The Future of Political Islam in Somalia

The United States, fearing a new Taliban had come to power in Somalia, recently did what many expected it would do: invade Somalia. Not directly though. In the final weeks of 2006, Ethiopian forces that were trained, financed, and outfitted by the United States pounded Somalia’s capital and port cities with air attacks, routing the poorly equipped militias of the Islamic leadership.

Since the early 1990s, Somalia lacked any semblance of a strong, populist government. After the government collapsed in 1991, Shari’ah-oriented Islamic courts emerged, managing the judiciary system, acting as local police by preventing robberies and drug-dealing, and offering other services such as education and health care. These regionally dispersed Islamic courts enjoyed wide public support and, in 1999, began to assert their authority. Seven years later, in the summer of 2006, the regional system of Islamic courts banded together to form a rival government—the Islamic Courts Union (ICU)—to compete with the U.S.- and UN-aligned Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

For the last seven months, political Islam was the primary governing structure for most of Somalia. The only area of Somalia that remained explicitly secular was the west, where the weak TFG controlled the town of Baidoa. This was too much for Ethiopia and the United States. In early December, Somalia’s surge toward theocracy inspired a weakly justified commissioning of UN peacekeeping forces. Now, as a result of the U.S.-sponsored invasion and aided heavily by armed Ethiopian troops, the TFG is regaining control of the Islamic leadership’s previous strongholds in Mogadishu, Kismayo, and outlying cities and towns.

Islam’s popularity as a mechanism for governance in the country derives not simply from the fact that Somalia is the only country in the African continent whose population is virtually all Muslim. Nor can the country’s proclivity for theocracy be understood as the result of a growing Taliban or al-Qaida regime, as some in the West would prefer to think. The Taliban adhered to a stricter school of Islam, frequently used executions and killings to enforce Shari’ah law, prohibited women and girls from employment, barred women from access to health care, and required women to wear the full burqa in public. The ICU exhibited none of these characteristics.

Instead, political Islam met the needs of a substantial portion of the Somalia population. And whether in militant form or simply as a latent desire to apply Shari’ah law to a nation-state, political Islam is far from dead in Somalia today.

Political Islam as External Defense

Replete with clans and nomads, Somalia has found it difficult to unite under one political umbrella. All attempts to institute a clan government have failed miserably, with devastating consequences for all who tried. Clans do not identify themselves in opposition to other clans, and there is no clan hierarchy based on bloodline. This egalitarianism prevented the emergence of a centralized government. For centuries, Somalia remained a “state of chiefdom where central political authority meant nothing,”1 despite more recent attempts by ruling dictators in the latter half of the twentieth century to control the populace.

Inter-clan and intra-clan alignment did occur however. The old Bedouin adage “I against my brothers; my brothers and I against our cousins; brothers, cousins, and I against the world” came into play when threats arose. It comes as little surprise then, that Somalis formed a wide network of brothers and cousins to face external threats like neighboring Ethiopia and the omnipresent United States. The Ethiopian-armed TFG, the U.S.-armed Ethiopian troops, and the U.S.-backed warlords all contributed to a growing fear of a possible attack on the Somali people, a fear realized with Ethiopia’s December invasion. This network united on the basis not of clan but of religion. Somalis perceived Ethiopian and U.S. threats, due to the explicit Christian orientation of both nations, as a threat to Somalia’s Muslim population.

Political Islam, as the shield behind which disparate clans find refuge, thrived in the culture of “brothers, cousins, and I.” The shield offered by Islam is Asghar jihad, the lesser of the two jihads. Asghar jihad allows Muslims to protect themselves from external threats: “to fight [the enemy] until there is no persecution”2 and to “protect Islam and Muslims from harm.”3

Until the perceived threat significantly diminishes—for instance, if and when Ethiopia withdraws its troops—political Islam will remain fueled by the Asghar jihadist desire to protect Somali’s Muslim majority. Moreover, as long as anti-Islamic sentiment is expressed and felt globally, political Islam will remain the unifying mechanism for previously disparate clans and sub-clans within Somalia.

