Sunday, September 24, 2006

Another point of view on Somalia

This article from the NY Times (brought to my attention by Xanthippas) paints a very different portrait of Somalia and the CCIC's rule there. Most of the news in the recent past has tended to focus on the fact that the new defacto government is Islamic in nature and has played up their possible connection to Al Qaeda (which, as far as I'm aware, there's no evidence which supports that claim). They've also played up the idea that the CCIC is enforcing strict Sharia. News articles about militiamen shooting nuns and people watching movies get much more play than the average, every day peace that's there.

However, very few have focused on the fact that there's peace in Mogadishu for the first time in more than a decade and that the CCIC has pacified much of the country outside of Mogadishu as well. Under their governance, the airport has been reopened and just yesterday they captured another port, further enhancing their control of the country. Furthermore, they've taken the unprecedented step of curtailing sales of qat, a stimulant in common use there, during the month of Ramadan. Qat can perhaps be blamed to a degree for some of the rampant violence formerly being perpetrated by "soldiers" of the warlords who once ruled Mogadishu. The US soldiers portrayed in "Black Hawk Down" attested that the most dangerous time of day was when the men started to hit the peak of their high (about 3 hours after they started chewing).

This NY Times article by Jeffrey Gettleman is indeed very interesting because his characterization of life in Somalia is radically different from this image of oppression.

Young couples take to the waterfront, mingling openly in the salty breeze. Thousands of children flock to soccer fields in the city center, with a backdrop of beautifully crumbled ruins from battles now over.

Instead of acting like the Taliban and ruthlessly imposing a harsh religious orthodoxy, as many feared, the Islamists seem to be trying to increase public support by softening their views, at least officially, delivering social services and pushing for democratic elections.

Islamic leaders are operating almost in campaign mode, organizing street cleanups, visiting hospitals, overseeing a mini building boom and recruiting elderly policemen to don faded uniforms they have not worn for years and return to work. Beyond that, they sent a letter this week to the United Nations Security Council pledging to support democratic rule.

Of course that's not to say that hard-line elements may not be intending to impose the Sharia when they get the chance. And it doesn't absolutely prove they're not harboring terrorists. And there have been regrettable instances of militiamen going nuts on people for doing un-Islamic activities. We don't want to fall into the trap of thinking that it has to be one way or the other. As Gettleman writes:

Maybe this is just smooth talk. Or premature signs that could prove misleading. Hard-core elements still operate here, including militiamen who drive around with black scarves and black flags and shoot people for watching Hollywood movies. Young men like them were believed to have killed an Italian nun at a Mogadishu hospital last Sunday, apparently in retaliation for Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks on Islam.

But the Islamist leaders say they are rogue elements who will be punished, and they have reopened some movie theaters and issued decrees emphasizing tolerance. Whether they live up to those promises seems to hinge on whether they can, or even want to, rein in the militant groups that helped propel them to power.

Maybe. We really can't know at the moment how everything is going to turn out. But before the world (i.e. the US and Britain) rushes to the judgement that Somalia is turning into another Afghanistan, perhaps we should take the time to remember that for one, Somalis aren't extremists by default. If Islam was so important to them, why didn't the women cover themselves from head to toe before the CICC took over? They listened to western music and drank Coke like the rest of us when they had the choice. The Islamic Courts Union came to power precisely because a coalition of moderate Islamists, hardline Islamists and average businessmen came to power. In other words, most of them are people who don't support things like the Sharia. Unfortunately, they do have elements within the government that I'm sure would like nothing better than to live in a country exactly like Afghanistan under the Taliban.

However, they're not living that way now:

But the darkest fears of a draconian Islam on Africa’s east coast have not come true, at least not yet. Boys are allowed to play soccer, and girls are allowed to go to school, despite rumors to the contrary. And businesses are not forced to close during prayer time, as has been widely reported outside of Mogadishu.

Right now, they seem mainly to be focuse on rebuilding:

The courts are now focusing on civil administration, with committees on sanitation, reconstruction, education and justice. Investment money is already flowing back in. The streets around Mogadishu’s main market are clogged with trucks hauling logs and cement. To oversee all this, the Islamists have appointed university professors, including many educated abroad, to crucial posts.

Of course I'm not yet sure what kind of country Somalia will be, but I can say that we shouldn't speak as if "moderate" and "Islamic" cannot both be simultaneously true.

1 comment:

Xanthippas said...

That's a much more balanced assessment than you'll see on other sights, many conservative, which bemoan the continuing spread of the world Islamic caliphate.