Somalia: Next Front Line for "Holy War"?

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In 1993, there was still some grass [Sgt. G.D. Robinson / Defense Visual Information Center]

A grateful hat tip to blogger Ethan Zuckerman, who once again is inspiring us to focus on Africa, this time on Somalia.

Somalia may be one of the most fragile and potentially explosive countries in the world. Its environment is shattered. Its population is soaring. Disastrous famine lurks. AK-47s and other guns have multiplied since the 1990s. And there’s no stable government to speak of.

Somalia wraps itself in a sideways “V” around the Horn of Africa, bordering Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya. The legacy of its turbulent postcolonial history is political mess. At the moment, an increasingly weak interrim transitional goverment operates from Baidoa; but growing power belongs to the Islamists’ Council of Islamic Courts, which now controls Mogadishu and most of southern Somalia. Somaliland and Puntland in the north are semi-independent areas. The wider regional politics with Kenya and Ethiopia — based on historical conflict and floods of refugees — are just as complicated.

Although the majority of the Somali Islamists are inspired by moderate Sufi Islam, an uncontrolled jihadi minority follows a more radical, Wahabi strain. So here’s the paradoxical situation: while the moderates are improving life for many (murder rates are declining, school attendance is increasing, food prices are falling), the jihadis may have opened training camps, may have welcomed foreign fighters and have links to al-Quaeda, and may inspire Somali terrorist cells abroad.

From the U.S. perspective, the worry of course is a fourth front in the “war on terror.” After abandoning Somalia in the mid-90s, the U.S. began funding Somali warlords this year to bolster them against the Islamists — a move that seems to have backfired by spurring the rapid recent spread of the Council of Islamic Courts. So what to do, if you’re the Bush Administration?

There’s an argument to be made for negotiating with the moderate Islamists and helping them maintain stability, but this seems a very unlikely route, ideologically, for the White House. The U.S. has a close relationship with the government in Christian-majority Ethiopia — a government that may not favor a stable Islamist Somalia — and that seems already to be sending troops into Somalia to support the transitional government. So the question is: how do you support the right political and humanitarian moves in Somalia? What, if anything, can the U.S. do to prevent a new radical Islamic front line?

Jonathan Ledgard

Africa correspondent, The Economist

Abdi Samatar

Professor of geography, University of Minnesota, with a particular focus on Somalia and Ethiopia

Sadia Aden

Somali-American peace activist

Writes for numerous publications (e.g., and the Yemen Times)

Third-year medical student

Noah Feldman

Professor of law, NYU

Author, After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy

Thanks to emmettoconnell for suggesting Noah Feldman

Extra Credit Reading

(via Toby in the North) International Crisis Group, Somalia,, October, 2005: “The October 2004 formation, in Kenya of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia was heralded as a breakthrough and a possible remedy to Somalia?s protracted crisis. This optimism dissipated over the next year as internal divisions prevented the TFG from making any progress on state building tasks.”

Foreign Policy, Seven Questions: Somalia’s Struggle, Foreign Policy, July, 2006: “For the Americans to have associated with and supported these guys . . . it made Somalis angry and frustrated with the U.S. government. But in the rallies at the mosques in Mogadishu, they’re not burning American flags; they’re burning Ethiopian flags. That’s where the real, powerful public anger is directed.”

Gerard Prunier, The Strange CIA Coup in Somalia, Garowe Online, September 29, 2006: “The U.S. intelligence service, obsessed with the risk of Taliban infiltration in Somalia, inadvertently helped the Union of Islamic Courts seize power this past June.”

The Economist, A holy war in the Horn?, The Economist, October 10, 2006: “A usually peaceful character, Mr Ahmed was seen dressed in combat fatigues and brandishing an AK-47 as he declared war.”

The Economist, Islamists half-ready for holy war, The Economist, October 12, 2006: “Islamist control of Somalia, which has been spreading fast but more or less peacefully, was this week checked. The check may be temporary. But with the reported arrival of hundreds of Ethiopian troops in support of the country’s UN-recognised but enfeebled transitional government, the scene is disturbingly warlike.”

