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The long read: The notorious case of three teenage sisters inspired a campaign for change and a backlash from the patriarchy

At about 3pm on 27 July 2018, the day of his death, Mikhail Khachaturyan scolded his three teenage daughters, Krestina, Angelina and Maria. The apartment they shared in a Soviet-era housing block near the huge ring road that encircles Moscow was a mess, he told them, and they would pay for having left it that way. A large, irascible man in his late 50s with a firm Orthodox faith, Khachaturyan had run his household despotically since he allegedly forced his wife to leave in 2015.

That afternoon, his daughters would later tell investigators, he punished them in his customary sadistic way. Calling them one by one into his bedroom, he cursed and yelled at them, then pepper sprayed each one in the face. The oldest sister, Krestina, 19, began to choke from the effects of the spray. Retreating to the bedroom she shared with her sisters, Krestina collapsed on the bed and lost consciousness. Her sister Maria, then 17, the youngest of the three, would later describe this moment as the final straw.

Krestina woke shortly after 7pm to cries from the other side of the bedroom door. Running into the living room, she saw Angelina and Maria standing over their father, who was in his chair, struggling violently. Apparently believing her sisters were in danger, Krestina snatched the bottle of pepper spray from a nearby table and sprayed it frantically at her father.

But what Krestina had witnessed was not another assault by Khachaturyan on his daughters. While she was recovering in the bedroom, investigators say Maria and Angelina attacked Khachaturyan with a hunting knife and hammer they had retrieved from his car. Disoriented from the pepper spray and rapidly losing blood, Khachaturyan hobbled on to the landing outside the apartment. It was there that Angelina, the 18-year-old middle daughter, caught up with him and, investigators allege, drove the knife into his heart.

Several minutes later, one of the sisters called the police. Identifying herself as Angelina, she explained through tears that her father had attacked her under the influence of a heavy dose of sedatives, and that she had killed him in self-defence. Police found his body on the landing, with multiple stab wounds to the neck, arms and torso. The sisters were arrested for murder and held in a womens remand prison in south-east Moscow.

News of the killing quickly spread across Russia, and in the months that followed, the country was divided over what drove the three teenage sisters to kill their own father. The case was covered obsessively by newspapers, evening news programmes, and TV talkshows. It was all anyone could talk about for months, said Alexey Parshin, Angelinas lawyer.

Some, including Khachaturyans two sisters, claimed the young women were scheming ingrates who killed their father to steal his money. They cited evidence that the daughters had slashed each other in the minutes following the killing with the same knife they allegedly used to murder him, in what investigators would later call a deliberate attempt to mislead them.

Others including their mother, Khachaturyans estranged wife came to the sisters defence, refusing to accept that such an egregious motive could be behind their actions. As lawyers and investigators began piecing together the Khachaturyan family story, it became clear this was not a cold-blooded murder. Over hundreds of pages of court documents and transcripts of witness testimony, a picture emerges, which Mikhail Khachaturyans sisters contest, of a household terrorised by his paranoiac despotism of routine sexual abuse, beatings, humiliation and death threats.

Despite this history of abuse, in June 2019 prosecutors indicted all three daughters on charges of pre-meditated murder. Two months after the killing, they were released from custody following an appeal from their lawyers, and as an investigation into the crime continues, they are staying with relatives, awaiting trial. A psychological assessment shortly after the killing found that Maria was mentally unsound at the time of the crime due to an acute stress disorder caused by her fathers abuse, and recommended her for treatment. But given the severity of the charges, Maria and her sisters face betwen eight and 20 years in prison for what they maintain was a desperate act of self-defence.

Meanwhile, Russia finds itself deep in a national debate over domestic violence. The sisters case has galvanised opposition to the countrys punitive legal system and conservative political culture. At present, Russia has no specific legislation to define, prevent or prosecute domestic violence. Womens rights advocates are campaigning to overturn a controversial 2017 law on battery that has softened punishments and, they say, encouraged perpetrators to act with impunity.

Hundreds have taken to the streets since the indictment was issued to call for the sisters release and picket government buildings in protest against their prosecution. Fundraising concerts and theatre performances have been held to offset their legal fees and call for the passing of a law that would help prevent future attacks. An online petition for their release has gathered more than 370,000 signatures. Its become clear this is a problem of catastrophic proportions which cant be ignored, said Alyona Popova, a womens rights activist who started the petition and helped draft a domestic violence bill now being debated in the Russian parliament. Something has to be done.

But as activists step up their efforts to reform the legal system, they are being countered by a campaign backed by the powerful Orthodox church to promote traditional values and portray the Russian family unit as under threat.

Orthodox priests are appearing on state TV channels excoriating the malign forces of globalisation, while mass vigils are being held across Russia to protest against western progressivism. Hundreds of social media accounts representing conservative movements are promoting an apocalyptic narrative that claims any moves towards regulating family affairs will lead to the disintegration of Russian families and perhaps of Russia itself.

In the years before his death, Mikhail Khachaturyan liked to take regular pilgrimages to Israel, returning with candles from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Christianitys holiest site, and various icons that he added to a home shrine at which he prayed daily. An account purportedly belonging to him on a Russian social media platform where he lists his name as Michael of Jerusalem contains pictures of him bathing at holy sites, drinking shirtless with friends and posing with prominent Orthodox clerics and public figures.

During a police interrogation the day after his murder, a partial transcript of which was provided to me by one of Angelinas attorneys, Angelina said that her father first sexually assaulted her while the two were on holiday in Israel in November 2014, and that he had subjected her to various forms of sexual harassment ever since. It always took place in his bedroom, she said, with the door closed. Hed regularly tell us that sex outside marriage is a sin, she said of her pious father. But because were his blood and his daughters, he can do with us as he wishes, and we should submit ourselves to it.

In WhatsApp messages that were leaked to the press, Khatchaturyan had often threatened Angelina with sexual violence. In January 2018, while he was on a pilgrimage in Israel, he threatened to rape both his daughter and his estranged wife upon learning that Angelina wasnt home as he had instructed. Three months later, he sent her a series of lewd voice messages. Youll be sucking endlessly, Angelina, he said in one. And if you leave Ill find you. Three minutes later, he warned: Ill beat you for everything, Ill kill you. Leave, leave, dont drive me to sin.

Khachaturyan sexually assaulted his other daughters as well, according to the official investigation into the crime, and had effectively enslaved them. We served him in the home, ironing, cleaning, cooking for him and giving him food when he asked, Maria said in a police interview, according to court documents. If the sisters fell short of his expectations, or he simply lost his temper, he attacked them.

Violence, or the threat of it, was a constant presence in their home. Khachaturyan was highly superstitious, and is said to have banned his family from uttering certain everyday words in his presence, believing them to bring bad luck. He installed a camera on the landing outside their apartment to record his childrens comings and goings. In a search of the property after the killing, police confiscated a hammer, a knife, two airguns, a crossbow, a rubber-bullet handgun, a revolver, a hunting rifle, 16 cartridges and 16 spears. In Khachaturyans car they also found business cards displaying the logo of Russias Federal Security Service, or FSB, and listing the 57-year-old as its employee.

Angelina Khachaturyan arrives at a court hearing in Moscow in June 2019. Photograph: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP via Getty

Investigators declared the cards fake, but few in the area doubted that Khachaturyan was well connected. A series of events recounted by neighbours indicate that he had friends in the Moscow police and the prosecutors office. He constantly bragged about his connections, said Parshin, Angelinas lawyer, who has written to the authorities requesting that Khachaturyans contacts with law enforcement officials be investigated. The choice for the three sisters, he said, was to do nothing, and hope itll pass, or go to the police and inevitably suffer another beating at the hands of their father, who would have been the first person the police would report to.

In records of her police interrogation, Angelina described the predicament the sisters faced in the run-up to the murder. My sisters and I were tired of such a life, but afraid to turn to anyone for help because he had connections everywhere, she said of her father. After their mother was forced to flee, the sisters were afraid that anyone who tried to help them would get into trouble. Telling our relatives was also not a solution to the problem, because they might have not believed us.

In their statements, Maria and Angelina both recounted an episode from early 2016, when the three sisters were on holiday with their father in Adler, a resort on Russias Black Sea coast. After Krestina ran out of a room where shed been alone with her father, she swallowed a handful of drotaverine pills, an antispasmodic drug, in an apparent suicide attempt, and had to be rushed to hospital.

Krestinas lawyer, Alexey Liptser, told me that it was fear that Krestina would again attempt suicide that had driven her sisters to take matters into their own hands. (Krestina did not take part in the killing, he added.) In a WhatsApp exchange with one of her friends a month before her fathers murder, Krestina said that he had again threatened to rape her and that she might not endure the situation much longer.

I lost consciousness during the night, she wrote. He began to chase me out at one in the morning, because he didnt like the fact that one of his shirts isnt ironed. She continued: I became anxious and started crying and then began suffocating and fell on the ground. The little ones began to sob and resuscitate me, it was fucking crazy. And to top it off he whacked them over the head with his gun He gets worse every day. And its like this every day? the friend responded. Almost, Krestina replied.

Consider the fact they could not be expected to make logical decisions, their inability to find help, the constant violence, the threats to their lives, said Parshin. Put all that together and youll understand what state they were in, and why they took that knife and that hammer.

Mikhail Khachaturyan drove them to that state, Parshin went on. The moment he began to commit crimes against them, he stopped being a father.

In December, I travelled to Moscows northern outskirts to see Aurelia Dunduk, the mother of the three sisters and a key witness in their case. Dunduk met Mikhail Khachaturyan in Moscow in 1996, two years after she had emigrated with her parents from Moldova. She was 17. Khachaturyan, who was 35, was from an ethnic Armenian family that had left the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan in 1988 to escape the sectarian conflict that was engulfing parts of the moribund Soviet empire. The family came to Moscow hoping to eventually emigrate to the US, but their plans never worked out.

The city the two families encountered then, in Russias first post-Soviet decade, was a place descending into lawlessness. Aspiring entrepreneurs, law enforcement officials and petty criminals eager to exploit the collapsing system used any means at their disposal to profit from the chaos. After a stint in the Russian army, Khachaturyan became a local racketeer: merchants opening up stores and small businesses in his part of north Moscow would pay cash for his protection.

Dunduk dated Khachaturyan for several months after they first met, then broke it off. He had become violent, and started threatening her family, she claims, so she moved outside the city to stay with relatives and keep her distance. He ultimately forced her to return through a campaign of threats and coercion, she said, which culminated in him locking Dunduk in his apartment after she attended a new years eve party he hosted.

Krestina, left, and Angelina, at Moscows Basmanny district court. Photograph: Sergei Karpukhin/TASS

I stayed against my will, Dunduk, now 40, told me at a cafe not far from the apartment where Khachaturyan was murdered. He left none of us any choice, neither me nor my relatives. She is tired of the constant attention from prosecutors, journalists and Khachaturyans defenders that she has faced since the murder, and her shaky cadence was barely audible over the pop music playing from speakers overhead. Her voice is familiar to audiences of the many talkshows she has appeared on since her daughters arrest, in a bid to argue their case. In February, she sat in a TV studio as a screen above her showed two amateur actors re-enacting her alleged rape by Khatchaturyan 20 years earlier. The cameras zoomed in on Dunduks face so viewers could scrutinise her reaction. She lowered her head and looked away.

In June 1997, Dunduk gave birth to a son, Sergey, and two years later to Krestina. By that point, she said, Khachaturyan regularly beat her; the smallest thing could set him off. You just didnt know, she told me. One minute youre talking to him normally, and then suddenly he might begin shouting and cursing. One afternoon in the early 00s she managed to escape the apartment and run to the local police station. Khachaturyan followed her and listened with a grin as she asked to file a complaint against him. She said he then hit her in front of the duty officers, many of whom were his friends, and dragged her home. After that, she said, it was pointless trying to do anything.

Sergey said he was also subjected to regular violence. When he was 16, in 2013, Khachaturyan chased him out of the home. He was forced to sleep rough for weeks before he was taken in by a friend, with whom he has lived ever since. Then, in 2015, Khachaturyan also forced Dunduk out. He lost his temper, put a gun to my temple and told me: Im going to leave now, and if youre still here when Im back, Ill kill you all, she alleges.

Dunduk never returned to live with the family. A friend in Moscow put her up for six weeks, and then she joined her mother in Moldova. After a year, she came back to Moscow to be closer to her children, again staying at friends homes. But she had minimal access to her daughters, who she said feared retribution from Khachaturyan. It was because of this lack of communication, and the fear that drove it, that Dunduk only learnt of Khachaturyans sexual abuse from investigators. When she found out, she said: I wanted to kill him all over again.

After Khachaturyans death, his family began a very public feud. Arsen, Khachaturyans 21-year-old nephew, started touring Moscows TV studios defending the reputation of a man he calls papa. On air, he has branded Dunduk a prostitute and accused her of abetting her daughters in the killing. In September 2018, friends of Arsen assaulted Sergey on the set of a prime-time talkshow. In January, Khachaturyans mother, Lidiya, and sister Naira launched a libel suit against Dunduk for claiming in an interview that Khachaturyan had raped her. A husband cannot rape his wife by definition, they told Russian media.

