been overshadowed by divisions over Syria’s future and efforts to contain Iran.

Having previously confirmed their attendance at the Arab Economic and Social Development summit in Beirut, many heads of state are now set to stay away.

The emirs of Qatar and Bahrain will not attend, Egypt is planning to send the prime minister rather than the president, while the Palestinian Authority president has said he will be in New York.

The snubs seem to be a message to Iran, whose allies, including Hezbollah, hold power in Lebanon and support the Syrian government.

Iran’s allies saw the talks as an opportunity to bring Syrian President Bashar al Assad back into the Arab fold, eyeing an Arab League foreign minister level meeting before the summit as a chance to hold a vote on Syria’s reinstatement to the regional body.

However, the future of Syria is not due to be on the agenda.

“The league has no plans to discuss an invitation to the body’s summit in Tunisia during the upcoming meeting in Lebanon to which Damascus is not invited either,” Arab League Assistant Secretary General Hossam Zaki said. 

“We aren’t there yet,” Rami Khoury, a political analyst told Al Jazeera. “Not all Arab countries want to immediately normalise relations with Syria.”

No consensus 

The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership in 2011 and imposed economic sanctions over its violent crackdown on anti-government protesters before the country descended into civil war. Some countries withdrew their ambassadors.

Late last year, Sudanese President Omar Bashir became the first Arab League leader to visit Syria since the crisis began. In the following weeks, the UAE and Bahrain reopened their embassies in the country, but a consensus among the bloc remains elusive.

Days before the Beirut talks a number of Arab states made their positions clear. Iraq, which did not cut its ties with Damascus, said it supports efforts to restore Syria’s membership of the Arab League. Qatar, a supporter of Syria’s opposition, stressed that the reasons for Damascus’s suspension have not been addressed and that there are no encouraging signs to push for normalising ties. Saudi Arabia has denied it plans to do what its allies – the UAE and Bahrain – did a few weeks ago.

“There was a momentum but it has slowed,” Sami Nader, political analyst, told Al Jazeera. “US Secretary of State Pompeo told them it is too early to normalize relations and talk about reconstruction before agreeing on the general elements of a political settlement.”

Obstacles

Assad, who has survived the seven year rebellion against his rule, is looking to consolidate his power, end his isolation and attract much needed funds to rebuild the destroyed country.

But what is believed to be a Russian-led diplomatic push to legitimise the Syrian government is now facing obstacles.

When the Arab League was expected to discuss readmitting Damascus earlier this month, the meeting was postponed.

Egypt, which was leading the diplomatic drive to re-embrace Assad’s Syria, now says it cannot be readmitted to the Arab League if it doesn’t solve the political crisis in line with the UN-led political process.

There are also those who warn against prematurely normalising ties saying that would only strengthen Assad’s position when it comes to negotiations.

The US is particularly eager to curtail Iranian influence in the region, and sees any move that strengthens Assad as strengthening Iran.

Assad’s opponents want him to comply with UN resolutions that would require relinquishing some powers.

It’s not clear if supporters of Assad’s return will intensify their efforts ahead of the next Arab League meeting in Tunis in March.

For its part, Iran has publicly welcomed the shift in policy of some Arab countries.

“Arab countries returning to Syria was a positive change that signaled the international community recognised Syria’s territorial integrity and legitimate government,” the foreign ministry said.

However, if the Arab League were to normalise ties with Damascus, it would likely create a new regional order which would not serve Iranian interests. While Gulf Arab financial support could provide a huge boost to Syria’s economy, the leaders of those countries would also likely seek more influence in the country.

“The return of Arab enemies of Iran to Damascus is seen in this context as some sort of a drawback on the Iranian sacrifices in Syria,” Mohanad Hage Ali, Carnegie Middle East Center analyst told Al Jazeera. “The Syrian regime return to the Arab fold means there has to be some sort of policy impact regarding the relationship with Iranians and its alliance with Iran.”

Iran has been a staunch ally of the Syrian government throughout the war and there is no indication Assad will break that alliance.

The Arab diplomatic snub of the Beirut meeting is just the beginning of US-led efforts to contain Iran’s influence in the region.

They are expected to gain momentum in the lead up to the anti-Tehran meeting in Warsaw in February.

