Saturday, 28 January 2012

Somalian refugees, drought and al-Shabab


The Guardian reported recently from the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya, where over 400,000 people are fleeing drought and war in Somalia. The testimonies of some of the refugees provide a vivid account of the difficulties they have faced.

One of the refugees, Ali Maolim Hassan (46) comments how he had a small farm in Somalia, growing crops and keeping livestock. Whilst life was not easy, “there was enough rain and animals would feed well”. In addition humanitarian agencies ran clinics and provided other services. Change came when the al-Shabab group took power in the area. They would enforce the zakat (obligatory charitable donation) very strictly. “They would take your animals forcefully, not according to Islamic rules”, comments Hassan. Then came the drought which forced Hassan to sell his few remaining animals cheaply and travel to the refugee camps inside neighbouring Kenya.

16yr old Madahir Borow Mohamed, who was a cattle herder in the Middle Juba region of Somalia, comments that whilst al-Shabab took part of the crops, “they did not force children to join them”. He does not want to return to Somalia because of “the drought and because of al-Shabab”.

At the other end of the age scale, Halima Ahmed (65) describes how al-Shabab prevented people from fleeing the hunger, as this would deprive them of “tax” revenues. She comments “Women caught escaping were taken back to the village, but if men were leading the way, they would be beaten or even shot.” A measure of how severe the droughts are is that Halima says she has never known a drought this bad.

Young mother Suroro Mohamed (18) had never been to school and, like others, said that the drought had pushed them over the edge and forced them to become refugees. Regarding al-Shabab, she comments that “They came with very strict rules. . . If you have something, the Shabab can take it.” Even so, she adds that “If there are rains in Somalia, we will go back”.

Quran teacher and small-holder Maolim Adow Maolim (45) commented that, when al-Shabab took control of their area, “they just went around taking animals by force. If you resisted they could slaughter you, even if you were a Quran teacher”. As with the other refugees, the drought resulted in there being no food available for his animals. Food prices had risen dramatically and al-Shabab were not allowing in any aid. With two wives and nine children to support, the situation was becoming intolerable. He comments that “We made the decision to leave because of three problems: drought; a lack of food and water; and al-Shabab. But if relief had been allowed in, we would have stayed”.


Somali  school in Dadaab refugee camp

Image Source : Wikipedia

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Jerusalem : 7th to 13th Century

BFTF watched the second in a three part series on the history of Jerusalem recently. Presented by Simon Sebag Montefiore, and screen on the brilliant BBC4 channel, the programme covered the story of the city from the 7th to the 13th century.

It was an absolute revelation.

What was also interesting was that the information age, and in particular the availability of resources such as Wikipedia means that a documentary is can now be viewed much more as a starting point for further investigation than a fully formed package of information in its own right.

The notes below are based on the programme, with some additional material from Wikipedia.

The programme picked up the story in the early 7th Century. At this time the city was ruled by Christian Byzantium and Jews were banned from Jerusalem. However, Christian Byzantium was growing weak and would soon be threatened by the armies of the growing Muslim empire in Arabia. Simon describes how, from its earliest days, Islam had a strong connection to Jerusalem through the Prophet Muhammed’s “Night Journey” (Al-Isra). This was an event where, in a single night, he travelled to a place called “the Furthest Sactuary” and then to Heaven before returning to earth. The sanctuary referred to is believed by Muslims to be the Temple Mount.



Al Aqsa Mosque

Five years after Muhammed’s(PBUH) death, in 637CE, three Muslim armies were converging on Jerusalem. They were driven by political and religious motives and soon besieged the city. Inside, the leader of the Christians, the Patriarch Sophronius began negotiations and agreed to terms of surrender, but only if the terms were personally guaranteed by the Caliph – Umar - in person. Umar duly arrived in Jersusalem to accept the surrender of the city and Sophronius presented him with the keys to Jerusalem in return for the promise that Christians could worship freely. This was the so-called “Pact of Omar”. Umar invited the Jews back to the city so that they too could pray at the Temple Mount.

Western Wall

By 685CE the Muslim empire was rich, powerful and ruled by the Ummayad dynasty of Caliphs. One of these, Abd Al-Malik build a shrine on the Temple Mount, which is known as the “Dome of the Rock”. Simon describes it as “one of the most successful and beautiful religious buildings ever constructed”. Abd al-Malik and his son also built the Masjid Al-Aqsa, which is also on the also on the Temple Mount site. The Ummayads also build a vast palace complex next to the Temple Mount. Surviving carvings from the Palace are of a surprisingly sensuous nature. As Simon points out, “the Ummayads were more like decadent Roman Emperors than puritanical Islamic Rulers”.

