In Somalia, Islamist militias ban music from the radio

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 5, 2010

MOGADISHU, SOMALIA -- In a capital that pulses with the sounds of war -- the rumble of armored trucks, the crash of mortars, the crack of AK-47s -- Radio Xurmo was an oasis.

Haunting Somali love songs, vibrant Arabic pop, even Bob Marley and Michael Jackson filled the airwaves. The news, however dire, was bookended by melodic nationalist tunes that evoked Somalia's lost glory.

"Now, the songs have vanished," declared Yasmin Mayo Mohammed, 35, minutes before she prepared to read the news.

Radio stations have become the latest front in an unrelenting war that is a struggle as much for Somalia's identity as its territory. Three weeks ago, a hard-line militia, Hezb-i-Islami, ordered stations in Mogadishu to stop playing music, declaring it un-Islamic. Radio Xurmo complied; the Islamists have killed Somali journalists for less cause.

The station is located in a sliver of the capital controlled by Somalia's U.S.-backed transitional government. Silencing the music sent a loud message that the government was too weak to face down the Islamists. So the government ordered Radio Xurmo and other stations in its territory to play music -- or shut down.

The next day, a Hezb-i-Islami leader called the station's director and warned that if the music did not stop, the militia would bomb the station.

"The government cannot protect us," said Mohammed, one of the station's 11 employees. "The Islamists have the ability to kill anyone, anywhere."

In Somalia's oral culture, music has shaped society for centuries. Singers crooned about family values, ancient rituals and past empires. Collectively, music helped forge a national identity, if superficially, in a region dominated by clans. "It is a source of oxygen, as important to us as the water we drink," said Mohamed Hassan Haad, a senior figure in the powerful Hawiye clan.

And ever since Somalia plunged into anarchy after the central government fell in 1991, its people have relied on music to escape and to preserve their morale.

"It makes you feel life is still okay," said Mohammed Aden Ahmed, 22, a hotel waiter. "It is the wall between you and the violence."

An ideological battle

Hezb-i-Islami and its main rival, al-Shabab, have banned music in other provinces for months. They have prohibited women from working at radio stations. And as the militants pushed into the capital, they carried along their ideological conflict.

Somalia's Information Ministry eventually told the five stations in government-controlled areas that they were free to decide for themselves. Only the government-run Radio Mogadishu -- located in a compound protected by African Union peacekeepers -- chose to continue playing music.

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