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In Somalia, Islamic Law Is Far From Uniform

`They don't all have the same vision,' an official says of the courts that control the south.

October 15, 2006|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

MOGADISHU, Somalia — The public execution was set for 9 a.m., and thousands of men, women and children raced toward a sandy dune where the previous regime killed its political enemies.

A man accused of fatally shooting a Mogadishu businessman in a dispute over a cellphone two weeks earlier knelt and prayed in front of an eight-man firing squad, as impatient spectators whistled, hooted, stood on cars and scrambled up trees for a better view. The death sentence had been imposed swiftly by a local Islamic court. No attorney. No appeal.

The first blast of gunfire didn't do the job, so an officer stepped forward and shot the accused in the head. Then the crowd broke through security lines and rushed toward the body, many yelling, "Allahu akbar!" or "God is great!"

Four months after they seized control of Somalia's capital, Islamists have won widespread praise for reestablishing order and stability in Mogadishu and surrounding areas after 15 years of anarchy.

But the Islamists are by no means uniform in their application of justice. In Islamist-run southern Somalia, how you live, and sometimes whether you live, depends largely on where you live.

In one Mogadishu neighborhood, court officials banned cinemas and satellite television as immoral, and have punished criminals with public lashings and executions, such as the one last month.

Under a different court less than a mile away, residents can view pornographic films at night and are free to watch CNN and Hollywood movies. Islamic leaders there have no stomach for public punishment, instead sentencing criminals to prison.

"They don't all have the same vision," said Mogadishu Mayor Mohamed Hassan Ali, who was appointed by Somalia's U.N.-backed transitional government but has struggled for authority under the Islamists. "They don't even know each other that well. Now they're trying to set an agenda, and it's creating some culture shock."

After their surprising victory over U.S.-backed warlords in June, the Islamic Courts Union reopened the airport and seaport, dispatched uniformed security officers who won't take bribes, and reintroduced consumer protection laws, such as halting the import of spoiled food, which unscrupulous businessmen had been dumping in Somalia for years.

But a clash of ideologies has emerged between leaders of the Islamist union and nearly three dozen smaller, semiautonomous courts that function as local governments throughout southern Somalia. These clan-based courts, some of which have their own militias, sometimes pursue distinct and competing interpretations of Islamic law.

On big issues, such as opposition to bringing foreign peacekeepers to Somalia and strategies to reach a power-sharing agreement with the transitional government based in Baidoa, the Islamists show few signs of discord. Most also support, in theory, the installation of an Islamic-based government.

But as Somalis begin debating how to implement such a system, cracks are beginning to show.

In Jawhar, north of Mogadishu, the local court last month banned love songs and Western music on the radio, though such fare still plays in the capital.

After an Italian nun and her bodyguard were shot to death in Mogadishu on Sept. 17, moderate court leaders accused a group of young fundamentalist fighters, known as Shabbab, of shielding one of the killers. The court leaders threatened to break from the union if the suspect was not handed over, two court sources said.

In an interview at his modest home in Mogadishu, with laundry hanging across the courtyard and children playing, Islamic Courts Union leader Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys insisted that differences within the movement were minor.

"There may be some division," he said. "But there is no challenge to the authority and administration of the court. Our ideology is one." He denied any internal friction over the case of the nun's slaying.

Aweys heads the 91-person shura, a de facto parliament that includes representatives of various factions and clans. He shares power with Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, a former teacher who serves in a presidential role for the union. Ahmed is thought to represent the moderate side of the courts, though he has rarely differed from the more hard-line Aweys in public.

Both men said the disputes were being magnified by outsiders, including the Bush administration and Ethiopian government, who Aweys said were plotting to "divide and conquer" the fledgling alliance.

"The U.S. government accuses anyone who disagrees with it of being a terrorist, especially when they see a Muslim who wants to form an Islamic government," Aweys said.

Ibrahim Hassan Addou, who serves as foreign minister for the union, expressed disappointment that the more extreme actions by lower courts seemed to get the most attention in the news media.

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