The Somali atheist activists who get death threats

Of interest:

Somali atheists in the diaspora are running a Facebook group to challenge their community’s Islamic beliefs, but they often receive death threats, writes journalist Layla Mahmood.

“I am going to kill you. I am going to find you. I am going to cut your head off,” was one of the threats that Ayaanle, a Canada-based Somali atheist, received.

“[But] that’s kind of normal,” the founder of the True Somali Freedom Page (TSFP) says sardonically as he talks about the death threats that clog his inbox.

The popular Facebook group, which has more than 80,000 members, is predominantly led by atheists, or “ex-Muslims”, as they refer to themselves.

It was initially inspired to create a safe space for religious discussion and now promotes all forms of freedom for Somalis who feel marginalised by mainstream Somali culture.

Ayaanle did not want to give his full name. He told me how the movement began.

Ejected from group

Around 2016, he stumbled across a Somali Facebook group that purported to be a space for free speech and debate.

“I got into a discussion about religion and everybody just erupted. They went ballistic. They made me feel like I killed someone.”

He was swiftly removed from the group, a common experience for those who express contrary views in this kind of Somali forum.

‘A space to be free’

Ayaanle then felt the only way forward was to create a new platform, with new rules.

“I wanted [the TSFP] to be a place where… people could be free to say whatever they liked.”

A driving force for Ayaanle stemmed from his belief that contemporary Somali discussions about religion had become increasingly restrictive in the aftermath of Somalia’s decades-long civil war.

“Islam is untouchable. You cannot criticise or say anything about Islam.

“Right now the young people are changing, they are a little more tolerant to debates and criticism.

“[But] many of those who grew up in Somalia and came to the West during and after the civil war accept the idea that if someone criticises Islam they should be killed. They really think it’s something valid.”

Hence the death threats that he has received.

“That’s one of the things I want to put out there and what I have the page for – to show that Islam is not untouchable. It can be criticised, it can be debated and it can be talked about openly.”

In Somalia and the breakaway state of Somaliland, blasphemy is a jailable offence, and the TSFP has set out to challenge this.

It campaigned and raised money for the academic Mahmoud Jama Ahmed-Hamdi. He was a university lecturer who was arrested for writing a Facebook post that questioned the validity of praying to God as a means of relieving the drought in 2019.

He served 10 months in prison before receiving a presidential pardon, but is still at risk from vigilante attacks. One prominent imam called for his execution.

The case demonstrates the complexity of how power operates in Somalia and Somaliland, with the line between religious leaders and government being significantly blurred.

Fear of exposure

Somalis have not only been using the group as a platform to debate, but, in some cases, as a means of survival.

Some of the most at-risk groups in Somalia who have put messages on the TSFP are Christians, atheists and LGBT individuals.

These are people who grapple with the constant fear of being exposed and are subjected to attacks and imprisonment.

One way that the TSFP helps is through raising money and the cash has bought plane tickets and helped with living expenses.

This was the case when a Somali Christian woman in Kenya used her publicly accessible identity to leave a comment on the TSFP.

Her identity was quickly discovered and a video of her being dragged out of a taxi in Kenya was widely shared on Somali internet channels. The attackers threatened to expose her because of her criticisms of the Prophet Muhammad on the page.

The TSFP arranged for her to be moved to a different country, where she has now found safety in a Christian community.

Careful investigation

But it is not just non-Muslims, ex-Muslims or LGBT individuals who reach out to the group.

A Somali man living in Sudan contacted the TSFP after being physically attacked on the street by a group of men who he believed ascribed to Wahhabism – a form of Islam that is often associated with a more rigorous and extreme interpretation of the Koran and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.

He was discovered, following criticisms on Facebook that he made about some Hadith, statements attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. The TSFP arranged for him to be relocated from Sudan to a safer place.

The volume of requests that the group’s administrators get means that those who want help have to be carefully vetted.

“We research and investigate,” Kahaa Dhinn, a Norway-based women’s advocate who has become a leading figure on the page, says.

“We ask their tribe name and their family names. We then look at their Facebook profile and talk to people in the group to see if anyone knows them. If they don’t tell us who their tribe is, we know they’re lying.”

Kahaa collaborates with the TSFP but has a separate Facebook and YouTube account, which she uses as a platform to talk about issues affecting the Somali community.

‘I know where you live’

Her main focus is to empower Somali women, but like Ayaanle, she is also an outspoken atheist, which has made her a target.