Reuters, Somali Troops Take a Town From Rebels, Raising Tensions, The New York Times, October 22, 2006: “We have every reason to defend our allies,” Mr. Hassan said. “We cannot sit and watch them being overrun. We will attack the government troops if they decide to stay in Buurhakaba.”

Nasteex Dahir Farah, Salad Duhul and Mohamed Sheik Nor, Somalia’s Islamic leader dares Ethiopia to attack amid fears of regional conflict, International Herald Tribune, October 23, 2006: “A senior leader of Somalia’s Islamic radicals urged Ethiopians Monday to revolt against their government, calling it an oppressive regime led by an unpopular minority ethnic group.”

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  • jdyer

    This should be a good show.

    I hope you touch on the attempt by Somali Jihadist to make war in and on Ethiopia.

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  • The decision to fund warlords in Somalia seems similar to our decision to align ourselves with leaders like President Hosni Mubarak, President Pervez Musharraf and President Islom Karimov. While we talk about the importance of democracy in the middle east, in Iraq and Lebanon specifically, we hold up strongmen that themselves seem to be worst enemies of democracy.

  • Ethiopia has had “advisors” in Somalia for some time. They have a sort of care-taker, babysitter attitude towards what goes on inside the borders of Somalia and have decided, in a very US government style logic, that it is a matter of their national security to pre-emptively attack the Islamists, and prevent them from consolidating power.

    While the Islamists are no saints and certainly will bring misery to many people in Somalia, the idea of a well armed neighboring country invading that country whenever they deem it in their interests is a dangerous and unsustainable one. What follows is most likely a long-running horrifying war with plenty of poor people caught in the middle.

    Beyond what the US should do, the first thing this requires is recognition by the international community of a pending disaster. From there action can be taken and pressure can be applied. (vague I know)

  • Last night during a break, Brendan used a phrase along the lines of “are there good Islamists and bad Islamists?” It brought to mind a book I read a year or so ago about how Islam and Democracy meet, After Jihad. Stable democracy and Islam are not impossible to mix, we just have to help it happen.

  • Katherine

    emmettoconnell: Interesting idea — will see where it leads.

  • plnelson

    “Stable democracy and Islam are not impossible to mix, we just have to help it happen”

    That’s pure speculation. If we’re going to be intellectually honest we have to admit that no one has any idea what social, cultural or other circumstances democracy needs to succeed!

    When the neocons use bad logic and make broad, sweeping claims and predictions without substantiation we’re all quick to call attention to it. When peace-advocates and liberals do the same we are far less judgemental.

    Our foreign-policy strategies should not be based on democracy -vs- autocracy, or “good guys” and “bad guys” or “liberal” and “conservative”, but on PREDICTIBILITY. Given the choice of different options we need to take more account of how confident we are that we can predict the outcome, rather than simply what our most desired outcome is.

  • I disagree that it is “pure speculation” whether Islam and democracy can successfully mix. Whether our foreign policy should be predictable or not is another question.

    At least one majority Muslim country (Indonesia) is considered free and democratic, while a handful of others are moving in that direction.

  • rc21

    I’m afraid plnelson is right, Indonesia hardly makes up for the dozens of muslim dictatorships around the world. Bush and his advisors were wrong to expect democracy to just spring up in Iraq. Although to be honest you would have thought after S.H. they would have embraced freedom. I think Iraq proves a great point. One in which plnelson has just talked about.

    My take on Africa is this. The majority of the continent is ruled by corrupt governments. Many are brutal and incompetent. Tribal animosities still seem to influence much of the violence and hate.Poverty and famine are an every day occurence. aids,malaria and other disease kills millions every year. No leader has risen that could even begin to solve the problems in Africa. With the end of colonialism the countries of Rwanda and South Africa have gone into a freefall towards impending disaster. Genocide seems to be the only answer that many of these so called African governments can acomplish with any degree of success.

    Using plnelsons logic it apears obvious we should stay as far away from Africa as possible. You cant help those who are unwilling to help themselves.

    Let us leave Africas problems to Kofi Annan , the UN and various hollywod stars like Angelina Jolie, Bono, George Clooney,and Maddonna.

