Having defeated Ethiopians, Somalia’s Muslims face problems of peace

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Iqbal Siddiqui

Rabi' al-Awwal 04, 1430 2009-03-01


by Iqbal Siddiqui (Perspectives, Crescent International Vol. 38, No. 1, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1430)

Iraq and Afghanistan were far from the only victims of the neo-cons’ aggression under George W. Bush. Several other Muslim countries suffered grievously too, without receiving nearly as much attention in the world media, and, by extension, among Muslims. Somalia is perhaps the single greatest example. Crescent has covered developments there as best we can, largely thanks to M. A. Shaikh, who writes on the new government of Sherif Sheikh Ahmed in this issue, but elsewhere in the Muslim media Somalia has been largely ignored.

In 2006, an indigenous, grassroots Islamic movement emerged to take control of Mogadishu and much of the south of the country, providing Somalis with their first period of peace and stability for decades. This was the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which had emerged from community shari‘ah courts organised by local ulama to maintain order in the absence of any meaningful state institutions. Among these ‘ulama were Sherif Sheikh Ahmed and Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys. The US’s response: to sponsor and support an Ethiopian invasion of the country in order to restore power to a “transitional national government” (TNG) of the same warlords that had led it into wrack and ruin in the first place. There followed two years of Islamic resistance that resulted at the end of last year in the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops and a political deal by which Sheikh Ahmed was elected president in January (see p. 17 below).

However, the situation is not as simple as a return to the status quo that existed in Somalia in 2006, before the Ethiopian invasion. The ICU, with its grassroots organization and credibility, no longer exists, and the Islamic movement has fragmented. Sheikh Ahmed has led one faction that has cooperated with secular opposition leaders within the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS), but he has been criticised by others within the Islamic movement, including both Sheikh Aweys and leaders of the al-Shabab mujahideen group that was responsible for much of the military resistance to the Ethiopians inside Somalia. The fact that Sherif Ahmed has worked with secular politicians, and assumed the presidency of Somalia within the framework of the TNG, established after the Ethiopian invasion, has led to accusations of selling out to the warlords and invaders.

Ahmed’s reply to such criticism is to say that it was necessary for him to engage in talks with the Ethiopians and their TNG allies in order to negotiate the ceasefire under which the Ethiopians withdrew; and that the new government established after his election as president of the TNGwas independent of any foreign influence and committed to governing the whole of Somalia on the basis of Islam, as the ICU had done before the Ethiopian invasion.

Ahmed finds himself in an unenviable position. Unlike the ICU, which emerged in a political vacuum and was answerable only to its supporters, his new government is under pressure from a range of lobbies, including secular politicians and foreign agencies promising all sorts of assistance — much needed in war-shattered Somalia — provided his policies are not too Islamic and he marginalizes other Islamic groups such as the al-Shabab. But this would risk alienating the majority of Somalis, who are committed to Islam and recognise that it is Islamic movements that have liberated the country, and would possibly result in further damaging warfare if the jihad groups decide to fight his government as they fought the Ethiopians. Ahmed has therefore to tread a fine line between alienating Somalia’s Islamic movement (and people), and bringing the wrath of the West down upon himself and his new government.

The militant Islamic groups must also decide whether they can work with Ahmed, even if they do not agree with everything he says and does, or whether his government is really such an enemy of Islam as to justify continuing military jihad. Before the latter, they should consider that military strategies have seldom succeeded in achieving domestic political goals in any Muslim country, and the resultant internecine conflict has often proved both incredibly damaging and entirely counter-productive. This is something that jihadi Islamic movements, particularly salafi ones, have often failed to appreciate.

After decades of war and conflict, Somalia’s long-suffering Muslims may be about to discover that ‘peace’ brings its own issues, problems and challenges.

Iqbal Siddiqui publishes a personal blog, A Sceptical Islamist.

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