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Somalis and Tolerance

Did a long ordeal as a captive in Somalia turn the author into a Trump-style conservative?

No.


August 2018

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.”

Michael Scott Moore


Politics

Somalis and Tolerance

Did a long ordeal as a captive in Somalia turn the author into a Trump-style conservative?

Talking to Jihadis

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Denis Johnson, Poet of the Fallen World

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The Invention of Love

The last time one of Tom Stoppard’s plays had its American premiere in San Francisco, last spring, I wrote that it “wouldn’t be above Stoppard to spin a whole script around a minor and meaningless point of grammar.”

Pirates

Pirates on the Migrant Trail

Inside the East African migrant corridor, where Somalis (and others) escape to Europe, former pirate financiers are also busy.

Sending in the Marines

NATO, officially, is pleased to have pirates to fight. A mission against sea bandits in the Indian Ocean is not mission creep for the trans-Atlantic alliance, if you talk to its leaders

Battleships Off Somalia

Navies are expensive, and sending warships to Somalia is a hugely inefficient way to fight pirates, considering that the number of successful attacks off the Somali coast this year

Nazis

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Ghosts of Dresden

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The big surprise last week during the Berlin Film Festival was a disastrous premiere for a long-awaited feature film, Jud Süß — Rise and Fall, by a talented German director named Oskar Roehler.

Surfing, Etc.

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Americans live on what amounts to an enormous island, defended on two shores by the sea, and we’ve evolved a few marsupial traditions that nobody else understands.

Tilting at Turbines (in the Severn River)

The morning was clear and cold, with frost on the church steeple and the cemetery grass. I had a quick English breakfast at a white-cloth table, in my wetsuit, and drove to Newnham, a village on the Severn River in Gloucestershire, parking near the White Hart Inn.

Other Prose

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What if technology makes reading old-fashioned?

The Curse of El Rojo

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BOOM

True story about a bomb threat aboard a United flight in the months before 9/11.


Michael Scott Moore is a literary journalist and a novelist, author of a comic novel about L.A., Too Much of Nothing, as well as a travel book about surfing, Sweetness and Blood, which was named a best book of 2010 by The Economist. He was kidnapped in 2012 on a reporting trip to Somalia and held hostage for two and a half years. The Desert and the Sea, a memoir about that ordeal, is out now from HarperCollins.

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October 25, 2018

CIEE Berlin

7:30pm

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Hinterhof, downstairs lecture room

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VIDEOS

My review of Ingrid Betancourt's first novel, The Blue Line, is up at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

While I was in Somalia a man called Geoff Carter wrote about a picture of Indian men surfing on stand-up boards around 1800 off Chennai, which altered the known history of surfing a bit, even though the picture was hiding in plain sight at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

The men from the Naham 3 are all friends of mine — a crew of 26 sailors from southeast Asia who worked on a tuna long-liner flagged in Oman but owned by a company in Taiwan, which abandoned them after Somali pirates hijacked the ship in 2012.

A version of what happened in Somalia is available as a Long Read at The Guardian, and, in somewhat shorter form, for German readers, in Der Spiegel. It’s not even near complete. Enormous parts of the story have been left untold.

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