Somalia: Suppressor of freedom of musical expression is now the country’s president
The Islamist cleric who was elected as Somalia’s new president on 31 January 2009 has a long history of silencing musical expression in Somalia. The future looks increasingly bleak for music and musicians in Somalia, writes Freemuse correspondent and Somalia analyst, Abdulkadir M. Wa’ays, in this exclusive article.
By Abdulkadir M. Wa’ays
Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed
On 31 January 2009, a conference hosted by the Djibouti government and sponsored by the United Nations, attended by over 500 parliamentarians-in-exile, including newly added 200 members from the Islamist-led opposition, elected Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a former leader of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), as president of Somalia for the next two years.
In this article, Abdulkadir M. Wa’ays writes about the newly elected president’s biography, examines how the UIC militias have deprived a traditionally music-loving nation of their rights to freedom of musical expression, and how these violations have finally served as a means for Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed to move up the political ladder.
BORN IN JULY 1964 in a rural settlement of Mahaday district in Middle Shabelle region, 120 kilometres north-east of the capital Mogadishu, Sheikh Sharif attended Islamic schools in Somalia before he went on to study Islamic studies in Sudan and Libya during the 1990s.
When he returned home to Jowhar in 2002, he approached Mohamed Dhere, who was then a self-appointed warlord-governor in charge of the Middle Shabelle region. He came with a new proposal. Acting upon his recommendation, warlord Mohamed Dhere authorised Sheikh Sharif to set up a regional Islamic Sharia court in Jowhar, the region’s capital, 90 kilometres north-east of Mogadishu.
However, Sheikh Sharif’s Islamic court did not last long. Mohamed Dhere, a ruthless but secular warlord, closed it down and even expelled Sheikh Sharif from the region. Some residents in the town told Freemuse (on the condition of anonymity because of their personal safety) that both the court closure and the Sheikh’s expulsion came after the public had complained of the court’s unpopular move towards organising and attending traditional dancing events for which the nomadic people of the region are renowned. The modern type of the Somali song sung with the modern musical instruments had originally been transformed from this traditional folklore dance, played with traditional musical instruments, which remains widely popular in Somalia.
As a result, Sheikh Sharif fled to Mogadishu where he started teaching geography, Arabic language, and Islamic religion in the Islamic Schools in Mogadishu. According to Qaadisiya, the news website of his UIC faction, the Sheikh’s expulsion from Middle Shabelle region, his home region, earned him a new nickname in Mogadishu: “the thrown-out-Sharif”, with connotations that he was rejected and thrown out of his home-region by his own community — an example of one community’s aggressive reaction to restrictions on their traditional music.
In 2003, as Sheikh Sharif taught at the Islamic schools, he became deeply involved in the growing Islamic awakening, spearheaded by veteran Salafist Islamists, through the local Islamic courts in Mogadishu. Some of his former students at Jubba School in Mogadishu, (who wished to remain anonymous because of their personal safety), told Freemuse that Sheikh Sharif used to preach to them against music and that he would punish those he found guilty of listening to music, or watching films and music videos in their homes or at public open-air video parlours.
In 2004, he set up another Islamic court in the SiSi neighbourhood of north Mogadishu. In July 2005, he was elected as the chairman of the Union of the Islamic Courts (UIC) that drew together more than a dozen clan-based local Islamic courts in Mogadishu.
In June 2006, the UIC militias seized Mogadishu after defeating an alliance of Somali warlords backed by the United States government. The fighting began when a group of warlords, who had divided the capital into fiefdoms, united in an “anti-terrorist” alliance to tackle the Islamic courts’ authorities which, they claimed, sheltered foreign al-Qa’eda terrorists. Inspired by this quick and unexpected victory over Mogadishu’s most feared warlords, the UIC forces advanced on rabidly and gained control of most of south and central Somalia.
Six-month menace In its six months rule in 2006, the UIC militias was credited, to some extent, with bringing a relative but unsustainable stability to the areas under their control, but was harshly criticized and hated by the public for their imposition of strict religious practices, as opposed to the moderate form of Sufi Islam, practiced traditionally in the country for centuries, which promoted music and supported the musicians’ freedom of musical expression.
