Political Islam in a troubled nation: SOMALIA’S SHEIKHS, WARLORDS and PEACEMAKERS

DURING A UN CHILD JUSTICE SURVEY I led last spring across the northeastern African nation of Somalia, my friend Mohamed-Omer told me an illuminating story he heard from Islamic leaders in the coastal village of Qarxis. Their tale is set after more than a decade of failed government, interclan violence and economic hardship at a time when the question of what role Islamic leaders should play in government bears heavily on everyone’s mind.

A boy, left on his own after family members moved away in search of livelihoods, entertained himself by playing pranks: stealing goats, getting in fights and disobeying elders. Several times the boy hid nails on desert tracks so that when a truck drove by, the nail punctured a tire, the driver screaming in anger.

Clan leaders, acting in the vacuum left by the state authority, ordered the boy’s blood relatives to give livestock to the drivers to compensate them for their trouble. But the boy continued to disobey elders. When the village finally called on the local Islamic judge to find a solution, he ordered the boy to memorize Holy Scripture in the local mosque. After the wild boy began reading the scripture, his throat swelled shut. The villagers gathered to try to help him, but the sheikh at last declared that this was the will of God, the boy’s divine punishment. And the boy died.

I asked Mohamed-Omer, the anchor of my research team, if he believed the story.

“Yes, of course,” he told me, “It is the will of God.”

Islamic leaders in the region now retell the story to young people to instruct them on good behavior and to warn them that God is always watching. But the story more significantly shows how religious leaders see their role in a disintegrating society. They see themselves empowered as a force that keeps Somalis in order, interpreting God’s will, where other forces have failed.

Somalia is a Muslim nation facing nearly every crisis humanity has ever faced-war, government failure, extreme poverty, cyclical droughts and floods, tsunami, sea theft, and, yes, pirates. The repeating failure of the federal bureaucracy leaves many communities not knowing exactly who is in charge: bankrupt regional authorities, clan elders or religious leaders.

Even in the relatively peaceful northwestern, unrecognized Republic of Somaliland and the northeastern Somali state of Puntland, there is debate over what role religious leaders should play in government at a time when state and clan leaders have trouble delivering on their promised rule of law. Perhaps the sheikhs, some believe, are the only ones who can tame the gunmen walking the streets.

By December 2006, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a collection of radical militias rumored to have been supported by Eritrea, the Islamic Brotherhood and perhaps even Lebanese Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, took over much of the south to do just that. But after an Ethiopian invasion, which was encouraged by the United States, reinforced Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces, the ICU collapsed. Its leaders retreated to rural hideouts while more severe militiamen continued ambushing Ethiopian and Somali government soldiers in the streets of Mogadishu, the capital. Now back in power, the TFG has had a hard time winning back public support.

While battles in and around Mogadishu appear to outsiders to be isolated, the current conflict is in fact a proxy battle for a number of powers: the Somali ICU, Eritrea, and a handful of ultraconservative, non-state organizations face the Somali TFG, Ethiopia, the US and Britain. Ugandan peacekeeping troops were deployed to protect civilians. Meanwhile, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Israel and Kenya, all with security or financial concerns at stake, watch nervously on the side to see what will happen.

When I arrived in Somalia to serve the UN Rule of Law and Security Program in early 2007, my second trip to the rugged African Horn country, I had wanted not only to do my best in leading a child justice research team in interviewing legal actors across the northern half of the country, but I had also come as an American consultant investigating issues of the rule of law at a time when US Special Forces were helping the Somali transitional government hunt down Islamist radicals in other parts of the country. I had wanted to know precisely how the transitional government was doing, what Islamic leaders had offered that was different, and what most Somalis believed was the proper role for Islamic leaders in a future government.

By the end, I learned that Islam had been a constructive force in Somalia and should be considered the backbone of any political solution, particularly in that Islam offers a means to unite the population across clan and regional lines. But Islamist radicals – not the average Islamic sheikh, mind you, but rather the ultraconservative militiamen – if successful in their propagation of political Islam, may not only alienate the West and Ethiopia with their austere doctrine and sordid alliances, but also would likely jeopardize the security and economic well-being of the population.

