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A Question Of Balance In Somalia
MOGADISHU, November 21, 2006 – After more than a decade of brutal factional fighting, the road-blocks and gunmen have been cleared off the streets of the Somali capital, business is thriving and Mogadishu is being rebuilt. But strict standards of religious and behavioral discipline are being introduced, and questions are being asked about the vision of the new authority, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC).
For now, gratitude for security and freedom of movement takes precedence for most Mogadishu residents. Others have fled to refugee camps, complaining of persecution and loss of business.
"There are two sorts of freedoms," pointed out a Mogadishu businessman. "Going about our daily lives is the most important freedom we can have now." But he said one freedom may come at the price of another. "People do not want to lose their personal freedoms."
The extraordinary turnaround in security means people can go about their daily life: traders can safely take home their earnings; children can go to school regularly and without fear; clinics and hospitals can concentrate on primary healthcare instead of constantly dealing with the trauma of conflict.
A recent visitor from the diaspora, who has not been to Mogadishu in six years, was astounded by the changes. "I drove through areas no one has driven in 15 years - like Bermuda [named after the Bermuda Triangle, previously one of the most dangerous areas] - without any security escort or even a gun. Five months ago this would have been unthinkable, even with a heavy security escort," he said.
Stability under the UIC has opened up new prospects for humanitarian assistance. For the first time in more than a decade, food aid has successfully been brought into the newly opened port for distribution outside the city. According to Leo van der Velden, Deputy Country Director of World Food Programme, Somalia, the new authority had "done the right things and said the right things" to encourage humanitarian access, and that good security allowed transporters to safely carry and deliver.
CARE International confirmed that a consignment of sorghum from the United States had arrived in the port in October, and was successfully handled, transported and delivered to areas outside the city – a logistical achievement impossible for more than a decade, when the port and its resources became a flashpoint for factional fighting.
Freedom of movement has also allowed access to the displaced camps in Mogadishu. For years, thousands of internally displaced people have suffered ‘a forgotten tragedy’ in the city. Now the displaced are also benefiting from safety and small-scale community assistance. In October, the Al Bayan court militia escorted small consignments of food to the camps, donated by the local community. "We are doing what we can," said the chairman of Al Bayan, Mohamed Ibrahim Bilal.
But despite the change, security fears resulted in the humanitarian community withdrawing from Somalia in September. The move followed the murder of a foreign cameraman and an Italian nun in Mogadishu, and the assassination attempt in Baidoa on the President of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Since the withdrawal, talks between the UIC and the TFG have stalled. The two sides met in Khartoum twice since the UIC victory in a reconciliation meeting sponsored by the Arab League and supported by the international community. The third meeting scheduled for late October did not take place after the two sides failed to agree on fundamental issues. Fears of regional conflict increased after the UIC declared Jihad on Ethiopia for deploying troops inside Somali territory - which Ethiopia has consistently denied.
In November, the US embassies in the region issued a warning against "reports of terrorist threats emanating from extremist elements within Somalia, which target Kenya, Ethiopia and other surrounding countries". It warned of suicide attacks, particularly in Kenya and Ethiopia - seen as regional US allies and supporters of the TFG. The US accused the UIC of harboring alleged terrorists and extremists, while the US in turn has been accused of supporting the defeated warlords.
On the streets of Mogadishu, there is much debate about ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’. A local journalist said his personal freedoms had changed in many ways since the takeover, "good and bad". "In some areas there is no music or cinemas, radio stations have closed down, we have no freedom to write, and they are doing public executions." He says there is a ‘wait and see’ atmosphere.
"When it comes to security, we feel freedom. When it comes to personal freedoms, we feel worried."
Since coming to power in June, the UIC has implemented Shari’a law, but avoided issuing official directives on details of social and religious conduct. Instead, it has used punishment and propaganda to set new standards. Public floggings were meted out for men and women accused of selling drugs, chewing khat and ‘immoral behavior’. There are public lectures and radio appeals addressing religious commitment, behavior and morality, and the interpretation of the Koran.
But the new climate of punishment and restraint may not sit comfortably in a culture known for its personal freedoms and egalitarianism – and the UIC is wary of launching an assault against certain aspects of Somali culture.
The UIC’s new ban on khat will prove a critical test of acceptance of the new restrictions.
During Ramadan in Mogadishu, when the sun had gone down and the last prayers said, women sold bundles of the narcotic leaf from small street stalls. Angrily, they talked about the number of times they had been stopped from selling khat. Young men push and shout around shadowy markets, complaining their cinemas and entertainments had been closed down.
Khat bans were first announced in UIC-controlled Kismayo and Jilib in southern Somalia.
The new authority is pragmatic about the popular impact of an official ban. "It is a public challenge," the Chairman of the Islamic Courts, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, told IRIN.
The daily importation of khat from Kenya and Ethiopia is costly, and its narcotic effects have contributed to conflict and lawlessness. It is seen as a social evil by many. But it provides countless small traders, mostly women who are heads of households, with a livelihood, and its daily use is socially and geographically widespread. No Somali government has been successful in abolishing the trade.
There is also consternation over new standards of dress code. In UIC offices, men who dress ‘western-style’ are frowned upon. Visiting businessmen and women say they sometimes struggle to conform and do not understand the disapproval around details of behavior and dress.
