The Neo-Islamists’ March of Ignorance
by Abukar Arman
In light of the rising violence in Mogadishu and how dramatically power seems to be slipping out of the hands of the unity government, the specter of what is commonly referred to as “the curse” is once again creeping back into the Somali collective psyche.
In the eighteen years since the collapse of the central government, fifteen official attempts were made to reconcile warring factions competing for power. All of which have failed. And now the Islamists who were the last hope to save this severely hemorrhaging nation are divided; and their division does not only have the potential to topple a shaky unity government, but to ignite sectarian strife with a long lasting negative consequence.
This current round of violence is being waged by a coalition made of remnants of the Alliance for Re-liberation of Somalia, some of the forces of the now defunct Islamic Courts Union and other militant individuals and groups that I would refer to as Neo-Islamists.
This new coalition, while driven by different objectives ranging from regional to transnational, are unified in their vision to topple the current unity government and implement a non-compromising, puritanical form of Shariah (Islamic law.) And while the majority of the Somali people generally support Islamists over all those who came to power in the past several decades and believe it is inevitable to govern Somalia by Sharia, they overwhelmingly reject the excessive, intolerant, draconian brand already being imposed in some pockets around the country.
How did the Islamists earn such support? And what is the current intra-Islamist rift about?
Ask any lay person or expert about the most peaceful period that Somalia has known during the last two decades of civil war, or about the period in which piracy was almost brought to halt, or about when the entire nation started to beat with a collective pulse of optimism and the unanimous answer would be ‘during the Islamic Courts rule.’ The courts’ battle cry of restoring law and order by applying Shariah and restoring the Somali dignity by defending the country against any foreign forces intending to subjugate the nation’s will and deny its sovereignty had a profound popular support
In two major milestone victories, Hassan Dahir Awes and Al-Shabab, in collaboration with other Islamists, altered the course of Somali modern history; and as such, were held in high esteem even by those who were concerned about their rigid interpretation of Islam. Both Awes and Al-Shabab who are in the U.S. terrorist list were key components of the Islamist coalition that freed the country from the parasitical and often deadly exploitation of the warlords in June 2006, and freed the country once again from the brutal Ethiopian occupation in December 2008.
However, they would soon squander this political capital; first by rejecting the UN-brokered peace plan that some of their colleagues in the liberation struggle agreed to sign on.
While the Neo-Islamists claim to have been betrayed by their comrade, they would fall short in selling this notion to the public and would continue to be seen as a group that dutifully takes marching orders from Eritrea (the country that funded the insurgency movement in order to win a proxy war against Ethiopia).
Second, by insisting on a haphazard implementation of their version of Shariah and waging a violent campaign as the Somali parliament overwhelmingly approved Islamic law to become the law of the land.
Third, by undermining their earlier heroic marks with other self-serving, political ones that are now causing deaths, chaos, conditions of insecurity, and internal displacement.
And lastly, by inadvertently becoming the reason why Ethiopia is positioning itself for the reoccupation of Somalia . All along, the pretext for the Ethiopian occupation has been that Somali Islamists pose an existentialist threat…And many independent reports have already confirmed that Ethiopian forces are already setting up check-points and harassing people indiscriminately deep in Somali territory.
The strategic illogic of the Neo-Islamists violent campaign only indicates their assertive ignorance- not only of the political dynamics at play and indeed the timing, but of the very Shariah that they carry the banner for. Shariah law neither endorses rejecting peace whenever it’s offered nor does it endorse violence as the first option in settling conflicts.
Despite all of that, the unity government, apparently for political expediency, made a leap of faith and adopted Shariah without first engaging the Neo-Islamists regarding their interpretation and priorities. How does banning movies takes precedence over, say, dealing with those who committed atrocities over the years, or returning wrongfully occupied properties to their rightful owners?
The classical Shariah applied during the peak of the Islamic civilization was based on what is explicitly or implicitly deduced from the Qur’an; from the Sunnah or what was practiced or taught by the Prophet (peace be upon him); from Qiyas (analogy) attained through a rigorous process of analysis and thorough discourse, and from Ijma’ or the consensus of the scholars. This approach to the application of Shariah is critical in addressing controversial contemporary issues that might not be clear in the first two sources of authority. Issues such as whether or not an individual can donate a kidney in order to make money; or if girls can pursue professional careers, say, become a doctor; or if there could ever be Shariah-compliant stem cell research; or if a form of governance called democracy could be adopted.
While it is not clear what approach the unity government has in mind, the Neo-Islamists only recognize the first two authorities, and are in many ways selective at that.
Contrary to Prophet Muhammad’s approach to societal reform, the Neo-Islamists put more emphasis on punishment rather than rigorous public education that, in due process, cultivates an environment conducive to moral living. Furthermore, they haphazardly employ violence as the first option in settling differences including against their own brethren in faith.
Despite its bad name in the West, the primary reason for Shariah is to ensure peace and order, and to establish a just system whereby individual and community security and rights are protected. The ultimate goal of the Shariah is to build a good society where, among other improved conditions, the security of the individual and that of the community is ensured, their properties are protected, and their dignity and respect are defended. Where the individual’s right to think freely and pursue personal ambitions are protected, where commerce is encouraged and education is provided, where the needy are cared for and crimes are all but eliminated.
It goes without saying that in current day Somalia this understanding is by and large non-existent. Because this understanding does not develop at random, it must be cultivated. Therefore, it would require a rational discourse at the grassroots level- in Somalia and the Diaspora as well as between Islamic scholars.
The Neo-Islamists and the religious leaders that shape their obtuse frame of mind must be challenged religiously and jurisprudentially but not militarily. It is the only way to prevent perpetual sectarian strife in Somalia- a challenge that this predominantly Muslim nation has never faced.
Neo-Islamists can only win this war of ideas or interpretation when they succeed in winning the hearts and minds of the Somali people. And, judging from their current approach, they are convinced that sustained violence would achieve them that end.
However, contrary to their conviction, their best projected scenario is likely to become their worst nightmare. They may topple the unity government and force their way to the top, but, soon after, as a result of hyperbolic transnational claims of some of the Neo-Islamists, Somalia would likely be declared the epicenter of international terrorism. And this could set the stage for more civilian deaths and destruction.
Abukar Arman is a writer who lives in Ohio. His articles on Islam, Somalia, Middle East and US foreign policy are widely published.