Satan calling

Print edition : January 19, 2002

Will Somalia be the next to suffer a visitation? God forbid.

AS a child growing up in the Muslim-dominated Somali Peninsula, I was brought up to believe that for a good while before and after the holy month of Ramzan, Satan is locked away in a place from where he could spread no sedition amongst good folks.

I have lately been wondering if it is time that I revisit this myth with a view to assess or revise it, given the recent horrors with which the world has been made familiar - a terror that has caused the death of so many innocent persons. But do kindly take note that when I use the concept 'Satan', I am employing it in the pre-Islamic meaning of the Arabic root-word "shatana", from which I derive a secular notion of the term. In my translation of it, I render it as "the one who spreads sedition" or "the one who opposes the will of the community". Defined thus, you can work out for yourself the Satan that will fit the bill in the present context.

The spreaders of sedition have evidently been busy, proof enough that Satan was not in chains a fortnight before the blessed month as I was taught to expect. But then again, it seems that he will not be under lock and key a fortnight or a month after the Islamic or Christian festivities. Meanwhile, he has been very much on the loose, visiting havoc on the world's innocent, and choosing to reveal his wicked intentions in different guises, all of them unpalatable. No wonder everyone wants to know where Satan is headed next.

Children playing around the remains of a U.S. helicopter which was part of a United Nations-led peace-keeping mission in Somalia in the early 1990s. Some people in Somalia believe that the present U.S. kite-flying strategy with regard to Somalia represents the lust to take vengeance on the Farah Aideed-led faction that drove the U.S. out of Mogadishu in October 1993.-SCOTT PETERSON/GAMMA LIAISON

The pundits predict that he will call at a Muslim country. However, no one knows for certain where his first port of call will be. Is it to be Somalia, a land of grief with no effective national authority; Sudan, where one of the spreaders of attrition has once been based; Iraq, often described as an Arab nation and an untouchable at that; or Yemen, where he is said to command a strong following?

Apart from speculation, no one has the slightest idea what the spreaders of sedition and those in hot pursuit of them will do "once Afghanistan has rid herself of Osama bin Laden and his associates". The supposition that the spreaders of sedition will "relocate" to Somalia is based on the assumption that the country is faction-ridden and that there is no central authority on which the international community can rely on to flush them out, hunt them down, or bring them before the law courts. The United States and its allies, having remained impervious to and neglectful of Somalia's destruction, must think hard about the consequences of their actions before firing a missile. Because, any such ill-advised overkill will doubtlessly cause more grief in a land that has not enjoyed peace for over a decade.

Is Somalia to be invaded, because the U.S. is intent on the "eradication of terror" as claimed by the primary sponsors of it? Even according to America's own intelligence, the Al Qaeda cells found in Somalia are far less active or cohesive than those in Italy, Belgium and Britain. A U.S. intrusion into Somalia would destabilise the fragile peace that has been achieved in the country, where a transitional authority with the mandate to establish a permanent, all-inclusive government for the whole nation has been finally created after years of strife. Unless, as some Somalis believe, the U.S. kite-flying strategy is a weak, primordial lust to take vengeance on the Farah Aideed-led faction that drove them out of Mogadishu in October 1993. I hope not.

Anyone with sufficient knowledge about Somalia would agree with me when I state that it would not be possible for bin Laden and his associates to find refuge among Somalis. We have enough problems of our own making, and do not think it wise to court the problems of other folks from elsewhere. As it happens, we are dealing with the fragmented nature of our society, with its many warring factions, each with its own acronym, each letter representing its leader's self-delusion. What is more, the men at the head of these murderous factions are untrustworthy, what with their shifting alliances and the fact that each will point a censorious finger at every rival, whom they describe as associates of Al Qaeda. Do not be fooled by the misinformation the self-declared faction leaders dole out; there is no truth in much of what the warlords say. In a significant way Somalia is like Afghanistan in that no single political or religious movement has been able to unite its quarrelling warlords for any length of time.

A quarrelsome lot, Somalis take delight in informing on or engaging one another with venomous concern. War-making being addictive, we live in times of pestilence and suffer from the contagion of self-hate. As a result of this, we consider it our primary business to discover who our enemies' friends are, what they are up to, with whom they are plotting, against whom and why. I cannot for the life of me imagine a bin Laden or one of his associates finding a hiding place for even a single weekend in a land where everything is an open secret. Nobody who carries a prize-head worth so many million dollars on his shoulders would be foolish enough to seek refuge in a land where treachery among the political elite has been unequalled anywhere else in the world. He had better find his peace elsewhere, in a land where loyalties are more permanent and where he would be less likely to be sold for a tuppence.

Moreover, I doubt very much if there are more than a handful of my countrymen who are prepared to lay down their lives for Islam, well aware that the Almighty has supplied the faith with many other volunteers from other parts of the world eager to do a martyr's bidding. I doubt too that Al Qaeda would raise enough recruits among Somalia's unemployed lumpen to fight under his banner. Many a Somali might not hesitate to die for his clan family or for financial gains, but not for an abstraction, which is what, in the final analysis, religion is to the barely literate. Nor is there sufficient evidence to support the claim made by an Ethiopian diplomat based in Washington that "there is a connection between Al Ithihaad and Al Qaeda." But the question we need to ask ourselves is why, according to a U.S. official, are "the Ethiopians a little too enthusiastic" for Somalia to be bombed, when the U.S. "intelligence review has concluded that the Al Qaeda presence in Somalia is at a very low level"?

On my way back from Europe a little over a week ago, I picked up an Arabic newspaper, Al Hayat of December 11, in which an equally far-fetched link is drawn between the militia of the Islamic courts and bin Laden's network. This is what I call rabid sensationalism. Where is the proof? Anyone familiar with the Islamic courts, created to bring about some semblance of order among the unruly militiamen in Mogadishu, knows the claim to be false. In that edition, Al Hayat devotes half a page to a hand-drawn map, marked as if to guide the U.S. missiles to where the al-Barakat banks and the Islamic courts training camps are. Al Hayat is sadly wrong and the information given is highly dangerous and misleading.

It is my thinking that "the little, low level presence" of Al Qaeda, as U.S. intelligence sources put it, could quite painlessly be rooted out without destabilising the fragile peace prevailing in the land. A large-scale invasion by the U.S. and its allies, or bringing on board the "attritionists" baked by the clan-based armed militia, will only make Somalia more unstable, a fertile ground where the spreaders of strife will increase in number and grow in strength. I hold this apocalyptic view, as in Afghanistan too the armed militias enjoyed the backing of various clandestine external forces while the rest of the world remained indifferent to its implosion. I suggest that the international community support Somalia in its effort to regain sovereignty over its entire territory, and that everything must be done to make sure that peace reigns supreme. The warlords will lead us nowhere but to a dead-end, where anarchy rules. And I am sure that this will not be to the benefit of our good neighbour, Ethiopia.

With peace reigning supreme, we can regain our strength and flush the spreaders of sedition out of our country. And when at long last Satan-in-the-guise-of-war calls, we will be able to reply, "Wrong number!" and then hang up on him.

Nuruddin Farah is the winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1998. His novels include From a Crooked Rib, A Naked Needle, and the trilogy Sweet and Sour Milk, Sardines, and Close Sesame, known collectively as Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship.

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