Political Islam as Internal Defense

Prior to the national amalgamation effort by the ICU to consolidate power, Somali citizens considered as legitimate neither the local warlords in Mogadishu nor the TFG leadership. Most Somalis regarded the local warlords, ruling quasi-officially, as unmistakably corrupt. It was widely known that the warlords received U.S. funds—theoretically intended for community security and welfare—and that this money consistently remained in warlord coffers. Moreover, the TFG, established in 2000 by the UN following nearly a decade of warlord rule and civil war, was painfully inept and corrupt. Situated in Baidoa, inconveniently distant from Mogadishu, the TFG was unable to bring order to the chaos of the capital city.

Consequently, and not surprisingly, political Islam emerged as an answer to corrupt local and inept federal governance. The ICU appealed to the greater of the two forms of jihad, known as Akbar jihad, which promotes “the constant struggle within the self against evil impulses that must be overcome to lead a pious life.”4 Unlike the warlords or government leadership, the ICU encouraged Somalis to be victorious in this battle for individual and civic virtue.

When the ICU took control, in 2006, of Mogadishu and the southern and northern parts of Somalia, the principles of Akbar jihad remained at the fore of their political messaging and maneuvering. Some examples included the banning of entertainment—movie houses, television—perceived as threats to the internal struggle for pious thoughts. At the same time, the ICU strove to maintain legitimacy as non-corrupt leaders by attending to citizens’ needs, something the warlords and the brutal dictators never managed. The airport opened after 11 years of closure, shipping ports and seaports were secured to ensure safe transport of food and products, law and order returned to Mogadishu, education and health care remained a top priority, environmental regulations were instituted (e.g. ban on deforestation, charcoal burning, killing rare animals and plants, etc.), and crime diminished significantly.

Somalia’s socio-political shift toward a more pious religious system of governance that encouraged the individual’s jihadist struggle against evils mirrored similar developments in Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Co-religionists in these secular countries have been furious at the absence of state-provided services such as education, health care, environmental protection, and transportation. They argue that the secular regimes, by hoarding and failing to distribute public funds via public services, have failed in their internal jihadist struggle against evils facing the self (in this case, greed). In each of these countries, Somalia included, political Islamic movements thus became known for the opposite. They demonstrated their pious behavior through good works by establishing the very social services that the political authorities either didn’t provide or provided poorly.

This internal jihad explains in part political Islam’s success in Somalia. As long as political Islam outperforms the secular regimes in meeting the needs of ordinary people, as was the case in Somalia, political Islam will remain popular.

Next Steps in Dealing with Somalia

It would behoove government officials, whether at the U.S. State Department or the Pentagon, to closely examine the roots of political Islam and to understand, not fear, its continued popularity in Somalia. In this vein, by better understanding the numerous shades of Islam, CIA analysts have come to realize that a radical Islamic movement, for example, is not inherently violent or immutable (see, for example, the ziggurat of zealotry). This hierarchy of radicalization is fluid, and thoughtful, non-provocative interventions can disrupt the process by which moderates become zealots. For example, far from a manifestation of the more extreme and radical Taliban or al-Qaida movements, political Islam in Somalia actually met the physical, psychological, and spiritual needs of Somalis. Acknowledging and supporting this comparatively benign form of political Islam is critical.

Consequently, interested countries and institutions—particularly Ethiopia, the United States, and the UN—should avoid pushing political Islam toward militancy in Somalia. The U.S.-supported Ethiopian troops should withdraw from the country. The TFG should reach out to supporters of the ICU. The United States and the international community should use their influence and aid to ensure accountable mechanisms, bolster civil society, and provide training in good governance. As long as Somalia feels threatened, externally or internally, political Islam will only enjoy more political and popular support. Additional attacks, like the recent U.S.-sponsored Ethiopian invasion, will only push political Islam toward exclusivity and intolerance.

End Notes

  1. Ali Abdirahman Hersi, “The Arab Factor in Somali History: The Origins and the Development of Arab Enterprise and Cultural Influence in the Somali Peninsula,” Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1977, p. 177.
  2. Qur’an 2:193.
  3. See: Rudolph Peters, Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 1996), pp. 103-48.
  4. Graham Fuller, The Future of Political Islam, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), p. 150.
Michael Shank is in the Ph.D program at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.