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Did they or didn’t they? The battle for control of Brussels’ Grand Mosque

Dr. James M. Dorsey



It’s hard to prove beyond doubt a direct causal link between militancy and Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative forms of Sunni Muslim Islam. That hasn’t stopped Belgium’s parliament from attempting to wrest control from Saudi Arabia of Brussel’s downtown Grand Mosque after three years in which Belgians played a prominent role in Islamic State attacks in the Belgian capital as well as Paris.

At first glance, the battle for the mosque, Europe’s largest and most influential Saudi-funded institution that in 1969 was leased to the kingdom rent-free for 99 years by Belgian King Baudouin in a gesture of friendship, constitutes an attempt to counter militant Islamic ideology. It raises nonetheless prickly issues.

Breaking the contract would amount to equating various strands of Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism with militancy and political violence – a tenuous assertion given that it propagates Muslim supremacy but in a majority of its expressions rejects violence and often refuses engagement in politics.

That is not to say that militants and ultra-conservatives do not draw on the same textual sources, deny that some militants hail from ultra-conservative backgrounds, or ignore the fact that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism has fuelled intolerance and greater conservatism in countries like Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. Belgium boasted the highest number of Islamic State foreign fighters per capita of the population.

Breaking the contract would also put the Belgian government in the awkward position of determining what constitutes good or bad Islam, raising questions of whether that is the role of a democratic administration, and potentially compromising the separation of church and state as well as freedom of religion and expression.

A Belgian move to break the contract, which could take up to a year to complete, would create a precedent in Europe and beyond that the kingdom may not welcome, despite a vow earlier this month by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to move Saudi Arabia, that adheres to Wahhabism, an 18th century puritan and literal interpretation of Islam, to an undefined, more moderate form of the faith.

Some analysts suggest that a Belgian move would strengthen his efforts to curb the power of the kingdom’s ultra-conservative religious establishment derived from a power-sharing agreement with the ruling Al Saud family that dates to the founding of Saudi Arabia. Ultra-conservative religious leaders have bent over backwards to endorse Prince Mohammed’s reforms and the rollback of their powers, despite evidence that they have misgivings.

The battle for control of the mosque also has implications for escalating tension between Saudi Arabia and its arch rival, Iran. The Brussels mosque is operated and funded to the tune of $1.2 million a year by the World Muslim League, a government-sponsored group, that for decades served as a prime vehicle for the propagation of Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism.

The League, whose staff was believed to be close to the Muslim Brotherhood, was a major beneficiary of up to $100 billion that Saudi Arabia invested globally over the last 40 years in religious and educational facilities as well as groups that often adhered to ant-Shiite, and by implication, if not explicitly, anti-Iranian positions.

The League’s secretary general, Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister, has in the last year sought to project the group as “a global umbrella for Islamic people that promotes the principles and values of peace, forgiveness, co-existence, and humanitarian cooperation” by organizing inter-faith conferences and meeting the Pope.

On a visit to Brussels earlier this year, Mr. Al-Issa denied that Saudi Arabia had funded extremism and sectarianism. “Islam is a 1,400-years old religion. It cannot be equated and judged by the few events and attacks, carried out because of political or geo-strategic interests. As a religion, Islam teaches humanity, tolerance, and mutual respect,” Mr. Al-Issa told a conference in the European parliament on Islam and Islamophobia

Mr. Al-Issa has also positioned the League squarely behind Prince Mohammed by backing the Saudi-UAE led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar and allegations that the Gulf state supports extremism.

report by the conservative Henry Jackson Society charged in July that  Saudi Arabia was the primary funder of extremism in Britain as well as elsewhere. It said the kingdom “since the 1960s has sponsored a multimillion dollar effort to export Wahhabi Islam across the Islamic world, including to Muslim communities in the West.”

A prominent Indonesian scholar, wittingly or unwittingly, lent justification to the Belgian move rooted in calls for the furthering of a more tolerant, pluralistic, European version of Islam by unequivocally linking ultra-conservatism to extremism.

