From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Sun Mar 22 2009 - 12:19:08 EST
Somalia: Nation's Contending Islamic Ideologies
Michael A. Weinstein
22 March 2009
With the decision on March 12 by the cabinet of Somalia's Transitional
Federal Government (TFG.) to approve the adoption of Shari'ah as the
country's legal system, it has become a near certainty that Somalia's new
cycle of civil conflict will be framed ideologically by one or more variants
of political Islam.
Prior to the T.F.G.'s president, Sh. Sharif Sh. Ahmad's request to the
cabinet to transform the T.F.G.'s political formula from clan-based
secularism to an as yet undefined Islamism, the major opposition movements
to the T.F.G. were already Islamist.The apparent acquiescence of the
coalition of international donors to the T.F.G. to the decision to adopt
Shari'ah sealed the fate of secularism for southern and central Somalia,
setting off a new experiment in Somalia's chronic search for a unifying
national identity and a definition of its political community.
The contenders over what Islamic political formula might become regnant in
Somalia are the same as those that appear everywhere in the Muslim world
that political Islam emerges: Transnational Revolutionary Islam, Islamic
Nationalism, and Islamic Reformism. The first is represented in Somalia by
the Al-Shabaab movement and Hizbul Islam (Party of Islam); the second by the
Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia based in Asmara (A.R.S.-A); and
the third by Sh. Sharif, his faction of the A.R.S., and the clerics
associated with his movement.
As it became clear in March that political Islam had triumphed ideologically
in Somalia, the contending tendencies and actors enunciated positions that
were more well defined and detailed than had previously been the case, in
In an important interview with Al-Jazeera on March 3 that deserves serious
attention, Al-Shabaab's spokesman, Sh. Mukhtar Robow, provided the clearest
statement to date of the movement's ideology and current strategy.
Confirming a closed source on the ground who says that Al-Shabaab is the
only political actor that has a coherent program, Robow presented a
systematic account that moved from fixed strategic goals to flexible and
adaptive tactics, nearly mirroring the Leninist theory and practice of
Bolshevik revolution, with, of course, an Islamist content. Those who
believe that Al-Shabaab is a collection of mindless "extremists" and
"spoilers," who are simply "anti-peace" (U.N. Secretary-General Ban
Ki-moon's and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's term) need to think
In commenting on whether Al-Shabaab was linked to Al-Qaeda, Robow said that
it was not organizationally, but was ideologically, stating that both groups
shared the goals of implementing Shari'ah, rejecting "false borders and
entities created by colonialism," uniting Islamic countries, and restoring
the Caliphate - a succinct definition of Transnational Revolutionary Islam.
Just as Lenin insisted that goals remain fixed, but that tactics must be
altered pragmatically according to circumstances, Robow said that whenever
al-Shabaab considers taking an initiative, "we always think about whether it
is appropriate to do it at this time." Currently, Robow explained, "we
believe that we should move forward with caution." In particular, Robow
stressed, it was most important that Al-Shabaab not get ahead of the people
(another Leninist dictum). Using the example of alleged desecration of the
graves of Sufi saints by Al-Shabaab, Robow commented that "if demolishing
graves will force clans to take up arms, we need to stop and get people to
understand the issue from a religious point of view."
The injunction to be cautious translates into a long march to the Caliphate.
According to Robow, Al-Shabaab's capture of the former base of the
transitional parliament, Baidoa, began the "right path" towards restoration
of the Caliphate, which would be traveled step-wise from establishing a
model Islamic administration in that town and then expanding out into the
Bay region and beyond: "When you want to climb a tree, you start from the
trunk; you do not jump to the leaves."
Announcing a tactical phase of consolidation and administration building,
Robow remained firm in his ideological opposition to the T.F.G., which, he
said, violates the Quranic injunction: "Do not mix justice with injustice."
(The T.F.G., for Robow, is a hybrid of Islamists and "unbelievers.") He then
went on to make Al-Shabaab's anti-democratic stance explicit: "Democracy
says that the civilian population are the ones that rule and they will do
whatever they want. God says he is in charge and no one else is."
(Presumably, clerics will be God's "transmission belts.")