Sheikh Sharif in 2006, chairman of the Union of the Islamic Courts
During this period, the UIC militias did not only wage a violent crackdown on music and musicians but they intimidated the musicians into publicly denouncing music as un-Islamic and repenting of their “old sins” as musicians. The UIC militias had grossly violated the fundamental rights of the Somali musicians to freedom of musical expression as well as the rights of the public to listening to music, watching music related films and videos, and holding or attending music events. Movies, music, and mixed wedding ceremonies were banned; even open-air video parlours showing the World Cup matches were shut down. Armed raids on such places by the UIC militias became daily, confiscating, and destroying musical instruments, describing them as “satanic”.
Radio stations silenced The UIC militias also raided the local radio stations for airing music and music related programs. Such raids were open-ended and occurred daily. Take, for instance, the case in September 2006, when the UIC authorities in Jowhar, 90 kilometres north-east of the capital Mogadishu, shut down Radio Jowhar, and ordered that its electricity be cut, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and international news reports.
The Associated Press quoted a UIC official, Sheikh Mohamed Mohamoud Abdirahman, as saying that the station’s programmes were “un-Islamic” and that it was “useless to air music and love songs for the people”. The shutdown, though aimed at musical content, also silenced news programming on Radio Jowhar for two days. The station went back on the air after agreeing to the UIC’s terms and conditions of removing music and music-related materials from all its programmes.
The UIC militias did not even spare young teenagers from their barrage of terror for watching soccer at open-air video parlours, not because that they were against the soccer itself but they were preventing them from watching and listening to the music mixed with the soccer programmes. Take, for instance, the case in September 2006 when a 13-year-old boy was killed and three others wounded in an armed raid by the UIC militia on a cinema hall in southern Mogadishu to break up a crowd watching an English premier league match. Islamist militiamen aboard machine gun-mounted pickups stormed Duale Cinema in Bulo-hubey neighbourhood, where hundreds were watching the Chelsea-Liverpool match, and opened fire, killing the boy as others scampered for safety. They also smashed a television set and satellite-link equipment
“I saw armed men pouring into the cinema hall and minutes later they opened fire indiscriminately, killing one and wounding three others, including my younger brother,” Idris Abdi Taqtar, a witness, told the Herald Sun, Australia’s daily newspaper. The Islamists confirmed the death, but blamed the fans for sparking the violence when they blocked militiamen from entering the hall to implement a ban on cinema halls in Mogadishu.
Wedding party raided The waves of raids by the UIC militias during their rule in south and central Somalia were open-ended and went beyond imagination. Take, for the last instance, the case in July 2006 when twenty heavily armed men had raided a wedding party in a home in Mogadishu, taking the musical instruments from the band entertaining the guests at the party. According to a local radio station, radio Shabelle in Mogadishu, the band were told by the gunmen it was performing “satanic” music contrary to the Koran.
“We were ordered to stop the music and empty the house which we all complied with immediately,” Mr. Hayir Ali Roble, one of the musicians performing at the party, told the radio. “We followed their orders and kept our musical instruments in a room but they forcefully entered the house and took the instruments, and in the process broke some of them.”
“We have told them to stop the evil acts that derail the practice of Sharia law and it is our duty to enforce the ban on band music,” argued Sheikh Ali Salad, the head of Ridwan Islamic court of the Union of the Islamic Courts in the neighbourhood, who led the raid on the party. “We confiscated musical instruments that are satanic simply because we have previously told party organizers not to bring bands with music at the party.”
Yet, most of the atrocities carried out during this period by the UIC militias, under the leadership of Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the new Somali President, against the Somali musicians and the music-loving people of Somalia, were not reported to the outside world, though they were documented discreetly. In August 2006, the National Union of the Somali Journalists (NUSOJ) reported, “it was alarmed at increasing self-censorship among journalists who feared reprisals from UIC authorities in Mogadishu and elsewhere.”
Call for Jihad and foreign jihadis to Somalia On 10 October 2006, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, then the chairman of the UIC officially called for Jihad against Ethiopia for sending into Somalia thousands of troops to defend the weak and toothless Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government against the menace of the Islamist forces from the UIC, who were advancing on Baidoa, the seat of the government.
“Starting from today, we have declared jihad against Ethiopia,” said Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed as reported by The Telegragh. “History shows that Somalis always win when they are attacked from outside. We will counter them soon. I urge all the Somali people to wage holy war against the Ethiopians.”
On 23 december 2006, the Union of Islamic Courts issued a global call to arms to foreign fighters for their campaign against Ethiopia and its troops in Somalia.