“There is a clear relationship between fundamentalism, terrorism, and the basic assumptions of Islamic orthodoxy. So long as we lack consensus regarding this matter, we cannot gain victory over fundamentalist violence within Islam,” said Yahya Cholil Staquf, the 51-year old general secretary of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU).

NU, one of the world’s largest Muslim movements that was founded almost a century ago in Indonesia in opposition to Wahhabism, but includes prominent figures who espouse Saudi-style anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian attitudes.

Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative who as a young officer lived across the street from the Brussels mosque, described it as “not a house of worship, but a museum to teach Belgians about Islam and the Middle East.”

The mosque is a mere 16 kilometres from Molenbeek, Belgium’s second poorest neighbourhood, that emerged as a hotbed of militancy, with many of the Belgian perpetrators of attacks in recent years in Paris and Brussels hailing from the area. At least two Belgians, who travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State, studied Islam at the mosque, according to Belgian intelligence.

A Belgian parliamentary inquiry into last year’s attack on Brussels’ international Zaventem airport and a metro station in the city in which 32 people were killed, advised the government to cancel the mosque contract on the grounds that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism could contribute to extremism.

Saudi-inspired “Salafist sentiments are solidly anchored in the minds of Muslims in the Belgian capital. Belgian authorities have been playing with fire for 30 years,” said Michel Privot of the European Network Against Racism. Mr. Privot estimated that 95 percent of Muslim education in Belgium was provided by Saudi-trained imams.

“There is a huge demand within Muslim communities to know about their religion, but most of the offer is filled by a very conservative Salafi type of Islam sponsored by Saudi Arabia. Other Muslim countries have been unable to offer grants to students on such a scale,” Mr. Privot said.

The US embassy in Brussels, in a 2007 cable leaked by Wikileaks, reported “there is a noted absence in the life of Islam in Belgium of broader cultural traditions such as literature, humanism and science which defaults to an ambient practice of Islam pervaded by a more conservative Salafi interpretation of the faith…. Discrimination in housing and employment has produced clear lower-class ‘ghetto’ areas of greater Brussels, such as Molenbeek, Schaerbeek and St. Josse, disproportionately inhabited by Muslims regardless of their education and income.”

The cable noted that “according to the OECD (Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development), unemployment among foreign-born residents is twice that of indigenous Belgians…  Saudi Arabia continues as a source of material support to the Islamic community.  A member of the Muslim Executive told us that the Saudi embassy keeps mosques furnished with Korans and help with such material needs as mosque upkeep and repair,” the cable said, referring to the Belgian Muslim community’s umbrella organization.

Controversy over the Brussels mosque has simmered for several years. In 2015, the Belgian government advised Saudi ambassador Abdullah bin Yahya Almoa’limi that it had problems with the mosque’s director, Khalid Alabri, who was also on the embassy staff.

“His sermons were Salafist, anti-Israel and anti-West. The guiding principle was the primacy of Salafism above all else,” a worshipper told Belgian Radio and Television RTBF. Mr. Alabri was quietly removed from his post.

In the latest round, Belgium is effectively expelling the mosque’s recently resigned imam, Abdelhadi Sewif, an Egyptian national, by refusing to extend his residency permit because he used his 13-year tenure to espouse Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative.

Mr. Sewif “is a dangerous man to the national security of our country,” said Belgian state secretary for asylum and migration Theo Francken told RTBF. Mr. Al-Issa, the World Muslim league head, denied the allegations, noting that investigations of the mosque had cleared it of wrongdoing.

The League, in a bid to counter criticism of the mosque returned its Saudi director, Jamal Saleh Momenah, to the kingdom, and replaced him with Tamer Abou el Saod, a Luxemburg consultant who has Swedish nationality. Mr Momenah, who like Mr. Alabri, enjoyed diplomatic status, was removed after deputies walked away from his parliamentary testimony in Arabic in March convinced that it would be impossible to work with him.

“You can’t build an inclusive society with someone like that. This is an enemy of our Western values. He doesn’t even know the European Treaty on Human Rights,” said Flemish nationalist member of parliament, Christoph D’Haese.

