Islam is reshaping Europe

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Robert Kaplan writes: Orientalism, through which one culture appropriated and dominated another, is slowly evaporating in a world of cosmopolitan interactions and comparative studies, as [Edward] Said intuited it might. Europe has responded by artificially reconstructing national-cultural identities on the extreme right and left, to counter the threat from the civilization it once dominated.

Although the idea of an end to history — with all its ethnic and territorial disputes — turns out to have been a fantasy, this realization is no excuse for a retreat into nationalism. The cultural purity that Europe craves in the face of the Muslim-refugee influx is simply impossible in a world of increasing human interactions.

“The West,” if it does have a meaning beyond geography, manifests a spirit of ever more inclusive liberalism. Just as in the 19th century there was no going back to feudalism, there is no going back now to nationalism, not without courting disaster. [Continue reading…]

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Islam’s forgotten bohemians

Nile Green writes: Every year, thousands of festivals around the tombs of Sufi saints in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh demonstrate the vitality of Sufi poetry. Dotted throughout town and countryside, the shrines where these saints are buried still form the focus for the spiritual lives of tens of millions of Muslims. Their doors and rituals are open to people of any religious background; as a result, Sufi shrines in India still play an important role in the religious life of many Hindus and Sikhs. The work of the great Baba Farid, a 13th-century Punjab Sufi poet, also exemplifies this long history of religious co-existence, as his poems form the oldest parts of the Sikh scriptures.

Farid’s poems are still recited in Sikh temples around the world. In one of the verses from his Adi Granth (the sacred scripture or ‘First Book’ of Sikhism), Farid declares in rustic and homely Punjabi:

Ap li-ay lar la-ay dar darves say.

Translation: Those tied to Truth’s robe are true tramps on the doorstep.

The seeker after Truth must become a wandering beggar. The word Farid uses is darves, or ‘dervish’ – literally, a vagrant who goes from door to door. Read again that alliterative line of Punjabi: Ap li-ay lar la-ay dar darves say. It has the simple rhythm of repetition, the call of love’s beggar traipsing from house to house.

What the German philosopher Max Weber described as the disenchantment of the world, modernity’s discrediting of the supernatural and magical, has not been good for these beggars, these mystical troubadours, especially among the Muslim middle classes. Their pilgrimage places, however, retain mass appeal, especially among the large populations of poor and uneducated people. That is why fundamentalists, whether the Pakistani Taliban, the Saudi government or ISIS, have destroyed so many Sufi shrines and places of pilgrimage. The poetry sung at those places celebrates and advances an Islam that rejects political power, an Islam incompatible with the ambitions of religious fundamentalism. It is an Islam antithetical to political Islam, which sees political power as the foundation of religion. Although not all forms of Sufi Islam are non-political, the Sufism of the dervishes renounced political power as the most significant impediment on the long road to their divine beloved. It is a spirit of Islam still very much alive. [Continue reading…]

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Why ISIS hates the Sufis and blows up their shrines

Nile Green writes:

The soul that denies true love as its motto
Were better unborn; its existence is dishonour.
So be drunk with love, for love is all there is.
Unless you deal with love, the way to God is closed.

These words were among the hundreds of poems written by Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi apostle of love. Such was Rumi’s status in previous centuries that his epic Masnavi was called ‘the Quran in Persian’. For those who have read his verse, it’s hard to understand how anyone could despise the beauty of Sufi Islam. Considering that the Sufis always presented themselves as the loyal heirs of the Prophet Mohammad, it’s even harder to understand why Muslims should despise them. And yet over the past century, wave after wave of Muslim reform and renewal movements have rejected almost every aspect of Sufi Islam. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – whose franchises have sentenced Sufis to death in Syria and bulldozed their shrines in Libya – is only the latest of these anti-Sufis.

Why?

Here are a few reasons. [Continue reading…]

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How politics has poisoned Islam

Mustafa Akyol writes: We Muslims like to believe that ours is “a religion of peace,” but today Islam looks more like a religion of conflict and bloodshed. From the civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen to internal tensions in Lebanon and Bahrain, to the dangerous rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Middle East is plagued by intra-Muslim strife that seems to go back to the ancient Sunni-Shiite rivalry.

Religion is not actually at the heart of these conflicts — invariably, politics is to blame. But the misuse of Islam and its history makes these political conflicts much worse as parties, governments and militias claim that they are fighting not over power or territory but on behalf of God. And when enemies are viewed as heretics rather than just opponents, peace becomes much harder to achieve.

