Monday, 20 April 2015

'Have you attacked a Somali yet?' Terrorism and bigotry on the web

By Mwenda Kailemia, Lecturer in Criminology  

In this post Mwenda Kailemia reflects on the views of Ayaan Hirsi on the terrorist attacks in Kenya. Mwenda recently wrote a piece for The Guardian on these attacks.  

When she used to be a Somali heroine - before she became a republican gadfly - Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s biography embodied the collective hope and pain of the Somali nation. We read in her Nomad not only the challenges of democratic institutional building (for example, in her familial travails in conservative Saudi Arabia or in her father’s experiences in Siad Barre’s carceral dungeons), but also the hopes of the few immigrants who risked life and limb to build a new future in distant lands. Her long journey of refuge from troubled Somalia to political prominence as a member of the Dutch legislative assembly is inspiring. Like most such narratives, however, hers’ sheds useful light on the bad and the good. Hirsi builds a respectable, if unconvincing case, for the role of Somali’s clan affiliation to the weaknesses of the postcolonial society, a thesis she also expands to explain the longstanding problem of state failure. Her life story also vividly captures what the rest of the world is only now beginning to grapple with: the direct and existential threat of Jihadist terrorism. Through her association with Theo Van Gogh, Hirsi became the object of Jihadist rage and for an extended period of time had to live with the threat of death, being moved from place to place by Dutch secret police to evade Van Gogh’s fate. It is unsurprising then, that one can butt heads with such evil and avoid the temptation to see its threat elsewhere.

Recently, however, Ayaan has aroused controversy for a completely opposite reason. Through a series of Twitter rants, Ayaan castigates ‘most Somali people’ for the recent brutal killings of university students in Garissa, Kenya. According to Ayaan, because ‘most Somali people’ are ‘afraid of life and love’ they have become difficult neighbours so much that on account of their presence incidences such as Garissa are inevitable.  Even by the generally low standards of American free speech, it is baffling to see someone who has been at the receiving end of bigotry for such an extended period of time peddle the same poison of hatred - especially against her own nation. Her tweets index the crass xenophobia which is presently seeking to exploit the suffering of the people of Kenya by placing the blame at the collective doorstep of a whole community. Such xenophobia, however it is embellished, is wrong and unjustified.

But we should not be surprised: Ayaan is preaching to a large choir which, at the latest count, includes the Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelithini - who has justified, and then denied justifying, xenophobic attacks against migrants in South Africa - and the Kenyan deputy president whose national security strategy is to forcefully deport Somali refugees back into Somali. Apropos of the later, the collective impact of the careless post-Garissa attack statements is a focal shift from Kenya’s poor management of its national intelligence via scapegoating of the primary victims of terrorism in Somali. Although much has been canvassed on the illegality of whole-scale repatriation of refugees, the point that has been missed by most commentary on Kenya’s ultimatum to the UNHCR is that Kenyan administration is seeking to use the conundrum of international law to justify its luck-luster performance on national security. Anyone who has followed the events leading up to Garissa will easily see the utter non-relation of the terror attacks to residence in Dadaab. As an example, the masterminds of the attacks include a local teacher - on whose head the government has placed a bounty - and a law student who was also the son of a Kenyan official. So far there is no talk of expelling all government officials with sons out of the country!

Like the proverbial fool who loses his item in a dark room and quickly goes to search for it under the street lamp, because there is more light there, the Kenya government is intent on linking home-grown terrorism to the presence of Somalia nationals in Dadaab refugee camp.  Moreover, despite the fact that an overwhelming percentage of suspects arrested and arrayed in Kenyan court have turned out to be radicalized local youth, the Kenyan Government has persistently articulated its security threat as an external threat emanating from Somalia. As a result, there are louder calls, post-Garissa, for the Somali community to ‘hand-over’ the suspects. (A comic climax was reached when some government officials pledged a list of all the suspects in 30 days!) In tandem with this witch-hunt the government has began to publish uncorroborated lists of the people who pose the most threat - never mind that suspects in similar lists in the past have laughed their way out of court due to the usually shoddy investigation by Kenya’s corrupt police.

The point in all these exercises has been to deflect attention from the fact that Al Shabab has been effective against Kenya precisely because Kenya is a divided society, lorded over by  corrupt regime which will turn a blind eye to the gravest threat to common security for pay. If Al Shabab militants have been emboldened against Kenya, it is because they can see that the president’s hands are firmly secured against his back: since he took office his original idea of securing the nation has been to substitute members of two communities (who will guarantee his re-election in 2017) at the helm of policing and the interior ministry. In that sense, it would appear that while the country is fighting to remain optimistic against imminent attacks, the current administration is fighting to secure re-election. As local opinion goes, the national intelligence service may have been caught flat-footed by terrorists, because its gaze has been on the minor issue of International crimes indictment against the president and his deputy. But what does it matter: there are enough Somalis around to blame, aren’t there?

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