Change is visible. Increasingly, women in Mogadishu are adopting a full veil, more associated with Saudi Arabia and the Arab states than ‘Somali-style’ modesty. Over the last few years, black, brown and grey hijabs have been steadily replacing the vibrant colorful Somali scarves. The trend has accelerated since the takeover, note Mogadishu residents.
Sheikh Sharif emphasizes that the increase in ‘modesty’ is not the result of any official declaration by the UIC. "The Islamic Courts has made no decision about [this] because Somali women dress the way it is intended in their religion. I do not wish to impose anything like that." Some of the UIC leadership says the debate over dress is provoked by pro-western critics.
Badge of loyalty
But there is much debate – in private – by Mogadishu residents as to whether people are changing their habits through religious choice, or just to protect themselves. "Women are already taking up the veil not out of choice but as a precaution, so that no-one singles them out," said one businessman. As a supporter of the UIC, he said the focus on dress and behavior was "not a priority problem in Somalia – and shouldn’t be for anyone. The UIC should be concerned with more important things."
Humor on the streets reflects the fact that the new path to power is through religion. "Everyone is becoming a sheikh these days," observed one hotelier. Red and white checked headscarves are used fairly ubiquitously by the UIC - from the leadership and the militia to their supporters. The scarves are seen as a badge of loyalty. For those who want to demonstrate strict religious commitment, musical ring tones on mobile phones have been replaced by recordings from the mosque.
Some of the social confusion comes from the absence of policy. Soon after the takeover, cases were being reported of women being ordered to wear the hijab. But the UIC leadership explains these incidents as the challenge of centralization. There are 27 branches of the courts in Mogadishu, and 11 outside the city, all used to operating autonomously. Different local courts were imposing different standards and implementing different punishments. Centralization of the courts did not take place until late September.
Once the courts had been brought under a central authority, the UIC officially established a judicial system under Shari’a law. In October, the Supreme Court of Benadir Region was opened, and an appeals court set up. Public floggings and executions can now only proceed when approved by the Supreme Justice Committee, representing all the courts. Police stations are also being established, although not yet fully functional. Sentenced prisoners are being held in the central Mogadishu jail. The UIC also recently banned photographs and film of executions, aware of the impact on its critics and the wider world.
The confusion over codes of behavior illustrates the struggle between the moderates and hardliners within the UIC. Since the takeover, there has been increased emphasis on ‘jihad’ and visible militarization of society – including seminars on jihad for men and women, and training camps to unify the militia into a centralized force. Some UIC leaders see security and ‘defense of the country and the religion’ as the priority, and have made it the rallying call.
The hardliners – known as the Shabaab group – invest in militarization, advocate strict religious codes and punishments, and shun contact with the non-Muslim world. They include key figures in the UIC - including Chief of Security for Mogadishu, Sheikh Abdillahi Mo’alim Ali ‘Abu Utayba’, who stated publicly, according to local journalists, that people who failed to pray five times a day should be shot. Prominent UIC figures, including Abu Utayba, appear in a ‘jihadi video’ doing the rounds in Mogadishu and the diaspora. The video glorifies Osama bin Laden, shows military training camps in Mogadishu, and calls on "any marginalized Muslim to come to Somalia". It calls Somalia "the new Afghanistan of the world". The video is not officially endorsed by the UIC, and there is no indication of who authored it. ‘Jihadi’ propaganda experts believe it was probably made for fund-raising in the Somali diaspora, as it is predominately in the Somali language.
"The courts never authored such a thing … it is the work of our enemies," Professor Ibrahim Hassan Adow, head of the UIC Foreign Affairs department, told IRIN.
Key members of the UIC leadership are working to secure international support and assistance in rebuilding Somalia. There is consternation in the movement that, having successfully delivered peace and unity in Mogadishu after nearly two decades of chaos and conflict, the humanitarian community has pulled out. The moderates are concerned that isolation from the international community serves to strengthen extremism and undermines opportunities for humanitarian assistance.
Sheikh Sharif said the UIC could provide security for international organizations to work in Mogadishu, and had encouraged humanitarian groups to take advantage of peace in the city.
"We had started negotiations and the process was going well, but then the humanitarian community declared it was leaving the areas where the UIC was in control. We regret that because we see it as a violation of people’s rights."
According to Adow, the greatest challenge for the UIC is to meet basic needs. "Our biggest challenge is to go beyond peace and provide social services, to provide the basic needs, whether it is food, medical care, shelter, education, employment. While we do this, we have to simultaneously show the world that we want to pacify Somalia and defend the Somali people, and establish a working relationship [with the international community]."
To date, humanitarian organizations are unsure about the implications of the takeover. According to Philippe Lazzarini, head of OCHA-Somalia, many of the Somalis most in need are in south-central Somalia, most of which is controlled by the UIC. He told IRIN there was need for dialogue and engagement.
"In order to get access to those in need it is imperative to engage with the authorities in control, including the UIC," he said.
Engagement was important to "build trust and to get commitment for the protection of aid workers and unimpeded access to those in need", he emphasized.
As a ‘broad church’, the UIC is at a critical stage in centralizing itself administratively and politically.
"I think it is good for Somalis to start debating the Jihadists’ position and the need for the moderates," said a member of the diaspora, Awale Ali Kullane, in Mogadishu for an exploratory visit. Kullane, like thousands of others, is watching developments closely, eager to return home and help rebuild his country.