Monday, December 12, 2011

Áshura: the right to know the difference

ON our community calendar there’s what I call a series of “seasons”. And like spring, summer, autumn or winter, they have their moods. One such “season” is Muharram, which marks the beginning of the Islamic year.

This is because it is a sacred month in which major events occurred, especially on the 10th day: for example, the creation of Adam and Eve and the escape of the Bani Isra’il from the Pharaoh.

However, its wider significance is often eclipsed by the martyrdom of Hussein, the son of Sayyidina ‘Ali, the noble Prophet’s cousin. His passing (in 680 CE) on the 10th of Muharram is lamented for ten days by the Shi’ah sect, and is called “‘Ashura”.

Hussain’s slaying – also lamented by Sunnis, but without the ritualistic dramaturgy of the Shi’ah – is an event hallmarked by the intrigue that characterised the politics of the era.

For instance, this is why Sayyidina ‘Ali – condemned for being too lenient in punishing the assassins of his predecessor, ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan – was forced to lead an army against A’isha bint Abu Bakr, one of the Prophet’s (SAW) wives, at Basra.

Historically, the problem has always been that the Prophet (SAW) left no indications as to what political system Muslims should adopt after his demise. It was a “consensus of the elders” that had elected the first Caliph, Abu Bakr.

It was this decision that led to a measure of dissent amongst ‘Ali’s supporters. Their view was that Abu Bakr, and the succeeding Caliphs ‘Umar and ‘Uthman, should not have accepted office ahead of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, a blood relative of the Prophet (SAW).

The Shi’ah quote the Hadith of Khumm, related after the final Hajj, which has the Prophet (SAW) passing the mantle of Commander on to Sayyidina ‘Ali, and Sayyidina ‘Umar pledging allegiance. Sunni scholars do not accept this interpretation of the Hadith.

Nevertheless, ‘Ali became the fourth Righteous Caliph, but he was handed a poisoned chalice: those who had been associated with the assassination of ‘Uthman supported him becoming Caliph.

So when ‘Uthman’s kinsman in Damascus, Mu’awiyyah, refused to accept ‘Ali’s rule, a schism arose in the Islamic realm. In public interest Sayyidina ‘Ali submitted to arbitration. He was assassinated by Ibn Muljam, a Kharijite, who claimed that ‘Ali had committed apostasy by allowing human intervention.

“Kharijite” originates from the Arabic root word “kharaja”, and means “seceder”, or one who “goes out”. Their belief was that jihad was a sixth pillar of Islam; and that if a Muslim sinned he became an infidel or a kafir.

Scholars such as Sayyid ibn Zaini Dahlan consider the offshoot of the Kharijites to be the modern Salafi-Wahhabis, the disciples of Ibn ‘Abd ul-Wahhab, the 18th century Saudi cleric. Kharijite (and Wahhabi) opposition to the Shi’ah spans over 1,300 years. For their ilk the Shi’ah are kafir and their blood halal – a view contrary to Sunni legal thought.

After Sayyidina ‘Ali’s demise, Mu’awiyyah became the Caliph. And as the centuries passed, the Shi’at ul-‘Ali (the party of ‘Ali) grew into a sectarian doctrine. There are historians such as Tabari who say Shi’ism was introduced by Abdullah ibn Sabah, a Yemeni Jew, who embraced Islam and declared ‘Ali divine.

Ibn Kathir also refers to this, but the question of Ibn Sabah is an academic minefield.

Shi’ah culture was definitely strengthened by the slaying of Hussain at Karbala. This was after Mu’awiyyah died and his son, Yazid, took power. Hussain’s elder brother, Hasan, had already retired from public life. Today, the Shi’ah curse Yazid and the Salafi-Wahhabis praise him. The Sunni ‘ulama, seeking balance, say that he had good and bad qualities.

Like his father, Hussain was caught up in events beyond his control. The citizens of Kufa, unhappy at Yazid’s Caliphate, wrote a letter to Hussain, requesting him to come to the city as their leader. But whilst he was en-route, Kufa switched allegiance to the Ummayads.