Among the variety of people I talked to, the near-consensus was that the future of Somalia lies not in the hands of the secular transitional leadership or Islamist radicals. It lies in a human rights-based democracy with a key role for the moderate Islamic leadership, considering the depth of islam’ s prior influence on social unity and the chasms opening up now between clans in the current environment, perhaps moderate islamic leaders ought to be the top advisors to any new political and social structure for the country.

Only the moderate Islamic leadership offers a vision that unites Somalis across clan lines, can secure the support of a majority of the public and would be willing to step back at the right time to allow secular, democratically elected leadership hold the reins of power.

Frankincense smoke hovers in the air of Somali homes and shops, bumed by matrons to cleanse the rooms of other spirits: goat-liver grease on the ceiling from breakfast prep, curdled camel milk aroma wafting out of a thermos, body odor from the daily grind. The tree-sap crystal, frankincense, better known in the Western world as the base of cathedral incense, brings an air of mystical awakening to Somalia’s simple stone houses and thorn-bush huts. Outside on the savannah and desert slopes float the scents of acacia, wild flowers, or in the dry areas, towering devils of dust. When I first landed in Somalia in 2005, these aromas and mystical impressions defined my early portrait of the country.

As a people, Somalis are sorely misunderstood outside their native land. A dark-skinned, nearly entirely Muslim people of the Aden Gulf region, they are often lumped into the South-of-the-Sahara subset of peoples, though their culture reflects traditions of the Middle East. In Minneapolis or Toronto, they are seen as humble and quiet workers; in East Africa, they are considered assertive, sometimes aggressive warriors.

Western media often portrays Somalis as a homogeneous nation divided by warlords – hungry, fighting and living in chaos. In my work, I have found that Somalis are, in truth, a linguistically bound collection of clan families, each with its own distinct tradition, living largely peacefully and fed by poor but hopeful authorities. Violent conflict terrorized only pockets of the population caught between those authorities, as in Galkayo or Mogadishu.

While many of the Somalis I interviewed in 2007 believe that justice issues within a clan are best settled by clan leadership, they also argue that religious leaders-the sheikhs-could be the most capable of settling disputes across clan lines. But there is great debate about which vision of political Islam should reign. The most successful authorities in the country – Somaliland and Puntland-have both survived largely because they formed their rule around the creation of a moderate Islamic judge establishment and a means for clan leaders to participate in security.
The first time I encountered political Islam personally in Somalia was 7 July 2005, the day of the London Tube bombings. Consulting for Horn Relief, a Somali aid agency, I had ridden out into the disputed Sanag region to a colorful water-well town called Xingalool. Once we got settled in the local guesthouse, the team and I heard about the London bombings via the BBC-Somali service on the car radio. Several Somali clerics in their 30s came out of their cells to greet us. They told me they were Somali Muslim missionaries who had been studying in Dubai. Back in our lantern-lit room, my colleagues clarified the group’s intentions.

“We call them the Brotherhood, but some of them are former Ittihad fighters. They come here building mosques and schools, which is nice. But they have ulterior motives. They think they can fix the country and some believe them, but they’re too extreme.”

The next day, I saw the clerics shouting sermons through a loudspeaker at a gathering crowd, so loud it disrupted our interviews in nearby shops, so volatile that when I came out to look, my colleague pulled me out of eyeshot of the gathering crowd, fearing that someone might throw a rock at me.

When Somalis discovered Islam in the seventh century, the core principles of Shari’a law, which reflected the camel-herding culture of nearby Arabia, were not new to them. Early on, Somali nomads and their relatives in urban areas adapted to an Islamic school of thought based on the systematic legal reasoning style of the Arab scholar Imam Shafi’i.

“Moderates”, many of whom traveled through Africa, heard tales abroad of interfaith social freedoms or favored cultural practices prohibited by more conservative Muslims , such as chewing khat narcotic or watching Western or Hindi romance films. They favored the Qadiriyya outlook and supported the idea of a democratic or even socialist government. “Conservatives”, however, were inspired by the rejectionist, anti-colonialist philosophy of the Salihiyya Order, or the political activism of the Egyptian Arab radical Sayyid Qutb. They preferred an Islamic government with active participation of clerics, the formation of full Islamic courts within the government, and they forbade khat and mainstreamed the strictest standards for women’s modesty.
“Ultraconservatives”, growing in number since the early 1980s, wanted to return Somalia to the practices of the first few generations of Muslims, the Salafiyya, which is closer to the model of Saudi Arabia. Desperate to grow, they sought assistance from global Islamist radicals like the Islamic Brotherhood, and allegedly the Lebanese Hezbollah as well as al-Qaeda. They founded their own home movements: the militant al-Ittihad alIslamiya and the youth brigade Wahdat al-Shabaab. Eventually, the ultraconservatives attracted less conservative supporters when they led the formation of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) to crack down on crime in the south. After widespread protests about the appointment of controversial wartime leaders in the Somali TFG, the ICU at last had the popularity it needed to transform its clergy movement for rule of law into a militant political force. After controlling much of Somalia’s south for six months last year, the ICU’s public support buckled. The Ethiopian invasion reversed their course entirely.
While in the sweltering port of Bosasso, a dusty town near the African Horn’s northeast tip, I had the opportunity to bring together 10 of the top sheikhs of the northeast in a cramped room in the urban labyrinth and ask them about the rule of law. Rather than newsmakers, legends or missionaries, they were the real thing, the moderate to conservative Islamic establishment. They included heads of their respective orders in the Bari, Karkar and Sanag regions. Among them was the curious-bearded sheikh of Las Qoray and an ultraconservative who taught English on the side.

During our conversation, which focused on child justice, in an extremely hot office with fans whirring loudly, they were sure to limit their talk of politics. But I got the impression that they were ambivalent about the ICU defeat. They did, along with their counterparts across the country, talk about aspects of the five most hotly debated Shari’a controversies in Somalia. How would Islamic leaders in a Somali government rule?

First of all, none of these establishment religious leaders agreed with or even believed some of the terror attacks the ICU was accused of over the past year. These included not just the shelling of Ethiopian soldiers, but also indiscriminate mortaring of Mogadishu neighborhoods as well as two attacks on public movie houses in protest of television. Most Somalis see the concept of intentional civilian attacks as one coming from warlords who had lost Islam; the new attacks, if by Islamists , could only have been imported techniques, the opinion held.

Second, the moderate and conservative judges agreed that Somali courts should have components of both state law and Islamic law, that Shari’a judges should be able to sentence indicted criminals with executions, floggings or dismemberments as penalties if the Shari’a required it. However, there was a great deal of ambivalence toward carrying out such punishments, which were often read and commuted in favor of traditional compensation payment penalties.

“If we get a stronger government, we can do that,” one Bosasso judge rang out, referring to capital punishment. “But right now, everyone’s got a gun in his house!” While the ICU and other ultraconservative judges had tried to deliver the full Shari’a penalties, the establishment, subject to the UN-advised state authorities, limited their actual use for fear of igniting blood feuds.

In a third hot controversy, the judges argued about how some Shari’a judges closed rape cases if the victim could not produce at least four adult male witnesses to the actual physical act. Such a strict interpretation of the rule practically prohibited the prosecution of sexual crimes. Many state police, women leaders and moderate sheikhs were furious about closed cases, but have been impotent to force change on those judges using this rule except through other, more reasonable Shari’a judges.

Fourth, religious leaders could not agree on whether the various forms of traditional female chastity surgery, also known as female genital mutilation, were permitted under Shari’a law. While Egypt recently outlawed the practice, Somalis were still too bogged down on the issue of the parents’ right to do what they wished with their children, even sew them up until marriage, despite the health risks publicized by doctors. So underdeveloped is the debate that many Shari’a judges even argue with each other whether Islamic law prohibits or requires the practice in scripture.

Finally, the great national debate over whether khat narcotic chew-a thoroughly popular and addictive plant found in every market-was permitted under Shari’a has become so virulent in the past year that some consider it the single most significant reason that the ICU did not become more powerful than it did before the Ethiopian-backed TFG returned. With an ICU government, there would likely have been a national ban on khat, which surely would have led to a national crisis of addiction withdrawal. The dominant Qadiri moderates hadfbr hundreds of years treated khat as an exception in the Shari’a ban on intoxicants.

The surviving Islamic establishment I met, it seemed, were professionals who cared about the future of Somali families and wanted to empower them morally. But their educational background was so varied and weak that they had trouble finding agreement on some of the most fundamental Shari’a points. While the austere ultraconservatives, led by the ICU, were decisive and consistent in their strict interpretation, the moderates lacked unity. The best middle ground, it seemed, was for a new federal government to one day, in a rights-based democracy, build a means for Somali Muslims to find unity in Islamic law and education.

Many of the people I know outside of Somalia fear that political Islam in the post-war, impoverished nation is bound to lead either to brutal dictatorship or a madhouse in which civilians are regularly killed in political battles. Security analysts like to seek comparisons, such as Sudan under the influence of al-Turabi, Afghanistan during Taliban rule, Islamist-controlled areas of Iraq, or even Iran since the Islamic Revolution. The evidence against the ICU is substantial: part of the leadership once ran al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya, which supposedly received funds and training from al-Qaeda and is associated with a terror suspect high on the US wanted list. Since falling from power, militants allied to the ICU have shelled civilian neighborhoods. Before coming to power, Islamist militants twice fatally shot into public cafes as protest against watching television. The important distinction to make, and perhaps one of the chief findings of my research, is that between leadership with a record of human rights violations versus those without.
Perhaps a new rights-based democratic government, forged with the best recommendations of recurring National Reconciliation Conferences and Islamic moderate leaders who seek unity, could offer the best of all worlds. The early popularity of the ultraconservativeled ICU had been due to people’s impatience with the TFG and bitterness toward many of its members who had supposedly committed serious human rights violations during the war. Now people were looking for a third way, best represented by the Somaliland model: a moderate Islamic republic with a nominally Muslim executive, joint Shari’a and secular judicial system, and a two-house parliament that included clan elders in one house and elected representatives in the other.

The Somalis I interviewed wanted Sunni Islam as the common way of life and supported by the government. But they did not want the government to oversee or intervene in their family lives. Where Somaliland had failed internally in terms of ending violent clashes, regional border disputes and extreme poverty, the new vision for Somalia would be one capable of uniting groups for shared economic benefit, perhaps attracting investment in manufacturing goods from imported raw materials. Somalis, in this view, wanted Islamic leadership that could not only unify people through the word of God, but also share power with secularists and cooperate on an economic unity plan for the future.

Near the end of our survey, Mohamed-Omer and I, along with other members of the team, journeyed two hours across the desert from the central city of Galkayo to a remote camel-herding district called Galdogob. As we carried out an interview in the office of a women’s group, two armed gunmen entered the main square. One attacked the mayor’s entourage, the other charged the office where we were working and tried to shoot me. Fortunately, the armed state guards we had brought with us, who were trained by the UN, blocked the gunman’s rifle just as he pulled the trigger.

Our team and the mayor evacuated to Galkayo safely, but the incident provoked heated discussion in my research team. For the few moments we had been trapped inside the stone office of the women’s group while the guards fought off the attacker, I faced what many Somalis have dealt with for years. After nearly two decades of political and economic uncertainty, with gunmen who acted with impunity, Somalis yearned for some great unifying force for protection. For a time, many believed the Somali TFG would eventually bring democracy, and they are still waiting. So many turned to Islamic leaders, but instead of competent intellectuals, militants answered the call and failed. Today Somalis are still trapped in a stone house of isolation with gunmen patrolling the streets outside. They are waiting for a third way championed by leaders who can restore both senses of faith and security.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at islamicamagazine.com as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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