Somalis and Tolerance
The Globe & Mail
I had been held hostage by Somali pirates for 25 months when Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. I remember one of my guards listening to news about the annexation of Crimea on the Somali BBC. He lifted his thumb and said, “Putin, OK!” with a mischievous grin.
That morning, I had listened to the English service report that Russia’s Black Sea fleet was blockading Sevastopol’s harbor, effectively holding a third of the Ukrainian navy hostage.
“Putin bura’ad,” I said sullenly. Putin is a pirate.
The guard laughed. My pirates, it turned out, admired Mr. Putin as a strongman – someone who used violence at will, who refused to put up with much guff from the hypocritical Western liberal order.
A pirate gang kidnapped me in January, 2012, while I researched a book in central Somalia. I had followed a trial of 10 Somali pirates in Hamburg, Germany, and the clash between a liberal modern state and an archaic, almost zombie-like crime – risen from the dead after two centuries of relative quiet on the high seas – fascinated me.
I almost paid with my life for this curiosity, and I wouldn’t do it again. But there were surprising moments of political comedy during my 32 months as a hostage. Some pirates wanted to emigrate to the West – take their share of my ransom and move to Europe. Farhaan, a fat and jolly-seeming Somali with dead eyes who made vanity portraits of himself with his phone, showed me a rudimentary collage of his own face next to a line of small but colourful cars on the Autobahn. I made my home in Berlin at the time, so by showing me the image, I think he was looking for (perhaps ironic) common ground.
“What is that?” I asked.
“It is Germany.”
“Yes, but why?”
“It is me, just dreaming.”
The pirates’ English was poor, their German nonexistent, but they had an impression of Nordic countries as safe destinations for Muslim migrants, with lax deportation policies and generous welfare. They knew about “Germany,” “Sweden” and “Holland.” But they didn’t know where they were. They asked me to draw maps to help improve their European geography.
I came home from Somalia in September, 2014, before the groundswell of migration across the Mediterranean reached its peak a year later. It would have been easy to line up with Donald Trump or PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) or some other reactionary movements that protested the “Muslim invasion” of refugees in Europe from war-torn places such as Syria, Eritrea and, in fact, Somalia. I didn’t want to live in Berlin with any of my ex-guards, obviously, and I did think that Western progressives had a weird habit of underestimating Islam as a force for separation among Muslims just arriving in strange new (industrialized, Christian) countries.
But the fact is that most Somalis who leave for the West aren’t pirates or terrorists. They’re trying to get away from pirates and terrorism – from all the consequences of clan warfare that still wastes and beggars their country. I know enough other Somalis – journalists, translators, businessmen in Nairobi and New York – to distinguish between hard-working immigrants and the men who held me hostage.
In the country where I was born, raised and once again live — the United States — the ruling party has declared a cultural war against immigrants, especially those from Muslim countries (including Somalia). This partisan project is a deliberate attack on classical liberalism, the Enlightenment tradition that evolved into both branches of American politics: traditional rock-ribbed conservatism as well as the progressive Left. Both branches have powerful enemies, from Moscow to the Horn of Africa. But the great irony to me is that my pirates’ dazzling lies, their bully-boy behavior and naked will to power — their incompetence at treating outsiders and hostages like human beings — is echoed in the rise of Mr. Trump.
I do think immigrants from war-torn countries ought to be background-checked. But it’s a nasty self-deception, not to mention immature, to treat every Somali as a pirate or hold every Muslim responsible for intolerant verses of the Koran.
Oddly enough, I found new depth for this tolerance in Somalia. I learned to forgive, precisely because I came close to murder. I had to talk myself down, more than once, from the temptation to pick up a pirate Kalashnikov and start shooting. It would have been a suicidal act because the pirates outnumbered me. The heroic pilot from Kenya who flew me out — after a ransom payment, in the fall of 2014 — had elite training as an SAS operator. He’d served as a member of the British special forces, and I saw him again recently in Nairobi. He suggested I had survived because I had not been trained like him. “The temptation would have been strong for someone like me. We’re wired to pick up the gun,” he admitted. “But so many things can go wrong.”
Gunfire would have been suicidal for another reason: Somalia suffers from clan violence because the temptation to dissociate yourself from whole groups of other people is so powerful. The United States will go the same way if it’s not careful. Human beings like to think they have nothing to do with certain other human beings. That’s a scurrilous lie, a cliché that needs some experience and discipline to see through; but forgiveness will teach you more about good and evil than a thousand fervent preachers of hate, whether they come from a windswept Muslim village or a glittering Western capital.
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago, arriving at a similar conclusion from his time in a Soviet prison, “and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
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