WATCH: Inside Story – Can Arabs solve their problems? (25:00)

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America’s most stunning jerks are flocking to your national parks

Like an unlocked museum, national parks have been left largely defenseless during the most recent government shutdown, allowing scoundrels and cheats to tramp over unstaffed lands.

While much of the federal government is funded during the longest-ever shutdown, the national parks aren’t. Yet in 2018, the Trump administration made the unusual — and possibly illegal — decision to keep many of the nation’s crown jewels operating with skeleton crews.

Destruction, mounds of litter, and vandalism have ensued. This unsavory form of recreation has been especially stark in Joshua Tree National Park, where people cut through locked gates, created roads on protected wild land, and may have committed a bona fide desert sin: chopping down a Joshua tree.

“If they really are a full-fledged asshole, there’s not too much hope.”

But why would anyone exploit such vulnerable national resources for selfish motives, faux perceptions of power, or bizarre satisfaction? 

“It’s not only that they knew they wouldn’t get caught, but they take delight in the destruction of the place,” says Aaron James, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Irvine and author of the book Assholes: A Theory.

James does note that it’s unknown who exactly drove into Joshua Tree, chose to deface the park and plop their tents down on long-protected land. But there’s potential, he says, that some of the culprits were younger.

“Maybe they’re just teenagers going through an asshole phase,” said James.”You don’t know if they’re proper assholes.”

What makes an asshole? From James’ studies on the topic, they are rational adults who allow themselves to “enjoy special advantages in social relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes [them] against the complaints of other people.”

This stubborn subset of people may be resistant to changing their ingrained, entitled behavior.

“If they really are a full-fledged asshole, there’s not too much hope,” says James.

“It’s a fundamental split in the philosophy of people,” says Christoph Adami, a professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at Michigan State University who conducted research illustrating that selfish behavior among humans is not evolutionarily sustainable, but rather a long-term detriment. 

Despite that, people act selfishly.  This is because, in the short term, selfishness can be a valuable tactic. It could mean getting to off-road and camp in forbidden places or the visceral anti-regulation joy of “sticking it to the government.” Beyond parks, it could mean reaping big financial gain, at the expense of others

“The selfish strategy will win over the short-term,” said Adami. “Absent certain forms of punishment, this is the rational and correct strategy.” 

Selfish behavior eventually loses out to longer-term cooperation, emphasizes Adami. Yet, punishment is the only thing that will stop a certain subset of people who cheat the system.

“If cheaters aren’t being punished, they ruin it for everybody,” says Adami.

But in shutdown-vulnerable national parks with few rangers, people recognize that they either won’t be punished for acting selfishly, or they won’t be caught. 

And in today’s polarized-America, this behavior is further stoked by political passions. 

“A larger political environment can encourage assholery,” notes James.

Take the anti-government sentiment that’s wafting through the country. “The mistreating, exploiting, and vandalizing of national parks during the government shutdown is of a piece with the anti-government sentiment that helped propel the election of Donald Trump as president,” says Richard Grusin, the director of the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“It seems like they are attacking nature, but they are attacking an ideology of government,” adds Grusin, the author of Culture, Technology, and the Creation of America’s National Parks.

National parks, places for all Americans, “grew out of an expression of socialism, or democratic socialism,” explains Grusin. These were grand parks for everyone. “Public use and recreation was more important than private profit and development.”

But the Trump administration has successfully reversed course. They are actively promoting development at the expense of protected lands. And Grusin suspects Trump’s base is feeding off the same anti-government, anti-regulation sentiments. He cites the Bundy ranchers armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge visitor center in 2016. 

“You have a kind of radical antigovernment individualism,” says Grusin.

Adami, who suspects that most of the national park vandals are Trump supporters, likens the issue to the public’s perception of global warming: One in three Americans don’t accept government scientists’ repeated warnings about the detrimental societal consequences of a globally disrupted climate.

“They don’t really care,” Adami says, noting that they take a purposefully contrarian attitude.  “This type of ‘I don’t care about others’ attitude is the type being promulgated by this [Trumpian] politics.”

It’s unknown what percentage of the U.S. population fits James’ “asshole” designation, or Adami’s natural born “cheater” classification. Regardless, the largely unwatched national parks have enabled them. 

“This opens the floodgates for a small percentage of people,” says Josh Klapow, a clinical psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Public Health.