  • I wouldn’t say Iraq proves a rule that democracy can’t happen in an Islamic majority country. Its a horrible example and invading a country is the worst way to promote democracy. For example, who is to say if Iran wasn’t listed in the “axis of evil” that Iran’s presidential election would have produced another moderate reformer, rather than their own version of George W. Bush?

    On the other hand, what is going on right now in Egypt, several groups pushing at the edge’s of a US supported dictatorship, may likely end up being a great example of democracy in the middle east.

  • jazzman

    What does democracy actually mean? It means rule by the people. Without a constitution that guarantees rights to minorities and proscribes certain state authority, you have a dictatorship by the whim of the majority (as in J.S. Mills tyranny of the majority).

    To answer the question of an Islamic Democracy in the Middle East it is possible, given the prevailing belief system that is presented in the media (both theirs and ours), that a Theocracy would be voted in to replace the Democracy that allowed the peoples’ will to reject it. If not a “pure” Theocracy then it could manifest Sharia as the rule of law or some variant of Wahabbism. Without ground rules and a method to mediate and enforce those rules, anything is possible.

    As far as predictability goes if history teaches us anything, it is that predictability is elusive if not impossible when applied to human beings and societies (Psychohistorian, Harry Seldon’s theories notwithstanding.) We have problems enough with our Democracy and just because some people are convinced that it is the sine qua non of political systems, does that confer a moral imperative to convert those who aren’t? That is the modus operandi of fanatics and cannot succeed. Each society has to decide how they will live and how they will be governed and how they will interact with other societies – a political system cannot be compelled by a decider/deciders and succeed unless the populace is ready for that decision.

  • Old Nick

    What bothers me most in this discussion of the highly speculative, and, definitionally putative, ‘Islamist democracy’ is that we Westerners don’t know much about Islam, let alone Islamism. I’d like someone (ideally before this show goes to air) to detail the differences between the new-to-me (and geopolitically-correct) ‘Good Islamists!’ and those notorious, meanie ‘bad Islamists’.

    Hell, I don’t think we ‘mainstream’ Americans – you know, we who blog at places like ROS – know much of anything about religious fundamentalism of any stripe.

    Are the ‘Good Islamists!’ analogous to Becky Fischer? You know the ‘pastor’ of the kids populating the new documentary Jesus Camp?

    Pastor Fischer wants to eliminate the division between church and state.

    Hell, she doesn’t even believe it’s a historically verifiable constitutional guarantee.

    None of her charges have killed anyone yet, nor do they seem to have orders to do so. However,

    “I want to see them as radically laying down their lives for the gospel as they are over in Pakistan and Israel and Palestine and all those different places.”

    Pastor Fischer is training her young charges as ‘soldiers’ for the culture wars, soldiers who will drive the ‘unbelievers’ from the country.

    Our country.

    Your country.

    Are the Good Islamists! reliable democrats, do you think, like pastor Becky Fischer?

    Please try to make the case.

    But before you try, color me skeptical.


    And many Western thinkers and politicians exacerbate this Muslim tendency to avoid internal reflection by themselves avoiding looking at Islam. They lean back and opine: “Oh, well, it was like that with us once. The Church governed the West in the Dark Ages. Don’t worry, all will be fine with Islam in the end.” They do not know what they are talking about.

    (unquote, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, The Caged Virgin, p.40)


    When Muslims insist, “We’re democracies in our own way,” you need pose only one question: What rights do women and religious minorities actually exercise?

    (unquote, Irshad Manji, The Trouble With Islam Today, p.200)

    Is it acceptable to you that these speculative, putative ‘Islamist democracies’ because of the necessity for faithfulness to Koran and hadith, won’t allow women equal rights?

    Can patriarchal theocracies be authentic ‘democracies’?

    Before you answer, read Irshad Manji, Ayaan Hirsi Ali…and, to really bore a destabilizing new hole into the foundations of your conventional wisdom, try the utterly relentless gadfly scholar Ibn Warraq.

    I’m not closed minded. Present your case and I’ll read it thoughtfully and respectfully. (I’m not unpersuadable. But my color is skeptical. Damn skeptical.) If you can plausibly make the case, I’ll freely admit it.