In many ways, the split in the Khatchaturyan family reflects the bitter divide within Russian society. On the one hand, there are those who wish to preserve a sense of national identity rooted in conservative Orthodox Christian values and a rejection of progressive ideas. On the other, there are those who believe Russias development as a modern society is dependent on its ability to embrace liberal social policies and champion the rights of women and minorities.

Even before the killing, domestic violence had been a topic of public contention in Russia. In 2012, the Russian government conducted a nationwide survey that found one in five women had been physically assaulted by a husband or partner. Four years later, in July 2016, the Russian parliament, with Putins consent, excluded battery against close persons spouses, parents, children and other live-in relatives from a law decriminalising other forms of battery. This meant that for the first time in Russias history, there was effectively a law that applied specifically to domestic violence.

But there was soon a backlash from conservatives. In November 2016, a group of lawmakers led by the head of parliaments committee on the family, Elena Mizulina, introduced a bill to decriminalise instances of domestic violence that happen no more than once per year and cause no lasting physical damage. Mizulina framed her bill as a way of safeguarding Russian families from outside intrusion, citing foreign funding received by NGOs opposed to her initiative.

This time, Putin backed the conservatives, warning in December 2016 that interference in family matters is unacceptable. As lawmakers moved to pass the decriminalisation bill at the end of 2016, Russian state TV launched a propaganda campaign to smooth its passage through parliament. Reports on federal channels suggested men should not be criminally liable if they beat their wives accidentally, out of strong love, or in the interests of upbringing, and peddled the notion that European children are routinely withdrawn from families after bogus domestic violence complaints from strangers. We are balancing out peoples rights, and removing anti-family laws, said Olga Batalina, one of the lawmakers pushing the initiative.

Under the new law, which Putin signed in February 2017, domestic violence that doesnt cause severe injury is punishable by a 30,000-ruble fine (360) comparable to a smoking or parking violation or 15 days in jail. A second offence can lead to three months in prison, but if a year has passed since the first, a modest fine is again imposed. Critics summed up the law as one free beating a year.

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The reasons for Putins about-face on domestic violence are complicated. The conservative movement in Russia is partly fuelled by many of the same anti-globalist fears driving the current populist wave across Europe. But in addition, since the Soviet empire collapsed in 1991, Russia has suffered a protracted population decline. Putin has unveiled various financial incentives for first-time mothers and made raising the birth rate a signature policy during his 20 years at Russias helm. But he has largely failed to reverse the trend: the country has one of the worlds highest abortion rates, nearly half of all marriages collapse, and immigration no longer offsets population decline.

To shore up support, Putin has appealed to the nationalist majority that comprises his base through a rhetoric of traditional values and a slew of conservative initiatives. A 2013 law banning promotion of homosexuality in the presence of Russian children led to a violent backlash against LGBT people across the country. Putin has also empowered the Russian Orthodox Church, an institution that rails against globalisation and encroaching western influence and defends traditionalism as a means of protecting Russian identity.

The Russian Orthodox Church is completely merged with the state, said Yulia Gorbunova, a Human Rights Watch researcher and author of a major report last October on the issue of domestic violence in Russia. They echo each other on all the main social issues.

Following the passage of Mizulinas decriminalisation bill in 2017, womens rights activists reported a spike in domestic violence. Many incidents involved repeated abuse and blatant police inaction despite victims appeals. A crisis hotline operated by the Anna Centre, a womens rights organisation that Putins government has labelled a foreign agent, recorded a rise in complaints from 20,000 in 2016 to more than 31,000 in 2018.

After the decriminalisation, all of us saw a barrage of cases, an absolute barrage, said Mari Davtyan, a lawyer involved in the Khachaturyan case and a campaigner for domestic violence legislation. Society read the message. Those who used violence concluded that its now allowed. And what did those who suffer from it conclude? That theres no line of defence left.

Ten months after the law went into effect, in December 2017, Margarita Gracheva, a woman from a town 60 miles south of Moscow, was driven to a nearby forest by her husband where he chopped off her hands with an axe. It was a horrific coda to months of abuse that continued despite Grachevas appeal that November to the police, who refused to press charges. In January 2018, in another Moscow region town, a beauty salon worker named Elena Verba was stabbed 57 times by her husband, who went to work and left the mutilated body for his seven-year-old son to discover. Verba had reported an incident of domestic violence to police six months earlier, but duty officers persuaded her to retract her accusation because her husband worked in law enforcement and risked losing his job. Last September, in Cheboksary, 400 miles east of Moscow, 38-year-old Anna Ovchinnikovas husband strangled her with a rope, placed her body in a suitcase and buried it in a nearby forest. She had filed at least three complaints about domestic violence. All three men were ultimately sentenced to prison terms of between nine and 15 years.

Government figures suggest that only one in 10 Russian women who suffer domestic violence report it to the police roughly in line with the global average, according to the UN and a mere 2% seek legal advice. According to a recent analysis by independent outlet Media Zona of several thousand court verdicts against Russian women jailed on murder charges between 2016 and 2018, 79% had been defending themselves against a partner.

A protester holds a placard with a message reading Domestic violence victims need therapy not prison on Patriarshy Bridge in Moscow. Photograph: Sergei Fadeichev/TASS

Gorbunova of Human Rights Watch said the problem is compounded by the fact that Russian police often refuse to launch investigations. Theyre not taught to treat the situation as potentially lethal, she said. So they either laugh it off, or tell the wife to behave herself and be nice to her husband.

Last July, a court in Oryol, 200 miles south of Moscow, sentenced duty officer Natalya Bashkatova to two years in prison for negligence. In November 2016, Bashkatova received a call from a woman whose boyfriend had threatened to kill her. Do not call again. We will not come to you, she told the woman. What if something happens? the woman asked. If he kills you, well come to examine the body, came Bashkatovas answer. Dont worry. Within 40 minutes of that exchange, which the woman recorded, she had been beaten to death by her boyfriend in the courtyard of her home.

The last resort for some victims is an appeal to the European court of human rights. In July, the ECHR issued its first decision on a domestic violence case in Russia, ruling that police had failed to protect Valeriya Volodina from repeated acts of violence by a former partner who stalked and assaulted her after she left him in 2015. It gave a scathing assessment of the governments tolerance for a climate which was conducive to domestic violence.

In November, Russias justice ministry responded to a series of questions sent by the ECHR in connection with domestic violence cases brought by Russian women. In excerpts cited by Russias Kommersant newspaper, the ministry said the scale of domestic violence in Russia is exaggerated and dismissed the need for separate legislation. A victim has the option to reconcile with their attacker for the sake of preserving personal relations in the family, it said, and Russian women who appeal to the ECHR are trying to sabotage the efforts the government is making to improve the situation.

To get to the office of Oksana Pushkina, a lawmaker in the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, you pass through metal detectors and through an exhibition space to a set of lifts that takes you to the ninth floor. On the November afternoon I visited, assault rifles and other Russian-made weapons were on display in glass cases as the legislative body, as well as schools and other state institutions across the country, celebrated 100 years since the birth of Russian arms designer Mikhail Kalashnikov.

Pushkina is one of 73 female lawmakers in the 450-seat chamber, where she stands out among a mass of jingoistic officials who rubber-stamp laws approved by the Kremlin. When we met, she had recently returned from a conference at the Council of Europes Strasbourg headquarters on how police should respond to domestic violence. I sat there like some creature from another planet, said Pushkina, a glamorous woman in her 50s. They were discussing whats already in place in their countries. And we dont even have a law.

With help from Davtyan and Parshin, the two lawyers involved in the Khachaturan case, and Alyona Popova, the activist, Pushkina is trying to introduce a new domestic violence bill. It includes banning an abusive partner from access to the victim for at least one month, their possible eviction from a shared family home, and a requirement that they compensate their victims legal fees or alternative accommodation during periods of violence. It proposes a support infrastructure for victims, with counselling services and shelters across Russia. And it defines domestic violence and the kinds of ways physical, psychological, economic it can manifest itself.

For us its important that the violence does not happen again, Davtyan said. The goal is simple: that he stops approaching her.

The opposition to any domestic violence bill is well organised, well funded, and backed by the Russian Orthodox Church. In early December, a month after visiting Pushkina, I attended a roundtable at the Duma that brought representatives of Russias various religious groups together with lawmakers.

Billed as Legislative aspects of the defence of spiritual-moral values as a key factor in the development of civil society, the three-hour session was dominated by high-ranking Orthodox clergy. Pushkinas domestic violence bill featured prominently. The family is a holy creation, declared one priest, and thus cannot be regulated by a secular state.

One threat in particular kept coming up: zapad, the west.

Aurelia Dunduk, estranged wife of Mikhail and the mother of the three Khachaturyan sisters. Photograph: Matthew Luxmoore

Fifty-four units of the CIA are working against us, trying to impose their values, Pavel Pozhigaylo, a member of the Russian culture ministrys board, told the room. We are at war. The audience applauded. The Orthodox activist Andrei Kormukhin told the roundtable that Pushkinas bill is aimed not at preserving the family, but at destroying it. He then gave the floor to his wife, a mother of nine children, who branded the bill anti-Russian and said that if it had passed in the 90s, the happy families we have today would not exist.

A few days later, I sat down with Kormukhin at a cafe in central Moscow. He leads Forty Forties, an ultra-conservative movement that claims to have 40 regional branches and more than 10,000 supporters, including senior Orthodox clergy. The churchs leader, Patriarch Kirill, has met with its members and is a personal friend of Kormukhins, whose WhatsApp avatar shows the men deep in conversation. In its six years of existence, Forty Forties has roped in football hooligans and neo-Nazis and stood accused of various extremist acts in defence of religion. In May 2015, Kormukhin was briefly detained by police for joining in a violent attack on LGBT activists attempting to hold a parade in Moscow.

In recent months, Forty Forties has directed its resources against Pushkinas domestic violence bill, staging protests and mass vigils under the slogan for the family. In October, Kormukhin co-authored an open letter to Putin denouncing the draft law. The 1,700-word text, which included 50 references to family, was co-signed by more than 180 organisations from across Russia including amateur fight clubs, paramilitary groups and civic movements with names like Big Family, Family, Love, Fatherland and Lots of Kids Is Good.

Kormukhin argues that the law is part of a western plot aimed at weakening Russian families and insists that statistics on domestic violence cited by rights activists are wrong. Because the majority of crimes happen when the man is in a state of intoxication, he said, a man needs to be given the benefit of the doubt and be left to sober up.

A good duty officer will know that if the woman returns home then the husband will fall before her knees the next morning, beg for forgiveness and promise it wont happen again. And then the children will stay with their parents and the family unit will be preserved, he said. Why do you want to deprive a family of its breadwinner?

What if he beats her again after three days? I asked.

And what if youre a paedophile? Kormukhin asked, frustrated. It says nothing if a man has beaten his wife once.

For Pushkina, the dirty campaign waged by groups like Forty Forties undermines their stated commitment to religious values. Were talking about prevention [of violence], and they call us extreme feminists and destroyers of a social order that is a de facto patriarchate, Pushkina said. It really has been that way since ancient times. But times are changing.

Maria, Angelina and Krestina Khachaturyan are largely oblivious to the vicious culture war their case has fuelled. Banned from using the internet and from communicating with each other, with witnesses or the press, they are dimly aware at best of their status as torchbearers for Russias feminist movement and targets of its conservative backlash.

For now, Angelina and Krestina are living with relatives, and Maria with her mother. Just before New Years Eve, their night-time curfew was lifted, but the other rules remain in force. They now only see each other in court, under a bailiffs watchful eye, when they gather to hear the judge extend their pre-trial restrictions. They were always together, and when they split them up it was as if one organism was torn into three parts, Parshin told me.

On 3 December, investigators announced they were sending the final version of their indictment to the prosecutors office for trial. Maria, Angelina and Krestina had acted with premeditation, they concluded, driven by a strong personal enmity towards their father caused by his protracted physical and sexual abuse. But two weeks later, the prosecutors office issued a stunning decision: investigators should reassess the case, it said, and consider reclassifying the sisters actions as self-defence exactly what their lawyers had been arguing all along. Killing in self-defence is not a crime, so if the murder charge is dropped, the women will be set free.

But Mikhail Khachaturyans sisters, Naira and Marina who have emerged as his most committed apologists since his death have appealed, alleging that his daughters led a debauched, drug-addled existence and murdered their father for his money. Theyve also pressed additional charges against Dunduk, claiming she lied repeatedly in interviews about extramarital affairs. Yulia Nitchenko, an attorney who represents them, said any rumour that charges will be dropped is fake news; she expects the case to go to trial in the coming weeks and for the three sisters to be convicted within a year. The court will set the whole record straight, she told me. No one will evade justice.