This conflation of religion and politics poisons Islam itself, too, by overshadowing all the religion’s theological and moral teachings. The Quran’s emphasis on humility and compassion is sidelined by the arrogance and aggressiveness of conflicting groups. [Continue reading…]

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President Obama’s remarks at the Islamic Society of Baltimore on February 3

President Obama said: This is a moment when, as Americans, we have to truly listen to each other and learn from each other. And I believe it has to begin with a common understanding of some basic facts. And I express these facts, although they’d be obvious to many of the people in this place, because, unfortunately, it’s not facts that are communicated on a regular basis through our media.

So let’s start with this fact: For more than a thousand years, people have been drawn to Islam’s message of peace. And the very word itself, Islam, comes from salam — peace. The standard greeting is as-salamu alaykum — peace be upon you. And like so many faiths, Islam is rooted in a commitment to compassion and mercy and justice and charity. Whoever wants to enter paradise, the Prophet Muhammad taught, “let him treat people the way he would love to be treated.” (Applause.) For Christians like myself, I’m assuming that sounds familiar. (Laughter.)

The world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are as diverse as humanity itself. They are Arabs and Africans. They’re from Latin America to Southeast Asia; Brazilians, Nigerians, Bangladeshis, Indonesians. They are white and brown and black. There’s a large African American Muslim community. That diversity is represented here today. A 14-year-old boy in Texas who’s Muslim spoke for many when he wrote to me and said, “We just want to live in peace.”

Here’s another fact: Islam has always been part of America. Starting in colonial times, many of the slaves brought here from Africa were Muslim. And even in their bondage, some kept their faith alive. A few even won their freedom and became known to many Americans. And when enshrining the freedom of religion in our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, our Founders meant what they said when they said it applied to all religions.

Back then, Muslims were often called Mahometans. And Thomas Jefferson explained that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom he wrote was designed to protect all faiths — and I’m quoting Thomas Jefferson now — “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan.” (Applause.)

Jefferson and John Adams had their own copies of the Koran. Benjamin Franklin wrote that “even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.” (Applause.) So this is not a new thing. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: For Mr. Obama, the remarks were also an admission of how little progress has been made since the speech in Cairo [in 2009], where he called for “a sustained effort to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect one another, and to seek common ground.” In his speech on Wednesday, he suggested that his hopes for a reconciliation had been dashed, but he called on all Americans to stick by the country’s founding ideals.

Muslims in the audience hailed the address.

“I think it was one of the best speeches he’s ever given,” said Representative André Carson, an Indiana Democrat. Representative Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, said the speech “hit me in the heart” and was a vital antidote to growing intolerance.

“I have a 19-year-old daughter who is a Muslim and wants to contribute to her nation, and it bugs me that someone who says he wants to be president would want to exclude her,” Mr. Ellison said.

But Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, one of the country’s oldest and largest pro-Israel organizations, denounced Mr. Obama for visiting a mosque whose leaders, Mr. Klein said, have among other issues criticized Israeli military actions. “Going to such a mosque only encourages radical Muslims to harm Americans,” Mr. Klein said. [Continue reading…]

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Muslim leaders attend summit on protecting non-Muslims in their midst

Religion News Service reports: Hundreds of Muslim scholars will meet in Morocco next week to reassert the rights of non-Muslims living among them as Christians and other religious minorities flee extremism across the Middle East for safety and freedom elsewhere.

In these times, Muslims must affirm their tradition’s true teachings on tolerance, said Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, co-founder of Zaytuna College, the first Muslim liberal arts college in the U.S. The summit meeting, expected to attract more than 300 Muslim religious leaders, will hark back to the Charter of Medina, in which the Prophet Muhammad enumerated the rights of non-Muslims 1,400 years ago.

“The prophet was religiously persecuted, so he knew firsthand what it was to experience religious persecution,” said Yusuf, speaking on a pre-conference media call Thursday (Jan 21). “His religion ensured the rights of religious minorities,” and Islamic history reveals a generally strong record of tolerance. [Continue reading…]

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Ten ways on how not to think about the Iran/Saudi conflict

Omid Safi writes: In order to understand this conflict, do not start with Sunni/Shi‘a seventh century succession disputes to Prophet. This is a modern dispute, not one whose answers you are going to find in pre-modern books of religious history and theology. Think about how absurd it would be if we were discussing a political conflict between the U.S. and Russia, and instead of having political scientists we brought on people to talk about the historical genesis of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Probably the most succinct elaboration of this point came from Marc Lynch:

“The idea of an unending, primordial conflict between Sunnis and Shiites explains little about the ebbs and flows of regional politics. This is not a resurgence of a 1,400-year-old conflict.”