    Until then, I’ll take Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji—both born into Islam, and both still (self-identified) Muslims (and underdog but hopeful reformers)—as far more plausible sources for my admittedly paltry but steadily growing wisdom on the human realities of Islam and Islamism.

  • The people who have been consistently looking carefully and soberly at Somalia are the International Crisis Group. Their Somalia page should be the first stop for anyone wanting to understand what is happening: I wrote a bit about who the Islamic Courts Militias are (based mainly on reading all the Crisis Group reports) back in May on my blog: things have moved on since then, but its still Ok as background.

    Moving on: talking about “Islamism” as one thing is pretty silly, i.e. “are Somali Islamists likely to be like Afghani Islamists?”; talking about “Muslims” like Old Nick does above, is just dumb. Ayaan Hirsi Ali might be worth thinking about because at least she is actually Somali – but this show should be about Somalia – its culture, its colonial past (leading to breakaway Somaliland and Puntland), its international relations (being part of the Ethiopia/Eritrea security complex), its ecological problems, its tribal structure, etc. etc.

    OpenSource is a good show because it does look at the world beyond the most obvious places – but even still as a non-American not living in America I can often see that there is a “US-prism” that things get seen through: “what do we need to know about this and why?”. Islamism is just one bit of the story of what is happening in Somalia, but it’s the bit that the US (and European to some extent) media gets hung up on because it gives a link to wider issues that Americans are interested in: terrorism.

    The idea that Somalia could become some kind of breeding ground for terrorism is pretty laughable. When al-Itihad al-Islami had training camps in the 1990s that the Ethiopians saw as a threat to them, the Ethiopians simply invaded and destroyed them then left. You can do that to a failed state because there is no one to complain, and the US has a military base just around the corner in Djibouti if it ever feels the need. There has been very few Somali linkages to “international” (i.e. anti US/western) terrorists networks. The East African US Embassy bombers seemed to have transited through the country but that’s about it – but then the 9/11 plotters were in Germany so it doesn’t show much. I don’t know if now all the nationalities of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay are known, but at least in 2003 when it was definitely secret I was told off-the-record by a UK govt. official who had access to the information that there were no Somali prisoners. Most Somalis in Somalia seem to be too busy either trying to struggle through life, or in fighting each other, to be interested in plannning international terrorism. Of course there could be a few, but in comparison to Iraq, or even Britain(!), its not something to worry too much about.

    I would suggest for the show: don’t get too obsessed with Islamism – the regime in Somalia will probably end up being as good or as unpleasent as most of its neighbours whether Islamist or not (anyone remember how many peaceful protesters the Ethiopian “democratic”, “Christian” government killed last year? Probably not, but it was in the hundreds IIRC). Somalia should be seen as part of the regional security complex – Islamist militias might be fighting because of verse this-or-that of the Koran that the Wahabbi preachers likes to bang on about but yadda-yadda-yadda… its just as relevent that they are fighting because the Eritrean govt. has just given them a sh*t load of guns. Why? To piss the Ethiopians off mainly, it would seem.

    So how much is the Somali fighting part of wider regional power competition? What is the current situation vis-a-vis Puntland and Somaliland? Is the Somalia we are talking about here really a rump of the historical country minus two thirds of its territory? What is the role of Somali diaspora communities in the West and in Africa? Are they fueling fighting or actively trying to help negotiate a solution? What are the politics of the current AU (in)action on Somalia? These are all the sorts of questions I would like to hear answers to on the show.

    cheers all,

    Toby in Helsinki.

  • Old Nick

    [Hey guys, we try not to enforce this too much, but please try to keep your comments short enough that you don’t have to scroll to read the whole thing. Obviously sometimes one has a lot to say and has to say it, but the no-scroll rule is in general a good one to follow. This comment was deleted; check out our commenting guidelines for a fuller explanation. – Brendan]

  • Old Nick

    [Hey guys, we try not to enforce this too much, but please try to keep your comments short enough that you don’t have to scroll to read the whole thing. Obviously sometimes one has a lot to say and has to say it, but the no-scroll rule is in general a good one to follow. This comment was deleted; check out our commenting guidelines for a fuller explanation. – Brendan]

  • rc21

    To allison; In reading some of your comments it seems to me you are advocating that America should turn to communism to allieviate the problems of the less fortunate. I’m sure you are aware of the disasterous results other countries have had to endure under communism.

    A free market ecomomy has been proven time and time again to afford the best opportunities for the underclass to move up on the economic ladder. It has lifted more people out of poverty than all other economic systems combined.

    We would see even more success if the government would become even less restrictive,and less regulating.

    You also claim it is very hard for the poor to achieve wealth and succsess (I’m paraphrasing from one of your earlier posts) Have you not seen the incredible success that millions and millions of immigrants from Italy,Ireland, etc.have had in just 1 century. I’m sorry but you are way off base ” Only in America” may be a cliche but how true it is. and only under capitolism and democracy has this been allowed to happen.

    I agree that there are many people walking around with million dollar trust funds that have been born through the labor of slaves and migrant workers.

    It bothers me also. Unfortunately we live in an imperfect world. I’m not in favor of trashing the constitution in order to remedy this problem.

    We would both like to see the poor succeed and prosper. I fear your solution would just create more poverty,as well intentioned as it may be.

  • I’m not a theologian, definitely not a theologian of Islam, but my background is in Sociology and Political science, and whilst there is plenty to discuss on Islam – it strikes me that you are essentialising it. If you think that Islam/Islamism is central to what is happening in Somalia then fine, but I don’t think that you have proven that at all by quoting your three writers. I tend to agree with you on many points – who would want to be a woman born in Somalia? – but then I wouldn’t want to be a man or woman in Zimbabwe or the DRC either and that has nothing do with Islam. All I want to try and express that what is happening is a lot more complex than the religion of the current rising power. Sorry for saying dumb – that was rude – but I do fundamentally disagree with you I think.

    Got to dash to the airport now! Hope the show goes well. I’ll listen when I get back from the UK.

  • Old Nick

    Toby, you may be right that I’m not grasping “what is happening in Somalia”. I’ll admit right here that I don’t know, and I’ll be listening to the show in hopes of learning what I’m ignorant about.

    I understand that Sufism differs from mainstream fundamentalist Islam, but by how much? Are the Sufi Islamists instituting Shari’a? How, given what I quoted above, can that be ‘democratic’?

    Example from another culture: we’re taught in school that “Ancient Athens was the world’s first democracy”. What we’re not so readily told is that Athenian women were not only isolated in their husband’s homes, but made to wear face veils when allowed outside. (And, of course, they couldn’t vote.)

    If that, in the minds of anyone reading this, doesn’t render into an oxymoron the phrase “Athenian democracy”, then women apparently don’t qualify as ‘people’.

    Secondly, we in the West are conditioned to look first at economic factors when trying to analyze the behaviors of other societies and cultures. This approach, it seems to me, sheds more light on our biases more than it does the social and cultural behaviors we’re seeking to understand. I don’t think economics should be our first focus when studying culture wherein “The Devil” is an omnipresent threat instead of a figment of mythology. People ruled by fear of a supernatural personification of ‘evil’ and ‘temptation’ order their lives somewhat differently than secular Westerners. As an example (albeit a weaker one than I’d like), in my own country, people who believe in “The Devil” regularly vote against the party that better represents their economic interests, in no small part because the other party has mastered fearmongering: blowing up “the terrorists” into earthly archetypal minions of “Satan”.

    Religion, it seems to me, is the thunderous and redolent Elephant in the Room here that polite, politically correct Westerners would like to dismiss as trivial.

    I don’t think it’s trivial at all:


    The question of the truth of a religion is one thing, but the question of its usefulness another. I am as firmly convinced that religions do harm as I am that they are untrue…

    We are sometimes told that only fanaticism can make a social group effective. I think this is totally contrary to the lessons of history… The world that I should wish to see would be one freed from the virulence of group hostilities and capable of realizing that happiness for all is to be derived rather from co-operation than from strife. I should wish to see a world in which education aimed at mental freedom rather than at imprisoning the minds of the young in a rigid armor of dogma calculated to protect them through life against the shafts of impartial evidence. The world needs open hearts and minds, and it is not through rigid systems, whether old or new, that these can be derived.