Hussain encountered Yazid’s forces at Karbala outside Kufa. After a 10-day siege during which time he refused to pledge allegiance to Yazid, his small party was slaughtered – Hussain dying with his infant son in his arms. His head was cut off and delivered to Yazid in Damascus.

The poetic lamentations about Karbala, recited during ‘Ashura, are famous in Shi’ah lore, as are the self-flagellations of Shi’ah devotees.

I’ve already said that calling the Shi’ah kafir has never been the Sunni way. The Shi’ah perform the Hajj. But during the ‘Ashura season, when emotions run high, there has to be a more level-headed community understanding of Shi’ah belief.

Yes, there is divergence, and in the spirit of adab i-ikhtilaf (the ethics of argument) surely it would be better to face these differences than to indulge in pulpit bashing or, worse still, killing the messenger by targeting the media?

Briefly, there are key points where Sunnis differ with the Shi’ah. But surely, the goal of confronting these differences should be comprehension rather than conflict, and critical empathy rather than emotion-soaked enmity?

The primary sticking-point for the Sunni world is that the historical Shi’ah imams, leading up to the end-times Mahdi, are regarded as infallible. Sunni theology only accords perfection and lack of sin to prophets. It does not agree that mere humans can enjoy the same status.

Whilst there are some similarities to the Sunnis in the application of Shi’ah Sacred Law, Sunni theologians do not agree with the rationalistic Shi’ah view that the Qur’an was “created”. In Sunni theology, the Qur’an was inherently “uncreated”.

Shi’ah aversion of Traditions transmitted by A’isha, Sayyidina Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman, is problematic for Sunni Hadith scholars. The edict of temporary marriage, or mut’ah, permitted by Shi’ah fiqh seriously troubles Sunni jurists.

Finally, the fact that taqiyyah, the disguising of one’s true beliefs, is obligatory in Shi’ism is an anathema to the four prominent Sunni schools of legal thought, which only permit such dissembling if one’s life is at stake.

Obviously, space does not permit more than a cursory look at some complex questions, but it has to be said that the paranoia about Shi’ism during Muharram is baffling. Surely the right to know the difference, on an intellectual level, should be the preserve of every Muslim, Shi’ah or Sunni?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Al-Shabab - Taliban of the Horn

WE never came across Al-Shabab forces in Mogadishu, but reminders of their presence was everywhere – from the bullet-ridden pasta factory to the IDP camps dotted around the city. Fighters had only been forced out by AMISOM forces a month before, and there were still pockets of resistance.

The crump of mortars and volleys of gunfire we heard every night in our compound reminded us just how close the conflict still was, as did the grenade blast around the corner at the Medecins Sans Frontieres offices.

Public spaces were safer, but our armed technicals would get jittery if we stopped to get out of our vehicles. They had good reason. In urban areas, Al-Shabab had become faceless.

Two weeks before our arrival a car loaded with explosives had been defused at Banadir Hospital. Several NGO’s worked there. Foreign fatalities would have been disastrous for the Transitional Federal Government (the TFG).

However, we did locate a group of Al-Shabab fighters in Mogadishu, albeit a group of defectors who were being “rehabilitated”.

We found them at a rudimentary camp near to the “pink house” where Al-Qaeda suspects were held by the Somali National Security Agency (the NSA) under the aegis of a covert US military command.

We arrived unannounced. The rehab camp, in operation for about three months (and its location no secret to anyone in Mogadishu), was a series of nondescript cement buildings amongst the dunes.

The somewhat surprised camp commander, Abdurahman Omar Osman, welcomed us. He made a call to get authorisation for us to visit. Permission was granted, the only condition being that we couldn’t interview the camp inmates, some 213 people.

That was disappointing. I knew that these ex-Al-Shabab fighters would have been processed by the NSA. Their security threat would have been zero, and their personal accounts would have made great human interest stories.

An Associated Press journalist had been briefly allowed to interview some of these Al-Shabab defectors, but – for whatever reason – the instruction was that SA journalists could not.

The defectors gathered around us as we chatted, and I could see that Al-Shabab – which means “the youth” – was an apt moniker. These were all very young men, some hardly old enough to have facial hair.

