Towards a balanced and civil discourse on matters Somali
By Abdinasir Amin
I have been thinking about this particular article for a while and must admit that I’ve struggled with it not because it is difficult to write but because of the difficulty and the sensitivity of the subject matter. There is a good maxim in journalism; the cub reporter is advised to “start from the beginning” – so let me just do that, start from the beginning.
A little over a month ago, the emotive issue of Kismayo was being hotly debated on twitter following two seminal articles, the first by Abdi Aynte and a rejoinder by Mukter Omer. Both articles were tweeted by Somali tweeps. My objective is not to discuss the merits or demerits of either article but to use the discussion as a segue into my subject matter: the need for a balanced and civil discourse on Somali matters.
When the articles came out, there were those who felt that the Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) had been manipulated into Kismayo (and Jubbaland) by high ranking Kenyan government officials of the Ogaden clan in the service of “Ogaden expansionism”. I tweeted my opinion on the matter and my main thesis was that the idea that KDF could be sent across the border into Somalia on the whims of a few people in the service of a clan was laughable.
I pointed out that the main Somali clans – in alphabetically order – Darood, Digil-Mirifle, Dir and Hawiye – were all represented in Kenya (so it can’t be about one clan) and that “Kenyan society was much more complex than you [the Somali tweeps] gave it credit for”. By those remarks, I seem to have stepped on the nerves of reductionists who see the world in terms of us vs. them and in terms of simple, but highly attractive narratives.
Then the unfortunate incident of Garissa happened where three KDF soldiers were killed and all hell broke loose – people killed, maimed and Suuq Mugdi burnt to the ground. A tweep gleeful took my earlier comments out of context and in his own “eat that, you punk”-way cheekily asked how my harmonious Kenya, the land where clans and tribes happily lived side by side was doing.
He was insinuating that I am naïve and don’t know how the world really works. The accusation of naiveté is not altogether surprising in a society where – traditionally – war-like individuals were gloried and moderates lampooned in oral verse. Those who refuse to normalize to clannish vitriol are included in this hapless lot.
He was joined by a rather acerbic friend who did not mince his words – to him Yussuf Haji, the Defence Minsiter was a nacas (a fool, an idiot). I asked the tweep not to use such words and he trained his guns on me and called me some choice words that cannot be repeated in polite company.
Ironically, the fact that the Defence Minster could not do much about the second Garissa Gubay (the Burning of Garissa, the fist happened in the 1980s) would have made my earlier point clear – that one person or a group of people do not determine Kenyan public policy was lost to these individuals! I prayed for the young men that Allah would forgive them for their foul language and left it at that.
The anecdote – and doubtless the readers will have many other examples – illustrates a basic lack of decorum in discussions on Somali issues especially in social media circles where pseudonyms galore and folks speak whatever they want in the guise of freedom of speech. Some even go so far as to appropriate the unfortunate genocide language of Rwanda and describe entire clan-families as “intarehamwe”, the killers of this or that clan. Others stoop even lower and use really foul, but very imaginative, word plays on clan names, likening some clan names to certain parts of the human anatomy.
Our Holy prophet (SAW) admonishes us to use kind words to each other even in the worst of times. Recall the incident in the ahadith when a crazy Bedouin urinated in the middle of the mosque and some saxabi wanted to give the Bedouin a sound beating but the Prophet (SAW) refrained them from it knowing the poor man would run around the mosque urinating and making things even worse.
As Somalis say hal ninkeeda yaa maali yaqaan – the camel herder knows how to milk his milch camel best. I use this prophetic appeal because, to my mind, if you draw a Venn diagram with “Somalinimo” and “Muslimness” as two separate identity terms or circles, there is a great deal of overlap between the two, so appropriating Muslim ethical living principles does not diminish the value of Somalinimmo (for those averse to creeping arabization or even religion) neither will it exclude those who are Somali and are not Muslim.
One might ask why there is a basic lack of decorum in Somali discussions. Some would simply say that Somalis are rather prickly and not used to criticism – they will slap you back to yesterday for an affront, real or imagined. I disagree for two reasons – I am on record as a strong critic of stereotypes so try to avoid broad generalities in favour of local particularities. Even if I did agree with this particular stereotype of aversion to criticism (which I don’t), I’d have to remember Rasna Warah’s advice for columnists.
In Red Soil and Roasted Maize – a compilation of most of her writings in the Daily Nation – Rasna – a Daily Nation columnist herself – gives eight cardinal rules of being a good columnist. In her Rule Three, she warns – tongue-in-cheek – that a columnist must be consistent and must always remember what they said 10 years ago lest the columnist is accused of equivocating on issues, with all the attendant consequences, including losing your credibility. So I have to remind myself constantly that I have no much patience for ethnic stereotypes. Of course columnists being only human, as they grow older and, hopefully wiser, or as new evidence arises, can change their minds!
In one of my interviews with Rasna on “Mogadishu on her mind – a conversation with Rasna Warah” for the East African and Africa Review – she made a very poignant observation which has stuck with me months after that interview. Rasna reckons that whereas Somalis tend to be very prolific and have a lot of websites and talk to each other, they are not talking to the rest of the world about what it is like being a Somali.
But in talking to each other, we need some basic rules of argumentation and more importantly, decorum.
State your point – your thesis – clearly and concisely. I must admit here that my bias if for Muslim tradition where clarity and brevity is highly prized in communication.
What is the anti-thesis – the counter-argument? Has it been articulated somewhere? And have you been faithful to point out to your reader the existence of that counter-narrative?
No name calling – remember “the internet never forgets”. Years after you have left your wayward ways and have “gone back to the Lord” with a long henna-d beard or jalaabib, the invectives of your foul mouth will be on record for ever.
State any conflict of interests – surely if the Foreign Minister is your mum and you are praising the state’s foreign policy, there is a clear conflict of interest and your readers need to know that. I stated earlier my own bias for Muslim ethical living principles and also the principles of clarity and brevity in communications, again from the same sources.
We look at the world differently so allow for a different interpretation or conclusion on the same observation or sets of observations – so you need to choose your words carefully. In philosophical terms for instance, whereas positivists concur that “there is an objective reality that can be measured” – if you look at the natural sciences for instance – the interpretation of that observation is coloured by cultural, religious, and socio-economic bias which you may not even think exist in you.
Counterfactual – even when you are convinced that you have a plausible argument given the data you have amassed; you need to ask “is there something else that explains what I am seeing”?
All the above point to three things 1) an appeal for self-regulation and the need to invest in 2) good critical thinking and 3) analytical skills. These skills can be learnt if one is willing to put in the time and effort; self-regulation is an ethical/moral issue which is a lot harder to implement, but not altogether impossible.
Our editors also have a responsibility to reinforce the above points and to go the extra mile. Hiding behind disclaimers is on the lowest end of the spectrum of quality. On the other end is the New Yorker style fact checking – very thorough, including getting the raw data (for instance the interview recordings and transcripts). At the very least, the editors should go over each copy for simple facts and figures, spelling and grammar and ask for evidence if there are some serious allegations of fraud or misconduct which could be litigious.
I hope I am preaching to the converted; free speech comes with responsibility so let us talk more responsibly.
Abdinasir Amin is a writer and essayist based in Nairobi, Kenya. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @nasirowabass.