Mr. Sewif was succeeded by Ndiaye Mouhameth Galaye, a Senegalese national who teaches a more liberal interpretation of Islam but has yet to convince parliamentarians that he will take the mosque in a different direction.

In an apparent underestimation of Belgian sentiment and the kingdom’s tarnished reputation, Saudi Islamic affairs minister Ibrahim Al-Zaid this week offered Belgian deputy foreign minister Dirk Achten to train Belgian imams. A “hypocritical suggestion,” quipped a Belgian news website.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Who did fight for liberation of Bulgaria in 1877-1878?



Russian professor, Doctor of History Sergey Perevezentsev has touched upon a hidden historical and political motive of the scandal caused by the speech of the Patriarch Kirill of Moscow at the celebration of Bulgaria’s liberation from Ottoman oppressors.

It would seem that Bulgarian President Rumen Radev said everything correctly in his speech – he called to keep memory of the warriors of many nations killed on the fields of those old battles: Russians, Romanians, Finns, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Polacks, Lithuanians, Serbians and Montenegrins. “Historical tolerance” is preserved, and principle of “multiplicity of truths” is not broken.

However, as the historian explained, in 1874 military service became obligatory in Russia. In regular military units comprised soldiers of different nationalities, but a regiment included mainly Russian soldiers. In addition, very often the name of the regiment would not match its permanent location.

Some subjects of the Russian crown, in particular the habitants of the Great Duchy of Finland and the North Caucasus at the beginning of the Russian-Turkish war were free from military service. But in these regions there were military units comprised of volunteers from the locals.

So a question arises: why is the number of the nationalities mentioned in the Bulgarian president’s speech so limited? In fact Chechens, Avars, Kumyks, Kabardians, Ossetians, Ingushes fighting in the Russian army brought a big contribution in that victory over the Ottoman Empire. And if we recall that the officers of the Finnish battalion were Swedes, then it is necessary to add them too to this list. And also Baltic Germans, in the large number represented in the officer corps of the Russian army. And many others.

Then another question: why is there self-contradiction in this list? In fact besides Polacks battling with Turks in the Russian army, there was the Polish Legion that, vice versa, participated in fights on the side of the Ottoman Empire.

So why was it necessary to distinguish certain nationalities, ignoring the merits of others? Why was it impossible to say the simply “multinational Russian army”?

Answer for these questions Sergey Perevezentsev finds not in the past, but in our times: the Bulgarian president mentioned exactly those people that once were a part of the Russian empire, but today are title nations of independent states. Otherwise speaking, this list has a hidden “anti-imperialistic” meaning: commemorated should be only those people, who “broke out” of the “Russian imperial burden”. Historical events are used first to underline the rightness of the “European civilization choice” and, second, to minimize the role and value of the Russian state in history and in today’s events.

As Doctor of Political Sciences Alexander Shchipkov noticed in his article Bulgarian speech of Patriarch, the western politicized historiography constantly promotes the idea that “not Russia took part in all its important historical victories, but individual nations being a part of it”. And the aim of such a manipulation with history is to “deprive Russia of its right on its own great history and, as a result, the rights on the modern big politics”.

His Holiness Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia Kirill also stood against this hidden anti-Russian rhetoric. “Russia did not look at Europe: moved by her love of the Bulgarian people, still weakened by the previous war and having no political support in the world, she began her struggle for the liberation of the Bulgarians. It was a great example of how spiritual, cultural and religious solidarity overcomes political pragmatismBulgaria was liberated by Russia, not Poland, nor Lithuania, nor any other countries but Russia. I would like to say frankly that for me it was difficult to hear references to the participation of other countries in the liberation of Bulgaria. Neither the Polish Sejm, nor the Lithuanian Sejm made the decision to start a war against Ottoman Turkey. We stand for historical truth; we won it by our blood and there can be no political and pragmatic reasons for which this truth should be hushed up or interpreted falsely “, he said

According to Professor Perevezentsev, the polemic flamed up after these words, and the speeches of some Bulgarian politicians saying loathsome and embarrassing things unacceptable for a decent person only confirmed the presence of that hidden meaning.

