Monday, February 1, 2010

Islamists ‘Indoctrinating’ Somali Schoolchildren

A youth leads a group of hard-line Islamist Al Shabab fighters as they conduct military exercises in northern Mogadishu's Suqaholaha neighborhood, Somalia, Friday Jan. 1, 2010. The group's senior official said the young fighters have recently completed training to join what they said to be a global war against the enemy of Allah.

Islamists in Somalia make schoolchildren targets of their ideology.

The Al-Shabab movement in Somalia has issued directives in schools located in areas under its control, in an effort to instill Islamist ideology in the younger generation.

Islamist authorities in Merca, located some 70 kilometers (43 miles) southwest of the capital Mogadishu, have ordered that boys and girls learn in separate classrooms and that the Somali national flag be replaced with the movement’s flag in schools, according to the London-based A-Sharq Al-Awsat.

Observers and human rights activists are concerned that the new directives will help the Islamists spread a radical ideology among impressionable schoolchildren.

People in the education sector told the newspaper that the schools, which generally have mixed-gender classrooms, had limited budgets and resources, which made it impossible to allocate separate classrooms and teachers for boys and girls.

“Jihadi organizations combine militancy with morality and the need to indoctrinate and control ideas is part of the strategy,” Paula Roque, researcher for the African Security Analysis Program at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in South Africa told The Media Line.

“Al-Shabab has demonstrated itself to be organized in this regard, and has set up administrations in its conquered territories that are structured around its proposed vision for an Islamic salafi-wahhabist nation,” she said. “Education, therefore, is part of the services Al-Shabab delivers to the population under its control but it also allows for potential recruitment and acceptance of its ideology by the local populace.”

Roque said Al-Shabab had focused on the education system in the past, and cited two examples. The first was a campaign by the organization that dubbed books distributed by the United Nations as un-Islamic and issued warnings against them, and the second was during a December 3 bombing, which targeted a graduation ceremony in Mogadishu.

Roque said these were indications that “Al-Shabab is ready to tackle not only the structures of government of the Transitional Federal Government and its foreign supporters, or allied groups like Ahlu Sunna, but all evidence of what it perceives as not conforming to its radical Islamic vision.”

Traditionally, Somali schools exhibit the national flag, which is light blue with a five-point white star in the center, and the children salute the national emblem during morning assembly.

Under the new orders, the flag will be replaced with Al-Shabab’s flag, which is black with two crossed swords in the center and bears the Islamic creed “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.”

Al-Shabab is also demanding girls wear long jilbabs, or traditional dresses, and that the boys shorten their pants to ankle-length.

Sheikh Hassan Nour Abu Musab, in charge of Al-Shabab’s dawa, or religious preaching in Merca, said the directives effectively implemented Islamic law in areas under Al-Shabab’s control, and that they would be put into practice as of February 1.

The international community is concerned about the Taliban-style justice that Al-Shabab is meting out in areas under its control, including executing suspected adulterers by stoning and severing the limbs of thieves.

Analysts suspect the directives are a sign the movement is trying to push girls out of the school system in moves reminiscent of the Taliban’s attacks against girls’ schools in Pakistan, since imposing separate schooling for boys and girls is logistically and financially impossible.

“Al-Shabab has already demonstrated its clear need to subjugate women, and the expulsion of girls from schools fits into this,” Roque said, “in the same way that the Taliban separated men and women, their roles, their rights, and their role in the public and private spheres.”

Bashir Goth, a Somali blogger and former editor of Awdal News thinks these new measures could be a turning point that will not be tolerated by the public, and may even make the youngsters turn against Al-Shabab.

“The Somali flag is the only legitimate national symbol that can unite the Somali people,” he told The Media Line. “Getting rid of it will only make it easier for Somaliland and any other regions that have aspirations for secession to do so. By imposing such draconian rules on schoolchildren, they will only alienate the youth and cause thousands of them to flee the country and risk their lives escaping in search of freedom and a better life.”

The Al-Shabab administration in Kismayo, around 500 kilometers south of the capital Mogadishu, recently started clamping down on clothing, making men shave their moustaches, grow their beards and wear pants no longer than their ankles. They said anyone seen to be violating these laws would face drastic measures in accordance with Islamic law.

A source, who was formerly involved in the Somali government and asked not to be named, said it was an established fact that at the beginning of the last decade, Islamists located good students and recruited them for military training camps.

They obtained a strong foothold in schools and orphanages and have now developed additional ways to approach schools, especially in southern Somalia, including replacing teachers in elementary Qur’anic schools with their own instructors.

“If this issue and other related issues are not addressed or tackled in time, the price will be high,” the source said.

Chris Albin-Lackey, a senior Somalia researcher for Human Rights Watch said he believed comparisons between Al-Shabab and the Taliban were sometimes overblown.

“Somalia is a unique context, and Al-Shabab is a uniquely Somali creature,” he told The Media Line. “It’s absolutely true that a lot of its leaders in the areas under its control have drawn inspiration from extreme interpretations of Sharia, not altogether unlike what the Taliban did in Afghanistan.”

“In the obsession with personal morality, there are a lot of parallels you can draw with other places but [Al-Shabab] is not a monolithic organization, much more of a broad coalition of competing interests that don’t necessarily see eye to eye on everything.”

As to targeting schoolchildren, Albin-Lackey said that in many areas in Somalia that are under Al-Shabab control the school system is broken down altogether.

“In most of the areas in southern Somalia that are now under the control of Al-Shabab you don’t see a functioning school system at all and its been like that for some time,” he added.

Al-Shabab is short for Harakat Al-Shabab Al-Mujahideen (the Warrior Youth Movement) and controls large parts of southern Somalia and of Mogadishu. The group is an offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union, which was in control of the country for the second half of 2006 but was ousted by the Somalis and their Ethiopian allied forces at the beginning of 2007.

Islamists regrouped following the ousting, and began seizing strategic areas and launching daily attacks on the army, civilians, aid workers and peacekeepers.

Al-Shabab wishes to topple the current Western-backed government and impose Islamic law.

Analysts are concerned that the conflict in Somalia will not only turn Somalia into an Al-Qa’ida haven, but might spill over into neighboring countries.

There are fears Somalia will become a battlefield for a proxy war between Ethiopia, which backs the Somali government, and Eritrea, which has been accused of providing arms and funds to support the Islamists.

Media Line

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