Pushkinas campaign for domestic violence legislation appears to have stalled. In November, parliaments upper house published a version of her bill listing preservation of the family as a primary goal of preventing domestic violence a clear overture to the conservatives. Even in this watered-down version, the bill is unlikely to race through parliament. In the past decade, at least 30 different domestic violence bills have been prepared in Russia, and several introduced in the Duma. None has passed even the first reading. But public opinion appears to be on Pushkinas side, driven in part by the case of the Khachaturyan sisters.

In the past, said Parshin, Angelinas lawyer, the problem was denied outright; it was as if, in societys perception at least, it did not exist. Thats the most noticeable change, he said. People have begun talking about the issue of domestic violence.

In a December 2019 survey by state-backed pollster VTsIOM, 40% of respondents said they know violent families, and 70% said they supported a hypothetical law on domestic violence. In an August 2019 poll by the independent Levada Centre, only 14% of respondents said domestic violence is a family affair that should be kept private.

It used to be treated as a marginal issue. Journalists covered this rarely and reluctantly, and called such cases household squabbles, said Davtyan. But theres now an understanding that this is not just a domestic affair, but a violation of human rights.

Popova was hopeful this shift will pave the way for the laws passage, even if the conservatives succeed in stalling it for now. But she warned that each month brings news of victims who could have been saved.

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Once a campus fundamentalist who hid his sexuality, today Bagia Arif Saputra helps others find harmony in Indonesias capital

When Bagia Arif Saputra was growing up in a university town near Jakarta, becoming a jihadist seemed a natural choice for young men like him, who were steeped in the teachings of Islamic fundamentalism. Less easy was reconciling this identity with his sexuality.

I was living a double life, says Saputra. I would go to the campus mosque, try to focus on my prayers and find myself checking out a guy and thinking, Nice ass. And then immediately, Astaghfirullah [God forgive me]! So then I would have to redo my prayers. It was a vicious cycle.

Saputra, now 34 and openly gay, recounts this serenely at the meditation centre he runs in the centre of the Indonesian capital. As a mindfulness expert who spent his formative years in student jihadist circles in conservative West Java, his life has combined two vastly different currents of modern Indonesia since its transition to democracy in 1998: the rise of religious piety and fundamentalism, and the explosion of a young, globalised middle-class.

At the Golden Space meditation centre, in a high-rise apartment block, Saputra says he first attracted wider attention when he started appearing on the Indonesian lecture circuit as an ex-closeted gay jihadist who found his dream job.

The mere fact of openly identifying as gay in Indonesia, where in recent years the LGBTQ+ community has faced a rise in hateful political rhetoric , raids, and potential criminalisation, seemed remarkable.

My parents definitely cried and were upset with my choice, he says, recalling coming out to his family in June 2015, during Ramadan. But they still love me and today we have a great relationship.

Saputra grew up in Bandung, a university town three hours east of Jakarta that is known both for its lively cafe culture and as a hotbed of fundamentalism. He went to a pesantren, a traditional Muslim boarding school, and then to the Indonesia University of Education.

In college, he felt adrift and was soon recruited to the Tarbiyah movement, the student wing of an Indonesian Islamist party modelled on the Muslim Brotherhood. This provided him with a sense of belonging.

He adopted the mannerisms of Salafis, puritanical Muslims who seek to revive the traditions of Quranic times: wearing ankle-length trousers and an untrimmed beard, refusing to shake hands with women, forgoing music and TV. At the time Indonesian Islamists were gripped by the Palestinian intifada and they stayed up late plotting to fight jihad alongside those they considered their Muslim brothers.

I was ready to die, says Saputra. Becoming a jihadist seemed like an easy way to go straight to heaven.

Some of the older boys were later recruited to Jemaah Islamiyah, the Indonesian affiliate of al-Qaida.

But Saputra was becoming tormented by the clash between his fundamentalist peer group and his suppressed homosexuality. No matter how hard I tried to pray the gay away, it didnt happen, he says.

He eventually withdrew for a different reason. His parents were upset by his growing disinterest in school and he realised he had gone too far for even his pious Muslim family. At one point, he says, he had even reprimanded his mother for wearing a hijab that was too short.

He left the group, graduated and headed to Jakarta, where he plunged into the underground gay scene.

There, he spent his nights with lonely strangers and days on a carousel of corporate jobs. And he started calling himself an atheist.

Then in February 2015 a friend gave him a week-long meditation course that changed his life. He studied with Umesh Nandwani, a Singapore-based meditation practitioner and Golden Space founder who, Saputra says, was one of the first people to recognise that he was gay.

I dont know how he knew, but he unlocked something within me, Saputra says.

Within four months of completing the course, he had become a dedicated practitioner himself and had come out to most of the people in his life. Nandwani recruited him to open Golden Space Jakarta in late 2016 and today he oversees 15 trainers.

Meditation is still something new for Indonesians, says Saputra. Some of them think its a religious practice and is part of Hinduism or Buddhism. I have to explain to them that its non-religious and that anyone can benefit from it.

At least one in five Indonesians are now middle class, according to the World Bank, and they are concentrated in Java and particularly in Jakarta. While meditation studios are still scarcer than in the holiday island of Bali, those in the capital are riding the wave of Jakartas burgeoning wellness industry.

Saputra, who met his partner of eight months at a meditation class, says that despite his own positive experiences since coming out, it is still not easy to be gay in Indonesia.

Most of my gay friends here are not open, and with good reason. One of them had to undergo an exorcism when his parents found out, he says. Closeted people often come up to him after speaking engagements, from teenagers to married men, and confess that they are torn about their identity.

I try to lead by example, he says. To plant the seed that there is a possibility of being openly gay in Indonesia and having a good life.

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Attendance at cathedral services are up 14% in a decade. But which are the countrys best?

Britains cathedrals are booming, even as parish churches are in decline. Attendance at cathedral services is up 14% in a decade and that does not include tourist visits. No one quite knows why. It appears to be a combination of music especially evensong fine art, architecture and coffee. In the language of the age, the cathedral offers an experience without a commitment. So which are the finest?

10. Norwich

With its in-your-face tower and nave so grandly Romanesque you wonder why anyone bothered with gothic. The carved medieval figures on the doorway surrounds are delightful.

9. Salisbury

The only cathedral designed in one go, and rather tedious as a result. But the view of the steeple is incomparable, a defining image of Englishness. The chapter house and cathedral close are exquisite.

Canterbury Cathedral, the earliest gothic work in England. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

8. Winchester

Once the cathedral of a capital city, now famed for its west wall of Perpendicular glass and seemingly endless nave, giving way to a Norman transept more like a fortress than a church. The east end is an exhibition hall of shrines and chantries. As Winchester was built in a flood plain, its crypt is full of water, in which a naked Antony Gormley statue stands up to his shins, gazing at his cupped hands.

7. Westminster

A jaded stage set for the rituals of monarchy, but its ambulatory is a fascinating junk shop of memorials of the great and no longer great, Highgate cemetery come to town. Beyond lies Henry VIIs chapel, which, with its fan vault and dripping pendants, is surely the most dazzling interior in the land.

The octogonal tower at Ely. Photograph: Mike Mayhew/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

6. York

A thumping Perpendicular palace, awesome from around the city walls. The largest cathedral by volume in England, with its newly restored east window containing the finest medieval glass.

5. Canterbury

Silvery limestone towers beckon pilgrims across the Kent landscape to the earliest gothic work in England. A gruesome statue marks the spot where Thomas Becket died. The ancient crypt carvings are both terrifying and hilarious.

4. Durham

A massive assertion of Norman power over the rebellious north, its the most superbly sited of all cathedrals. The drum roll of its mighty nave builds up to the spectacular retrochoir of double windows and weird sculptures.

3. Lincoln

A mysterious warren of a cathedral, looking bashed about and in need of restoration. Its crazy vault mystifies all who try to read it, while the Angel Choir boasts the imp turned to stone for insulting an angel.

2. Ely

The ship of the Fens, its towers best seen floating on a morning mist across the fields. The swirling upward view inside the central lantern is near psychedelic the view down from the gallery no less so. Exquisite carvings in its Lady Chapel still bear the scars of iconoclast vandalism.

Wells Cathedral. Photograph: thyme/Getty Images

1. Wells

Its sculpted west front glows incomparably in the sunset, its giant scissor arches uplift its crossing, and its column capitals offer an encyclopedia of medieval life. Wells also boasts the most serene chapter house anywhere.

Simon Jenkinss Englands Cathedrals is published by Little, Brown

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The master of British folk music has weathered a second divorce and lives in the US where Trump has ramped up bigotry considerably. At least ex-wife Linda has forgiven him

Richard Thompson is drinking mint tea in a Hampstead coffee shop he doesnt touch coffee or alcohol and between Islam and cricket, hes discussing the remarkable guest list for his upcoming 70th birthday celebration at the Royal Albert Hall in London. I dont like being the centre of attention, strange as it sounds, he insists. I just want to have a few friends over.

The man the LA Times once hailed as the finest rock songwriter after Dylan and the best electric guitarist since Hendrix will switch between electric and acoustic guitars, and hopes that most guests will have time to do a couple of songs. The 15 guests will include Pink Floyd hero David Gilmour, who has featured alongside Richard in a Rolling Stone magazine best ever guitarist list, and who, as a soloist, covered Richards 1975 song Dimming of the Day. Hell do that, says Richard. And then do something of his or Floyds. He has always been a nice guy and we share a love of all things Fender.

The cast will also include old and new British folk heroes, from Martin and Eliza Carthy to Olivia Chaney. And then there will be Harry Shearer, the American actor and comedian, reviving his role as Derek Smalls from Spinal Tap, along with his wife Judith Owen who joined Richard in 2006 for the 1,000 Years of Popular Music project, in which they reworked anything from Sumer Is Icumen In to Britney Spears.

Richard Thompson may be a virtuoso guitarist, but he insists that its the songs that are most important to him. Most of what I do revolves around the song. If I play guitar, Im not interested in playing instrumentals. I like playing guitar to accompany a voice, or if there is a solo, then extending the narrative of the song. So are his thrilling, spontaneous-sounding acoustic or electric guitar solos inspired by the song? Yes, its that way round. Absolutely.

Remarkable output Richard Thompson. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

For more than 50 years, his songwriting output has been remarkable, from the gently bleak and lyrical ballads that are performed regularly in folk clubs (where some listeners probably think they are traditional) through to equally bleak, upbeat favourites like Tear-Stained Letter or the pounding, edgy and emotional stories of foreboding on his latest electric album, 13 Rivers.

Its a set filled with religious imagery, because I love the King James Bible, a beautiful piece of poetry, and you have to speak to people in a language thats familiar. And it was written, he says, in a difficult personal time. Last year, after the ending of his second marriage, to Nancy Covey, he quit California to move to New Jersey, home of his new partner, singer-songwriter and author Zara Phillips. But he insists that the album is not autobiographical. I have no perspective on what I am doing. I write a song and think, Where does this come from? Me? I wrote this? I write fiction Im just enjoying myself, throwing lines together. I think it always reflects your own experience and feelings, but it isnt always in a way thats clear. If you find something honest enough in yourself then it will be universal.

But The Storm Wont Come Theres a smell of death where I lay my head is surely about his divorce? But youve also got Trump in the White House, so maybe theres a little bit of that in there as well. And Her Love Was Meant For Me, isnt that straightforward? Its a song I find very confusing, actually.

Listen to The Storm Wont Come

Richard insists that the Albert Hall show wont be a retrospective, but it will certainly be nostalgic. Another guest will be Hugh Cornwell, of Stranglers fame, who played with Richard in his first band, Emil & the Detectives, when they were both 14 and pupils at William Ellis school near Hampstead Heath. Then there will Simon Nicol and Ashley Hutchings, who along with Richard were the core trio in different teenage bands who evolved into the first Fairport Convention. They will be joined by Dave Mattacks, the drummer who joined Fairport a little later, alongside the late Sandy Denny, to record Liege and Lief, the classic album released 50 years ago that kickstarted British folk-rock. We might dip our toe into that repertoire, says Richard. And someone is going to do a bit of Sandy.

So how did he feel about that era now? We thought that if we are in the charts and its taken seriously, it could change peoples attitudes to British music and you might have people stopping using American accents when singing. It was totally revolutionary at the time. Rock music with an element of British traditional music in it was pretty much our innovation, and Im very proud of that. And when people in other countries saw we did, it was possible for them to contemporise their own cultures.

After the Fairports, Richard recorded a serious of glorious, mostly bleak albums with his first wife Linda Thompson, a powerful, evocative singer whose career has been marred by dysphonia, a larynx disorder that makes it increasingly difficult for her to sing. Shell also be there, along with their musical children, singer-songwriter and producer Teddy Thompson and Kami Thompson, who works with her husband, the Pretenders guitarist James Walbourne, in the Rails. And to complete the family line-up there will Richards new partner Zara Phillips.

The band that kickstarted folk-rock Fairport Convention, with Richard Thompson in the box. Photograph: Jim McCrary/Redferns

So how would Linda feel if Zara sings one of the Richard and Linda classics such as I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight or Wall of Death, as seems likely? It wouldnt seem odd, Linda tells me. If it were Richard and Emmylou Harris I might be a bit miffed, because she is a genius! And I like Zara. And Richard has changed has a lot. He is much nicer and hes happy so thats great.