“Our country is open to Muslims worldwide,” Said Yusuf Mohamed Siyad “Indha’ade”, the UIC’s defence chief, as reported by The Telegraph. “Let them fight in Somalia and wage jihad, and God willing, attack Addis Ababa.” Artillery and rocket battles between the Islamists and forces loyal to Somalia’s Ethiopian-backed-government were the start of a “blazing fire that would engulf the region”, the defence chief said.
Downfall of the UIC Seeing the UIC as a threat to both itself and the UN-backed Transitional Somali Government, Ethiopian troops defended the government against an Islamist attack on Baidoa in December 2006. The Ethiopian forces and its allied Somali government troops advanced on rapidly, taking Mogadishu and driving the Islamists to Somalia’s southern tip, with UIC leadership including Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed fleeing towards the Kenyan borders.
During their six-month rule, the UIC Islamist militias made two self-destructive blunders that led to their downfall. The first one was their call for jihad against Ethiopian state, and the second was their imposition of their Medieval-style Islamic version of Sharia law, by which they had banned the cinemas, outlawed music and soccer games. Speaking at Chatham House in London, UK, on 25 April 2007, Prof. Said S. Samatar, Professor of African History at Rutgers University, said, “By this kind of harsh, barbaric impositions, the Islamists would surely have come to discredit themselves in the eyes of the Somalis. In the six months that they ruled southern Somalia, they managed to make themselves highly unpopular”.
The new label: “moderate Islamist cleric” Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, then the head of the Islamist Courts Union executive council, was part of a group of Islamist leaders and their militias hunted down by American and Ethiopian troops as they fled deep into the bush along the border with Kenya. In January 2007, Sheikh Sharif surfaced at the Kenya-Somalia border and surrendered to the Kenyan authorities, who picked him up from there, and put him in a luxurious hotel on the outskirts of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. According to Reuter’s news report carried by The New York Times, Sheikh Sharif met there with the American ambassador to Kenya, Michael E. Ranneberger, who was quoted as saying: “Mr. Ahmed is among those who could play a role in the reconciliation…”
According to International Herald Tribune, the BBC aired an interview with the ambassador in which he said: “We certainly have made clear to the T.F.G.” — Somalia’s transitional federal government — “that it needs to talk to all elements and that includes people such as, for example, Sheikh Sharif”. At that point, Sheikh Sharif, was nowhere to be found, thought to be in hiding in the southern Somalia marshes, or possibly dead, wrote the paper. Moreover, European diplomats in Kenya told International Herald Tribune “American officials were playing an increasingly large behind-the-scenes role in Somalia, pursuing an aggressive counter-terrorism agenda, but also trying to shape Somalia’s political future”.
In this context, Sheikh Sharif was immediately given a new label of “moderate cleric”, a word that did not come as a surprise to only the Somali refugee musicians in Nairobi and elsewhere but also to the ears of most Somalis to whom it was a new word. With ignorance of the complex local political and social dynamics on the ground and the very reality that the UIC’s “music ban” was one of the two main self-destructive blunders that led to their downfall, the Western Somalia analysts or experts began to argue that there was an urgent need for the Somali government to engage in power-sharing talks with the Union of Islamic Courts, thus further compromising a nation’s basic rights to freedom of musical expression.
Hundreds of Somali musicians and composers, who fled from their homes because of the menace of the UIC militias, are currently living as refugees in the neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia. Some of them who spoke with Freemuse on the condition of anonymity said: “when we heard of the news that Sheikh Sharif had surrendered to the Kenyan authorities we started to pack our belongings to go home and re-establish our shattered livelihoods. But, when we came to know that the man, whose militias forced us to flee from our country, was staying at a luxurious hotel in the same town, meeting with Western diplomats, that bad news really knocked us off balance”
“Soon, we understood from the statements being made by the Western diplomats in Kenya later in that week of this man’s unfounded potential in promoting peace and reconciliation in Somalia that we were not going anywhere at least in the near future; that they were engaging him to complete the uncompleted; and that our rights to freedom of expression were being compromised at the expense of the ”global war on terror”
The UIC militias regrouped But, such statements and the subsequent misleading expert analyses had profound impacts on the mindset of the defeated Islamist leaders and their militias, who were dying of malaria in their hundreds in the southern Somalia marshes on the border with Kenya, and were about to surrender finally. These public statements constituted for them their first historical victory from their decades-long struggle over democracy and secularism. As a result, old training camps reopened, new ones started, and money poured in from the diaspora, the main funding source for the Somali Islamist insurgencies.
