Political Islam in Somalia: It’s time for Strategic Engagement By Abdurahman M. Abdullahi (Baadiyow)i ‘Political Islam’ is a catchy expression that signifies many things to different people. In Western circles, political Islam is considered a reactionary ideology and an anti-Western movement; and is portrayed as a menace to their civilization, values and hegemony. In the Muslim world, despotic governments perceive political Islam as a competing oppositional ideology that threatens their political power and economic privileges. Both the West and these despotic Muslim governments agree on the necessity for its containment, even if this involves the violation of human rights and the abortion of democracy. Conversely, the Muslim masses longing for change consider political Islam to be a hope for possible cultural revival, economic prosperity and liberation from Western domination. However, the vicious extremism committed in the name of Islam on 9/11 and after, and the violent reaction of the US and other countries to this, has embarrassed Muslims everywhere. Somalis in particular are shocked at the unprecedented violence carried out in the name of Islam, such as suicide bombings, random assassinations and the wrecking of Islamic scholars’ tombs. This is not the kind of Islam that Somalis have practiced for centuries and they ask themselves, “what type of religion is this?” Many varieties of terminology have been used to signify this phenomenon. Proponents of political Islam prefer words such as ‘Islamic movement’, ‘Islamic awakening’ and ‘Islamic revival’. Opponents use offensive words, like ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, ‘Islamic terrorism’, ‘Islamic radicalism’ and so on. The terms ‘political Islam,’ or ‘Islamism,’ emphasize the resurgence of political aspects of Islam weakened after Western domination, and also the revitalizing of other aspects. They signify active movements striving to make Islam the definitive reference for the state and society. However, these active movements are not a single group; they comprise diverse parties and ideologies covering both extremists and moderates. All forms of extremism: ghuluw (excessiveness), tanattu' (meticulous religiosity) and tashdid (strictness), are disapproved of, while

2 moderation or balance, “al-wasadiyah,” is the fundamental marker of Islam. Religious extremism leading to political extremism has been known in Muslim history since the Kharijites rebelled against Imam Ali bin Abidalib, which is why the term neo-Kharijites (Khawarij al-Casr) is sometimes employed to signify an armed rebellion claiming Islamic righteousness that is directed against legitimate government in Muslim countries. In Somalia, in the aftermath of the collapse of the state in 1991, local identity politics based on clanism and political Islam have emerged forcefully. As a result, Somalia has become a theatre for international and regional interventions, and is currently caught up in a bizarre assortment of Islamic insurgencies, piracy and weak state institutions. It is the collapse of the state, along with successive failures of transitional governments, that has ushered in a stronger political Islam, which has become more militant since the Global War on Terrorism after 9/11, the rise of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) in 2006 and Ethiopian military intervention. Recently, a reconciliation agreement was concluded in Djibouti, producing a national unity government comprised of the Alliance of Reliberation (ARS) and the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). However, al-Shabab and Hizb-alIslam (formerly members of UIC and ARS) are fighting the new government headed by the former chairman of UIC and ARS, and the incumbent President Sheikh Sharif. To understand this phenomenon, it has to be placed in the Somali historical context. Islam has been used as a strong mobilizing ideology in anti-colonial responses and nationalist struggles. The first modern organization in the name of Islam was formed by Haji Farah Omar in Aden in 1925. However, it was banned because of its political activities. The second attempt occurred after the return of Italian rule under UN trusteeship in the 1950s, when the Somali Islamic League was formed in Mogadishu. It set out to promote education in the Arabic language, and lobbied Egypt to open Arabic schools that would be comparable with the Italian school networks. After independence in 1960, some students who had graduated from Arab universities held modern Islamic ideas and introduced them to Somalia. These Islamic scholars were inspired by the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Salafia (Wahabi School) of Saudi Arabia. The process started with the formation of Al-Nahda (the Renaissance) in Mogadishu (1967), Wahadat al-Shabab al-Islami (the Union of Young Muslims) in Hargeysa (1969) and Al-Ahli (the native) student organizations in Mogadishu (1970).