It was during his marriage to Linda that Richard discovered Islam. The son of a Scottish policeman, he was brought up as a Presbyterian which I was not interested in. I became a Muslim when I was 23 and have been one ever since. He discovered Sufism, a mystical form of Islam, after visiting a very old esoteric bookshop, Watkins in Covent Garden, and started reading about it. On the cover of their 1975 album Pour Down Like Silver, he and Linda are dressed in turban and headscarf, and for the next three years the couple disappeared from the music scene to spend much of their time in Islamic communities in London and then Norfolk. And it was a community, not a commune, said Richard. Commune implies sharing out the carrots!

Linda hated it. Sufism had appealed to me, but the guy who ran it was bit of a tyrant. There was lots of praying and guilt, and women were so subservient. Richard, who was attracted to Sufism by the nobility of being it seemed like the way human being should be, agreed that it wasnt ideal. It was full of human foibles. People are lustful, jealous, God knows what. But then we visited a sheikh in Morocco and saw the other side of it. And it was all wonderful.

By 1982 the marriage was at an end, but the deserved success of the Shoot Out the Lights album led to an infamous US tour. I was living on booze and antidepressants, Linda says. I was so angry I was kicking and hitting Richard on stage. I trashed a dressing room, stole a car and got arrested. But it was good for my voice. I guess because I was so heartbroken it freed me up. The dysphonia wasnt too bad in those days. At the end of the tour Richard rang and said: Bruce Springsteen is male singer of the year and you are female singer of the year. Was it in Time or Rolling Stone? I think both. Like everything, good comes out of bad.

So has she forgiven him? I have. It was a bad time but Jesus Christ it was 40 years ago. Forget it! But she is kind of dreading the Albert Hall because as a performer youd love to get up and wow the crowd, but I never know what will come out of my mouth. But Ill do something. Its going to be good.

Richard and Linda Thompson in 1975. Photograph: Rex

After the split, Richard moved to California, remarried, and relaunched his career. At aged 33, when I started singing solo, they treated me as a new artist and put me on college radio. So my audience in the States was 10 years younger than me, and it still is. And very, very slowly I did well. It was word of mouth. I toured America relentlessly, and I still do, and its still growing, which is amazing. Without having a hit record, more people come to shows now than they ever did. As for the move to the east coast, I was ready for a change. But being a performing musician I do 100 shows a year, and Im away 150 days, so where you are based is less important.

Does he have problems as a Muslim living in the States in the Trump era? Trump has ramped up bigotry considerably. If you are not a white Christian, the implication is that youre not a real American. Its incredibly destructive, divisive, and harmful. Well see how it plays out but the fact is that you still have more religious freedom in America or Britain than you do in a whole lot of Middle Eastern countries.

Thompson is a cricket enthusiast he cheerfully recalls his appearance on Test Match Special five years ago, singing 1952 Vincent Black Lightning and he insists he never wanted to be culturally absorbed by America. I can contribute more having a culturally British point of view. Even in the midwest, he can still knock them for six.

Richard Thompson: 70th Birthday Celebration is at Royal Albert Hall, London, Monday 30 September.

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The long read: Smartphones and the internet gave the Uighurs a sense of their own identity but now the Chinese state is using technology to strip them of it

In mid-2017, Alim, a Uighur man in his 20s, returned to China from studying abroad. As soon as he landed back in the country, he was pulled off the plane by police officers. He was told his trip abroad meant that he was now under suspicion of being unsafe. The police administered what they call a health check, which involved collecting several types of biometric data, including DNA, blood type, fingerprints, voice recordings and face scans a process that all adults in the Uighur autonomous region of Xinjiang, in north-west China, are expected to undergo.

After his health check, Alim was transported to one of the hundreds of detention centres that dot north-west China. These centres have become an important part of what Xi Jinpings government calls the peoples war on terror, a campaign launched in 2014, which focuses on Xinjiang, a region with a population of roughly 25 million people, just under half of whom are Uighur Muslims. As part of this campaign, the Chinese government has come to treat almost all expressions of Uighur Islamic faith as signs of potential religious extremism and ethnic separatism. Since 2017 alone, more than 1 million Turkic Muslims, including Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and others, have moved through detention centres.

At the detention centre, Alim was deprived of sleep and food, and subjected to hours of interrogation and verbal abuse. I was so weakened through this process that at one point during my interrogation I began to laugh hysterically, he said when we spoke. Other detainees report being placed in stress positions, tortured with electric shocks, and kept in isolation for long periods. When he wasnt being interrogated, Alim was kept in a tiny cell with 20 other Uighur men.

Many of the detainees had been arrested for having supposedly committed religious and political transgressions through social media apps on their smartphones, which Uighurs are required to produce at checkpoints around Xinjiang. Although there was often no real evidence of a crime according to any legal standard, the digital footprint of unauthorised Islamic practice, or even a connection to someone who had committed one of these vague violations, was enough to land Uighurs in a detention centre. The mere fact of having a family member abroad, or of travelling outside China, as Alim had, often resulted in detention.

Most Uighurs in the detention centres are on their way to serving long prison sentences, or to indefinite captivity in a growing network of internment camps, which the Chinese state has described as facilities for transformation through education. These camps, which function as medium-security prisons and, in some cases, forced-labour factories, attempt to train Uighurs to disavow their Islamic identity and embrace the secular principles of the Chinese state. They forbid the use of the Uighur language and instead offer drills in Mandarin, the language of Chinas Han majority. Only a handful of detainees who are not Chinese citizens have been fully released from this re-education system.

Police on patrol in Kashgar, in the Xinjiang region. Photograph: Tom Phillips/The Guardian

Alim was relatively lucky: he was let out after only two weeks. (He later learned that a relative had intervened in his case.) But a few weeks later, when he went to meet a friend for lunch at a mall in his home city, he had another shock. At a security checkpoint at the entrance to the mall, Alim scanned the photo on his government-issued identification card, and presented himself before a security camera equipped with facial recognition software. An alarm sounded. The security guards let him pass, but within a few minutes he was approached by police officers, who then took him into custody.

Alim learned that he had been placed on a blacklist maintained by the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (Ijop), a regional data system that uses AI to monitor the countless checkpoints in and around Xinjiangs cities. Any attempt to enter public institutions such as hospitals, banks, parks or shopping centres, or to cross beyond the boundaries of his local police precinct, would trigger the Ijop to alert police. The system had profiled him and predicted that he was a potential terrorist.

There was little Alim could do. Officers told him he should just stay at home if he wanted to avoid detention again. Although he was officially free, Alims biometrics and his digital history were being used to lock him in place. Im so angry and afraid at the same time, he told me. He was haunted by his data.

Chinas version of the war on terror depends less on drones and strikes by elite military units than facial recognition software and machine learning algorithms. Its targets are not foreigners but domestic minority populations who appear to threaten the Chinese Communist partys authoritarian rule. In Xinjiang, the web of surveillance reaches from cameras on buildings, to the chips inside mobile devices, to Uighurs very physiognomy. Face scanners and biometric checkpoints track their movements almost everywhere.

Other programmes scan Uighurs digital communications, looking for suspect patterns, and flagging religious speech or even a lack of fervour in using Mandarin. Deep-learning systems search in real time through video feeds capturing millions of faces, building an archive that can supposedly help identify suspicious behaviour in order to predict who will become an unsafe actor. Actions that can trigger these computer vision technologies include dressing in an Islamic fashion and failing to attend nationalistic flag-raising ceremonies. All of these technological systems are brought together in the Ijop, which is constantly learning from the behaviours of the Uighurs it watches.

In her recent study on the rise of surveillance capitalism, the Harvard scholar Shoshana Zuboff notes that consumers are constantly generating valuable data that can be turned into profitable predictions about our preferences and future behaviours. In the Uighur region, this logic has been taken to an extreme. The power and potential profitability of the predictive technologies that purport to keep Xinjiang safe derive from their unfettered access to Uighurs digital lives and physical movements. From the perspective of Chinas security-industrial establishment, the principal purpose of Uighur life is to generate data, which can then be used to further refine these systems of surveillance and control.

Controlling the Uighurs has also become a test case for marketing Chinese technological prowess around the world. A hundred government agencies and companies from two dozen countries, including the US, France, Israel and the Philippines, now participate in the highly influential annual China-Eurasia Security Expo in Urumqi, the capital of the Uighur region. The ethos at the expo, and in the Chinese techno-security industry as a whole, is that Muslim populations need to be managed and made productive. Over the past five years, the peoples war on terror has allowed a number of Chinese tech startups to achieve unprecedented levels of growth. In just the last two years, the state has invested an estimated $7.2bn in techno-security in Xinjiang. As a spokesperson for one of these tech startups put it, 60% of the worlds Muslim-majority nations are part of Chinas premier international development project, the Belt and Road Initiative, so there is unlimited market potential for the type of population-control technology they are developing in Xinjiang.

Some of the technologies pioneered in Xinjiang have already found customers in authoritarian states as far away as sub-Saharan Africa. In 2018, CloudWalk, a Guangzhou-based tech startup that has received more than $301m in state funding, finalised an agreement with Zimbabwes government to build a national mass facial recognition programme in order to address social security issues. (CloudWalk has not revealed how much the agreement is worth.) Freedom of movement through airports, railways and bus stations throughout Zimbabwe will now be managed through a facial database integrated with other kinds of biometric data. In effect, the Uighur homeland has become an incubator for Chinas terror capitalism.

There was a time when the internet seemed to promise a brighter future for Chinas Uighurs. When I arrived in Urumqi in 2011 to conduct my first year of ethnographic fieldwork, the region had just been wired with 3G mobile data networks. When I returned in 2014, it seemed as though nearly all adults in the city had a smartphone. Suddenly, Uighur cultural figures who the government subsequently labelled unsafe, such as the pop star Ablajan, developed followings that numbered in the millions.

Most unsettling, from the perspective of the state, unsanctioned Uighur religious teachers based in China and Turkey also developed a deep influence. Since Maos Religious Reform Movement of 1958, the state had limited Uighurs access to mosques, Islamic funerary practices, religious knowledge and other Muslim communities. There were virtually no Islamic schools outside of government control, no imams who were not approved by the state. Children under the age of 18 were forbidden to enter mosques. But as social media spread through the Uighur homeland over the course of the last decade, it opened up a virtual space to explore what it meant to be Muslim. It reinforced a sense that the first sources of Uighur identity were their faith and language, their claim to a native way of life, and their membership in a Turkic Muslim community stretching from Urumqi to Istanbul. Rather than being seen as perpetually lacking Han appearance and culture, they could find in their renewed Turkic and Islamic values a cosmopolitan and contemporary identity. Food, movies, music and clothing, imported from Turkey and Dubai, became markers of distinction. Women began to veil themselves. Men began to pray five times a day. They stopped drinking and smoking. Some began to view music, dancing and state television as influences to be avoided.

The Han officials I met during my fieldwork referred to this rise in technologically disseminated religious piety as the Talibanisation of the Uighur population. Along with Han settlers, they felt increasingly unsafe travelling to the regions Uighur-majority areas, and uneasy in the presence of pious Turkic Muslims. The officials cited incidents that carried the hallmarks of religiously motivated violence a knife attack carried out by a group of Uighurs at a train station in Kunming; trucks driven by Uighurs through crowds in Beijing and Urumqi as a sign that the entire Uighur population was falling under the sway of terrorist ideologies.

Workers walk by the perimeter fence of an education centre in Xinjiang. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

But, as dangerous as the rise of Uighur social media seemed to Han officials, it also presented them with a new means of control. On 5 July 2009, Uighur high school and college students had used Facebook and Uighur-language blogs to organise a protest demanding justice for Uighur workers who were killed by their Han colleagues at a toy factory in eastern China. Thousands of Uighurs took to the streets of Urumqi, waving Chinese flags and demanding that the government respond to the deaths of their comrades. When they were violently confronted by armed police, many of the Uighurs responded by turning over buses and beating Han bystanders. In the end, more than 190 people were reported killed, most of them Han. Over the weeks that followed, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young Uighurs were disappeared by the police. The internet was shut off in the region for nearly 10 months, and Facebook and Twitter were blocked across the country.

Soon after the internet came back online in 2010 with the notable absence of Facebook, Twitter and other non-Chinese social media applications state security, higher education and private industry began to collaborate on breaking Uighur internet autonomy. Much of the Uighur-language internet was transformed from a virtual free society into a zone where government technology could learn to predict criminal behaviour. Broadly defined new anti-terrorism laws, first drafted in 2014, turned nearly all crimes committed by Uighurs, from stealing a Han neighbours sheep to protesting against land seizures, into forms of terrorism. Religious piety, which the new laws referred to as extremism, was conflated with religious violence.