Within weeks, the UIC militias regrouped and with the support of militias from local clans and other armed freelance groups began a complex insurgency in Mogadishu. Since early 2007, attacks on the Transitional Federal government and the Ethiopian military have been daily, involving mortars, roadside bombs, ambushes, and even suicide bombings.
The UIC militias have particularly unleashed a renewed crackdown on music, musicians, cinemas, and music-related events as part of their unrelenting efforts to silence the music and deprive musicians of Somalia of their rights to freedom of musical expression. The insurgency and counter-insurgency that ensuied from this conflict produced a massive wave of displacement, with the UN estimating that in 2007 over 400,000 of Mogadishu’s population of 1.3 million, including hundreds of musicians and music lovers targeted for their present or past involvent in music, were forced to flee from their homes.
Islamist divide In June 2007 a UN-facilitated Djibouti Agreement was signed in Djibouti between the Transitional Federal Government (TGF) and the Islamist-led opposition Alliance led by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a process apparently devised to pave the way for his presidency. But, as expected by the majority of the Somali people, this move immediately resulted in the disintegration of the Union of the Islamic Courts into various splinter factions, rejecting the Djibouti agreement, and accusing their former leader of betrayal. As a result, Sheikh Sharif’s credibility and popularity among the Somali Islamist factions eroded away immediately, leaving his UIC faction only with the control of his home region, the Middle Shabelle region, and some smaller patches in the capital Mogadishu.
During the period when Sheikh Sharif was involved in the UN-backed reconciliation process with the Somalia government, the militiamen from his UIC faction were violating people’s rights to exercise their freedom of musical expression in the areas under their control. Take, for instance, the case in November 2008 when militia from his UIC faction raided a traditional folklore-dancing event on the suburbs of Bal’ad town in the Middle Shabelle region, 30 kilometres north of the capital Mogadishu. They took 32 folklore dancers — 25 women and seven men into custody. On the next morning the folklore dancers, accused of taking part in an ‘un-Islamic event’, were lashed in public against their will in front of hundreds of spectators.
Sheikh Abdirahim Esse Adow, spokesman and militia commander of Sheikh Sharif’s UIC faction, told Reuters: “We arrested 25 women and seven men who were dancing near Bal’ad (town). We released them after whipping them.”
“We warned them many times, but they wouldn’t listen. The dancing of men and women together is illegal and totally against Islam. We neither killed them nor injured them, but only whipped them according to the Islamic law,” Adow told Reuters.
On the outskirts of the same town, the same Islamist militia opened fire in June 2008 at a traditional folklore-dancing event in Ceelgeelle, wounding two traditional musicians of the nomad dancers, while others fled to the thorny bush barefooted for fear of their lives, and some reportedly are still unaccounted for.
Common goal Despite their strategic differences, all the major Somali Islamist factions, including the newly selected Somali President belong to the Wahabi Salafi or Jihadi Salafi brand of Islam, which has been actively taking root in Somalia since 1991 in the absence of effective central government, and it has substantially overpowered the nation’s traditional Sufi Islam. The Somali Wahabi or Jihadi Salafi clerics, whether you label them “moderates” or “radicals”, they view music as un-Islamic and consider musicians as immoral outcasts in the society.
Elections On 31 January 2008, the conference in Djibouti of over 500 parliamentarians-in-exile was selecting a replacement for the former president, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, who resigned in late December after four years in office. Mr. Yusuf was elected to head the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in 2004 in Nairobi. He achieved very little in the years since and was of late seen as stumbling block rather than an agent of the restoration of peace in Somalia, and had been widely blamed for Somalia’s deepening crisis.
Following Sheikh Sharif’s election as president, four major Islamist factions, who previously splintered from the Union of Islamic Courts, announced on 4 February 2009, that they had merged to fight the new president and his government. These factions have organised demonstrations against President Sheikh Sharif in the towns under their control, including Baidoa, seat of Somalia’s parliament. These four major factions, plus al-Shabaab, the most radical group, now controls 95 percent of south and central Somalia including most of the capital Mogadishu.
Somalia has been without a functioning central government since 1991, when General Siad Barre was removed from power and the arms fell into the hands of clan militias, who turned on one another and left the country largely in anarchy.
Abdulkadir M. Wa’ays is a Somali journalist and writer based in Belgium.
The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Freemuse.