It is not the purpose here to judge whether or not Al-Shabaab can or will
apply consistently Robow's "What is to be Done" interview, but just to
reveal it as vintage modern vanguardist revolutionary ideology in Islamic
dress. The point is that Al-Shabab has a rather sophisticated program that
gives it an ideological advantage over other contenders.
In contrast to Robow's positive and considered strategy, the A.R.S.-A's
Islamic Nationalism remains a resistance ideology based on national
liberation. In an interview with Reuters on March 5, A.R.S.-A's ideological
spokesman, Sh. Hassan Dahir Aweys, focused on opposition to the T.F.G. as a
puppet of the Ethiopians and Western powers, claiming that his group were
"freedom fighters" and that the T.F.G. were "traitors." Whereas Robow
condemned foreign interference, but stressed the formation of an Islamic
state; Aweys shifted the balance by espousing the goal of a "change is the
system," but emphasizing that his adversaries were "fighting to stop any
group that can employ Shari'ah law in Somalia." In traditional nationalist
terms, Aweys justified armed resistance to the T.F.G. by saying that
counter-force is necessary when "invaders try to force you to leave your
religion, reject your nationhood and independence, and take your resources
illegally." Rather than a long march to the Caliphate, Aweys made "freedom"
the goal of the struggle: "The most important thing people need is freedom.
The houses can be rebuilt, but a beautiful house without freedom is
Leaving aside A.R.S.-A's relative lack of traction on the ground, Aweys's
version of Islamic Nationalism, centered, as it is, on liberation rather
than on a program, lacks focus, leaving the future open to an unspecified
range of Islamic political formulas. Aweys's vision was appropriate when
Somalia was subject to Ethiopian occupation and one could speak of a
resistance movement; it is less relevant in a period of civil conflict, in
which actors control and attempt to administer blocks of territory as they
contest them with other actors.That Aweys should say that Ethiopia's
rhetorical support for Sh. Sharif, which must be coupled with its harboring
and training of warlord militias, means that Addis Ababa is "still in
charge," indicates his failure to adjust to the new political cycle.On March
19, A.R.S.A announced that it would form an alternative government to the
T.F.G.; it remains to be seen whether it will generate a vision of an
Islamic state and a program to achieve it.
In sharp contrast to Al-Shabaab's revolutionary and A.R.S.-A's resistance
postures, both of which fall within received modern paradigms, Sh. Sharif's
reformism is reactive, purposively vague, and seemingly expedient. In his
letter to Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke requesting that the
cabinet adopt Shari'ah, Sh. Sharif reportedly wrote that the action was
necessary to forestall "prolonged fights," a justification that he later
repeated at press conferences and in addresses. Caught between having to
satisfy his clerical and clan bases, both of which favor implementation of
Shari'ah, and the donor powers on which the T.F.G. is dependent financially,
and which favor a secular government, Sh. Sharif, gave way to the former,
but tried to mollify the latter.
Sh. Sharif's brand of impromptu reformism emerged at a press conference in
Nairobi on March 12, where he began with the assurance that the Shari'ah
that he had in mind for Somalia was not the strict version forwarded by
Al-Shabaab, but a more modern variant that would allow women to serve in
parliament (an issue raised by the armed opposition) and an acceptance of
democracy, which he said "is not inherently against Islam."
As a compromise formation precipitated from the cross-pressures of base and
donors, Sh. Sharif's Islamic Reformism is the weakest of the ideological
contenders by virtue of its transparent use of political Islam as a means to
the end of saving the T.F.G. and its resulting vagueness.
Ideology is not the determining factor in shaping political developments,
but it provides an orienting vision of the future and a basis for mobilizing
support and organizing action. As such, it is a form of power and an
indicator of momentum. Considered in those terms, among the major domestic
actors in southern and central Somalia, Al-Shabaab's programmatic
perspective has the edge over A.R.S.-A, which is locked in the past, and the
T.F.G., which appears to be purely reactive.
Although the analogy is only suggestive and speculative, it would be wise to
keep in mind that Lenin's Bolsheviks prevailed over the populist and
nationalist Social Revolutionaries, and the reformist Mensheviks in the
Dr. Michael A. Weinstein is Professor of Political Science at Purdue
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