The local roots of Somalia’s new Islamic movement

Developing Just Leadership

M.A. Shaikh

Jumada' al-Akhirah 05, 1427 2006-07-01

Islamic Movement

by M.A. Shaikh (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 5, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1427)

The sudden expulsion last month of the warlords who had ruled Mogadishu for 15 years took everyone by surprise – including the US government, which backed and financed them to prevent any Islamic group from assuming power in the failed state. The clan-based warlords who gripped power over the city after the fall of president Siyad Barre in 1991 and the businessmen supporting them failed to introduce law and order or basic administration – using the money received from their misuse of power and the US to enrich themselves and maintain armed militias to protect them. By contrast the Islamic Courts Union has used what little funds it has at its disposal – some of them received also from business – to administer and provide social justice, receiving strong public support as a result.

Not surprisingly, it was this public support that enabled it to route the much stronger warlords' militias on June 5 and to capture other major cities and towns, like Johar, soon afterwards. The union now has control of most of southern Somalia, having driven the warlords into Ethiopia, while the ‘national' transitional government under former military officer and warlord Colonel Abdullahi Yusuf, is confined to the city of Baidoa, which he and the Ethiopian government claimed would soon be under attack from Union militias. And Ethiopia sent in troops.

The unexpected advances made by the Union soon led to warnings by government officials in the West and to media comments worldwide that Somalia was about to be seized by an extremist Islamic group. Arab journalists who should have known better used headlines such as “Somalia on the verge of Islamic rule”, while some Somali expatriates in the West went even further, calling on the West and the “international community” to stop the advance of the Islamic group. Calling on them to take such action, Omar Jamal, director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Centre in St Paul, Minnesota, as hub for expatriate Somalis, said on June 15 that the Islamic Justice Union was planning to install a Taliban-style government, although the movement's leaders had made strong statements to the contrary.

“No matter what language they use, the goal of the Islamic militants is to install a Taliban-style government in the country,” he said. “Instead, we need a democracy, we need freedom of the press, we need an election, we need a legitimate legal system.”

Apart from the irony that a Somali who claims to be working for justice to Somalis in the US strongly attacks an Islamic Justice Union that has brought justice to Somalis in Mogadishuunder war conditions, Jamal's remarks are contrary to the facts on the ground. The manner in which the Islamic Union came into being, the nature of the action, programmes and beliefs of its leaders go to show that the Union is not a radical, though Islamic, organisation. Even US officials now publicly admit that they had financed the warlords to destroy what they thought was a terrorist organisation having connections with al-Qa‘ida and the Taliban, adding that they did not understand the movement.

In fact, on June 13, two days before Jamal's remarks were reported in the International Herald Tribune, Henry Crumpton, the state department's counter-terrorism co-ordinator, told the US senate foreign relations committee that his department did not anticipate the events in Somalia and has an “imperfect understanding” of the Islamic group. “We expect them to work with the transitional government, and we also expect them to work with us to hand over al-Qaeda and foreign fighters,” he said.

The US government has realised that by financing and arming the warlords to confront any emerging Islamic groups, they have in fact encouraged young Somalis to radicalise and to push already-existing traditional Islamic affiliations to become more vocal in their resistance to US or other foreign meddling in Somali affairs. With the warlords defeated and its policy of intervention shown to be a failure, the US government has begun to believe that a more conciliatory attitude to the Islamic courts, rather than armed confrontation by foreigners, would be more effective in preventing the movement from developing into a radical Islamic organisation – forcing its young Islamic activists to depart and form their own “essentially isolated” group. Such a group can be targeted with the cooperation of secular Somalis, provided that there is no visible involvement by foreigners – the US government reckons. Hence the recent call by state department officials on Ethiopia not to invade Somalia, adding nevertheless that there was no evidence of any invasion. The officials also said that they were willing to cooperate with any Somali group not linked to terrorists or extremists.

In fact, the manner in which the Islamic Courts forming the Union were first established, and the reasons for their establishment show that they were a response to the violence that plagued Mogadishu after the fall of Siyad Barre, rather than a planned instrument for the establishment of an Islamic group with a radical Islamic programme to govern the country in the future. With no government, no police force, no order whatsoever, anarchy and violence drove the people of Mogadishu to set up shari'ah courts a decade ago on clan lines, with each court hiring its own gunmen.

The second development came when businessmen, alarmed at having their goods stolen at gunpoint, began to fund the Islamic courts. But the courts continued to operate along clan lines to the extent that each court could only try members of the clan to which it was linked. Even when the courts – presided over by Islamic lawyers – formed a union in 2004, their clan links continued to exist.

The Union chose 41-year-old Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed – a member of a Sufi sect, as media reports pointed out, and a former school geography teacher, who had trained in Sudan and in Libya. According to a recent media report, Sharif first got involved in Mogadishu's shari'ah courts after a 12-year-old boy at his former school had been abducted by militiamen. Sharif is regarded in both Western and Arab countries as a “real moderate” – an image he has tried hard to establish for himself by his official statements as Union chairman, and interviews with the international media. He has in fact gone out of his way to stress that the Islamic Shari'ah Union has no programme for establishing an Islamic government and has no connection with “terrorists”, preferring to live in peace with all nations. On June 19, for instance, he was quoted in the International Herald Tribune as saying: “We are a Muslim people, we want to live in a peaceful way, we want to live with the rest of the world in a peaceful way. We are not terrorists and we do not associate with terrorists.”

Moreover, Sharif responds immediately to deny any involvement by the Union in violent events attributed to it. When, for instance, recent international reports said that the Islamic Courts militia had closed theatres in Mogadishu showing films of the World Cup events in pursuit of the movement's radical Islamic programme, he responded at once by denying any official involvement: the Islamic Courts are not World Cup-haters, he said, adding that a rogue militia, not an official order, was responsible for the closure.

Not surprisingly, the Western media gives a wide coverage to his statements and holds him out as a real moderate. Other moderate members of the movement – such as Abubakar Omar Adan, the businessman who controls El Mann, the port north of Mogadishu, gets only the odd media coverage. In a comment in the London-based Independent on June 21, Abukar was described as the “real power behind the movement”, despite the media concentration on Sharif.

Other members of the movement, who continue to show their hostility to the US and its allies, are described in the Western media as extremists allied to al-Qa‘ida but not given any space to air their views. In fact, only Adan Hashi Ayro –the young activist and militia commander, who played a prominent part in the defeat and expulsion of the warlords' militia – is mentioned by name, although he has no interest in giving interviews to Western journalists. He is said to have been trained in Afghanistan and is described as the leader of a hardline faction within the movement. Contrasting him with Sharif, analysts in the West and in Arab countries conclude from this that the movement is divided into moderates, led by Sharif, and extremists represented by Ayro. The two are said to be heading for a confrontation.

There is very little doubt where the backing by Western, ‘moderate Muslim countries' and international organisations, such as the UN, lies. The movement, as represented by the moderates led by Sharif, has already received their backing to be treated as a valid participant in negotiations about the future of Somalia, while the radical members have no say or place. It is a reasonable step to conclude that the Islamic Courts Union has no future has a radical Islamic movement that can pave the way for the establishment of an Islamic government, even in the distant future.

Somalis are a Muslim people, constitute one ethnic group and speak one language. But they are divided into clans and subclans that secular politicians can exploit to thwart the introduction to an Islamic system. Former colonial rulers were the first to exploit these divisions, and the leaders and political parties inheriting power after independence followed suit. Somalis will, nevertheless, unite against external intervention – particularly when led by non-Muslims. But their clan divisions are a curse that is capable of halting the successful establishment of a true Islamic movement.

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