No music, no dancing, no football as Muslim law takes over from reign of the warlords
The man who drove US-backed warlords out of Mogadishu says he has no desire for an Islamic state
The man who has just imposed Sharia on one of Africa’s most brutal capitals breezes into the simple villa which serves as his headquarters.
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“Please forgive my lateness,” Sheikh Sharif Ahmed says politely. He has spent the morning accepting donations of rice, sugar and cooking oil from local businessmen.
Sheikh Ahmed used to be a teacher until a gang kidnapped one of his students. He began campaigning for Islamic courts, with strict laws and punishments, to counter the chaos of a city run by warlords since the fall of President Siad Barre in 1991. Today his Union of Islamic Courts runs Mogadishu, its militias having expelled the warlords last week, and Sheikh Ahmed is causing consternation in the West.
Washington is widely believed to have been backing the warlords to check the spread of the Sharia courts and the alleged influence of al-Qaeda.
In an interview with The Times Sheikh Ahmed insists the courts have no interest in turning Somalia into an Islamic state or governing like the Taleban in Afghanistan. He claims to have no agenda beyond keeping the warlords from the city.
“We don’t do anything. We will make facilities for the community — whether politicians or intellectuals, women or youths — we make facilities for people to choose what they want,” he says. “We just want to defend our people.”
He denies any links to al-Qaeda even though his movement includes jihadists such as Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, leader of Al-Ittihad, who has admitted meeting al-Qaeda leaders and is wanted by the US.
“The USA has to bring evidence of whether he is a criminal. After that we will have a discussion,” he says. The West has got it all wrong. “We ourselves have a question. The Westerners are against our religion, but we don’t know why,” he says before a muezzin’s call to prayer abruptly ends the interview.
Outside Sheikh Ahmed’s ramshackle headquarters lies a city in ruins. Minarets and mobile phone masts are the only structures that stand more than two storeys high. Donkey carts carrying water barrels traverse sludge-filled tracks that may once have been paved roads. Mango trees and acacia bushes have spread through the rubble as the African scrub reclaims parts of Mogadishu. Sheikh Ahmed’s network of Sharia courts began life in the mid- 1990s, set up by businessmen sick of seeing their profits skimmed by the warlords.
Today there are 11 courts, each administering justice to a particular sub-clan. In the void of a failed state, they have managed to set up schools and clinics, and their victory last week has halted the bloodiest round of fighting seen in a decade, with more than 350 people killed this year.
But the restoration of some semblance of order has come at a price. The courts have closed cinemas accused of showing immoral films and made celebrating New Year a capital offence. A boy was recently allowed to stab his father’s killer to death in front of a cheering crowd.
At Mogadishu’s Peace Hotel weddings used to finish with hundreds of people dancing in the car park, but no longer. “The Islamic courts have told us there can be no pop music,” says a waiter. “It’s very sad. We all hope that things are not going to be like Afghanistan.”
Further afield Somalia’s fledgling government, set up 18 months ago with United Nations backing, is watching developments anxiously from its base in Baidoa about 130 miles to the northwest.
It has opened talks with the Sharia courts to see whether they might be able to work together. Mohamed Abdi Hayir, Somalia’s Information Minister, said: “Like any organisation there are extremists and moderates within the courts. We will see if we can work with the moderates so that the extremists do not have any power.”
But Sheikh Ahmed’s allies include many who believe that the Sharia courts’ triumph in Mogadishu should be replicated nationwide, turning Somalia into an Islamic state.
Sheikh Mohamed Siad, the governor of Lower Shabelle, is one of the military strongmen whose thousands of militiamen and fleet of “technicals” — Toyota pick-ups fitted with anti-aircraft guns — provide much of the Islamic courts’ muscle.
“We are Muslims and we must work at implementing Koranic law. Democracy will never work,” he says, slurping a cappuccino as he holds court.
The militias are engaged in a war against infidels, he says. “The warlords are killers, looters. So we are at war with them and the people who supported them, including Americans.”
For now, however, there is unaccustomed peace on the streets of Mogadishu. Roadblocks have been dismantled. Nights are no longer interrupted by shelling. That is enough for many shopping at Bakara market — where the price of an AK47 has fallen from $550 (£300) to $350 — who say they support anyone with the firepower to defeat the warlords.
Others are less sure. “Yes, they got rid of the warlords. But what will the courts do now?” asks one old man, his beard red with henna. “No one can ask this because they are scared of being stoned.”
JUSTICE AND THE KORAN
Sharia, or Islamic law, is either specified in the Koran or Sunna (sayings of the Prophet), or interpreted from them by religious scholars
Exclusively derived from the Koran and the Sunna. Recommended punishments for some specific offences include mutilation and beheading
Some northern states have implemented Sharia. Recommended punishments are enforced
Islamic civil courts are increasingly powerful, despite secular constitution
The only Muslim country with total separation of religion from state
Permanent constitution states that no law may be enacted that contradicts the established provisions of Islam
Law is largely based on Sharia, but without the recommended punishments. Dubai International Financial Centre is a free trade zone operating under English law