Tuesday, August 04, 2009

CRIKEY: Somali politics is just as much about clan as it is religion ...

What drives young second and third generation men living in relatively comfortable surrounds to involve themselves in an overseas conflict whose nuances they have little or no understanding of? Certainly the AFP, NSW and Victorian Police and the NSW Crime Commission have been asking these questions during the seven months of their investigation into a possible attack on an Australian army barracks.

The front page story in The Australian today provides some answers but also too many unanswered questions. According to Victorian Police Commissioner Simon Overland, publication by The Oz posed ...

... an unacceptable risk to the operation and an unacceptable risk to my staff.

It’s a serious allegation to make against a paper whose editorial line so frequently flexes its cultural warrior and national security muscles. On the other hand, it’s unclear what dangers newspaper reporting could pose to 400 heavily-armed investigators who cordoned off entire streets.

Some reporting and analysis showed a laughable ignorance of Somali and/or Muslim cultures. Cameron Stewart writes of the group of Melbourne taxi drivers and construction workers ...

... having little understanding of Somali politics or theology.

Probably the same could be said for all those involved in the final version of Mr Stewart's story that went to print.

The reports place enormous emphasis on terms like "Islam" and "Muslims" and "wahhabi". But Somali politics is just as much (if not more) about clan as it is religion. There’s no evidence al-Shabaab (the group linked to the alleged proposed attack) or any other of the warring factions in Somalia have risen above the clan-based loyalties that have divided this nation for decades. Still, there's no doubt that non-Somali Muslims and Somali kids with little understanding of clan undercurrents could be attracted by the lure of pan-Islamic rhetoric.

What really made me almost fall off my chair was this sentence describing the al-Shebaab group:
Its followers shun alcohol, cigarettes, music and videos, choosing an austere,
violent interpretation of Islam.

Most Muslims I know (including myself) shun alcohol (though I'm just a teetotaller, not a teetotalitarian) and cigarettes. Avoiding music and naughty videos also isn't uncommon among Muslims, though largely for similar reasons as conservative Christians. Thankfully our law enforcement and intelligence services don't use such indicators to identify potential terrorists or else they'd be taking Fred Nile into custody.

(Furthermore, the Sufi Islamists fighting al-Shabaab shown in the alJazeera English video below would be just as opposed to alcohol, cigarettes and certain forms of music and video.)

This kind of pedestrian theological speculation really isn't helpful, especially when it involves the kind of simplistic analysis you'd expect from tabloids. I guess Andrew Bolt and his buddies will have lots of fun speculating on how having the wrong ethnicity and/or religion turns you into a terrorist.

First published in Crikey on Tuesday 4 August 2009.

Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf

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VIDEO: What is happening inside Somalia?

The following al-Jazeera video shows three Somali perspectives on the ongoing conflict in Somalia that involves al-Shabab in conjunction with a host of opposition forces. How often do you see Somali perspectives in Australian media? Here is the text accompanying the video:

As the crisis continues anti government fighters have been capturing key towns and villages. Fighting has killed around 70 people in Mogadishu in the last few days alone. And members of the Al-Shabab group took the town of Jowhar on Sunday. Just who exactly are the players this time around - and what do they want - as their country spirals into seemingly endless discord and division?

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COMMENT: The Australian terror?

It seems that it isn't just the accused men who are in the dock as a result of the terror raids this morning in Melbourne. Also in the dock is The Australian, our national broadsheet owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Limited.

The Oz is accused by one defence barrister of ...

... running the Australian Federal Police's line.

"It is highly prejudicial," he said.

"We can expect politicians and police commissioners to do likewise later this morning.

"They need to be very careful in what they say - tainting the atmosphere as they did when they arrested my client and his co-accused in late 2005.

He said the newspaper's role was "extraordinary" and raised serious questions about police conduct.

"They appear to have been given advance notice of the AFP raids, something (which) is clearly unethical conduct on the part of police authorities."

On the other hand, Victorian Police Commissioner Simon Overland also didn't have nice things to say about the paper.

"Obviously there was reporting of these raids in The Australian newspaper this morning and I am extremely disappointed the details of this operation have been leaked and I will be vigorously pursuing the leak from my end - and I expect the Federal authorities will be doing the same" ...

"The AFP negotiated with The Australian newspaper as I am advised in terms of having this story run today. I am concerned that despite those negotiations copies of that paper – I am told – were available at 1:30am this morning, well before the raids were carried out."

"This in my view represents an unacceptable risk to the operation and an unacceptable risk to my staff. It's a risk I take extremely seriously."

So on the one hand, The Oz is running the police line while on the other hand it is endangering police lives and a sensitive investigation into an attack that could have taken many more lives.

More on this story later.

Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf

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