The attempt to explain the Iranian/Saudi conflict, or for that matter every Middle Eastern conflict, in purely religious terms is part of an ongoing Orientalist imagination that depicts these societies as ancient, unchanging, un-modern societies where religion is the sole determining factor (allegedly unlike an imagined “us,” who have managed to become modern and secular.) Watch this four-part series by the late, great Edward Said on how Orientalism operates (skip the introduction):

There is no disputing that religion is a factor in understanding the Middle East. In some conflicts, it might even be a primary factor. But it is never, ever the only factor. Most often it is the other factors (history, economics, ideology, demographics) that are much more important.

Religion, religious traditions, and human societies never stay static and unchanging. There is no such thing as an eternal, unchanging human tradition. [Continue reading…]

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John Kerry won’t call the Islamic State by its name anymore. Why that’s not a good idea.

Shadi Hamid and Will McCants write: Refusing to utter the Islamic State’s name … needlessly complicates the religious fight to discredit the organization. Muslims understandably feel that their religion is being hijacked. But there’s something odd about an American president or Secretary of State opining on what is and isn’t legitimately Islamic. Shouldn’t it go without saying that a murderous extremist group isn’t what Muslims are all about?

There is a place for Muslim apologetics — from Muslims. This is precisely what a group of prominent British figures did when they attempted to rebrand the Islamic State as “the Un-Islamic State.”

But when non-Muslim officials insert themselves into this debate, it sets a negative precedent. It lends itself easily to broader pronouncements on who the good, “moderate” Muslims are, in contrast to the “bad guys,” a category which presumably could include anyone who falls on the Islamist side of the spectrum, regardless of whether they’re actually “extreme.”

And when the West co-opts Muslim talking points about the “true” Islam, it makes it harder for Muslims in the Arab world to make the same claim. Western governments are widely loathed and lack credibility in the region, even when they take care to explain their policies. A 2006 study suggested Arab students’ views of American policy “worsened slightly” the longer they listened to U.S.-sponsored Radio Sawa and al-Hurra TV. When Western officials repeat religious criticisms of the Islamic State, they make it easier for the group’s sympathizers to dismiss the criticisms as mere imperial dictation. [Continue reading…]

Some regular readers here may have noticed that in headlines (the one above being an exception), I have stuck with ISIS, in spite of its official name change and the ongoing debate among outsiders over which is the most appropriate label. My choice has nothing to do with that debate. It’s based instead on the matter of usage.

Whichever happens to be the most commonly used label is “correct” by that virtue alone. That’s why even though ISIS is actually an ambiguous term, you will rarely find yourself in a conversation during which you’ll be asked to clarify whether you’re talking about the terrorist organization, ISIS, or the Egyptian goddess, Isis.

When it comes to determining who’s saying what, where, Google Trends is an indispensable tool.

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New York’s forgotten mosque

Wilson Fache writes: New York City is well known for its numerous ethnic quarters, like the tourist-packed Little Italy or the oddly authentic Chinatown. Far less well known however is a small neighbourhood that locals used to call “Little Syria”.

From the 19th to the first half of the 20th century, that enclave was the economic and cultural centre of the Arab diaspora in the US; that is before it was demolished in order to build a tunnel and then later, in the sixties, the World Trade Centre.

These few blocks were home to a large number of immigrants mainly coming from what was then known as “Greater Syria” (Bilad al-Sham), a region ruled by the Ottoman Empire that nowadays includes Syria as well as Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories and a part of southern Turkey.

Civic associations like the Washington Street Historical Society have been advocating for years to raise awareness about the largely unknown quarter and preserve the few buildings that are left, such as St. George’s Syrian Catholic Church, which is located on Washington street.

For many years is was assumed that the neighbourhood was only ever inhabited by Christians. Since there was no record of a place of worship dedicated to another faith, it was assumed there had never been one. Then a few months ago, a professor at the University of Colorado Denver doing research on early Islam in the US came across an article entitled “Mohammedans now have a place of worship here”. [Continue reading…]

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An antidote to ISIS’s arrogance

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Mustafa Akyol writes: The recent massacres in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., demonstrated, once again, the so-called Islamic State’s ability to win over disaffected Muslims. Using a mixture of textual literalism and self-righteous certainty, the extremist group is able to persuade young men and women from Pakistan to Belgium to pledge allegiance to it and commit violence in its name.

This is why the Islamic State’s religious ideology needs to be taken seriously. While it’s wrong to claim that the group’s thinking represents mainstream Islam, as Islamophobes so often do, it’s also wrong to pretend that the Islamic State has “nothing to do with Islam,” as many Islamophobia-wary Muslims like to say. Indeed, jihadist leaders are steeped in Islamic thought and teachings, even if they use their knowledge to perverse and brutal ends.

