It’s hard to imagine a more tragic country than Somalia, a failed state that has come to symbolize civil unrest, corrupt warlords, human trafficking, and high seas piracy. The causes for this ancient nation's descent into chaos are complex and often highly abstract, largely revolving around the messy aftermath of the Cold War, sinister outside meddling, tribalism, and the birth pains of a modern society on the Horn of Africa. But the human impact is painful and immediate. Religious militiamen are forcing Somali women under burqas and religious judges regularly pass down cruel and unusual punishments based on Sharia law. Female circumcision is endemic, affecting up to 98 percent of Somalia's women. Of course, we all know that even in the worst of times, people at least find ways of enduring the unendurable through culture and entertainment. But starting this month, the country’s fundamentalist rulers are taking even this option away from their long-suffering population.
(Source: Global Security)
On April 3 Hisbul Islam, a Taliban-like fundamentalist group at war with Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government that operates in the country’s central and southern regions, including portions of the capital Mogadishu, issued a ten-day ultimatum against such “un-Islamic” activities as listening to music, playing soccer or even viewing it on TV, and also watching movies of any kind. Fourteen out of sixteen radio stations obediently stopped playing music on April 13, replacing their usual jingles and pop tunes with the chirping of crickets and the crowing of roosters. From now on, TV is only for watching news. Enforcement squads have been patrolling Mogadishu neighborhoods for the past two weeks on the lookout for violators, punishing them with up to thirty lashes each. Yesterday, IRIN News cited a local journalist as saying: “Movies and football used to be the only avenue of fun available to [young people]. Now that is closed. Having fun in this town is illegal.” However, the new measures are extremely unpopular. “I don’t think many of the youth will be lining up to join them.”
The ban on entertainment is just the latest in a series of measures that Hisbul Islam and other extremist groups have imposed on the country, which has been muddling through without a functioning centralized government since 1991. Last week, the radical Somali Islamist group Al-Shabab banned telephone ring tones and even hand bells to mark the beginning and end of school class since they supposedly sound too much like church bells. “A teacher told the BBC's correspondent in Somalia that handclaps were now being used instead of bells to bring classes to an end. The end of classes is also marked by teachers beating on tables and doors.”
Last summer, Islamic authorities in Kismayo in southern Somalia announced “there will be no music or dancing by men and women in weddings that are held in the town since it involves men and women who are not allowed to mingle and is against the teachings of Islam… The Administration will not also be allowed any filming of the wedding.” The fundamentalist groups have also declared a war on bras. “Residents in north Mogadishu said gunmen had rounded up any young woman seen with a firm bust and had them publicly whipped by masked men if they were found to be wearing bras,” The Scotsman reported last October. “A resident, Halima, said her daughters had been whipped on Thursday. ‘They first introduced a hard fabric which stands stiffly on women's chests. They now say breasts should be firm naturally, or just flat.’ … Men were not spared the ‘moral cleansing’. Any man caught without a beard was also publicly whipped.” Dental work is equally suspect. Al-Shabab “started in Marka town in southern Somalia operations of removing silver and gold teeth from the people in the town,” the Somali press reported last month.
Sharia law is increasingly being employed against “sex crimes” of all kinds. “The new administration of southern strategic seaport town of Kismayo some 500km south of the Somali capital Mogadishu has on Friday evening publicly punished three boys they said that they have committed crimes which are taboo in the Somali customary,” the Somali press reported last September. “‘Each one of the boys has received lashes of whips on his back in front of the hundred of the inhabitants of Kismayo,at the national park venue which situated in the heart of the town and will serve under sentence for some months,’ said the judge who passed out the chastisement of the boys speaking to Somaliweyn radio. The officer added that the boys have been jointly watching pornography films on their cell phones.”
Ordinary Somalis appear to be disappointed and outraged at the latest ban on popular sports and their rich musical heritage. But what is really behind these restrictions? Ole Reitov, the program manager of Freemuse, a Danish-based “world forum on music and censorship,” suspects that “the music ban in Mogadishu primarily is a symbolic case which gives Hisbul Islam and their leaders attention and '15 minutes of fame' in the international media. [Reitov] expects that there may be public reprisals against those who violate the ban, but he does not believe Islamists necessarily will resort to killing anyone. It's not likely they will murder anyone, but it may very well be that they need symbolic action. For instance, this could be to take radio journalists out in a public place and whip them. Part of the power of language is to create fear."
If you haven't heard about any of this before, chances are you won't be hearing about it again any time soon. You see, April 13 was not just “the day the music died” in Somalia, it also marked the end of a free and independent press in this information-starved country. As Ali Sheikh Yassin, the deputy chairman of the Somali Elman Human Rights Organization (EHRO), told IRIN News, journalists are in even "more danger now than at any time in the past. … In the past they used to be warned but now they are just killed. … Unfortunately, many of the radio stations will not be able to operate. The current environment is very dangerous. There is a real possibility that private, independent media will cease to exist … There will be no one to report the daily atrocities and the humanitarian crisis their [insurgents’] activities create,” and “without the independent media and the brave journalists, no one would know about the suffering of the Somali people and what is really happening to them."
Under the rule of Hisbul Islam, performing and listening to Somali songs like this is punishable by thirty lashes: