Somali Islamist militants this week imposed their puritan norms in areas over which they have recently gained control by outlawing the playing of soccer or watching the game on television. The ban is reminiscent of a similar edict issued by Al Shabab militants on the eve of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Somali news reports say the most recent ban was issued in the town of Afgooye, 30 kilometers northwest of the capital Mogadishu. Al Shabab, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia that is believed to have incorporated a number of non-Somali militants in its leadership, gained control of Afgooye last month as a result of a merger with its rival, Hizbul Islam.
The ban on soccer coupled with strict dress codes for both men and women is persuading Afgooye residents in large numbers to flee to government-controlled areas of Mogadishu.
Al Shabab has threatened to deal harshly with those who fail to abide by the new edicts.
Soccer has become a major battleground between Somali militants, supporters of a fiercely puritan interpretation of Islam that makes Saudi Arabia seem liberal, and more moderate forces in the war-ravaged country in which soccer evokes as deeply felt passion and emotion as does Islam.
Militants threaten families with punishment if their children fail to enlist as fighters. Boys are plucked from makeshift soccer fields. Childless families are ordered to pay al-Shabab $50 a month, the equivalent of Somalia's monthly per capita income. Local soccer club owners are detained and tortured on charges of misguiding youth.
Sheikh Mohamed Abdi Aros, a militant cleric who doubled as head of operations of Hizbul Islam until last month’s merger with Al Shabab, marked the kick-off of the 2010 World by condemning soccer as “a waste of money and time” and “an inheritance from the primitive infidels.”
During the match between Germany and Australia, Sheikh Mohammed’s fighters raided a private home in Afgoye where tens of soccer fans were cluttered in a house around one of the country’s relatively few satellite TVs. To avoid drawing attention, they watched the game with the volume turned off, one eye on the game, the other on the door in case of a raid. Sheikh Mohammed’s fighters killed two in the raid and detained 30 others among them 14 teenagers.
Analysts suggest that if anything is likely to undermine support for the militants it is the banning of soccer. “Soccer can’t be stopped, it is not only national passion but deeply rooted at the local level,” says Theodore Dagne, an expert on Somalia at the Congressional Research Service, the research arm of the US Congress.
“The only thing that rivals soccer is qat,” a drug chewed by most Somalis that initially induces dreaminess and lucidity and then a surge of energy, “but even that is less enjoyable without listening to a soccer game on the radio or watching one on television,” Dagne says.