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The foreign policy proposals of the various Italian political parties

Giancarlo Elia Valori



While, in the so-called “First Republic”, Italian foreign policy was an essential tool in the practice and activity of the various political parties, exactly the opposite happens in the current so-called “Second Republic”.

After the Cold War, it seems there is no longer a need for foreign and defence policies –  a bit like that US senator who asked for closing the CIA after the USSR fall.

Just think that – as the former Italian President of the Republic, Francesco Cossiga, used to say – 50% of voters rooted for the East.

Aldo Moro was the leader who actually led the intelligence services politically – the services with which, for example, we could afford to secretly deal with Arafat and the countless movements of the Palestinian insurgency to be spared terrorist actions on our national territory.

It is also worth recalling that the so-called “Lodo Moro” -an unwritten agreement introduced by Aldo Moro while Foreign Minister, which permitted Fatah and the other Palestinian resistance movements to move personnel, arms and explosives through Italy on condition that the Italian territory was spared attacks – was well-known also by Israel, who appreciated the Lodo and used it.

A diplomatic and intelligence masterpiece that the current  childish leaders in power would not even be able to understand, let alone conceive and put in place.

Currently the Italian politics has seen the materialization of the play written by Roger Vitracin 1929, namely “Victor, or Power to the Children”.

In the programs of the 42 political parties that run for the 2018 general elections, there is obviously much talk about  migration, but no one even thinks that this problem is related to foreign policy.

There are also apparently specific and analytical programs on international cooperation but, once again,the link between development cooperation and foreign policy is not understood – and indeed, even a child could understand it.

Do the drafters of many electoral programs probably think that there is no connection at all?

“Second Republic”, or rather parochialism, provincialism and demagogic incompetence.

In fact, one of the typical features of our current Republic is moralism, i.e. the evaluation of national or international political phenomena according to the distorting lens of  supposedly superior ethical standards.

Precisely in his own country  Machiavelli is definitely dead and buried. Vacuous political narratives – often originated in North America -are rife on Kim Jong-Un  being “crazy” or Putin manipulating the US elections won by  Donald J.Trump.

Putin is also supposed to make his “populist” friends win in Italy, too.

Whoever, like us, read the CIA-NSA-FBI documents on the issue of Russian pressure on the US elections can hardly not understand how the alleged Russian manipulation of the US presidential election is a huge fake.

A power like the Russian Federation certainly has its agents of influence and its specific relations with the  American power, but the issue is not as the intelligence documents tell us.

What if all this happened to us? What would happen with the heirs of Vitrac? In fact, Italy no longer has a foreign policy. Neither right nor wrong.

Obviously this huge issue of Italy’s future foreign policy is not at the core of the average voter’s interest, butit is anyway the soul of a State’s practice, even though it is still hard to be turned into empty propaganda.

Let us now analyse the programs submitted to voters  before the general election of March 4 last.

Deafening silence on the United Nations, which is also called into question at every turn, when needed.

There is no mention of the United Nations in the centre-right coalition program, while the Democratic Party (PD) speaks about Italy’s one-year mandate in the Security Council as non-permanent member in 2017, where it has been replaced by the Netherlands in the current year. Italy had not sat on the Security Council since 2008.

However, Italy’s presence in the Security Council is regarded by the Democratic Party only in relation to the conflict in Syria and Libya.

For the time being,as far as we know, no miraculous results have been reached thanks to Italy’s mandate in the Security Council.

The Five Star Movement calls for the full implementation of the UN Charter, as well as of international law that is not as unambiguous and unequivocal as the draftersof the Five Star Movement’s program may think.

Conversely, More Europe, the liberal and pro-Europeanist coalition led by Emma Bonino, thinks about the  establishment of a National Autonomous Agency for the Protection of Human Rights.

It should be noted, however, that there is already an organization known as European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, established in 2007 and based in Vienna.

No electoral programmentionsthe Council of Europe,  OSCE (except for a minor reference in the program of Free and Equal, the left-wing coalition led by the former Speaker of the Senate and anti-Mafia prosecutor, Piero Grasso) and other international organizations.

Hence we wonder what prospects and guidelines our future representatives will have in those structures.