Coin Depicting Al-Malik

Dome of the Rock

Over time, some of the spirit of tolerance was lost and, in 720CE the Caliph at the time banned Jews from the Temple Mount, although they were allowed to live in the city. The Ummayads were followed by another Sunni dynasty, the Abbasids and then by a more tolerant Shia dynasty, the Fatimids.

By 1000CE, there was a young Fatimid Caliph called Al-Hakim. According to Simon, “he was a popular and beloved young caliph but he was increasingly obsessed with his own semi-messianic status. He took to wandering the streets at night in mystical trances induced by opium. .. gradually, Al-Hakim was going mad”. He forced the Jews and Christians to wear distinctive clothing and the Jews had to “ring bells to warn Muslims of their approach”. Al-Hakim then gave the Jews and Christians the choice of conversion or death. He also ordered the complete demolition of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as he did not approve of the Christians annual “Descent of the Holy Fire” ceremony.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

It was attacks on Christians, as well as Turkish attacks on Christian Byzantium, that provoked the Pope to order the First Crusade in 1095. This “holy war” was a new concept and the Pope promised remission of sins in return for the services of the soldiers. On 7th June 1099, the crusaders managed to breach the city walls and embarked on a 48hr rampage in which they killed and mutilated everyone they could find – men, women and children alike. Afterwards, Jews and Muslims were prevented, on pain of death, from entering the city.

By 1174, Saladin (founder of the Ayyubid dynasty and Sultan of Egypt and Syria) was making his mark and beginning to challenge the crusader armies in the area. Over the next few years, Saladin scored a number of significant victories and, by 1874, he was besieging Jerusalem. The ruler of Jerusalem told Saladin that if terms could not be agreed, the Christian Franks in the city would kill their own women and children and then destroy the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque. After discussing with his aides, Saladin agreed to accept a ransom for each Christian, with those who could not pay going into slavery. Upon entering the city Saladin immediately set about removing the stables and apartments that the Crusaders had built in the Al-Aqsa masjid. He also banned all church bells and invited the Jews to return to the city.

Muslim Cavalry of the Crusades

The loss of Jerusalem shocked Europe, with the result that Richard the Lion Heart was sent as leader of another crusade to take back the city. Eventually, after many battles, Richard and Saladin (who had great mutual respect) agreed to the Treaty of Jaffa, in which the Crusaders got a base at Acre and access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but Saladin kept everything else.

Before 6 months had passed, Saladin was dead. And, within a generation, the Crusaders were coming back via Egypt. To try and prevent the Crusaders capturing Jerusalem as a valuable stronghold, the Rulers of Jerusalem destroyed the walls. In the event the Crusaders did not reach the city but the city was now defenceless.

By the early13th century, Jerusalem was ruled by Sultan Al-Kamil (a North African Ayyubid Caliph and descendant of Saladin). Under attack from the fifth crusade in Egypt, Al-Kamil made repeated peace offers to the Crusaders, including giving them Jerusalem in return for the Crusaders leaving Egypt (in support of this proposal, Al-Kamil's brother had the walls of Jerusalem demolished to ensure that the city would not become a crusader power base). In the event, the fifth crusade was a failure and the crusaders did not reach Palestine, let alone Jerusalem.

The Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick 2nd was heavily criticised for this failure and agreed to launch a sixth crusade. His tardiness in untaking this resulted in him being excommunicated by the Pope. As a result, when Frederick finally arrived in Palestine, he received little help from Christian military in the area. On the Muslim side Al-Hakim was also preoccupied with disagreements with the Muslim rulers in neighbouring countries. Thus both sides were keen to avoid a full scale war.

The negotiations between Al-Hakim and Frederick resulted in a treaty that was signed in 1229CE. It ceded control of Jerusalem (with the exception of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque) to the Christians for a period of 10 years, whilst guaranteeing the freedom of Muslim to worship in the city.

The peace did not last. Simon states that the city was soon “tossed between Islamic princelings and Crusader barons”.

The programme concluded with the invasion of the Tartars in 1244, who had been invited to Palestine by Saladin’s feuding descendants. But they were out of control. When they entered Jerusalem they destroyed churches and houses, beheading and disembowelling the priests at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre before leaving again.


The programme left BFTF with a lot to think about and the questions it raised were relevant to many of todays issues. For example, the programme highlighted how the failure of a ruling government to show tolerance to minorities can have repercussions that echo for generations and also makes one wonder about the relationship between the loyalty of a soldier to his ruler and to his faith and ow this does, or does not change if a Muslim is living in a non-Muslim society?


Image souces: Western Wall, Al-Aqsa Mosque, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Dome of the Rock, Muslim cavalry, Coin