Islamists bring order to Somalia, but justice is far from uniform
Islamists are praised for re-establishing order and stability in Mogadishu after 15 years of anarchy. But they by no means are uniform in their application of justice.
Los Angeles Times
MOGADISHU, Somalia — The public execution was set for 9 a.m., and thousands of men, women and children raced toward a sandy dune where the previous regime killed its political enemies.
A man accused of fatally shooting a Mogadishu businessman in a dispute over a cellphone two weeks earlier knelt and prayed in front of an eight-man firing squad, as impatient spectators whistled, hooted, stood on cars and scrambled up trees for a better view. The death sentence had been imposed swiftly by a local Islamic court. No attorney. No appeal.
The first blast of gunfire didn't do the job, so an officer stepped forward and shot the accused in the head. Then the crowd broke through security lines and rushed toward the body, many yelling, "Allahu akbar," or "God is great."
Four months after they seized control of Somalia's capital, Islamists have won widespread praise for re-establishing order and stability in Mogadishu and surrounding areas after 15 years of anarchy.
But the Islamists are by no means uniform in their application of justice. In Islamist-run southern Somalia these days, how you live, and sometimes whether you live, depends largely on where you live.
In one Mogadishu neighborhood, court officials banned cinemas and satellite television as immoral, and have punished criminals with public lashings and executions, such as the one last month.
A mile away, law differs
Under a different court less than a mile away, pornographic films are shown at night and residents are free to watch CNN and Hollywood movies. Islamic leaders there have no stomach for public punishment, instead sentencing criminals to prison.
"They don't all have the same vision," said Mogadishu Mayor Mohamed Hassan Ali, who was appointed by Somalia's U.N.-backed transitional government but has struggled for authority under the Islamists. "They don't even know each other that well. Now they're trying to set an agenda and it's creating some culture shock."
After their surprising victory over U.S.-backed warlords in June, the Islamic Courts Union reopened the airport and seaport, dispatched uniformed security officers who won't take bribes, and reintroduced consumer-protection laws, such as halting the import of spoiled food, which unscrupulous businessmen had been dumping in Somalia for years.
But a clash of ideologies has emerged between leaders of the Islamist union and nearly three dozen smaller, semiautonomous courts that function as local governments throughout southern Somalia. These clan-based courts, some of which have their own militias, sometimes pursue distinct and competing interpretations of Islamic law.
On big issues, such as opposition to bringing foreign peacekeepers to Somalia and strategies to reach a power-sharing agreement with the transitional government based in Baidoa, the Islamists show few signs of discord.
But as Somalis begin debating how to implement such a system, cracks are beginning to show.
In Jawhar, north of Mogadishu, the local court last month banned love songs and Western music on the radio, though such fare still plays in the capital.
After an Italian nun and her bodyguard were shot to death in Mogadishu on Sept. 17, moderate court leaders accused a group of young fundamentalist fighters, known as Shabbab, of shielding one of the killers. The court leaders threatened to break from the union if the suspect was not turned over, according to two court sources.
At his modest home in Mogadishu, Islamic Courts Union leader Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys insisted differences were minor.
"There may be some division," he said. "But there is no challenge to the authority and administration of the court. Our ideology is one."
Aweys is head of the 91-person shura, a de facto parliament that includes representatives of various factions and clans. He shares power with Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, a former teacher who serves in a presidential function for the union. Ahmed is thought to represent the moderate side of the courts.
Both men said the disputes were being magnified by outsiders, including the Bush administration and Ethiopian government, who Aweys said were plotting to "divide and conquer" the fledgling alliance.
Ibrahim Hassan Addou, who serves as foreign minister for the union, expressed disappointment that the more extreme actions by lower courts seemed to get the most attention in the press.
"It seems that the extremists here are getting the focus and overshadowing us," said Addou, who worked as an administrator at American University in Washington, D.C., before returning to Somalia in 1999. "We're wasting our time and resources closing movies and things like this. Minor things like this have to wait."
In recent weeks the council has issued edicts that attempt to reverse or rein in lower-court actions, such as banning attacks against foreigners or civil-society groups. The council chastised one lower court for seizing control of a former police station, and it apologized to the families of some World Cup fans who were killed by local militiamen in the summer.
But to avoid alienating either side, Islamist leaders have skirted thorny issues, such as cinema and radio closures, leaving lower courts free to continue issuing and enforcing religious rulings as long as they don't conflict with the council.
Aweys believes there is no room for compromise under Islam. When asked what sort of model he would use to govern Somalia, Aweys said he would turn back to the 6th century. "Our model is to go back to the government during the life of the Prophet Muhammad," he said.
More conservative vision
To him, that includes amputating limbs of robbers, executing killers in public and stoning adulterers to death — a far more conservative vision of Islam than has ever been practiced in Somalia.
Nevertheless, support for the courts union remains high on the streets of Mogadishu. Many residents say they are willing to tolerate limits on their freedom of expression in exchange for peace and normalcy.
But there is growing anxiety over how far it will go.
"They've done so much for Mogadishu, no question," said businessman Said Abdi Elye, who returned to Mogadishu three years ago after living in Fairfax, Va. "The real question now is: Where are they taking us?"
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