With reference to torture, the centre-right coalition proposes a law putting aside this type of crimespossibly perpetrated by the law enforcement agencies, but torture is an international crime that is precisely so if it is perpetrated by public officials.

Furthermore the rule published in the Official Journal in July 2017 has been criticized by the United Nations itself.

Hence a foreign policy that seems to be the result of a rock concert, devoid of any realism and continuously having a guilty conscience: we are the “rich” (but you can rest assured that soon this will no longer be the case) who  exploit the “poor” – without considering the impact of Article 11 of the Constitution.

Rules and regulations that would not allow our “peace-keeping  missions” abroad – not even in strictly legal terms – or probably not even the reaction to an attack.

While the “repudiation of the war” enshrined in Article 11 of the Constitution is the foundation of Republican Italy’s adhesion to the UN and the other international peace alliances, Article 11 does not distinguishes between defence war, resistance to the forces of a possible invasion, Italian action taken jointly with allies, defence of the territory and, even worse, defence of national interest.

Former Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema shall be given credit for having considered this constitutional tenet “outdated and old-fashioned”.

Even the repression of terrorism can hardly fall within the scope of Article 11.

In the Constituent Assembly of 1948, Luigi Sturzo said that war was a crime in itself and obviously the Communists  skilfully manipulated the Constituent Fathers’ strategic ignorance and the fully specious union between Fascist warmongering and ordinary and effective military defence.

The wording of Article 11 was good for a Constitution at a time when the Communist Party and the Catholic and liberal forces gloweredat each other with hostility, but certainly not today, when the rules and regulations pursuant to Article 11 jeopardize even our participation in actions in Libya.

A treatment implicit in the “repudiation of war”, which implies reducing a country to the servile state.

In fact, before Italy, it was put in place only with the Japanese Constitution, dictated by General Mac Arthur in 1946 after two nuclear bombs being dropped on the Japanese territory.

Indeed, also Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution speaks about “renouncing the sovereign right of belligerency”, but since 2013 Shinzo Abe has developed the Japanese Self-Defence Forces significantly, so as to clearly oppose China.

The United States haseven been happy with this new proactive Japanese pacifism combined, however, with a resurgence of national pride and imperial traditions.

Still today, albeit secretly, young officers of the Japanese “Self-Defence Forces” go to the Yasukuni Shrine to worship not only their ancestors, but also the heroes who fought against Westerners (and the Chinese).

Still today, the red-ray flag that General MacArthur had forbidden – is secretly sold.

If the Cold War ends, you must also think that there is no longer the Big Brother rescuing you from an invasion.

Hence you prepare for not giving in and for creating a strong deterrent.

If you are still a State and you have a just decent ruling  class.

Incidentally, it is worth recalling the sibylline, but witty remark by former prime Minister Giulio Andreotti when he was accused of having declassified “Operation Gladio”.

“If I had not declassified it, the others would have done so”.

Which others? Easy to imagine. But here we are still in the  Republic of Adults, not in the Republic of Children  – just to paraphrase Vitrac’s play.

However, let us revert to the electoral programs: in  Silvio Berlusconi’s opinion, common defence would make us “save billions of euros” and the EU go back into the mainstream of world’s great powers.

Unfortunately, defence is not made only of money, but also of doctrines, technologies and political will – and I doubt that this pot pourri of European defence could develop a common policy line.

France looks to a European Army because it takes Italy’s  weakness and the new alliance with Germany into account.

Let us also think about the role played by France for peace in Libya, with a truce declared during the meeting held between Macron, Fayez Al-Sarraj and Haftar at the end of July 2017.

A role stolen from Italy, but Italy has no one to blame but itself.

Therefore Berlusconi thinks that NATO should be strengthened and that we should side with the new Franco-German axis.

A defence policy that does not necessarily combine our economic interest with the interest of the new Franco-German axis.

In the foreign policy program outlined on January 18 last, the current Forza Italiaparty also speaks about rising  military spending, to 2% of the GDP,which has long been a key political goal of NATO and the United States led by Donald Trump.

Nevertheless, unlike what happens in Hegel’s philosophy – quantity does not automatically turns into quality.