The Xinjiang security industry mushroomed from a handful of private firms to approximately 1,400 companies employing tens of thousands of workers, ranging from low-level Uighur security guards to Han camera and telecommunications technicians to coders and designers. The Xi administration declared a state of emergency in the region, the peoples war on terror began, and Islamophobia was institutionalised.

In 2017, after three years of operating a hard strike policy that turned Xinjiang into what many considered an open-air prison which involved instituting a passbook system that restricted Uighurs internal travel, and deploying hundreds of thousands of security forces to monitor the families of those who had been disappeared or killed by the state the government turned to a fresh strategy. A new regional party secretary named Chen Quanguo introduced a policy of transforming Uighurs.

Local authorities began to describe the three evil forces of religious extremism, ethnic separatism and violent terrorism as three interrelated ideological cancers. Because the digital sphere had allowed unauthorised forms of Islam to flourish, officials called for AI-enabled technology to crack down on these evils. Party leadership began to incentivise Chinese tech firms to develop technologies that could help the government control Uighur society. Billions of dollars in government contracts were awarded to build smart security systems across the Uighur region.

The turn toward transformation coincided with breakthroughs in the AI-assisted computer systems that the public security bureau rolled out in 2017 and brought together in the Ijop. The Chinese startup Meiya Pico began to market software to local and regional governments that was developed using state-supported research and could detect Uighur language text and Islamic symbols embedded in images. The company also developed programmes for automating the transcription and translation of Uighur voice messaging. The company Hikvision advertised tools that could automate the identification of Uighur faces based on physiological phenotypes. Other companies devised programmes that would perform automated searches of Uighurs internet activity and then compare the data it gleaned to school, job, banking, medical and biometric records, looking for predictors of aberrant behaviour.

The rollout of this new technology required a great deal of manpower and technical training. More than 100,000 new police officers were hired. One of their jobs was to conduct the sort of health check Alim underwent, creating biometric records for almost every human being in the region. Face signatures were created by scanning individuals from a variety of different angles as they made different facial expressions; the result was a high-definition portfolio of personal emotions. All Uighurs were required to install nanny apps , which monitored everything they said, read and wrote, and everyone they connected with, on their smartphones.

A police officer checks the identity card of a man as security forces keep watch in a street in Kashgar. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Higher-level police officers, most of whom were Han, were given the job of conducting qualitative assessments of the Muslim population as a whole providing more complex, interview-based survey data for Ijops deep-learning system. In face-to-face interviews, these neighbourhood police officers assessed the more than 14 million Muslim-minority people in Xinjiang and determined if they should be given the rating of safe, average, or unsafe. They determined this by categorising the person using 10 or more categories, including whether or not the person was Uighur, whether they prayed regularly, had an immediate relative living abroad, or had taught their children about Islam in their home. Those who were determined to be unsafe were then sent to the detention centres, where they were interrogated and asked to confess their crimes and name others who were also unsafe. In this manner, the officers determined which individuals should be slotted for the transformation through education internment camps.

Many Muslims who passed their first assessment were subsequently detained because someone else named them as unsafe. In thousands of cases, years of WeChat history was used as evidence of the need for Uighur suspects to be transformed. The state also assigned an additional 1.1 million Han and Uighur big brothers and sisters to conduct week-long assessments on Uighur families as uninvited guests in Uighur homes. Over the course of these stays, the relatives tested the safe qualities of those Uighurs who remained outside of the camp system by forcing them to participate in activities forbidden by certain forms of Islamic piety, such as drinking, smoking and dancing. They looked for any sign of resentment or any lack of enthusiasm in Chinese patriotic activities. They gave the children candy so that they would tell them the truth about what their parents thought.

All of this information was entered into databases and then fed back into the Ijop. The governments hope is that the Ijop will, over time, run with less and less human guidance. Even now, it is always running in the background of Uighur life, always learning.

In the tech community in the US, there is some scepticism regarding the viability of AI-assisted computer vision technology in China. Many experts Ive spoken to from the AI policy world point to an article by the scholar Jathan Sadowski called Potemkin AI, which highlights the failures of Chinese security technology to deliver what it promises. They frequently bring up the way a system in Shenzhen meant to identify the faces of jaywalkers and flash them on giant screens next to busy intersections cannot keep up with the faces of all the jaywalkers; as a result, human workers sometimes have to manually gather the data used for public shaming. They point out that Chinese tech firms and government agencies have hired hundreds of thousands of low-paid police officers to monitor internet traffic and watch banks of video monitors. As with the theatre of airport security rituals in the US, many of these experts argue that it is the threat of surveillance, rather than the surveillance itself, that causes people to modify their behaviour.

Yet while there is a good deal of evidence to support this scepticism, a notable rise in the automated detection of internet-based Islamic activity, which has resulted in the detention of hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, also points to the real effects of the implementation of AI-assisted surveillance and policing in Xinjiang. Even western experts at Google and elsewhere admit that Chinese tech companies now lead the world in these computer-vision technologies, due to the way the state funds Chinese companies to collect, use and report on the personal data of hundreds of millions of users across China.

The Han officials I spoke with during my fieldwork in Xinjiang often refused to acknowledge the way disappearances, frequent police shootings of young Uighur men, and state seizures of Uighur land might have motivated earlier periods of Uighur resistance. They did not see correlations between limits on Uighur religious education, restrictions on Uighur travel and widespread job discrimination on the one hand, and the rise in Uighur desires for freedom, justice and religiosity on the other. Because of the crackdown, Han officials have seen a profound diminishment of Islamic belief and political resistance in Uighur social life. Theyre proud of the fervour with which Uighurs are learning the common language of the country, abandoning Islamic holy days and embracing Han cultural values. From their perspective, the implementation of the new security systems has been a monumental success.

A middle-aged Uighur businessman from Hotan, whom I will call Dawut, told me that, behind the checkpoints, the new security system has hollowed out Uighur communities. The government officials, civil servants and tech workers who have come to build, implement and monitor the system dont seem to perceive Uighurs humanity. The only kind of Uighur life that can be recognised by the state is the one that the computer sees. This makes Uighurs like Dawut feel as though their lives only matter as data code on a screen, numbers in camps. They have adapted their behaviour, and slowly even their thoughts, to the system.

Uighurs are alive, but their entire lives are behind walls, Dawut said softly. It is like they are ghosts living in another world.

Some names have been changed. A longer version of this article first appeared in Logic, a new magazine about technology

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Britain has gone through the looking glass and the artists new show follows it into the abyss. He talks about the upsurge in racism, fighting for Shamima Begum and his clash with Frances president

At 7.30 on the morning after Britain voted to leave the European Union, Anish Kapoor left his London flat for an appointment with his analyst. On the street, he heard two men talking. Bet he doesnt even speak English, said one. I turned around and they were talking about me. I was so furious.

Sir Anish Mikhail Kapoor, CBE, RA, the 65-year-old, Turner prize-winning, Mumbai-born British-Indian artist, who has lived in London since the early 1970s and (though this is hardly the point) speaks better English than most of his countrymen, had woken up in a new land. Since then permission has been given for difference, rather than being celebrated, to be undermined.

Kapoors latest exhibition, a suite of mirrors and other discombobulating reflective sculptures, some inspired by Lewis Carroll, opens on Saturday at Pitzhanger Manor in London. Like Alice, Britain has gone through the looking glass, splintered its image and emerged in darkness.

Last year, a visitor to the Serralves museum in Porto jumped with Kierkegaardian heedlessness, into another of Kapoors works, a 2.5-metre circular hole called Descent Into Limbo, fell eight feet and had to be taken to hospital. Perhaps thats an unwitting allegory too: Britain is broken, and is now stuck in the eternal limbo of Theresa Mays Brexit strategy.

I felt from the start this was an inside job antisemitic graffiti daubed on Kapoors vagina sculpture. Photograph: Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images

The sense of being diminished for the colour of his skin in a resurgently racist Britain is one reason Kapoor has decided to campaign for Shamima Begum, the young Londoner who joined Isis in Syria aged 15 and has since had three children die there, most recently her three-week-old son, Jarrah. One of the good things about Britain is that people from all over the world lived here, reasonably tolerantly with different views, says Kapoor. Increasingly thats less likely to be the case. Were seeing a kind of enforced normality where you have to prove youre a real Brit in some way that fits the populist agenda. Come on! Britons are better than that.

Kapoor is not Muslim, but Jewish (he was born to a Jewish mother of Iraqi ancestry and a Hindu father). Nevertheless, Begums case resonates with him. Theres this real sense for me of whos next? Theres an atmosphere of vilifying Muslims for having extreme views. If I was a young Muslim, would I feel angry enough to have joined Isis? I would at least think about it.

Kapoor has experience of being vilified as an artist. In 2015 he installed Dirty Corner, a vast steel funnel made for the gardens of Versailles, a sculpture he described as the vagina of the queen. He intended it to disrupt landscape gardener Andr Le Ntres perfect geometric perspectives. Before it opened I did an interview with the psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva in which I said I wanted to create some unease in this ordered space. It worked beyond my wildest dreams. Within two weeks it was covered with graffiti, which we cleaned off. Wed hardly finished when antisemitic graffiti appeared on it.

The sculpture and surrounding rocks were sprayed with such phrases as SS blood sacrifice and the second RAPE of the nation by DEVIANT JEWISH activism. Kapoor decided not to erase them, but to display the ugliness manifested, the return of the repressed.

I felt from the start this was an inside job. They have cameras everywhere, but when we asked the police to open an investigation they found nothing. I say phooey to that. Then a councillor took Kapoor to court, bizarrely accusing the artist of displaying antisemitic material. He was invited for an audience at the lyse Palace with then President Franois Hollande.

It was around the time Isis bombed Palmyra the ruins of an ancient city that for 1,500 years had been one of the best preserved sites from antiquity. So I said, Mr President, the thing to do is call on people in France to speak out against the destruction of culture. And he replied, Cest vous qui devriez le faire. Its you who must do it. I thought, Pathetic shit. Then he asked me to remove the graffiti. He said, From a pedagogic point of view I understand what you are doing, but as a citizen I cannot agree. Complete waste of time!

In the end Kapoor covered the bits of graffiti that were prominent with gold leaf gold leaf being Louis XIVs go-to decorative material. Just enough not to land him in jail.

Dark reflections Red to Blue, 2016. Photograph: Anish Kapoor, courtesy Lisson Gallery

What about antisemitism this side of the Channel does Kapoor have compunctions about Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn? No. Im Jewish and I believe he has done his best on this. Hes an anti-Zionist. And you can be anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian without being antisemitic. Kapoor suspects this is a distraction from a bigger political issue. What this all misses is that we have probably the most rightwing government in Europe. If Corbyn comes to power he will be the first prime minister since Thatcher to believe people matter more than or as much as business. Blair was just a continuation of Thatcher. And that matters because the biggest polluters of our world are all big businesses.

Sporting a hazmat suit, Kapoor guides me through his vast warehouse complex near the Oval cricket ground in London. Masked assistants, like a dozen Jesse Pinkmans to his Walter White, are cooking up not crystal meth, but carefully buffed painted mirrors, blood-red resin sculptures that look like placentas, and a work consisting of what Kapoor calls a hair of metal shards overlaying a dark conic space.

We pause before a large sculpture consisting of fabric folded in on itself on a mesh carapace. The fabric is curled up like a bouquet of roses, dark spaces between each petal. Its an unsettling variation on a theme that increasingly obsessed Kapoor in recent years: the negative space opened up by folds in fabric, paper, any material. While early folded works, such as the 2016 etching Fold IV, were riffs on open books (or just possibly variants on his Versailles vagina, but certainly not at all phallic) this piece is a symphony of holes that contain more than youd think.

I am the luckiest man alive Kapoor in his London studio. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The story we were told at art school is that the Renaissances great discovery was perspective. But theres another aspect, which is the fold. Being is represented in the involuted fold. The body of the Madonna is represented by the fold of her cloak.

We should, Kapoor tells me, look into the spaces between. We live in a world of phallic objects. Its as if Brancusis modernism led to the rocket, the forward-thrusting. Im anti-phallic. Plato wanted to lead us out of the cave into the light. But what about the back of the cave, the upside down which is dark, perhaps even menacing and abject? His is the art of stranger things, with Kapoor as sculptures answer to Joyce Byers excavating voids into uncanny realms.

I am the luckiest man alive, he says, as we stroll through the studios. In the 60s there were perhaps five artists Francis Bacon, Henry Moore and a few others who could live by making art. Now the art world is huge and everything is for sale. I expected to spend my life teaching art rather than being able to be an artist.

But youre an artist making commodities even though you despise neoliberal commodification. Its a system Ive benefited from, no question. We risk becoming further cogs in the wheel of production. Only poetry and the more serious classical music seem able to resist becoming commodities. Theres a sense that art has been eroded by the market. The world that Steve Bannon wants is here. And its our fault. Whose? Liberal lefties like me. Im going to dare the art world is a part of it. Part of what? The ruin of arts ability to stand opposed to the order of things.