This selfish or destructive behavior is a release from their primal instincts, the “Id” or impulsive, biological parts of our personality, as Freud described it, notes Klapow. In the case of national parks, it’s allowed this unpleasant, illegal behavior to emerge even though the perpetrators know it’s wrong.

“A larger political environment can encourage assholery.”

It’s animalistic. 

“It’s our less civilized selves,” says Klapow. 

To guard against uncivil behavior or persons, the future of the parks is heavily dependent upon the the continued watchful eyes of the people who are invested in conservation, like park rangers and staff. Jon Jarvis, the former chief of the Park Service, has emphasized that the parks shouldn’t be open at all during a shutdown — in part because of bad actors.

“The existence of a punishing body is absolutely essential,” says Adami. 

But there hasn’t been enough park staff around to stop them. 

“They feel licensed to do it,” says James. 

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Pornhub reports bump in traffic amid government shutdown

The federal government has been shut down for nearly a month. So how are furloughed workers spending their free time? 

Many are, of course, dealing with the very serious consequences of going without pay for an extended period. But in terms of what they’re doing to unwind during these tense times, Pornhub offers one possible answer.

In data released Thursday, the adult video platform reports that traffic showed an average daily increase of 5.94% during the week of Jan. 7th (the shutdown’s third week) over traffic in the weeks before the shutdown, which started on Dec. 22

pornhub government shutdown traffic

Now, it’s important to note here that correlation doesn’t equal causation. After all, it’s winter and people are spending more times indoors instead of out and about and, well, people have to stay entertained somehow. No judgment here! 

That said, Pornhub notes a shift with heavy increases in traffic late at night with lower traffic than usual during the morning followed by another traffic spike in the early afternoon. These patterns are similar to other events like winter storms, situations in which people might stay up later because they don’t have to go to work the next day. 

Additionally, Pornhub traffic in the Washington, D.C. area showed a similar spike over the same time period with an average daily increase of 6.32 percent versus pre-shutdown traffic. 

Pornhub also notes the following categories showed the biggest increase in traffic during that measured time:

  • Outdoor +71%

  • Threesome +66%

  • Old/Young +60%

Make of that what you will.

As for methodology, the week of Jan. 7th was selected by Pornhub for measurement as it was likely to no longer be affected by holiday vacations while the pre-shutdown traffic averages were taken from the weeks of December 3rd through 7th and December 10th through 17th. 

Whether the spike in traffic continues remains to be seen, but for now there’s no real end in sight for the shutdown.

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Telco sector faces its moment of truth in 2019

Capital expenditure in the sector in 2019 is likely to be more than $10.5 billion – the highest since the 3G capital expenditure boom more than a decade ago. Telstra said it would spend about $4.4 billion in the year to June 2019, and analysts expect it to spend at least another $2 billion in the six months to December.

Optus is likely to spend $1.5 billion this year and up to $500 million is expected to be spent by the merged Vodafone/TPG Telecom should the deal gain the approval of Rod Sims at the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

The biggest capex spender by far will be NBN which is earmarked to spend about $4.8 billion this calendar year based on forecasts contained in its latest corporate plan.

NBN’s rollout of a national wholesale fixed line broadband monopoly reaches a turning point this year. It said another 2.7 million premises would be made ready to connect in the year to June. Also by June more than 80 per cent of Australian premises should be able to order an NBN service.

The second half of this year will be significant for NBN because another one million premises are likely to be connected. As of last week NBN had 9.6 million premises ready for service, 8.1 million ready to connect and 4.7 million activated.

Telstra dominates mobile market share. 

Based on these numbers 2019 will mark the busiest year on record for NBN, which faces uncertainty over its strategy of having a multi-technology mix because of a possible change of government.

Another NBN milestone this year will be the transfer to Telstra of more than about $2.5 billion subscriber payments to cover access to Telstra’s ducts, dark fibre and facilities. In the year to June 2018, Telstra accounted for 97 per cent of the $1.9 billion in subscriber payments made by NBN. The remainder went to Optus. It is likely Telstra will continue to capture the lion’s share of NBN payments to third parties.

Vodafone-TPG merger

Telco regulation is the third area facing a moment of truth in 2019. The spotlight is on the ACCC decision on the merger of Vodafone and TPG. ACCC chairman Sims released a statement of issues in December and said he would come back with a decision at the end of March.