They were all Somali. Neither did they look like cold-blooded killers guilty of the beheadings, amputations and bombings for which Al-Shabab had become feared. They looked more like the hungry, jobless kind of adolescents you could see on any corner in East Africa.

Their ages ranged from 9 to 45 years, said Osman. The majority of Al-Shabab’s 14,000-strong force was under 25, and conscripting children younger than 15 years – which Al-Shabab actively did – was a war crime.

The 9-year old boy, Liban Mohammed, had been interviewed by AP, saying he’d been conscripted as a “spy”.

We moved out of the hot sun and settled down in Osman’s office, an echoingly empty room with a desk, a computer and a few plastic chairs. We asked him why these young men had defected.

“They are forced into things. They are told that music and TV are forbidden, and that they have to beat women …they also find that the killing is too much…that what they are doing is wrong,” explained Osman in halting English.

In reply as to why Somalis joined Al-Shabab, Osman said that Al-Shabab lured the unemployed and uneducated with promises of opportunity, but that fighters had also been kidnapped from schools and villagers.

He added that the defectors told him they’d been ordered to prevent people in the drought-stricken villages and towns (who paid Al-Shabab taxes) from fleeing the famine, and that the men had sometimes been shot.

The idea of the rehabilitation camp, the brainchild of a former Interior Minister, was to re-integrate Al-Shabab fighters into Somali society. The long term plan was to teach the youth job skills, but a lack of funding was hindering the process.

Back in central Mogadishu I questioned our translator, Abdi Nasser, about Al-Shabab (whose leadership had pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda in 2009). He said the organisation was currently divided into three and was not as homogenous as people thought it was.

He told me that originally about 90% of Somalis had supported Al-Shabab after the Ethiopian invasion of 2006 and the defeat of the Islamic Courts Union.

“People initially supported Al-Shabab because they thought they were good Muslims who would create order. But now after the all killings people realise Al-Shabab is extremist, and try to avoid it,” he said.

I asked Abdi Nasser how Al-Shabab rule had affected the citizens of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital.

“Under them Mogadishu was a horrible place. Very dangerous. Now we’re sitting together; then it was very hard to sit and chat. They (Al-Shabab) were killing the people, even slaughtering women and using young kids as soldiers.”

He added sombrely that if AMISOM were to leave, Al-Shabab would be back in Mogadishu the next day. Abdi Nasser, a businessman, was understandably cynical about Somali politics, but said that he could only hope for the best from the TFG.

I also spoke to Abdi Harari, a 35-year old TFG soldier who’d been in uniform since 1999, and asked what he thought about fighting his own countrymen.

“They (Al-Shabab) have no mercy. They will kill me if they catch me. But when we capture them, we don’t kill them. One of our troops was captured by Al-Shabab and the leader told the man’s very own cousin to execute him.”

What was so appalling from the above – and so many of my interviews in Somalia – was the constant mention of death, this apart from the horrific attrition of the famine. Al Shabab, once a beacon of hope in a country desperate for solutions, had become yet another grim political reaper.

This underlined the biggest failing of Al-Shabab’s fundamentalist Salafi-Wahhabi ethos – its inherent neo-fascism, something that rushed into the political vacuum created by the meddling of Ethiopia and the US in the name of the “war on terror”.

In the hands of the remaining uneducated and illiterate, their angry black-and-white universe enables the blood of the other, “the infidel”, to become halal – and for the Sacred Law to become an ass.

This is why the Afghan Taliban could ban singing canaries, marginalise women educators, forbid music, amputate at will, justify suicide bombing and indulge in the cultural terrorism of dynamiting the Bamiyan Buddhas.

This is why, in exactly the same vein, Al-Shabab could declare three-cornered samoosas haraam; why women wearing bras could be whipped in public, and why school bells could be banned. This is why Al-Shabab could justify killing fellow Somalis in public suicide bombings.

This is why Al-Shabab could smash Sufi shrines and zawiyyahs – and in a disgusting act of irreverence – dig up the bodies of the Shaikhs. This is why a 13-year old gang-rape victim could be buried up to her head in a football stadium and stoned to death for adultery.

This article ends the series on Somalia.