It is as if art had fallen, bewitched by its own reflection, into Narcissuss pool. Which brings us back to Pitzhanger Manor. Its a brilliant coup to get the modern master of mirrors to do the first show at architect Sir John Soanes former country house after its lottery-funded refurbishment. Soanes spaces, after all, involve a play of mirrors to infer a multitude of elsewheres, as artist Mark Pimlott puts it in his essay for the show.

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The true story behind the hit song for the band MercyMe took $25m in seven days amid a recent rise of religious movies

As Hollywood struggles with sexual harassment scandals and box-office woes, it could do worse than turn toGod. For while religious movies have traditionally been considered a niche phenomenon, that assessment may need to be revised.

Last weekend I Can Only Imagine, a Christian-themed independent biopic, beat a series of studio-backed films to win the number three spot behind Black Panther and Tomb Raider. And as Easter approaches, films with Christian messages are experiencing an upswing not seen since Mel Gibsons 2004 crucifixion drama The Passion of Christ.

I Can Only Imagine stars Dennis Quaid and was produced and directed by brothers Jon and Andy Erwin, the duo behind other faith-based hits such as Woodlawn, the story of a spiritual awakening among an Alabama high-school football team, starring Jon Voight and Sean Astin, and October Baby, an anti-abortiondrama.

The Erwins latest film tells the story of an abusive father (Quaid) who inspires his son to write the song I Can Only Imagine, based loosely on their relationship. In reality it was written by Bart Millard, lead singer of the band MercyMe who, at the age of 14, witnessed his dying fatherstransformation.

I went from seeing my father go from a monster to a man who was desperately in love with Jesus, Millard told the Christian Broadcast Network last week. He wrote the song in 1998; five years later it went on to become the bestselling Christian single of all time.

That did not impress film executives. Jon Erwin says he was told there was no audience for a Christian music movie … But everybody I knew in the Christian world that we live in knew and loved the song, so we just believed that there was an audience for this movie and that they would show up. I Can Only Imagine was ultimately picked up by Roadside Attractions, maker of Manchester By The Sea, and Lionsgate. The distributors agreed to promote it as a general audience production. With a $25m box-office take so far, it is also showing Hollywood that Christians can make consistent, repeat filmgoers. Audience polling found that 79% said they planned to pay to see the movie again.

Shane harper stars in Gods Not Dead: A Light in Darkness, released in the US on 30 March and in the UK on 25 May.

The faith-based genre is showing Hollywood that age and diversity are not necessarily antithetical to box-office success, and offer starring roles to actors who may no longer be at the top of casting directors call-in lists.

In last years hit The Shack, God was played by a black woman, an Asian woman played the Holy Spirit and Jesus was played by an Israeli, says Peter Chattaway, reviewer for the faith-based film site, Patheos. A 10-part mini-series, The Bible, cast Samson as black; in the follow-up series, AD: The Bible Continues, several apostles were black and Mary Magdalene was part black, partChinese.

Churches are increasingly diverse and that is being reflected in the films that are being made for their congregations, says Chattaway.

Other recent successes include Heaven Is for Real, the story of a boy who briefly dies, which grossed $91m in the US. Fireproof, about a porn-addicted fireman, made $33m from a $500,000 budget. Gods Not Dead, which follows a college student whose faith is challenged by a philosophy professor, made twice that.

Movies like Gods Not Dead are a lot more tribalistic and play to an us-versus-them mindset, Chattaway says. In the first of the series, the atheist villain is knocked down by a car and converts as he is dying. The second sequel, Chattaway says, is more conciliatory. It almost seems like an apology. It says weve got to get past our divisions.

From left: Joanne Whalley, Jim Caviezel and John Lynch star in Paul, Apostle of Christ, released last Friday in the US and on 30 March in the UK. Photograph: Affirm Films/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

This week sees the release of Paul, Apostle of Christ, starring Joanne Whalley, and the broadcast of an NBC television staging of Jesus Christ Superstar, the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice classic, with R&B singer John Legend as Jesus and rock star Alice Cooper as King Herod.

Increasingly, Chattaway says, filmmakers are looking to other corners of the Bible for material. Three years ago there was Killing Jesus, which focused on Johanna in Lukes gospel.

She was one of patrons of the Jesus movement along with Mary Magdelene. She supported the movement with her own money. It also says that her husband worked for King Herod. That raises all sorts of questions. Why was the wife of one of Herods top servants hanging out with the Jesus movement?

But not all faith-based films thrive. Last week saw the release (outside the US) of Mary Magdalene, starring Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix. One reviewer described it as a portentous and lugubrious revision … the dreariest story ever told.

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Trouble No More combines concert footage with specially commissioned sermons

The acute and sometimes obtuse angles of Bob Dylans career have teased and infuriated his public for more than half a century. But nothing not the bizarre Christmas album, his no-show at the Nobel ceremony or allowing his music to be used in a Victorias Secret lingerie ad has provoked the degree of derision that greeted his conversion to Christianity at the end of the 1970s, which is the subject of a film to be shown on the BBC later this month.

Vainly anticipating the oneiric visions of Mr Tambourine Man and the dazzling surrealism of Desolation Row, his audiences felt betrayed when the seemingly conventional opening line of a new composition Are you ready? was followed by a fusillade of more uncomfortably precise demands expressing his newfound faith: Are you ready for the judgement? Are you ready for the terrible swift sword? Are you ready for Armageddon? Are you ready for the day of the Lord?

Many were not. Dylans Christianity was of the earnest, unyielding variety, and listeners who had responded to the sceptical injunctions of his early work Dont follow leaders, he had told them in Subterranean Homesick Blues were repelled by his new allegiance to the Christian deity, even when some of the resulting songs, such as Slow Train Coming and Every Grain of Sand, turned out to be pretty good.

His friend Allen Ginsberg had a more positive view: He seemed to be trying to transcend himself into something else, which I thought was healthy, the poet said after attending one of the concerts. But, as so often in Dylans career, it turned out to be a passing phase, lasting from 1979 to 1981. Jesus himself only preached for three years, he told a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, possibly with his tongue in his cheek.

The recorded legacy of that brief period was largely overlooked until the release late last year of Trouble No More, a compilation of concert recordings from the born-again period, the 13th volume of his long-running Bootleg Series of previously unreleased material. Accompanying the 150, eight-CD deluxe edition of the recordings was a ninth disc containing a new hourlong film that casts a more benign light on Dylans adventures in evangelism.

Luc Sante, who wrote the sermons for Trouble No More: My instructions from Bob included one to go easy on the fire and brimstone. Photograph: Tim Knox/Guardian

Working with newly unearthed film of concerts in the spring of 1980, the director Jennifer Lebeau exploits the close-up footage to reveal not just the high quality of Dylans performances (I think he was probably singing better than hed sung in many years, his guitarist Fred Tackett said) but the degree of his commitment to the message he was trying to put over. This had escaped the attention of stadium audiences in an era before the introduction of giant screens.

Lebeau was also asked by the Dylan camp to break up the concert footage with half a dozen two-minute sermons. Not the ones with which the singer had regaled his audiences almost 40 years ago but diatribes on designated themes hypocrisy, virtue, temperance, gluttony, justice and prudence commissioned from the writer and critic Luc Sante.

My instructions from Bob included one to go easy on the fire and brimstone, Sante who, at 63, is 13 years younger than Dylan said this week from his home in upstate New York.

Instead the writer, who was brought up as a Catholic but had not attended church in 50 years, found inspiration in the recordings of African American preachers of the 1920s. Men like the Rev JM Gates, the Rev AW Nix and the Rev DC Rice were huge sellers in their day. They were southern preachers and their words brought comfort to a great many people who had moved north in the Great Migration and were perhaps feeling lonely and isolated.

The sermons are delivered against the stained glass windows of an Episcopalian church on New Yorks Upper East Side by the actor Michael Shannon, recently seen as a villainous US army colonel in The Shape of Water, the winner of the 2018 Oscar for best picture. In a variety of sharp three-piece suits, Shannon stays just this side of a caricature of the typical 1970s televangelist while biting down hard on Santes words: Justice is not always served on this earth! Sometimes the wicked are rewarded and the virtuous are made to suffer. That may happen in this life, but it will not happen in the next

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Sister Catherine Rose Holzman, 89, was locked in legal battle over sale of Los Angeles site to pop star

An 89-year-old Catholic nun who has battled pop star Katy Perry for years over the sale of a Los Angeles convent has collapsed and died while attending court proceedings about the case, according to media reports and supporters.

Sister Catherine Rose Holzman, one of two ageing nuns who were fighting the sale of the eight-acre (three-hectare) convent, died on Friday in Los Angeles county court, Fox affiliate KTTV reported.

The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary property in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles that pop star Katy Perry is buying Photograph: Nick Ut/AP

Holzman had earlier told KTTV as she entered the courthouse with Sister Rita Callanan: To Katy Perry, please stop. Its not doing anyone any good except hurting a lot of people.

On Saturday a website set up to back the nuns legal battle carried a picture of Holzman with the caption Rest with the angels our most precious treasure.

A spokeswoman for Perry, one of the worlds top-selling pop stars, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Los Angeles county medical examiner and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles did not respond to queries about the cause of death.

At the center of the legal dispute is the property Holzman and other members of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary had once lived in.

Holzman and Cullanan, among five nuns who had lived at the convent, had sought to sell the property for $15.5m to restaurateur Dana Hollister, who wanted to convert the property into a hotel.

The archdiocese sued to block the sale in 2015, arguing the nuns did not have authority to sell the property to Hollister.

A judge ruled in 2016 that the sale was invalid, paving the way for Perry to buy the site from the archdiocese.

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The long read: A bitter legal row over a mosque in an affluent New Jersey town shows the new face of Islamophobia in the age of Trump

Forty years ago, Mohammad Ali Chaudry, a Pakistani-born economist, made his home outside New York City. He came for an executive job at the telecoms company AT&T, and ended up working there for decades. Like many immigrants to the US, Chaudry came to wholeheartedly believe perhaps more fervently than his native-born neighbours in the triumphal story that Americans tell about their nation: how it was always growing stronger through change, melding the many into one through the process of assimilation. Chaudry was a devout Muslim. But to him, it always seemed the things that made him different mattered less than the ways in which he had proved he was the same.

Chaudry and his wife, who is from Italy, raised three children on a street called Manor Drive, in the town of Basking Ridge, in the centre of the state of New Jersey. This is not the Jersey of popular imagination the land of belching smokestacks immortalised in Bruce Springsteens working-class anthems. Basking Ridge is out in horse country, an area of rolling green hills and white-steepled churches, not far from Bedminster, where Donald Trump has his summer estate. In keeping with the values of his adopted community, Chaudry became an active member of the local Republican party and a conspicuous civic presence, running for various elected boards. In 2004, at the height of George W Bushs war in Iraq, Chaudry became the first Pakistani-American to serve as mayor of a municipality in the US.

Long after Chaudry retired from both AT&T and electoral politics, he continued to keep a busy schedule of volunteer activities, most focused on building religious tolerance. He ran a small nonprofit organisation called the Center for Understanding Islam, and taught classes at local universities. Chaudry is bantam-sized, with a silvery moustache and a starchy manner, and despite his age now 75 he possesses a bottomless reservoir of diligent energy. He would travel the state, speaking to audiences young and old, always dressing the part of a politician, with a little American flag badge in his lapel. If there was prejudice around him in his adopted hometown, Chaudry later said that it was not obvious, or visible, or overt.

That changed in 2011, when he found a new cause: building a mosque in Basking Ridge. For years, Chaudry and other local Muslims had been using a community centre for a makeshift Friday service. But Chaudry decided that the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge needed a permanent place to pray, and he located what he believed to be a suitable site: a four-acre lot occupied by a rundown Dutch Colonial house. Soon after purchasing it, Chaudry held an open house to greet the neighbours. There was not too much tension, he said. It was kind of jovial. He put the letters ISBR on the mailbox in front of the house, to announce the Islamic Societys arrival.

Then someone smashed the mailbox. I was, of course, very surprised, Chaudry said. Under New Jerseys planning laws, the Islamic Society had to secure the approval of the municipal government to build the mosque, and from his experience as a public official, Chaudry knew that the town, which prided itself on its quaint homes and a history dating back to colonial times, was resistant to new development of any kind. But this was a house of worship, and he was someone well-known to the community. Its not that I was expecting any favours, Chaudry said. I expected them to be fair. What shocked him, though, was the hatred.

That was seven long years ago, before some townspeople formed a group calling for responsible development in furious opposition to the mosque, before the 39 planning board hearings, before the mosque was rejected, before Chaudry filed a lawsuit alleging religious prejudice, before his lawyers uncovered racially charged emails among officials opposed to his plan, before the Obama administration accused the town of civil rights violations, before national rightwing activists took notice of the dispute and began smearing Chaudry as a terrorist sympathiser, and before Trump dragged anti-Muslim conspiracy theories from the disreputable fringes into the White House. Today, Chaudry knows his town and America better.

