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The East African : December 30th 2013
10 The EastAfrican NEWS DECEMBER 28, 2013 - JANUARY 3, 2014 Q &A WI T H IMAM HAS SAN AL I MO HAMU D Somali-American imam leading the fight against Al Shabaab theology Many people assume the Somali militant group Al Shabaab enjoys the support of most Islamic leaders. However, SomaliAmerican Imam Hassan Ali Mohamud condemned the group’s attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in September. He spoke to The EastAfrican’s Rasheed Abdy about youth radicalisation, the failures of Muslim leaders, and what the future holds for Somalia. The interview was contacted in Somali, and translated by Abdy. You are well-known in the US and have great influence over the Somali diaspora communities in North America. But could we start with a bit of background for those in East Africa who may not know you that well? Like many Somalis, I have a nickname, which is Imam Hassan Jami’i. I got the name in 1982, as a tribute to my ability to memorise the Koran and to distinguish me from another Hassan who was my classmate in the dugsi (traditional Koranic school). I became a da’i (Muslim missionary) at the age of 14. I was born in Hamar (Mogadishu) in 1962. I attended Banaadir High School, which was run by Arabs. I have two law degrees — one from the National University of Somalia, and a post-graduate sharia degree from Cairo. I am currently a lawyer and an adjunct professor teaching comparative law. I moved to the US in 1996 and have lived in St Paul, Minnesota, for the past 17 years. I am married and have seven children — three sons and four daughters. Youth radicalisation is said to be a problem in Minnesota and there have been confirmed reports of radicalised youths being recruited to join Al Shabaab in Somalia. How have you addressed these issues in your role as imam and community leader? I continue to speak out against these issues. In my first Friday sermon after the Westgate attack in Nairobi, I condemned the atrocities and stressed that Islam forbids the killing of innocent people. Extremism is a threat to all of us, including Muslims. Our sermons and lectures are primarily geared towards tackling these problems. I am a director of a youth centre that trains Islamic missionaries. Our course content and methods are guided by the Koran and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The Koran counsels missionaries to use wisdom and tact in seeking converts. Sadly, we have departed from this tradition. How serious is the problem of radicalisation and youth recruitment within the Somali diaspora in the US? The problem is real. The US government has been probing the full extent of the problem for the past two years after a youngster called Shirwa was involved in a suicide attack in Somalia. Shirwa was enrolled at a local university. The news created great anxiety and concern. The US government became in- terested in mosques, and to what extent they played a role in the recruitment and radicalisation of Somali youth. The probe found that no Somali-run mosque was implicated, and that these activities were being conducted outside mosques and in great secrecy. Some 20 Somalis have since been convicted of various terrorism–related offences, and sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to 30 years. It is important to probe the root causes. They include events in the Muslim world, in particular the Ethiopian occupation. The occupation radicalised many Somalis and acted as the main catalyst for recruitment. But the ulema (Muslim scholars trained in Islam and Islamic law) cannot be absolved of blame for they were slow to respond to the problem. There was a general complacency and tendency to downplay the magnitude of the youth radicalisation crisis. The extremists were better organised and built powerful networks and alliances. The Sheikh Sharif government (2009-2012) is equally to blame. It failed to clarify its moderate position. This ambiguity created a vacuum — an ideal context that allowed the militants to disseminate their distorted theology. Some people had questioned your credentials as a moderate and suggested you did not do enough to stem youth radicalisation, especially in Minnesota. But you are now wellregarded by the Somali government and Amisom, as attested to by your presence here in Kigali for the Somali youth conference. How would you characterise your current status? Let me first say that most of the imams and Muslim activists in the US came under suspicion from the general public and the authorities in the wake of 9/11. I was not singled out for special scrutiny. But many of these claims were fuelled by my activities following the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in December 2006. I was opposed to the Ethiopian intervention and the tacit US approval. In early 2007, I launched a public campaign to highlight our opposition. Some in the US government were not happy with my stance. The situation was further aggra- vated by negative reports by some Somali officials. As far as these officials were concerned, anyone who opposed Ethiopia’s 2006 invasion to dislodge the Union of Islamic Courts and the subsequent threeyear occupation was an extremist. I was called many names — militant, radical, hardliner, you name it. It was, therefore, no surprise that my name should be put on a US government watch list. I continue to petition the relevant departments in a bid to reverse the decision, but as you probably know, this is not going to be easy. That said, I am not worried be- US LINK LOCATION: Minnesota houses America’s largest Somali community and, in recent years, Al Shabaab has recruited young Somali men from the US state. THE WAR: During the imams and scholar’s conference in September, two explosions hit a Mogadishu restaurant killing 20. Al Shabaab claimed responsibility. As the group’s terrorism intensifies, so does scrutiny of Somalis in the US. Imam Mohamud said coming back from Mogadishu, US Customs officials detained him at the airport for extra screening. cause my conscience is clear and I am not regarded a threat to US national security. I move freely and go about my business with no hindrance, whatsoever. In fact, I am regularly called upon to conduct seminars and lectures for various US government departments such as the FBI. It is a good opportunity to correct misperceptions about Islam and foster greater understanding and tolerance. You were part of the 160 Muslim scholars who recently met in Mogadishu and issued a fatwa against Al Shabaab. This was the first gathering of its kind and was hailed as an important milestone in the efforts to challenge the Al Shabaab narrative and theology. But some could say it has come too late. Yes, it has, I agree, but better late than never. There are many reasons why it has taken us this long to act. To start with, we had no strong and functional government and much of the country, including the capital, was controlled by Al Shabaab. We now have a post-transition government, which has greater legitimacy and has created pockets of relative safety where large numbers of ulema can meet. Unlike the previous governments, the current administration led by Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud seems keen on prioritising counter-radicalisation. Many of the ulema, representing all the major strands and mazhab (sects), appear much more united in this common goal. The conference of imams and scholars held in Mogadishu in September, marked a shift in our collective effort to build consensus on the way forward. The ultimate goal is to create a home-grown, Somaliled strategy to counter violent extremism and inculcate the values of moderation. Are you saying that we now have an inclusive and non-sectarian process aimed at tackling extremism and youth radicalisation? Absolutely. But sceptics may say your newfound unity is based more on opposition to Al Shabaab and less on what you stand for. Can you define what you meant by “moderation”? We are constantly bombarded by reports and images about the rise of Islamist militancy, but rarely do we get to hear about the resurgence of moderate Islam. There is a powerful moderate Is- lamist movement emerging in the Muslim world. It is transforming societies through non-violence. Tunisia and Egypt, before the recent coup, are just two recent examples of countries where the moderate Islamist movement has triumphed over the extremists. Sadly, the West’s response and lack of support for this moderate Islamist movement has seen the recent gains slowly reversed, especially in Egypt. Many disillusioned moderates are turning to militancy. And that cannot be in the interest of the West. Every time a moderate Islamist movement fails, the extremists succeed. The values of moderation are deeply embedded in our faith and traditions. Sharia is not an end in itself, but a means towards creating a just and harmonious society. It is preposterous to impose sharia in an impoverished and conflicted country and to start chopping off hands as Al Shabaab has done. Their sharia model is inconsistent with the philosophy and spirit of sharia. Moderation disavows violence and expansionism. It seeks to foster tolerance, peaceful coexistence and non-sectarianism. People must be left to practise their faith in accordance with their own creed and mazhab. Al Shabaab’s campaign to under- mine Somalia’s traditionally diverse forms of worship and rituals has no scriptural and doctrinal basis.
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