Thursday, January 23, 2020
Wardheer News
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Somalia’ New Star Attraction: Clerical Hype for the Masses

By Hassan M. Abukar

In August 2019, a plane landed at Mogadishu Airport as TV cameras focused on who would be the mysterious official to step from the aircraft. Then, a tall, young, and handsome man dressed in an Arab Thawb (garment) emerged and walked down the steps accompanied by his equally good-looking and a youthful brother. Abubakar Mohamed, a popular Somali social media cleric, and his brother Omar Mohamed were greeted on the tarmac by another boyish-looking Somali official, Abdinur M. Ahmed, Director of Communications — Office of the President. Abdinur, as he is popularly known, greeted and hugged Abubakar and his brother, and then the trio walked to the airport’s VIP waiting room.

Abubakar Mohamed, right, and Omar Mohamed

This unique airport reception for a visiting cleric was an example of a clear government policy to latch into popular religious celebrities, co-opt them, and use them to serve like Roman Praetorian guards who would vigilantly defend the government.

In the past few months alone, the Ministry of Religion and the Ministry of Sports and Youth have sponsored and supported public lectures by Abubakar and Sheikh Kenyawi, both from the diaspora, at Mogadishu’s Konis (now renamed Engineer Yariisow) Stadium. Sheikh Kenyawi spoke about the theme of forgiveness and Abubakar delivered a speech about the role of youth in society. The hype of these lectures was just a crude form of Mogadishu performance art.

And then, there was the April 2019 conference in Mogadishu for Somali clerics sponsored by the Ministry of Religion.

Abubakar: A Millennial Preacher

Abubakar Mohamed, a Somali resident of the Netherlands, emerged on social media several years ago. He has no religious training, nor does he serve as an imam of a mosque. His topics are mostly spiritual and relate to self-help. The range of his religious lessons is at best limited and at times redundant. Mostly, he gives short talks on social media and has a tendency to appear occasionally with other clerics, depending on where he is visiting. He travels a lot and claims that he is running three separate businesses. He has written a self-published book in Somali, Ku Raaxeeyso Noloshaada (Enjoy Your Life) and was a guest at the Mogadishu Book Fair (MBF). The book, as its title indicates, is specifically geared to a wider audience and explains that one can solve problems—any problem—if certain steps of self-improvement are taken. Abubakar has a laid-back and encouraging personality. His approach of preaching, in short, can be summarized as, “Don’t worry, be happy.”

Abubakar talks a lot about love. While traveling, he preaches about the importance of love in one’s life and the joy of the beautiful faces of people he meets. “I swear by God, I love you,” he says. The audience, who are mostly impressionable youth, applaud and cheer. In Mogadishu Stadium, he told his audience they were “the most beautiful people in the world and not even in China and America can people like you be found.” However, Abubakar’s emphasis on love has raised eyebrows among some people because of his marital status. He is single.

Abdinur, front, Abubakar, and Omar at the MBF

While visiting Britain, an interviewer asked Abubakar why a handsome, healthy, and religious  young man like him is still single. Abubakar giggled nervously and then fumbled for words. “You know, I am asked this question four or five times a day,” he responded. It was obvious he did not want to answer the question and he spent a minute or two beating around the bush. “I am having difficulty making a choice among many women,” he mumbled, smiling. Then the interviewer came to his rescue and asked if wanted to marry a pretty woman or a religious one. “A religious one,” Abubakar said bashfully.

Abubakar elaborated on the type of woman he would marry: “Someone who is kind, pretty, and makes me smile when I see her from two kilometers away.  A woman whom we can understand each other.” Subsequently, what followed was an alarming statement which had a whiff of narcissism to it, or perhaps it was youthful hubris. “I want someone who likes what I like, hates what I hate, and who will take care of me,” he said.

While in Mogadishu, Abubakar and his brother met senior government officials, including Prime Minister Hassan Kheyre. They also visited schools, the Grand Mosque of Is-Bahaysiga, and Lido Beach. Their presence in the capital was a publicity stunt for the government because the duo are popular with the youth—inside and outside the country—and they are preachers known for talking about safe topics. Abubakar and Sheikh Kenyawi will not talk about hard-hitting subjects such as corruption, security lapses in Mogadishu, the thousands of Somali youth who have left the country, risking their lives in search of a better life in Europe, and the ever-growing disparity between the privileged few and the masses.