Long before Trump came along to capitalise on it, though, Islamophobia was building in the US, bubbling up like swamp gas from the depths. Often, racial conflict would manifest itself in small, seemingly isolated local planning fights over proposals to build mosques. The US Department of Justice, which staunchly defended the rights of Muslims during the Obama administration, noted a sharp increase in such mosque disputes between 2010 and 2016. Many took place in conservative locales such as rural Murfreesboro, Tennessee. But they also broke out in unexpected places such as Basking Ridge: a wealthy and well-educated community in the outwardly tolerant north-eastern US.

Basking Ridge is governed by a five-person elected committee, which meets in a repurposed Tudor-style mansion. (It previously belonged to John Jacob Astor VI, an American aristocrat whose father perished on the Titanic.) One evening last year, I attended a meeting the first of many at the town hall, where the committee members sat on a long dais, discussing their usual business, such as preparations for an upcoming celebration of the signing of Basking Ridges royal charter, in 1760. When the meeting was opened to comments from the public, however, all anyone wanted to talk about was Chaudry and the mosque.

The neighbours near this proposed mosque did not sign up to live next to this house of worship, said one resident, who broke down sobbing as she spoke. They have been members of a quiet residential neighbourhood for decades, and do not look forward to having their routines and lives disrupted.

The residents said the mosque would create traffic and commotion, and would ruin their property values. But they also complained about the tactics Chaudry had employed in his bitter court battle. One middle-aged woman gestured toward the mosque opponents in the audience, saying that many had been subjected to a hateful harassment campaign by the Islamic Societys attorneys, who had served them with subpoenas seeking the contents of their personal email and social media accounts, in an effort to prove that they were motivated not by planning concerns, but animosity toward Muslims.

Mr Chaudry has waged an expensive PR campaign that has talked about people as if theyre bigots, the woman said. And personally, I think it is the ISBR group that has been bullying and bigoted. Then she invoked Trump, the inescapable presence. They talk about our current president and how he speaks about Muslims. Well, I find ISBRs rhetoric to be just as harmful.

Finally, Loretta Quick, a schoolteacher who lived next door to the mosque site, got up to speak. She was one of the neighbours who had come to Chaudrys initial open house years before. She had even voted for him, back when he was a politician. Now she was a die-hard enemy of the mosque. If you cave, she told the board, in a furious voice, youre saying that we are bigots, that we based the decision on discrimination against Islam.

Quick was one of those who had been served with a subpoena, and was being represented by the Thomas More Law Center, an advocacy group that claims its mission is to defend Americas Judeo-Christian heritage and moral values against forces waging a Stealth Jihad to transform America into an Islamic nation. Quick referenced a recent press release the Law Center had put out, which had plucked a few verses from a searchable English translation of the Quran that could be accessed on the ISBR website Fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, etc to suggest that Chaudry was somehow in league with religious extremists.

These are words that seem quite intimidating and threatening to me, Quick said. I want to be protected, and you owe that to me, this township and this nation.

How did a small-town property dispute turn into a religious war, with legal and symbolic implications for all of America? Part of the answer has to do with the countrys labyrinthine land-use laws, which leave most control to state and local governments, which are in turn vulnerable to the furies of angry mobs. Part of it has to do with Americas love of litigation. The inherently confrontational and intrusive legal process had a radicalising effect on the town, driving some opponents of the development to extremes.

But something else deeper and darker seemed to be at work. Some residents openly discussed Islamophobic conspiracy theories, such as the idea that the mosque was meant to send a message of conquest, due to its proximity to the towns September 11 memorial. Such crackpot notions, promoted by far-right ideologues such as Pamela Geller and Frank Gaffney, used to be confined to the margins of the internet. Then Trump embraced the Islamophobes, unabashedly.

Its like his election has given permission to people, Chaudry told me the first time we met. We were at the proposed site of the mosque, sitting in the old suburban house that he was still hoping to demolish. Its living room, dominated by a large stone fireplace, was filled with boxes of donated clothes that he was preparing to deliver to a family of Syrian refugees. The many bookshelves were lined with theological texts and stacked copies of a paperback that Chaudry likes to give out, Islam Denounces Terrorism. Standing on an easel in a corner was a poster-sized rendering of the proposed mosque. In an effort to make it fit into its suburban surroundings, it had been designed to resemble a mini-mansion, with gray clapboard siding, a pitched roof with asphalt shingles, dormer windows and minarets disguised as chimneys.

Mohammad Ali Chaudry, the founder and president of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, in his home office. Photograph: Fred R Conrad for the Guardian

But the architecture did little to defuse tensions with the surrounding neighbourhood. Liberty Corner considered itself separate from the older and wealthier village of Basking Ridge, though they were both part of the same larger township, and few outsiders recognised the geographical distinction. And as even Chaudry and his allies admitted, some of the locals had a stubborn and ecumenical commitment to protesting anyone who dared to build anything, including Christian churches. People in Liberty Corner expressed an obstreperous ideology often abbreviated as nimby, for not in my backyard.

The opponents of the mosque told their own story of victimisation, in which they were merely objecting to Chaudrys oppressive development scheme. It was always about land use, one Liberty Corner resident told me. They made it about religion. The nimby complainers claimed that the mosque site a marshy plot on a mainly residential street was a poor location for a busy house of prayer. When the township planning board took up Chaudrys proposal in August 2012, signs soon appeared in front yards around town, reading Preserve Liberty Corner.

At one of the first planning hearings, a resident named Lori Caratzola stood up to challenge Chaudry. A law graduate, she cross-examined him about the size of the Islamic Society, accusing him of understating its membership. She revealed that she had done surveillance of a Friday service, counting 125 worshippers going into a space with a capacity for 60. After her confrontational performance, Caratzola became a leader of the opposition.

At the public hearings, Caratzola and others confined their criticisms to the nimby issues: drainage, parking, landscaping and the like. They convinced the board that a mosque would need more parking spaces than a church, because midday worshippers would come alone. When the Islamic Society submitted a new plan, with a larger parking lot, the mosques opponents protested that, too. It quickly became clear that the opposition was not solely concerned with parking.

Around the time the hearings began, some residents received an anonymous piece of mail. Inside was a letter entitled Meet Your New Neighbor, and a CD containing a recording of a radio interview in which Chaudry had offered some mildly nuanced opinions on Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah. Here in Basking Ridge, on the surface, we see the serene, grinning academic Ali Chaudry, always willing to help us better understand the version of Islam he wants us to know, the letter read. Scratch the surface a little and an uglier picture emerges.

The author of the letter tenuously linked Chaudry to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Ground Zero mosque a proposed Islamic community centre in Lower Manhattan that Pamela Geller and Fox News had recently whipped up into a national controversy. It cited the term taqiyya, an obscure theological concept that Islamophobes often twist to suggest that Muslims are encouraged to lie about the true nature of their violent beliefs.

So, welcome to the neighbourhood, Ali, the letter concluded. Lets ask Ali about those Koranic verses regarding Jews and Christians in your Koran. Why are so many terroristic acts propagated by Muslims? Is it something they are taught in your mosques and at home? And what will you teach in your new Liberty Corner mosque? You wouldnt lie to us, would you? Taqiyya is wrong, right?

Just as the author of the letter accused Muslims of deception, the Islamic Society, in its lawsuit, alleged that many of the neighbours were presenting a false front, using preservationist sentiment to disguise their real, less respectable fears. The key thing to remember, said Adeel Mangi, an attorney for the Islamic Society, is that these complaints are commonly used as a smokescreen.

There is, literally, an anti-mosque playbook. Tactics were once unwritten, spread through websites and word of mouth, but more recently they were set down in a book titled Mosques in America: A Guide to Accountable Permit Hearings and Continuing Citizen Oversight. Written a Texas attorney, it was published by the Center for Security Policy, an organisation headed by Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan administration official who has long espoused the theory that Muslims are engaged in a secret plot to impose sharia law on the US. Gaffney writes in the books introduction that it is a how-to manual for patriotic Americans who are ready to counter the leading edge of Islamic supremacism.

The manual offers lessons from cases like the one in Basking Ridge. It may be startling to consider, but Islamists are entitled to exploit liberal free speech rights to advance their political and legal operations, the author warns. It advises residents to express objections in the manner most likely to sway the authorities, avoiding mention of religious issues. Concerned citizens must learn to express questions and reservations in a manner appropriate to the relevant civic forums purpose, the manual says, instructing readers that rather than expressing alarm as hysteria, speaking to local government officials and media requires a strategic response based on reason, facts, precedents, and the law.

Chaudry preparing the Bernards Township community centre for Friday prayers. Photograph: Fred R Conrad for the Guardian

Sure enough, the transcripts of the dozens of hearings held by the towns planning board, which run to nearly 7,000 pages, contain no mention of sharia, the Muslim Brotherhood or other rightwing hobgoblins. Most residents swore that religion had nothing to do with their opposition. But the Islamic societys lawyers suspected and would later allege in court that their opponents were showing another face when they talked to each other on the internet. A commenter named LC who appeared to be Caratzola often expressed anti-Muslim sentiments when the mosque was debated on local web forums and national sites with names such as Bare Naked Islam. (Motto: It isnt Islamophobia when they really ARE trying to kill you.) Caratzola was also listed as a member of a Gaffney-affiliated group set up to defend against the supposedly creeping influence of sharia on US courts. (I stand by that, Caratzola later told the New York Times, claiming that every single terrorist attack in the last 20 years was committed by Muslims.)

In December 2015, a few days after a Muslim husband and wife killed 14 people in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, and shortly before candidate Donald Trump proposed a total and complete shutdown of Muslim immigration, the towns planning board voted to reject the mosque.

At Caratzolas urging, the town government also adopted a new ordinance that raised the minimum size of the plot required to build any new house of worship which would effectively prevent the Islamic Society from building on its own site in the future. The Islamic Society quickly filed a lawsuit against the township, alleging the opposition was a well-funded machine that was substantially grounded in anti-Muslim animus.

The lawsuit particularly highlighted Caratzolas role as a ringleader of the opposition. In a letter to a local newspaper, she accused the Islamic Society of slander and invoked the concept of taqiyya to suggest that Chaudrys mosque proposal was not what it seemed. Many people and groups in the Muslim community, she wrote, are trying to quash what we so fervently cherish in America the freedom of speech.

The Islamic Society also claimed it had the constitution on its side specifically, the first-amendment protection of the freedoms of religion and assembly. And Chaudry could call upon a powerful ally: Barack Obama. Under his administration, the Justice Department intervened on behalf of Muslims in many mosque disputes, including a highly publicised case in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where the construction of a mosque was opposed with lawsuits, protests and an arson attack. It was able to rely on a powerful legal tool: a law, originally passed with bipartisan support in 2000, that specifically bans local governments from discriminating against religious organisations when it comes to land use.

The enforcement policy reflected the fact that Islamophobia is a real problem across America, said Tom Perez, who handled the Murfreesboro case as a director of the Civil Rights Division. (He is currently chairman of the Democratic National Committee.) I think as you see the proliferation of social media, the world has gotten smaller, Perez told me. People who harbour these extreme views have a virtual platform to spread their hate.

In 2016, the US Justice Department filed its own lawsuit, claiming that the local planning board violated the Islamic Societys rights in rejecting its building plan. To Islamophobic activists, who spent the eight years of Obamas presidency promoting conspiracy theories about his birth certificate and suggesting he was secretly a Muslim, such moves were yet more evidence of the administrations suspiciously sympathetic stance toward Islam. Islamic supremacists and Muslim Brotherhood organisations called upon their running dogs at the Department of Justice to impose the sharia and usurp American law for Islamic law, Pam Geller wrote in a blogpost about the Basking Ridge mosque case. What small town can go up against the US governments vast resources and endless taxpayer-funded muscle?

The federal governments intervention had a radicalising effect in Liberty Corner. The neighbourhoods enemy was no longer a pushy former mayor; it was President Obama. Then, as if a Justice Department investigation wasnt intrusive enough, private citizens started receiving knocks on their doors from people carrying subpoenas, seeking to probe their email and social media accounts. The Islamic Societys lawyers members of a prestigious Manhattan firm that was working pro-bono wanted to prove that Caratzola was really the commenter LC, and that she and her allies were communicating their true attitudes to each other and to their elected leaders outside of the public meetings.

Understandably, though, the private citizens felt threatened by the intrusion. Their complaints attracted the attention of the Thomas More Law Center, which intervened on the behalf of residents seeking to quash the subpoenas, claiming that the demand would have a chilling effect on free speech. On its website, the Law Center decried the outrageous unconstitutional intimidation, alongside a heroic photo of Caratzola standing in front of an American flag. Lori Caratzola, the caption read. Persecuted for opposing the mosque.

On 31 December 2016, a federal judge issued a preliminary decision in the Basking Ridge case, finding that the planning board had exercised unbridled and unconstitutional discretion in requiring the mosque to have more parking than other houses of worship. Though the case was far from over, it was clear that the law favoured Chaudry. The victory rang hollow, though. Trump had just been elected president, giving a jarring rebuke to liberal values, and placing Muslim-Americans like Chaudry in a newly precarious position.

