Somali Islamists: A potential ally?
There are some huge misunderstandings within the international community about the role that Islam and Somalia’s Islamists should play in the governance of Somali society and the de-radicalisation efforts.
I believe that the presence of a large number of Islamists is not bad in itself. To the contrary, this provides a great opportunity as most of Somalia’s Islamists are neither extremists nor international jihadists and they should be seen as the best ally in defeating piracy and extremism.
Islam has deep roots in Somalia. Most Somalis believe that the message of Islam was spread to Somalia peacefully before it even reached Medina, Islam’s first capital city.
Moreover, Somali clans took part in the religious wars that raged throughout history between Muslims and Christians in the Horn of Africa.
Islamic identity and Somali identity cannot be separated.
Indeed, the guerrilla war fought against British imperialism from 1899 to 1920 was led by a nationalist, Sayid Mohamed Abdulle Hassan, known in the West as the Mad Mullah. He combined nationalist imagery with Islamic devotion.
That said, political Islam in today’s Somalia – or what it is often called Sahwa Islamiya (Islamic awakening) – is relatively new and poorly understood by the international community.
The phenomenon of political Islam is as divided as the country’s clan structure and there are competing narratives on how it began, although most believe that Somali students who went to the Middle East to pursue their education came back with the message of Islamic awakening and started propagating it in the 1960s.
As in other parts of the Muslim world, the two main orientations of Sunni political Islam – the Salafi and Ikhwan schools – are present in Somalia. To complicate this further, each orientation has several competing groups within it.
Several movements that have ties to the Salafi school of thought have emerged and dissolved.
The most well-known movement was al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI) which was established in 1982. The al-Itisam movement, Hizbul-Islam, al-Shabab and Salafiya Jadida (new Salafis) are the four main Salafi groups and they are largely off-shoots of AIAI.
Those from the Ikhwan school – connected historically to the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and with a more political orientation that the Salafis – are also divided. Al-Islah is the largest Ikhwani orientated organisation, although it has splintered into two groups, often referred to as the New Blood and the Old Guard. There is also Tajamu al-Islami and Wuhda.
At the heart of the disintegration of these schools into several groups was the question of the method of affecting and achieving power. The political ambitions of individual leaders and clan politics – although Islamists in general and al-Shabab in particular have limited the impact of tribalism – in Somalia also contributed to the problem.
Similarities and differences
Somalia’s Islamic movements have many similarities. Chief among them is the fact that they all call for the creation of an Islamic state. They believe that Islam is a comprehensive way of life that forms both a religion and a state.
Moreover, depending on the conditions, they all believe that da’wa (preaching) is the best way to spread Islam.
However, they also have their differences. The most telling are in their understanding of the compatibility between Islam and the West and how they want to achieve an Islamic state.
Some of these groups oppose violence completely. Al-Islah is the leader in this regard, although Salafiya Jadida also rejects the use of force in Somalia, arguing that jihad is not relevant within a Muslim society.
At the other extreme is al-Shabab which is basically an international jihadist movement. This group believes that, historically, Muslims have been humiliated by their enemies whenever they have abandoned jihad and, therefore, that if Muslims are to be respected, jihad must be ongoing.
While Hizbul Islam as an organisation does not currently have a clear policy on the use of violence, its actions suggest that it sides with al-Shabab on this question and both groups believe in violence as a way to attain power.
Between these two extremes are the groups who say that the strategy employed depends on the prevailing conditions. While da’wa and peaceful political activism are preferable, they do not rule out the use of force if, for instance, it is aimed at clan-based warlords or Ethiopian occupiers.
Members of Tajamu al-Islami, the New Blood faction of al-Islah, and some members of al-Itisam movement openly reject the use of force in achieving power although they led the resistance groups that fought against the Ethiopian occupation.
Somalia’s Islamist groups also differ over other important questions, such as whether or not to have a nationalist agenda, pragmatism and tolerance.
The extent of their differences became clear when al-Shabab reportedly killed several Islamist leaders in a suicide bombing.
The Islamist message
Where are the Somali secularists, one might ask, and why did the Islamist groups succeed?
In general, as Mohamed Ayoob’s recent book, The Many Faces of Political Islam, revealed, the answer to these questions has two dimensions.
Islamists succeeded because of factors that are “inherent to Islam” and others that are “external to Islam”.
Based on Ayoob’s account, those that are inherent to Islam are the simplicity of the message and the positive perception of Islamic history.
Many Muslims, according to Ayoob, are familiar with Islamic terminology and vocabulary, meaning that Islamists have a message that can easily resonate with large numbers of Muslims.
Moreover, Islam led world civilisation for many years and, unlike other colonised nations, Muslims are seeking to re-claim their previous dominant position.
Those factors that are external to Islam but which helped Islamists to succeed include the failure of secularist leaders during the post-colonial era and Western support for secular Muslim dictators and Israel.
As Ayoob explains, the success of Somalia’s Islamists can be attributed to these factors.
Secularists falling short
One can safely argue that, for now, Somalia does not have credible secularist groups that can compete with Islamists.
When the country collapsed in 1991 many Islamists who lived in the Middle East went back and established schools and service centres. They filled the vacuum in almost all sectors, including business and intellectual life.
Parallel to this is the fact that many of Somalia’s Western-educated class left the country for Europe and North America.
One now rarely sees schools that are owned or operated by secularists in Somalia.
This provided Islamic institutions with the opportunity to become the sole group working for the betterment of society and, worse still, meant that warlords came to be seen as the sole representatives of secularism and the sole alternative to the Islamist groups.
A Somali agenda
The war between the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and Somali warlords was directly linked to the ‘war on terror’.
After Washington’s policy of supporting the warlords – believing that they had a secular agenda – failed, the US supported an Ethiopian occupation of the country.
But there are three key points that the international community must now understand about Somalia’s Islamist groups.
The first is that they are not homogenous.
The second is that Islamic values play a central role in how this Muslim society is run.
And the third is that the overwhelming majority of Somalia’s Islamist movements have a Somali agenda – they want a peaceful and prosperous homeland.
Thus in order to build a functioning state, they should be considered an ally.