Getting Somalia Wrong

New Year’s Eve whizzed by too chaotically for resolutions, but had I remembered to make one, it would have been to maintain this site a little more diligently in 2013. It’s been a little too quiet of late, and though that isn’t due to laziness – I was busy writing this report on Myanmar, about which more anon – a couple more posts wouldn’t have gone amiss. I’ll up my game this year. And that’s for sure . . .

Anyway, a couple of connected events have at last got me thinking blogically again. I spent the festive break relaxing over a history of modern Somalia (as one does), and the London Review of Books then asked me a couple of days ago to write about Ibrahim Magag, a suspected extremist of Somali origin who was being monitored by the police and now seems to have gone AWOL. My post on their website is here – but tempting though it might be to click on that link immediately, hold back. As I said, the events are connected.

The book I read was Mary Harper’s Getting Somalia Wrong, which I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in what’s going on around the Horn of Africa. Harper has spent years covering the region for the BBC World Service, and her account combines interviews and vivid reportage with keen political insight.  She’s particularly good on describing the pros and cons of shari’a-enforcement in modern Somalia – and there have been both.  Self-appointed arbiters of Islamic law were initially viewed positively by many people, because the rough justice they offered seemed to stabilise the country after years of chaos – but just as happened with the Taliban in 1990s Afghanistan, that promise then turned very bitter indeed.

The organisation that is now most notorious for its claims to promote the shari’a, al-Shabaab,  would be ludicrous if it weren’t so brutal. Its members consider football matches to be un-Islamic, and have tried keeping kids busy instead with bow-and-arrow competitions or religious quizzes – where participants win prizes that include AK-47s, anti-tank mines, hand grenades and (for the runners-up) office supplies. ‘Never in my life have I seen such rewards’, marvels the compere at one of the contests.

It’s not all fun and games. Members of al-Shabaab force women to wear veils and use broken glass to groom men they consider unkempt; they close down video halls and demolish ancient Sufi shrines; and they encourage innumerable children to explode themselves in God’s name. The fledgling martyrs are sometimes shown Bollywood movies and ‘told that these are films of paradise, shot by al-Shabaab militants who are already living in heaven’. Their instinctive inclination to live is meanwhile subverted by trickery. According to one former fighter, ‘Some senior al-Shabaab members pretend they are also undergoing training to become suicide bombers; they start weeping and crying that they too want to go on suicide missions but are told by the trainers that others have been selected, that their time will come. They use this as a psychological tactic to mislead the young trainees.’

None of that is written to demonise Somalia or its inhabitants. I’ve not been to the country (and to be perfectly honest, it’s now slipped even lower on my dream holiday list) but as Harper shows throughout her book, Somalia is a functioning society as much as it is a failed state – and as usual, the very large majority of the extremists’ victims are ordinary citizens, who want nothing so much as an ordered, predictable life.

Which brings me, at long last, to this post’s pay-off. The LRB article I mentioned above is about a man suspected of having links to al-Shabaab. If that’s the case, he and I wouldn’t have much in common. Truth be told, I’d very probably find his views discomforting, stupid, naive and unpleasant. But  even if a person does support al-Shabaab, distaste, unease and suspicion are no firm foundation for legal action – and upholding that principle is pretty important if we ourselves are to have an ordered, predictable and law-abiding state. And with those cryptic prefatory thoughts in mind, if you can still muster the energy to read my piece, click here.

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