As a candidate, to bolster his call for a ban on Muslim immigration, Trump had often cited the research from the Center for Security Policy, Gaffneys group. (Very highly respected people, who I know, actually.) Some of his most important advisers, such as Steve Bannon and Mike Pompeo, soon to be named the CIA director, were outspoken Gaffney admirers. Gaffney saluted the new attorney general, Jeff Sessions the 2015 winner of the Center for Security Policys Keeper of the Flame award for his vigilance against all enemies, foreign and domestic. With Sessions and other members of the nativist right in charge of the federal government, the Justice Departments commitment toward protecting Muslims and their mosques looked shaky.

On a chilly Friday in April last year, still early in Trumps presidency, I helped Chaudry as he performed his weekly ritual, carrying items from the garage of the old house in Liberty Corner to his gold Toyota SUV. In went eight rolled-up prayer rugs, then the plastic donation boxes, the folding music stand that serves as a lectern, the sound system, the digital clock, which was synchronised with Mecca, and four decorative mats, which Chaudry uses to slightly sanctify the drab walls of the community centre that the Islamic Society currently uses for its Jummah service. When the SUV, known as the Mosque Mobile, was full, Chaudry would drive it across town for prayers. Im just overwhelmed with everything that is going on, he said as we got in the car. For the past few months, Trump had been fighting to impose his ban on travellers from seven Muslim-majority nations, sparking court confrontations and massive protests.

Chaudry was responding to the crisis with a characteristic burst of civic activity, participating in political forums and interfaith vigils. The relationship between Muslim communities and their government was wary at the best of times, and Trump was making it much worse, but Chaudry saw himself as a trust-building emissary. He served on advisory panels to law enforcement. A few weeks before, hed spoken about discrimination and the travel ban at a worried meeting between Muslim leaders and many prominent New Jersey politicians. At the forum, as he did nearly everywhere he went, Chaudry promoted an earnest personal cause, asking everyone present to take a formal pledge hed composed, to Stand up for the Other.

The Mosque Mobile turned on to Church Street, the main road through Liberty Corner. The neighbourhood traced its name back to the American revolution, and the whole town took great patriotic pride in the role it had played in the independence struggle, as a stronghold for George Washingtons army. Chaudry took a roundabout route, pointing out horse farms and new tract developments, and a park where the Islamic Society prayed when the community centre was used for a summer camp. Where the flag is, this is the 9/11 memorial, Chaudry said. I was on the township committee when we did that. Eighteen people here died. A wooded road took us into Basking Ridge. In the yard of its Presbyterian church, founded in 1717, stood an ancient tree known as the Holy Oak, where Washington is said to have picnicked with the Marquis de Lafayette.

The Liberty Corner Presbyterian church, a few blocks away from the proposed Islamic Center of Basking Ridge. Photograph: Fred R. Conrad for the Guardian

At the community centre, we were joined by Chaudrys wife, Victoria. We rolled out the mats and set up the speakers, and used a 30-metre (100-ft) sound cable to connect the small main room with an adjacent annex, which was used for overflow. Chaudry pointed, proudly, to his name on a plaque on the wall he had helped to establish the centre. About a decade before, he and around a dozen other Muslims had started gathering there. But there were more Muslims around than he realised, working as doctors in the areas hospitals, or as scientists in its many pharmaceutical firms, or as engineers at a big telecommunications company. The Islamic Society had long ago outgrown its temporary space.

The worshippers began to arrive, most of them men coming from office jobs, plastic ID badges hanging from their belts. They dropped their shoes in an unruly pile near the centres doorway, and used a cramped galley kitchen to perform wudu, the Muslim washing ritual. Then they knelt down as the muezzin sang a call to prayer.

Because it lacked a permanent home, the Islamic Society had no imam, and it relied on a rotating cast to lead services. This weeks visitor, Chaudry told me, was known as the crying imam. That week, dozens of Syrian civilians, including many children, had been killed in a poison gas attack, and the night before, Trump had fired cruise missiles in reprisal. The imam, dressed in a long black robe, led a prayer for our brothers and sisters in Syria. His voice trembling, he sobbed, Give peace to this region.

Thats one of his characteristics, Chaudry said after the service. He does become emotional. Most of the worshippers, who numbered around 70 in all, quickly returned to their cars and hurried back to work. Chaudry repacked the Mosque Mobile.

Ive been carrying these rugs for more than 10 years now, and Im tired of doing it, he told me. We need to have a place of our own.

As we drove out of Basking Ridge, Chaudry pointed out the Holy Oak, standing tall in the churchyard. The tree was rotten, he told me. Later that month, it would be cut down, and its dead branches handed out to townspeople as patriotic keepsakes.

Despite Trumps election, Chaudry still retained his hope for justice, at least for his congregation. The case was now in the courts, which meant the Justice Department couldnt easily abandon it. The towns government, facing an almost certain legal defeat, was under pressure from its insurance company to settle its lawsuit with the Islamic Society quickly, before a trial.

Throughout the spring and summer of 2017, negotiations dragged on over a settlement, which would include a large damages payment to the Islamic Society. I attended endless meetings of the townships elected committee, at which angry citizens would demand information from stone-faced board members, inveighing against the settlement in increasingly apocalyptic terms. Chaudry attended with other members of the Islamic Society. He sat in the front row but said nothing, keeping his head down and scribbling in a pad, showing no emotion even in the face of incendiary provocations.

The opponents were a surprisingly diverse lot. There were some old-money Protestants, who complained that the hubbub would bother their horses. But some of the most emotional speakers were new residents, many of them immigrants from south and east Asia. At one meeting, one of the Islamic Societys closest neighbours, a medical professional from India who was building a large house directly behind the mosque plot, stood up and addressed the Muslims in the audience directly.

If you are somehow able to get a mosque built, you will create a divide which you will not be able to bridge, he said. On the other hand, if the site would move to another appropriate location, you will earn our respect, and you will truly earn the right to build a mosque in this town. What is it that you want, to just build a mosque, or set an example for the whole country?

By the perverse logic of the mosque opponents, it was the Islamic Society that had brought discrimination upon itself, by suing over discrimination. There was only one thing the Muslims could do to prove themselves worthy neighbours: go somewhere else.

It wouldnt be fair to say, though, that everyone who spoke against the mosque was religiously motivated. Many, if not most, of the adversaries appeared to be genuinely impassioned in their opposition to development in Liberty Corner. Sure, theres a 5% lunatic fringe, Paul Zubulake told me one evening while sitting on a bench outside the town hall, waiting for yet another meeting to begin. But he said that for him, and many others, religion was beside the point: Its about our quality of life. Its going to destroy our community.

To show me what he loved about Liberty Corner, Zubalake invited me to visit his home, a few doors down from the Islamic Society property. When I arrived, on a rainy Memorial Day in late May, a soggy town parade was making its way down the main thoroughfare, Church Street. As Zubulake was introducing me to his family explaining that his son has autism, and they had moved to the area for his schooling he spotted the mayor marching by with other members of the township committee. He dashed down to the roadside and shouted: Theres still time!

The politicians frowned and kept marching down Church Street. I just want them to know how pissed off I am, Zubulake said.

Chaudry, meanwhile, had organised a contingent from the Islamic Society to march in the Memorial Day parade. They met in front of the house, next to a sign that Chaudry had staked in the yard, reading: Proud to Be An American. Whether by chance or intention, the parades organisers had put the Islamic Society at the very rear, right behind another marginalised group, the local Democrats. Chaudry coaxed the children who were marching with the Islamic Societys banner to stay in a tight formation. Good morning! he called from beneath a big black umbrella, waving an American flag with his free hand. The parade route ended at a war memorial, where Chaudry left a wreath with a mosque insignia.

My advice to the community has always been that this is not the time to hide, Chaudry told me later. You have to be out there, fighting for your rights.

To some people in Basking Ridge, Chaudrys struggle looked less noble. They saw his battle with the town government as a local political feud, which dated back to his tenure as an elected official, long before he ever proposed the mosque. Chaudry had first run for a seat on the town committee in 2001. After September 11, which hit the commuter town hard, he told the local newspaper: We are all under attack. But a Republican party leader called him to suggest it might be better if his campaign signs, which read Ali Chaudry, just used his last name. I said everyone knows who I am, Chaudry told me. Ive never kept it a secret. He won the election. But he was not universally popular.

The way the local government worked, the office of mayor rotated annually among the elected members of the township committee. In 2004, it was Chaudrys turn. As the USs first Pakistani-American mayor, he made a triumphant visit to his homeland, where he met with the foreign minister, and gave interviews in which he hinted that he had ambitions for higher office. But local critics found him arrogant and high-handed. The next time he was up for election, he held on to his committee seat by just 11 votes.

Chaudry speaking during Friday prayers at the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge. Photograph: Fred R Conrad for the Guardian

The local Republican party was also in the midst of a schism, and Chaudry and his allies were ultimately driven out by a more conservative faction, which ran on the slogan: Its Time To Take Your Town Back. The bad blood spilled over into the mosque dispute. The most damning evidence produced by the Islamic Society in the course of its lawsuit came from the correspondence of the towns elected officials, many of whom had formerly served and clashed with Chaudry. They expressed their hostility in raw, racially offensive terms.

A town committee member named John Malay compared Chaudry to a stereotypically shifty native character in the 1930s film The Lives of a Bengal Lancer. We [finally] ousted him, whereupon he went to Mecca, got a funny hat and declared himself the imam of a new mosque here in town, Malay wrote. Religion trumps even politics as a refuge for scoundrels, I guess.

Other emails contained jokes about Muslims, pigs and Barack Obama. Man child, John Carpenter, another committee member, wrote of Obama. The product of fools, raised by idiots and coddled by affirmative action. Behold the beast. The emails revealed that Carpenter had even lobbied to prevent Chaudry from participating in a September 11 commemoration ceremony, alleging he was an extremist. [Find] a real moderate Muslim, he wrote. There must be one. We shouldnt look the other way on his views we owe that to our dead residents. Lets make it happen without that fool. When the correspondence came out in court filings, Carpenter offered no apologies. You should not confuse contempt with bigotry, he told a newspaper. Im allowed to not like the guy.

Hes just a funny guy with this identity thing, Carpenter told me when we met for coffee at a diner over the summer. He was known as, quote, Mr Muslim.

Carpenter, a tall, balding salesman, had served on the town committee for more than a decade, and was running for re-election. He was outraged that his unguarded words had been used to portray him and the entire township as racist. When government tries to see into someones heart, thats when we fall into totalitarianism, he told me.

He advanced a conspiratorial theory, which I heard from other mosque opponents, that Chaudry had been engineering failure all along, so that he could sue and win millions in damages, as other mosques had done. He said he believed that Chaudry and the Obama administration had been conspiring. A Justice Department official involved in the investigation of the township, he noted, served with Chaudry on the board of a local universitys Center on Religion, Culture and Conflict. (Chaudry says they never discussed the case.)

I find it ironic that he served on this council for religious conflict, and what he really was trying to do here and I dont think he succeeded in the end, because people see through it is create a religious conflict, Carpenter said. I dont think what happened is fair to the people of the town, and I think its important for other people around the country to know whats coming their way.

Carpenter said he had been hopeful that Trumps election would bring a little sanity to the Department of Justice, and a reversal of its stance on the mosque case, but so far, he had been disappointed. He knew the president was spending his summer vacation at his private club in Bedminster, though, just a quick drive away from Basking Ridge. Hes there for three weeks, joked Carpenter, an avid cyclist. Maybe I could sneak in, ride my bike up the back road: I need to speak to the president!

All year long, as I kept returning to see Chaudry, Donald Trump loomed over our conversation. One Saturday morning in September, on my way to meet Chaudry at a Lutheran Churchs symposium on Race, Hatred and Bigotry, I looked up in the sky and saw the presidential helicopter heading toward Bedminster. Trumps embrace of the worst in politics fanning terrorism hysteria, retweeting racist memes, refusing to condemn the white nationalist demonstrators in Charlottesville had real consequences on the ground. People are emboldened to come out and say things that they never felt they could say before, Chaudry told the symposium. They have a licence, because the person in the highest office of the country is engaging in that kind of language.At one point, the room suddenly filled with a disconcerting roar from low-flying military jets.

Chaudry introduced a pair of high school girls, one of whom was wearing hijab, who eloquently described their experiences with bullying confrontations on the school bus and social media platforms. I would say to my non-Muslim friends: this is the Muslim community, Chaudry said when they finished their presentation.

As the controversy over the mosque moved toward a settlement, the town committee held a series of heated public hearings. Many members of the Islamic Society attended, to show a human face to their neighbours. They always took care to present themselves as model citizens: upscale professionals, and the parents of striving children.

We are not some strange boogeyman that came out of nowhere, Yasmine Khalil told me. She was a doctor and a vocal mosque supporter, who had moved to the township from Manhattan a few years before. Khalil said she had been dismayed to see the ugliness infiltrate even a private Facebook group for local mothers, where she had got into commenting wars about Islam. When I wasnt just quiet and silent and in the background, she said, they took it upon themselves to kick me out.