If, as my colleague Sarah Wildman reports, the Francophonic world is intent on curbing expressions of fundamentalist Islam belief, then the radical Muslim world is taking no prisoners with the West, either. Last week, the Somalian fundamentalist Islamic group Hizbul Islam announced that music of any kind is "un-Islamic," warning of "serious consequences" for those who dare to violate their decree. In response, radio stations all over the country, including those run by the moderate Muslim transitional government, cut all music from their broadcasts. Even intro music for news reports was scrapped. In its place? "We are using sounds such as gunfire, the noise of vehicles and the sound of birds to link up our programmes and news," said one Somalian head of radio programming.
Somalia has been wracked with inter-tribal violence for nearly two decades. In the last few years, increasingly radical Muslim militants, including the dominant Shabab group, have taken over large parts of the country and become closely affiliated with al-Qaeda. A moderate Muslim transitional government, helmed by a former teacher named Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, controls a small part of the country. His government is largely propped up by African Union peacekeepers, with United Nations' and U.S. support.
In the meantime, Islamic radicals like Shabab have gone on a campaign the New York Times described as "a quest to turn Somalia into a seventh century style Islamic state."
The music decree follows a string of fundamentalist decrees, including prohibitions on wearing bras (also "un-Islamic"), the banning of modern movies and news channels, including the BBC and Voice of America.
As evidence of a power struggle between the moderate Muslim government and the hard-line radicals who control many parts of the country, Sheik Ahmed's government responded last Sunday by saying any radio stations that stopped playing music would face closure. In the government's eyes, those radio stations that complied with the ban were colluding with the radicals.
In the meantime, the radio stations have been caught between a rock and a hard place. "The order and counter-order are very destructive," radio director Abukar Hassan Kadaf said in the Times article. "Each group are issuing orders against us and we are the victims."
In the escalating tug-of-war between Western and Islamic powers over freedom of expression, what remains to be seen is how much of a causal relationship exists between the two. Is a proposed burqa ban in Quebec a result of the shuttering of a radio station in Somalia? Does a call for prohibition of headscarves in Paris force a bra-burning in Mogadishu?
If Islamic decrees do, in fact, fuel the fire for legal actions in the West (and vice versa), then continued and increased prohibition seems inevitable. But if radical Islam and a skeptical West are destined to one-up each other in a battle of bans, the powers that be might remember the men and women caught in the crossfire. That is, the women in the West who wear niqabs by choice, or the men and women in Somalia who just want to listen to music. What is perhaps most strikingly absent in all the brouhaha surrounding sharia vs. Western law are the voices of the moderate Muslims themselves. In the end, perhaps the gulf between the two sides will prove too great to be bridged, but for the immediate future, we would do well to remember the ground we share in common. Before there's nothing left to ban.
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