A good place to start understanding the Islamic State’s doctrine is by reading Dabiq, the digital English-language magazine that the group puts out every month. One of the most striking pieces I have seen in it was an 18-page article in March titled “Irja’: The Most Dangerous Bid’ah,” or heresy.

Unless you have some knowledge of medieval Islamic theology you probably have no idea what irja means. The word translates literally as “postponing.” It was a theological principle put forward by some Muslim scholars during the very first century of Islam. At the time, the Muslim world was going through a major civil war, as proto-Sunnis and proto-Shiites fought for power, and a third group called Khawarij (dissenters) were excommunicating and slaughtering both sides. In the face of this bloody chaos, the proponents of irja said that the burning question of who is a true Muslim should be “postponed” until the afterlife. Even a Muslim who abandoned all religious practice and committed many sins, they reasoned, could not be denounced as an “apostate.” Faith was a matter of the heart, something only God — not other human beings — could evaluate. [Continue reading…]

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Could this Quran curb extremism?

Daniel Burke writes: On a warm November night in Washington, a small group of American Muslims gathered at Georgetown University to celebrate “The Study Quran,” new English translation of Islam’s most sacred scripture.

By the next evening, several said, the need for the book became painfully apparent.

The Islamic State had struck again, this time slaughtering 130 men and women in Paris. The group quoted the Quran twice in its celebratory statement.

After the attacks, President Barack Obama renewed his call for Muslim scholars and clerics to “push back” against “twisted interpretations of Islam.” Some U.S. presidential candidates fed anti-Islamic flames, creating the most hostile environment since 9/11, American Muslims said.

“The whole program of ISIS is to turn Muslims against the West and the West against Muslims,” said Joseph Lumbard, one of the five scholars behind “The Study Quran.”

“They want the West not to understand Islam.”

Thus far, many English translations of the Quran have been ill-suited to foiling extremist ideology or introducing Americans to Islam. Even after 9/11, when interest surged and publishers rushed Qurans to the market, few of the 25 or so available in English are furnished with helpful footnotes or accessible prose.

Meanwhile, Christians or Jews may pick up a Quran and find their worst fears confirmed.

“I never advise a non-Muslim who wants to find out more about Islam to blindly grab the nearest copy of an English-language Quran they can find,” Mehdi Hasan, a journalist for Al Jazeera, said during the panel discussion at Georgetown.

Ten years in the making, “The Study Quran” is more than a rebuttal to terrorists, said Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an Iranian-born intellectual and the book’s editor-in-chief. His aim was to produce an accurate, unbiased translation understandable to English-speaking Muslims, scholars and general readers.

The editors paid particular attention to passages that seem to condone bloodshed, explaining in extensive commentaries the context in which certain verses were revealed and written.

“The commentaries don’t try to delete or hide the verses that refer to violence. We have to be faithful to the text, ” said Nasr, a longtime professor at George Washington University. “But they can explain that war and violence were always understood as a painful part of the human condition.”

The scholar hopes his approach can convince readers that no part of the Quran sanctions the brutal acts of ISIS.

“The best way to counter extremism in modern Islam,” he said, “is a revival of classical Islam.” [Continue reading…]

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We need to talk about how ISIS interprets Islam

By Balsam Mustafa, University of Birmingham

Since capturing swathes of Iraq and Syria, Islamic State has embarked on a cyber-offensive to spread its message through social media. A great effort has been made to block and remove the content, to understand how this information spreads – and to understand why some find it so convincing.

But it is also important to look at the message itself. Islamic State’s claims are not plucked out of the sky. As unpalatable as they may be, they are framed by religious narratives and debates about Islam that have spanned centuries.

A look at Islamic State’s online magazine, Dabiq, reveals arguments built on Wahabbism, a fundamentalist branch of Islam. There are invocations of the founder Ibn Taimaya, “Sheik al Islam”, and references to Ibn Abbas, Ibn Masood, Ibn al-Qayyim, Ibn Hajar, Muhammad Ibn Abdil-Wahhab, Bukhari, and Sahih Muslim – Muslim scholars either collecting, interpreting, or narrating Hadith (the words of the prophet). The broader message is blunt: “Kill whoever changes his religion [Sahīh al-Bukhārī]“.

To claim that Islamic State is not related to Islam is therefore naive, even wilfully dismissive. It ignores the interpretations of Islam that IS presents in its videos, statements and other communication.

Arguing that IS is comprehensively Islamic, on the other hand, is simplistic, too. That is to see the group as representing all Muslims and the different and competing readings and interpretations of Islam around the world. Clearly, they do not.