3 The military regime of 1969, however, abolished Islamic societies and banned all non-state institutions. So Islamic activism operated underground and had by the 1970s taken greater strides, in reaction to the military regimes’ espousal of Marxist ideology. The organizations al-Ahli, Al-Wahda and al-Nahda were coordinating stiff resistance to the socialist ideology. Initially, they all claimed affinity to the Muslim Brotherhood, but that situation had changed by 1975 after the execution of 10 Islamic scholars who opposed secularized family law. Young Islamic activists fled to Sudan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and made contact with different aspects of political Islam. Eventually, besides traditional Sufis and Shafi’i jurists, four Islamic affiliations emerged in Somalia: the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafia and its derivatives, Takfir (declaring unbeliever groups) and Tablighi Jama’a (conveying group). All modern organizations in Somalia are rooted in one of these four schools. For instance, Al-Shabab and Hizb al-Islam claim affinity to the Salafia movements. The complexity of Somali political Islam is such that even traditional Sufis known for their focus on the spiritual aspect of Islam are becoming more political and militant. The organization Ahlu-Sunna wa al-Jama’a is reacting in military ways to the destruction of the tombs of Sufi Sheikhs by the Shabab. In the final analysis, these organizations agree only on the principle of adopting Islam as the ultimate reference for the state and society. Beyond that, they disagree on political views, being influenced by socioeconomic conditions, global politics and regional conflicts. Political Islam has been approached from the perspective of those modernist theories that consider that traditions, including religion, are destined to decline, due to the rise of secular nationalism and nation-state institutions. Based on this assumption, Islamic movements are treated as presenting a threat to world order and as security challenges for the 21st century. This notion and the policies built upon it have contributed to further antagonizing and radicalizing many groups within political Islam, both in Somalia and worldwide. In Somalia, tremendous changes have happened over the last 20 years and the political setting has shifted towards political Islam. Certainty, the period of Western projected dominance of secularism, and the state that it represented, collapsed in 1991. Political Islam emerged from its ashes and is now digging itself a strategic position in the realms of the state. Moreover, the people of Somalia are looking to Islam as an alternative salvation and solution. They believe that Islam is capable of diluting radical clanism and reconstituting the state. However, that form of Islam should be authentic and moderate; it should not be based on an extremist interpretation that preaches relentless violence. Currently, the choice is either ruthless extremism or participatory

4 moderation. The question is: which one of these two Islamic banners prevails? Which one would the Somali people choose and support? Which one should the international community accept and work with? To begin with, Somali intellectuals are required to re-evaluate political reality in Somalia and realize that the choice is between Islamic extremism and moderation. Thus, non-Islamists should make strategic engagement with Islamic moderation. On their part, moderate Islamists have to welcome the participation of all parties in the rebuilding of the state. All moderate Islamic scholars should realize that the country is in peril and should stand up and articulate the true nature of Islam. All Somalis have to reawaken their natural religiosity and reassert their mobilizing capacity for exceptional solidarity, as brothers and sisters. Moderate Islamists have to show that Islam accepts political participation and plurality for all the citizens. They have to demonstrate that Islam protects human rights and freedom of expression. They have to reconfirm their commitment to peace and regional security. In so doing, they have to convince the international community and regional states that the new Somalia will be a bastion of peace and an icon and hub for development and regional cooperation. Finally, the external actors involved in Somalia should realize that the Somali political landscape is changing. The current unity government headed by moderate Islamist President Sheikh Sharif and the Shari’a bill endorsed by the Council of Ministers shows the trail in that direction. Therefore, moderate political Islam should no longer be eschewed but accepted as an alternative political reality. In particular, neighbouring Ethiopia should be convinced to refrain from its subversive policies and develop an alternative strategy, based on dealing with moderate Islamists. Moreover, the Egyptian regime, in its entanglements with its rising Islamic opposition, should not obstruct the emergence of Islamism in Somalia. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia and Yemen should realize that their national security is at stake if extremism prevails in Somalia. Eventually, if Islamic moderation does not take centre stage in Somalia, extremism will emerge as a triumphant ideology, hence the strategic choice of all concerned parties must be to join with the new government against rising extremism – and the government should combine clemency with resolve and take the path of state reconstitution seriously.

Abdurahman M Abdullahi (Baadiyow) specialized in the history of Islam in the Horn of Africa. He is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Mogadishu University. You can reach him at abdurahmanba@yahoo.com