    (unquote) – Bertrand Russell, Preface to the 1957 edition of Why I Am Not A Christian

    I don’t think we can pretend that religion doesn’t heavily impact ‘what’s happening in Somalia’. For all I know, it might just be driving ‘what’s happening’ there.

    (However, if my suspicions are wrong, it won’t be the first time!)

  • Old Nick

    Wikipedia’s entry on Sufism seems to imply wiggle room on Sharia here:

    A question for the show’s guests, or for anyone here on thread:

    Do the Somali “Sufi Islamists” employ Sharia?

    If not, is the application of “Islamist” a misnomer?

    (Note however that Ruhollah Khomeini and other Islamists began their lives as Sufis: )

  • Old Nick

    I’ve done some searching and reading, and Toby is right: my focus on religion alone is a wrongheaded oversimplification. Somalia more complex than that, by a long shot. Even so, I’ll risk another oversimplification: the Sufi-inspired Somali Islamists indeed do Sharia, and yet send girls to school.

    Which brings me back to the Becky Fischer comparison. Which, if valid, pretty much kills the ‘democracy’ prospects.

    Worse, the situation there is not only bad, but has been helped along into its badness by yet more US foreign policy blunders. Lovely.

    Having learned all this and taken up so much space in doing so, I’m done posting on this thread (at least until a few hours after the show).


  • I’m glad you guys were able to get Noah Feldman. I can’t wait to listen to the show.

  • Old Nick

    Well, that was an eye-opener.

    First, Toby was kind to call my comments up the page aways ‘dumb’. ‘Ignorant and moronic’ would be more appropriate.

    Second, and for the record, I didn’t and don’t mind the vaporization of the two posts in this thread (and I wish could eradicate a few more, here and elsewhere).

    Third, this show was my first experience with the term ‘Islamism’ outside the usual Salafi/Wahhabi sort of context. I hope I’m not the only one whose prejudices took a well-deserved beating.

    Thanks, ROS. Shows like this are why we listen with such dedication.

  • dieing philosopher!

    I fail to understand why US should take the chesty standpoint of defending the democracy? haven’t we learned what bizarre consiquences it leads to?

  • plnelson

    “I disagree that it is “pure speculation” whether Islam and democracy can successfully mix. Whether our foreign policy should be predictable or not is another question.

    At least one majority Muslim country (Indonesia) is considered free and democratic, while a handful of others are moving in that direction.”

    Indonesia hasn’t been a functioning democracy long enough to draw any conclusions. The only other long-term stable democratic Islamic nation is Turkey and they have only achieved it because the army, which is the real source of power in Turkey, is fanatically secularist. They’re so nutty on that count that recently a female member of their legislature was denied her seat because she insisted on wearing a headscarf! (…can you imagine that happening in the US Congress? I can’t. ) Beyond that the vast majority of Islamic societies are non-democratic.

    But I was making a larger point. We have no track record on nation building, democratic or otherwise. We have no clue how to make it happen, or what the basic, minimum requirements are to have a peaceful, stable country with people in it who share a sense of nationhood. All our recent attempts have been failures – Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Haiti, Afhganistan, Iraq. And we certainly don’t know what it takes to create a democracy, so we have no way to know whether it can be done in a traditional Islamic nation like Somalia.

    People sometimes cite Germany and Japan after WWII, but those places were ALREADY fully-functioning nations before the war, and, prewar, already had some of the basic institutions of modern governments, and they were eager, postwar, to get it right this time.

  • plnelson

    “What bothers me most in this discussion of the highly speculative, and, definitionally putative, ‘Islamist democracy’ is that we Westerners don’t know much about Islam, let alone Islamism. “

    But that one fact is all we need to know! We don’t need to know about Islam; we just need to know that we don’t know much about it in order to disabuse ourselves that we can create an Islamic democracy.

    Anyone who has studied logic knows that the burden of proof here is one the one asserting the positive claim. i.e., “we can create an Islamic democracy”. So if some neocons or some “ethical realists” or some liberal humanist secularists claim that they are going to turn this or that Islamic society into a democracy I have no logical obligation to prove that they can’t do it; instead tbey are obligated to prove that they can do it.

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