Like any social media phenomenon, Abubakar’s rise might be ephemeral and, hence, the star that burns so brightly could get extinguished quickly.    

A Conference for Clerics

On April 21, 2019, the Somali federal government sponsored a conference for a limited number of Somali clerics. President Mohamed Farmajo opened the gathering and Prime Minister Hassan Kheyre closed it three days later. It was an environment suffused with self-congratulation.

Sheikh Nur Barud Gurxan at the clerics’ conference in Mogadishu.

Somalia, like any Muslim country, has a coterie of clerics close to the government. These clerics provide legitimacy to the regime, especially when the main, virulent opposition group in the country is Al-Shabaab, an organization with radical religious ideology. The terror group contends that the federal government is un-Islamic and, hence, must be violently removed.

Participants in the Mogadishu conference were mostly clerics based inside the country, although two clerics from Minnesota (Hassan Jaamici and Abdirahman Sheikh Omar) were also invited. The goal of the conference was to show the public that the religious scholars are in congruence with the government in a) the war against Al-Shabaab, b) the dispute between the federal government and regional states, and c) the political stalemate between the government and opposition groups. Figures like Sheikh Bashir Ahmed-Salad Warsame, Sheikh Nur Barud Gurxan, Sheikh Ali Wajiz and Sheikh Somo were in the forefront. These clerics have historically supported the government, regardless of who has been the head of state. As a result, Al-Shabaab targets these clerics  and, hence, the government houses, feeds, and protects them.

Last year, one of these clerics, Ali Wajiz, was giving a Friday sermon at the mosque in Villa Somalia when the sermon suddenly degenerated into a shouting match. An opposition lawmaker had interrupted Wajiz for spewing venom against government critics. Wajiz went on a tear and asked the lawmaker to shut up. Then, the cleric accused the lawmaker of “taking bribes from the United Arab Emirates.”

The clerics at the April conference vowed to resist Al-Shabaab and called the group heretical. Sheikh Abdirahman Sheikh Omar from Minnesota warned the terror group that he and the other clerics would wage an all-out war against them “if the terrorists do not repent and lay down arms.”

Sheikh Hassan Jaamici, also from Minnesota, declared that he and other clerics were willing to go to Al-Shabaab and negotiate with them. If not, “I am willing to put on a military fatigue and fight them,” he added. His willingness to fight the group astounded Abdirahman Baadiyow, an advisor of the prime minister, who exclaimed: “Are you serious?” Jaamici answered, “Yes, I am serious.”

Sheikh Jaamici said he is an avowed supporter of President Farmajo’s government and his party’s slogan, N&N, which stands for “Nabad & Nolol” (Peace and Life). Then the cleric turned to the president, who was in the audience, and told a story about a government critic he had spoken to who was surprised that Jaamici was a supporter of N&N. “Do you know that N&N is in the Quran—specifically in Surat Qureish,” he said. Jaamici added that if Muslims followed the Sharia, they would get peace and life. Suddenly, there was an awkward silence and the statement set off sirens in some heads. Farmajo must have felt embarrassed because the wrench in his eyes was noticeable. No one in his government ever thought of linking the Quran to his party’s slogan of N&N, not in a million years. Unfortunately, the cleric’s dubious assertion, perhaps straining credulity, negates the real conditions of Mogadishu where neither peace nor viable life are far from being attainable. Paradoxically, Jaamici’s statement pointed to a far more insidious problem: the extent some clerics would go to in aligning themselves with the government. In a way, clerical criticism of the government is in short supply these days.

Several years ago and during the presidency of Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud, Sheikh Nur Barod Gurxan stood in a public gathering and lashed out at President Mohamoud for hiring “the worst kind of government officials.” The president, a hard-nosed, thick-skinned politician, smiled and remained unfazed. Mohamoud, with all his failings, was a different president who regularly met with the press, held public gatherings in which he was often taken to the cleaners, and did not eschew meeting with his subjects. These days, Sheikh Gurxan, though still a supporter of the government, dares not criticize the government publicly.

The intersection between politics and religion is not a new phenomenon. What is odd is when political power, as is manifested by the government, becomes beholden to glitzy social media where it is all style and no substance and where the government’s  main function of protecting and serving its people is relegated to the background.

Hassan M. Abukar

Hassan M. Abukar is a writer, a contributor to Wardheernews, and the author of Mogadishu Memoir. He can be reached at [email protected].  

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