Faith in the future of Somalia

The mosque that once dominated the ravaged nation’s capital is shattered by war and in ruins, but  its imam has never lost hope – and now it looks set to rise again
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The Mnara tower commanded sweeping views north along the furthest reaches of Mogadishu’s Lido Beach and south towards the old port. For hundreds of years the muezzin would climb up to the minaret’s wooden balcony to make the call to prayer with the brilliant blue of the Indian Ocean on one side and the whitewashed Somali capital on the other.

“You had the whole city underneath you,” remembers Abdel Karim, the imam of  mosque. Today, the mosque’s historic tower has mostly been obliterated, with just a jagged shard of weathered sandstone reaching towards the sky. The rest of the minaret lies in rubble, piles of crumbled stone flecked with shrapnel sinking into the weeds, like much of the oldest mosque in Mogadishu.

It was the views from Mnara tower that brought its ruin. When the Islamist militia al-Shabaab took control of this section of the Mogadishu seafront, the militants wanted the minaret for a lookout. Their fighters billeted themselves inside the mosque and its seaside compound, making the place of worship into a military target.

As the battle for the city between the troops of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) and al-Shabaab reached its peak last year, the mosque found itself on the frontline.

The scars from the fighting are everywhere. Barely a scrap of wood, concrete or masonry has escaped being scarred by a bullet. Pushing his way through a rusted metal door in a shattered wall, the imam leads the way to a faded plaque with white lettering on a black background dating back to 1033 when the Ottomans built the Abdulaziz mosque.

Abdel Karim was entrusted with “the birthplace of Sufism” in Somalia 15 years ago when his father retired as imam, just as his father had before him. A simple alcove points in the direction of Mecca and contains a copy of the Koran. Abdel Karim sleeps at night on a simple mat, not under a painted fresco or a mosaic of a crescent moon, but under the stars as the roof was smashed by a tank shell.

The wreckage is not the only scar that has been left behind. The Sufis themselves became targets under the theocracy of the radical al-Shabaab. Their more moderate form of Islam was anathema to the Wahhabists and the simple act of carrying a rosary became a death sentence while the extremists held sway. The imam talks of the al-Shabaab occupation as the “hardest time in the Sufis’ life”. No-one dared to go to mosque. He had cousins beheaded for carrying rosaries. Almost every family lost someone.

“The first thing they do is take over all of the mosques,” the imam says. “They use the name of Islam but they do everything the opposite of what Islam teaches.”

A gaunt man in plastic slippers who looks older than his 40 years, Abdel Karim said it was his responsibility to return after al-Shabaab retreated from Mogadishu. Like so many of the city’s residents, his family are living in tents made of plastic at a camp for the internally displaced. About 365,000 Somalis are spread across similar camps in the wider Banadir region, in which the capital sits.

The Roman Catholic cathedral, built by the Italian colonists and reduced to a stone skeleton during the war, is a short walk away in Shangaani and is ringed with the tarpaulin domes of IDPs.

The imam remains furious with the Saudi-influenced Jihadists who lived in and looted his mosque: “What they’ve done is neither Islam or Christianity, I can’t imagine where this ideology came from.”

Amid the peeling green walls open to the elements and a floor scattered with rubble, it is hard to imagine that as many as 120 people would crowd in to pray. An imam’s assistant remembers “beautiful things”: cloth from Saudi Arabia and coloured lights, all looted or destroyed. “People would come from very distant areas to pray at the oldest mosque,” recollects Abdel Karim.

In a city pulverised by nearly two decades of war, and still recovering from the ravages of last year’s devastating famine, it can be hard to get people to care about the fate of a building. But the Abdulaziz mosque is a reminder of a more tolerant and peaceful Somalia and its power as a symbol has not been lost on all.

Just to the north of the mosque is a sign announcing the site for an ambitious new embassy complex for Turkey, the rising power in Somali affairs. About 300 Turks are living and working in Mogadishu. Plans are being finalised with the municipality for 20 miles of new roads, paid for by Ankara.

The pace of the intervention has wrong-footed other contributors such as Britain and America, who have paid for the lions’ share of Amisom’s costs but whose staff rarely venture beyond Mogadishu’s “green zone” – a military base in the sand dunes around the airport. On the packed sands of Lido Beach, white faces are greeted with calls of “thank you Turkey”.

Conscious of the symbolic importance of the oldest mosque and its Ottoman history, the Turks have sent half a dozen delegations to meet the imam and survey the wreckage. Kani Torun, a diplomat with the Turkish embassy, confirmed that the Turkish religious authority will renovate it. “Preparations are underway and the project will take approximately one year,” he told The Independent.

The selection of Hassan Sheikh – a civil activist with no military history – as Somalia’s President earlier this year by a new parliament has prompted talk of a “Somali Spring”. Al-Shabaab has spent more than a year in retreat, losing all but a few pockets of south and central Somalia. Diaspora Somalis and their money have poured back into an uneasy peace punctuated by suicide bombings.

Standing in virtual rags in the ruins of his own history, Abdel Karim speaks for many Somalis when he says that he often came close to losing hope: “Whenever I lost hope new people would come and then I would start to hope again.”

If the highest tower on the seafront can rise again then the imam’s hopes for his mosque and for his country may stop seeming so futile.