More Europe, the coalition created by Emma Bonino, believes that Permanent Structured Cooperation on security and defence(PeSCo) – which inevitably leaves a great deal of autonomy to national governments – must be strengthened significantly.

More than this? And how? Where is Italy’s national interest in this choir of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9?

More Europealso wants the denuclearization of the whole Europe and the universal abolition of nuclear weapons.

Military inventions, however, can be never disinvented and we wonder what would happen if terrorist groups or minor States were to use “dirty” nuclear bombs or threaten the use of a nuclear weapon – albeit small – to reach a specific political or economic goal.

In the Mediterranean region alone, which should be the perfect theatre for testing PeSCo, the countries which plan to have  nuclear weapons are currently Algeria, Egypt and probably Morocco.

Are we sure that, in this case, it is enough to sing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, “You millions, I embrace you”?

Obviously Brexit is a unique opportunity to build a new hegemony in Europe, but everyone is playing a new national role. Only Italy is stuck to the old Cold War and asks for others’ help, which is never disinterested.

The Five Star Movement does not even talk about a specific electoral program for foreign and defence policy.

Nevertheless, considering their Parliamentary positions, we must mention the difference existing between the group in the House of Deputies and the group in the Senate with reference to Italy’s NATO membership: the former is quite favourable while the latter is fully opposed to it.

With specific reference to the mission in Niger, someone said that we are going to “patrol the desert”, not considering the fact that the desert there is currently very populated.

The Free and Equalcoalition  deems it necessary to further reaffirm the constitutional principle of repudiation of war, also in relation to international terrorism, and to sign the Nuclear Weapon Prohibition Treaty. Also the More Europe coalition agrees on this latter point.

The aforementioned Treaty was adopted on July 7, 2017 at the United Nations and was supposed to come into force after 90 days with the ratification of at least 50 States.

Fifty-three States have already ratified it and it was already adopted – God forbid -by the Italian Parliament on July 18-24, 2017.

God forbid we miss the new Manzoni-style edict described in his novel, The Betrothed,boiling down to empty gestures, as well as all talk and no action.

Hence there is no need to include it in an electoral program.

In short, a collection of platitudes and ultra-pacifist clichés typical of the late 1968 protest movement.

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Is Croatia Closing the Gender Gap in Science?

MD Staff



Today, on International Women’s Day, we would like to introduce you to four Croatian women. These women are inspiring, because they spend their days pushing the boundaries of knowledge in artificial intelligence, IT, reproductive biology, ecology, biochemistry and enzymology. They are female researchers working in the male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) – fields where women account for onlyjust 28% of the world’s researchers.

While some of these scientists are already recognized beyond Croatian borders, others are just starting out their careers. What they also have in common is that their research is being financed through World Bank loans that support the Unity through Knowledge Fund (UKF). This fund finances collaborative projects for Croatian scientists, and scientists of Croatian origin, who are working for international research institutions, focusing on the career development of young scientists and researchers.

The UKF provides an excellent example of how employing an unbiased, transparent, and competitive selection process can allow women researchers to excel. Of the 130 grants, awarded, 64 were given to women applicants.

Dr. Gabriela Vuletin Selak, of the Split Institute for Adriatic Crops, has dedicated most of her scientific research to the reproductive biology of olives. She is currently studying the Olea europaea L. – one of the most commercially important fruit species in the Adriatic area of Croatia. With its growing commercial importance, olive cultivation has been increasing over the past three decades, while the genetic structures of orchards have been undergoing changes with the constant introduction of foreign varieties.

Through her work, Gabriela is providing invaluable information to Croatian olive growers about which cultivars to plant together, so that their mutual pollination and fertilization provide optimal results. Her work is so appreciated by olive growers that the Association of Olive Growers and Olive Oil Producers of the Split-Dalmatia County gave her an award for scientific research and publishing in the area of growing olives.

Gabriela’s love for science started at a young age. She was a curious girl, spending hours exploring the outdoors and the shores of the Adriatic to see what wonders she could find. She loved asking questions about the world around her. For her, science is about working hard and playing around with the most interesting “toys” in order to answer those questions. The Mediterranean landscape played a decisive role in her career path. Olives have become her scientific choice; olive orchards her lab.

