- Sheikh Sherif Sheikh Ahmed, Chairman of the Somali Islamic Courts Union, today welcomed a dialogue with Washington. "We know that a lot of wrong information has been given to the US. They have been fed with lies and Somalia has been portrayed to them as a threat, which is baseless," he said in an exclusive interview. On international terrorism, he however gave confusing answers, failing to condemn suicide bombers and the 11 September attack on the US.
In the interview with Bashir Goth of 'Awdalnews Network' today, Sheikh Sherif explained that what happened in Mogadishu was a popular uprising and not an Islamic Courts' conquest of the capital. "It belongs to the people. We are ready to handover the issue to the people as soon as they are ready," he said, noting that all fighters on the Islamic Courts side "were all natives" of Mogadishu and there were rarely any other Somalis among their ranks, let alone foreign elements.
Asked whether the Islamic Courts now planned to bring the whole nation under their control, Sheikh Sherif said "Land is not our priority. Our priority is the people's peace, dignity and that they could live in liberty, that they could decide their own fate." While he has initiated talks with the Somali transitional government, he says the courts do not intend to form a government. "We want to return the decision to the Somali people. We don't want to keep any authority with us," he said.
"We would like to tell the world that we are a popular uprising," the Sheikh declares. "We were serving the people under very difficult circumstances. The people have started to get a semblance of peace. In fact we have come through a challenging situation. The men who have destroyed the Somali nation, caused mass migrations, and looted people's properties and dignity have been armed due to wrong information they provided to the US government. These were the causes of the fighting. Therefore, we appeal to the world to save Somalia from an imminent danger."
He denied reports in Western media of having called for the establishment of an Islamic state in Somalia. "I have never made such a statement at all," he said, adding that the Islamic Courts had no intention of forcing women to adhere to strict Islamic dress code. "People are Muslims but no one forces them to do anything. It is a personal obligation and the person has to adhere to it by his own," he said.
Some reports have claimed that the Islamic Court Union is composed of Wahhabists - a conservative form of Islam followed in Saudi Arabia and whose spread is sponsored by Saudis - and that the courts are trying to impose Wahhabsim on the Somali people. Sheikh Sherif however claims to have no knowledge of Wahhabism at all. "I am from a family that followed a Sufi order. I have no idea about Wahhabiya, I only heard about the name," the chairman of the Union says.
The Sheikh however would not go on distance to the commander of the Islamist militia, Adan Hashi Ayro, who has been a fighter in Afghanistan and is accused of standing behind the assassination of five foreign aid workers and one foreign journalist and the desecration of the Italian cemetery in Mogadishu. "A lot of things have taken place in the country. A lot of mistakes have taken place," he says, before adding examples of similar injustice committed against Somalis.
While Washington is sceptical towards commander Ayro and radical court leader Hassan Dahir Aweys - listed as a terrorist by the US - it has nevertheless expressed its willingness to talk to the Islamic Courts Union. "We welcome this development. We need to have a dialogue with them. We know that a lot of wrong information has been given to the US. They have been fed with lies and Somalia has been portrayed to them as a threat, which is baseless," Sheikh Sherif told Mr Goth.
He however indicated strong limits to the possibilities of this dialogue. Asked what he would do if Washington demands the arrest of terrorist suspect Aweys, Sheikh Sherif said "I don't think anybody will ask us to do that. We are not assigned to arrest people for them, as you know." He added that the US had "no right to do that. As you know, we don't work for the Americans."
Sheikh Sherif in a letter to Western diplomats has said that the Islamic Courts "share no objectives, goals or methods with groups that sponsor or support terrorism," but when asked detailed questions about worldwide terrorism, answers are more vague. Regarding the 11 September attacks on the US, he says there are "different reports" on who was responsible - al-Qaeda, "the Jews" or even the "Americans themselves". Therefore, "it is not right for us to talk about it when real facts are not available."
Further asked if he looked at Muslims committing suicide bombings as martyrs or criminals, Sheikh Sherif became even more evading. "I would rather not answer this," he responds to the easy question.
The Sheikh also revealed his points of view regarding press freedom and the future of Mogadishu's independent media. "It is one of the things that we highly value," he admits. "As you know Mogadishu press and the world press write a lot of lies about us, however, we don't contest it and we don't make fuss about it. This shows that there is a lot of freedom of expression. Since the inception of the Islamic Courts, no one was detained on the basis of what they said or what they believe."
At the end of the interview, the Sheikh however felt the necessity to address international concerns. "I want to tell you also that the people of the Islamic Courts are nothing to be afraid of. They are normal persons who couldn't tolerate the daily and endless suffering of the people. They are the poorest and weakest people of the community. Some of them cannot even find the daily subsistence of their families and yet they don't like to use public funds. You have to know that so many sons have died, so many sons have been injured, and so many sons have lost their properties."
Sheikh Sherif also expressed his delight at the achievements of the people of the breakaway republic of Somaliland - which is not recognised by Somalia or any other country - saying that their secession was due to mistakes committed against them in the past.
"I congratulate the Somaliland people, they have worked hard. They are people we love; they are Somali people. Somaliland's secession was due to mistakes that happened in the past. For our part, we would like these mistakes to be addressed. We believe they are the first people concerned with this issue because their property, their wealth and their blood are in the soil," Sheikh Sherif said.
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