Grabbing either of these easy, polar explanations for what IS represents will not provide a solution to the problem. We need to consider some controversial issues upon which most of the varying sects of Islam agree in order to understand IS, and subvert its narratives.

[Read more…]

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Does ISIS really have nothing to do with Islam? Islamic apologetics carry serious risks

Shadi Hamid writes: Every time the Islamic State commits yet another attack or atrocity, Muslims, particularly Western Muslims, shudder. Attacks like the ones in Paris mean another round of demands that Muslims condemn the acts, as if we should presume guilt, or perhaps some indirect taint.

The impulse to separate Islam from the sins and crimes of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is understandable, and it often includes statements such as ISIS has “nothing to do with Islam” or that ISIS is merely “using Islam” as a pretext. The sentiment is usually well-intentioned. We live in an age of growing anti-Muslim bigotry, where mainstream politicians now feel license to say things that might have once been unimaginable.

To protect Islam – and, by extension, Muslims – from any association with extremists and extremism is a worthy cause.

But saying something for the right reasons doesn’t necessarily make it right. An overwhelming majority of Muslims oppose ISIS and its ideology. But that’s not quite the same as saying that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, when it very clearly has something to do with it.

If you actually look at ISIS’s approach to governance, it would be difficult – impossible, really – to conclude that it is just making things up as it goes along and then giving it an Islamic luster only after the fact. [Continue reading…]

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What the Koran really says about women

Carla Power writes: When I told a Muslim friend of mine that I was to be studying the Koran with a sheikh [Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi], she had one request. “Ask him,”she said, “why Muslim men treat women so badly.”

When I did, he said it was because men weren’t reading the Koran properly.

All too often, people read the Koran selectively, the Sheikh explained, taking phrases out of context.

“People just use it for whatever point they want to make,” he shrugged. “They come to it with their own ideas and look for verses that confirm what they want to hear.”

In 1998, I went to Afghanistan to report on life for women under the Taliban. During their five-year reign in Kabul, the Taliban’s major policy initiative was to ban anything that they deemed to be un-Islamic, including kites, nail polish, and the public display of women’s faces.

The most devastating of the Taliban edicts, however, was the ban on women’s education.

At one point during my trip I asked the father of a ten-year-old girl whether she ever went out. His answer: “For what?”

In the years that the Taliban were busy keeping women at home and uneducated, Akram was uncovering a radically different version of Islamic tradition. Its luminaries included women like Ummal-Darda, a seventh-century jurist and scholar who taught jurisprudence in the mosques of Damascus and Jerusalem.

Her students were men, women, and even the caliph. Another woman in Akram’s research discoveries: the fourteenth- century Syrian scholar Fatimah al- Bataihiyyah, who taught both men and women in the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, drawing students from as far away as Fez.

It had begun by accident, he explained. Reading classical texts on hadith (the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad), he kept running across women’s names as authorities. He decided to do a biographical dictionary—a well-established genre in Muslim scholarly culture—that included all the women experts of hadith.

“A short book, then?” I teased.

“That’s what I thought, too,” said Akram. “I was expecting to find maybe twenty or thirty women. I was planning to publish a pamphlet. But it seems there are more.”

“Really?” I said. “Well, like how many more?”

“Thousands.”

Thousands?

Akram’s work, al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam, stands as a riposte to the notion, peddled from Kabul to Mecca, that Islamic knowledge is men’s work and always has been. “I do not know of another religious tradition in which women were so central, so present, so active in its formative history,” Akram wrote. [Continue reading…]

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Don’t politicize women’s bodies

Ayesha S. Chaudhry writes: Since the days of colonialism, Muslim women have become hyperpoliticized pawns in larger ideological struggles, and women’s bodies bear the burden of marking which “side” a society belongs to, by either donning the veil or removing it. Europeans are not the only ones politicizing women’s bodies – Muslim-majority countries have engaged in similar tactics, expressing their commitment to Islamism (e.g. Iran today, Saudi Arabia) or secularism (Iran under the Shah, Turkey) through forced veiling or de-veiling.

Neither forced veiling nor de-veiling actually serves the interests of women, though secularists argue that de-veiling “saves” women from patriarchal oppression, and Islamists argue that veiling “saves” women from an objectifying male gaze that turns them into sex objects. In both arguments, a woman’s emancipation or subjugation is measured by the amount her body is covered or uncovered. Both arguments infantilize women, expressing a profound mistrust in their ability to make decisions in their own self-interest. Caught in the middle, Muslim women simply cannot win.

In this context, it is especially important to put women first, to give women space to chart their own journeys, and to allow the veil and lack thereof to have meanings beyond their patriarchal origins. [Continue reading…]

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