The Zagreb-based professor, Dr. Bojana Dalbelo Bašić, shapes intelligent systems through inspiration from human reasoning and learning patterns. Bojana leads several international and domestic projects in the field of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data and text mining, and has published over 100 scientific and professional articles and papers. Her research landed her a spot on the list of the 50 most influential women in the Croatian IT industry.

Bojana, who works at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing, is leading the UKF financed project “Event Retrieval Based on Semantically Enriched Structures for Interactive User Tasks (EVERBEST),” together with another female researcher – Prof. Nataša Milić-Frayling from the University of Nottingham.

Through EVERBEST, the two researchers and their team are focusing on researching event-focused information needs of the general public and professionals. With the availability of tremendous amounts of news online, the technical challenge lies in providing event-oriented search and recommendation capabilities that meet diverse information needs. Bojana’s team has developed novel techniques and models for event-oriented searches and recommendations grounded in event consumption habits – which will ultimately change information-seeking task models and will provide a valuable service to journalists, news analysts, and the general public.

“Science gives you an opportunity to remain a child and continue exploring with wide open eyes, asking questions and seeking answers each day, hoping that one day this will lead you to new discoveries perfecting the picture of the world as we know it.” This is the motto of young Dr. Daria Ezgeta Balić, from the Split-based Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries.

Daria is passionate about the biology and the ecology of mollusks (marine bivalves). Daria and her all-female team of six researchers are working on the UKF-funded project, “Competition between native Ostrea edulis and invasive Crassostrea gigas oysters in the Adriatic Sea – effects on the ecosystem, fisheries and aquaculture.”

The Pacific oyster – C. gigas – entered the Mediterranean sea in the 1960’s as a response to a decrease in the production of the native Ostrea edulis, caused by parasitic diseases. The non-native, invasive C. gigas started reproducing and spreading outside aquaculture sites, endangering the native O. edulis. The research of these seven young women is the first step towards the establishment of management strategies for C. gigas in the Adriatic Sea and will help estimate the economic impact of the invasive oyster on fisheries and aquaculture.

Prof. Ita Gruić Sovulj, Associate Professor at the Chemistry Department, Faculty of Science, University of Zagreb, tells us that she has a great love for enzymes, since, to her, they are “the marvelous molecules that provide the foundation of life and are the enduring motivation in my scientific life.”

Currently, Ita is leading a project concentrated on how the cellular error-correction mechanisms evolved to ensure accurate protein synthesis (translation). She works on enzymes aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases (aaRSs), that attach amino acids to their cognate tRNAs. This is a crucial step in recruiting amino acids for building proteins.

She explains that errors in protein synthesis are toxic to bacteria and are related to neurodegeneration in mammals. Understanding how cells control the fidelity of this process and prevent translational errors, as Ita attempts to do through her research, is therefore highly relevant. Ita’s work provides clues on how to create antibiotics that will compromise the fidelity of protein synthesis and kill bacteria.

Ita’s research was published in seven papers in respectable journals. For her achievements in strengthening the understanding of aaRS error-correction mechanisms, she received the National Annual Science Award of the Republic of Croatia for 2014 in the Field of Natural Sciences (Chemistry). Ita’s scientific knowledge and enthusiasm are shared with many students while she teaches biochemistry and enzymology courses for students of both chemistry and molecular biology.

In summary, the experiences of these inspirational women show that the STEM fields, which, globally, are still mostly dominated by men, are now increasingly becoming a place for women as well. Statistics corroborate these improvements, as Eurostat data shows that Croatia’s distribution of engineers and scientists by gender was almost 50 percent each in 2016, while the EU average is 40 percent female.

Nonetheless, much remains to be done with regard to gender balance in science. There are still great barriers that discourage women from entering these professions and obstacles continue to block progress for those already in the field. Women have to work harder to get recognition. Hopefully, by talking and spotlighting accomplished women in STEM fields, more young women will be inspired to take on this challenge and become scientists who may change the world through their research and discoveries.

World Bank

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