Ever since the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyib Erdogan, visited Mogadishu in August 2011, Turkey has stepped up involvement in Somalia, even to the point of turning the reconstruction of Mogadishu into a national mission. The Turkish presence is ubiquitous in Mogadishu, with many refugee camps run by the Turks, and at least one school.
Turkish assistance is widely appreciated in Mogadishu, but there has been increasing opposition from pro-al-Shabaab clerics in mosques outside the city. Islamic lectures have been held by such clerics since late last year, denouncing the Turks as secular agents working in the interests of the West. Some have even gone further and claimed that the intention of Turkish assistance is to turn Somalis from Islam by making Somalia into a secular state, like Turkey itself. Secularism is considered Kufr (disbelief in Allah) by most Islamists in Somalia—interestingly, including most, if not all, of the various Islamist factions within the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).
Such is the Islamists’ animosity towards the Turks that when a Shabaab truck bombing in October 2011 killed dozens of students recently awarded Turkish scholarships, Shabaab officials justified the group’s actions by claiming that the students were to be given intelligence training in Turkey.
The Shabaab argument has swayed many residing in their areas of control, and also among their online followers. Pro-Shabaab websites reported in December 2011 that other students who had been taken to Turkey had started receiving military training. The same news story also claimed that the female students had been banned from wearing the jilbab (a garment covering the head almost to the knee), but could only put on a headscarf.
The truth is, many Somali girls stop wearing the jilbab when they go abroad, while others do not stop—a fact that becomes irrelevant when the intent is to discredit the Turks in the eyes of Somalis.
This weekend, 400 Somali students were flown to Turkey for religious education by The Directorate of Religious Affairs and the Turkish Religious Affairs Foundation (TDV). According to Today’s Zaman, a Turkish newspaper, the deputy director of the TDV lauded the project “one of Turkey’s most important initiatives for the Somali people."
In response, one Shabaab cleric, Sheikh Abdulkadir Mumin, lashed out on Al-Andalus—al-Shabaab’s official radio station—accusing the Turks of harboring neo-colonialist intentions. He went on to claim that the Turkish food aid was expired anyway.
Online, Somalis had mixed reactions to the Sheikh’s statement, but many of those agreeing with him had not expressed themselves as pro-Shabaab in their other forum posts. One wonders whether the increased Shabaab rhetoric against Turkish aid is a prelude to a ban or even—God forbid—a direct attack on the Turkish aid contingent.
The Shabaab have ideological reasons for opposing the Turkish scholarship process, namely their enmity towards secularism, which they suspect will be planted in the hearts of the students taken to Turkey. Furthermore, the Shabaab view Turkish Islam as a watered-down version of Sunni Islam, and are therefore opposed to students being placed under its influence.
Besides the Shabaab, the scholarship process has been under increasing criticism in recent days from students and the media. In spite of the claim by some Turkish officials that the students are picked based on how well they do in their scholarship interviews, in reality the students have been selected according the 4.5 tribal formula, the same system used to apportion Somali members of parliament (for every placement allocated to each of Somalia’s four major clans, half a placement is allocated to all minority clans combined). This formula is widely unpopular, and some MPs have also called for its cancellation.
The 4.5 formula may have been convenient in handing out parliamentary seats, but it is totally unfair to use it to determine who gets scholarships, which should be awarded on merit and not for the sake of political correctness.
Yet the discourse concerning the Turkish scholarship program, especially regarding the hundreds of students who have been flown there for “religious studies” is not tackling the main issue: Somalis don’t need religious aid.
The Turks may be thinking that the future imams whom they train would serve as an important moderating influence in Somali mosques, but that may not pan out. For one, mosques are mostly run by those who built them or people they appoint. The Turks would have to build the mosques as well, if they want the imams they train to lead prayers in Somalia. Aha—next step, build more mosques.
However prayers may spiritually enhance us, let’s face it, they won’t build roads. Or perform surgery.
Somalia has one doctor for almost 60,000 people in some areas, according to irinnews.org . And the education sector is among the worst in the world. No, not religious education; almost every Somali child goes to a madrasa, and many memorize the whole Quran by the time they are 12 to 15 years old. And we wonder why our literacy rates are abysmal. Too bad that being able to write in Arabic doesn’t count.
Turkey, we appreciate your help in Somalia. Despite the threats and the bombings you have stayed with us. But can you please help us with things we really do need?
We are in need of engineers and doctors—and I don't mean Doctors of Religion. The kind that work in hospitals, not mosques.