“They threatened to kill me with knives and said ‘the Muslims will kill you and you will die in their hands’.

But the threats appear not to dampen her conviction: “I’m not afraid of them. They want to silence me through fear.”

Norwegian arrest

Her fearlessness is emboldened by the knowledge that she lives in a country where threats have consequences.

In Somalia, killings and attacks rarely get investigated but in Norway she has got the police involved.

“Two of the guys who threatened me were using their real profiles and the police were able to arrest them,” she says.

Ayaanle echoes this sentiment but knows that there are some who are not so lucky.

“A lot of Somalis who are on the page don’t show their faces – the ones who say they are non-believers – because they’re scared for their lives,” he says.

‘I feel relieved’

The fact that Ayaanle and Kahaa have distanced themselves from Islam has not meant that they have distanced themselves from being Somali, despite the two being intertwined.

“I actually feel more Somali, like I have my real identity back,” says Kahaa.

But Ayaanle stresses that the group’s intended aim is not to convert Somali Muslims into atheists, or into any other non-conformist identity, but to create an environment that promotes freedom of expression and speech. Something he believes Somalis need now more than ever.

“So, it’s small steps. But we are winning some hearts. We really believe that people should believe what they want to believe and be who they want to be.”

Source: The Somali atheist activists who get death threats

For Somalia, “Team Canada” means more money, fewer jobs

Interesting profile in the Star about returning members of the Canadian Somali diaspora:

A study released last month by the Mogadishu think-tank Heritage Institute notes that “the relationship between returnees and locals in Somalia is complex.”

Security measures often keep the diaspora segregated since they are seen as influential, and therefore targeted by the Shabab. Also, as the report points out, “returnees often find it easier — and more advantageous from a professional networking point of view — to socialize disproportionately with other diaspora returnees.”

Of course the returning diaspora are not a cohesive group. “Generally, non-diaspora Somali communities grasp the diversity among the diaspora returnees,” writes report author Maimuna Mohamud. “They distinguish, for example, between the ‘good diaspora’ who have been successful in their host countries, and the ‘bad’ ones who failed to take advantage of the opportunities available to them.”

Al-Jazeera journalist Hamza Mohamed poked fun at the stereotypes of the returning diaspora by their country of citizenship, dubbing those from Canada who are not part of Mogadishu’s who’s who as “Team Canada YOLO you only live once.”

“They are everyone’s friends. This group treats life as a party and Somalia as a dance floor,” Mohamed wrote in a column that went viral. “They usually arrive with few things — like a minor criminal record and a Mongolian scripture tattoo they got while under the influence on a night out in Toronto. It’s hard to find them talking about serious issues. Don’t mention school — they have usually dropped out of school and are sensitive discussing this subject. If you want them to unfriend you on Facebook, tag them in photos from your graduation ceremony.”

For Somalia, “Team Canada” means more money, fewer jobs | Toronto Star.

Toronto man convicted on terrorism charge – Mohamed Hersi Case

Update on the Hersi case (see earlier Toronto man told undercover officer it was ‘God’s Will’ for him join terror-group Al-Shabab, trial hears):

A university graduate, Mr. Hersi had been working as a security guard downtown. And that was where the undercover officer went, on the pretext that he was a consultant conducting opinion surveys of security guards….

The officer testified that Mr. Hersi confided much – including that he knew a Toronto man who had previously joined al-Shabab. They also discussed an English-language al-Qaeda propaganda article that was making the rounds at the time: “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.”

Mr. Hersi relayed that he was planning to join al-Shabab, the officer testified. During testimony, the accused denied this, saying he simply wanted to live in a Muslim country.

Searches of Mr. Hersi’s laptop revealed downloads of The U.S. Navy Seal Sniper Training Syllabus and The Anarchist Cookbook.

He now faces up to 10 years in prison.

In light of the Governments proposed measures on revocation for those convicted of terrorism in C-24 Citizenship Act revisions, this may provide an early case. He was convicted in a Canadian court and is likely a dual national (he was born in Somalia although raised and educated in Canada for most of his life).

So would the Government choose to strip him of his Canadian citizenship and send him to Somalia (where he would likely not have to serve jail time) or have him serve out his term in a Canadian jail?

Ironic situation: being convicted of intending to travel to Somalia to commit terrorism; ending up there following revocation.

Toronto man convicted on terrorism charge – The Globe and Mail.