“Our preliminary view is that TPG is currently on track to become the fourth mobile network operator in Australia, and as such it’s likely to be an aggressive competitor,” Sims said at the time.

NBN is paying Telstra billions over the next few years. 

“We therefore have preliminary concerns that removing TPG as a new independent competitor with its own network, in what is a concentrated market for mobile services, would be likely to result in a substantial lessening of competition. If TPG remains separate from Vodafone, it appears likely to need to continue to adopt an aggressive pricing strategy, offering cheap mobile plans with large data allowances.

“Our preliminary view is the merged TPG-Vodafone would not have the incentive to operate in the same way, and competition in the market would be reduced as a result. A mobile market with three major players rather than four is likely to lead to higher prices and less innovative plans for mobile customers.”

When the ACCC boffins scratch below the surface they will find that TPG’s promise to build a fourth network has so far resulted in about $50 million of a promised $600 million investment. In other words, the much lauded fourth player is as threatening to the existing players as a caged mouse.

If the merger with Vodafone is stopped on competition grounds and TPG is forced to build its network the process will take years based on its current progress. TPG has so far installed about 180 micro-cells in Sydney in Melbourne.

Telstra dominates NBN retail market share. 

If TPG wants to offer a competitive service in Sydney and Melbourne it will have to install thousands of micro-cells. Early installations have been opposed by councils in Sydney and Melbourne.

Stopping the Vodafone/TPG merger and forcing both companies to roll out separate networks carries increased risks of actually reducing competition in 5G. This is one obvious conclusion from an examination of the Vodafone balance sheet.

Vodafone is carrying about $7 billion in debt. Its ratio of debt to EBITDA is about seven times, which is regarded as a dangerously high leverage. A question for the ACCC is this: Would Vodafone be able to afford to roll out a competitive 5G network if it was to be a standalone entity?

The answer to that is probably “no”. Vodafone Australia’s joint owners, Vodafone and Hutchison, have agreed to forgive about $4 billion in debt to make a merger deal happen. Without that debt forgiveness the standalone entity has significantly less financial flexibility.

This is a critical moment in the regulation of the telco sector.

If the ACCC gets it wrong on the Vodafone/TPG merger it could result in the two largest players, Telstra and Optus, being allowed to entrench their leading positions.

A dispassionate analysis of the three big forces driving the telco sector in 2019 point to Telstra increasing its dominance. It has been increasing market share in mobiles for five years and it has increased its market share in broadband.

History shows that when the sector reaches critical turning points that cause customer churn, Telstra does better than its competitors. If that happens again in 2019, it could well mean consumers are worse off because the combination of increased market power and technology leadership usually means higher prices.

TONY BOYD

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#10YearChallenge: Hashtag used to highlight war and suffering

The #10YearChallenge and #GlowUpChallenge have gone viral on social media this week.

Millions of social media users shared current photos next to what they looked like a decade ago.

While most of the craze has been for fun, thousands of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram users have seized the opportunity to address issues they say are far more important than selfies.

The hashtags have also been used to highlight the destruction carried out by Arab governments and foreign powers across several Middle East countries since the Arab Spring in 2011.

Societies across Arab nations revolted with mixed results following protests that erupted against autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Tunisia avoided descending into conflict but the revolts in Libya, Syria and Yemen turned violent and into civil wars with European and Western powers becoming primary actors.

Thousands of images have been shared highlighting the devastation caused by the wars, with several users showing the destruction in Syria since an offensive was launched against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group.

ANTICONQUISTA, the Communist Party of the Latin American and Caribbean Diaspora, shared a composite image of Libya with the captions before and after the “Imperalist invasion”, a reference to the NATO-led military intervention that led to the toppling of longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Muniba Mazari, a Goodwill Ambassador at UN Women Pakistan, shared an image of Syria, which has been devastated by eight years of war and led to an estimated 500,000 deaths.

The citizen journalist group, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, shared a collection of images showing the aftermath of the devastating assault on the place often referred to as the capital of ISIL.

Nadwa Dawsari shared an image of the old city of Sanaa, which showed showing the UNESCO World Heritage site before and after a Saudi-UAE coalition air strike.

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