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Ideological Diversity in Somalia’s Islamic Courts Movement Seteembar 26, 2008

Posted by spiritualphilantropy in Analysis, News in English.

After Somalia’s war of liberation against the increasingly brutal dictatorship of Siad Barre eighteen years ago, the fractured country’s politics was marked by an absence of ideological differences until the emergence of the Islamic Courts movement in 2006. During its revolutionary phase in that year, the Courts were guided by the vision of transforming Somalia into a state based on the practice of Shari’a law. Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia, supported by the United States, in December 2006 knocked the Courts back, but did not destroy the movement, which regrouped and through 2008 has once again become the dominant political force in the country. As it mounted its resistance against the Ethiopian occupation, the movement was initially united by the simple aim of removing Ethiopian forces from Somalia, but as it has gained success on the ground, it has begun to look forward to a possible victory and its components have begun to articulate their contrasting visions of political Islam, propelling the movement into an ideological phase centered on a debate over the form of a future state.

All genuine revolutionary movements include diverse perspectives gathered under a general political formula that is specific enough to provide focus, but that leaves ample room for differing interpretations of how that formula should be applied in practice. Those relatively latent interpretations become manifest and crystallize into ideologies under the pressure of events, as factions in the movement reach the point at which they are compelled to show their programmatic hands.At that juncture, the ideological dimension becomes a relatively independent factor in determining the course of the movement, providing orientations towards the future that mobilize adherents and appeal to sympathizers and potential supporters.When the ideological phase kicks in, the movement will either gain enhanced vitality through efforts to mediate differences while preserving distinctions, or it will begin to collapse through internecine conflict.

The Courts movement entered an ideological phase in September 2008, following the capture of the strategic southern port city of Kismayo by one of its components, al-Shabaab, and that group’s subsequent decision to attempt to block aircraft from using the international airport in Somalia’s official capital Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab’s initiatives triggered a response from the militant wing of the Islamic Courts Union (I.C.U.), which has gained control of several regions of Somalia and is affiliated with the faction of the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia based in Asmara, Eritrea (A.R.S.-A), which opposes the country’s Ethiopian backed and internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government. Meanwhile, the conciliatory faction of the Alliance that is based in Djibouti (A.R.S.-D) refused to sign a cease-fire agreement with the T.F.G. due to differences over a timetable for Ethiopian withdrawal from Somalia. Taken together, those developments precipitated overt ideological positioning among the groups.

Forms of Political Islam in Somalia

Contemporary political Islam, wherever it appears is defined ideologically by its challenge to the modern secular nation state and its aspiration to modify or supplant that form by introducing Islamic law and practices into the juridical and/or political orders. Through its development over eighty years, political Islam has crystallized into three major ideological tendencies: Islamic transnationalism, Islamic nationalism and Islamic pluralism, each of which is reflected in a component of the Courts movement.

The sharpest challenge to the modern secular nation state is presented by Islamic transnationalism, which proposes to supplant the nation state with regional caliphates, modelled on pre-modern Muslim empires and composed of local emirates that are governed by clerics according to Shari’a law. Islamic transnationalism is represented in Somalia by al-Shabab, which announced in mid-September the formation of the “Islamic Emirate of Somalia” and claimed that the resistance fighters (mujahideen) in Somalia were “close to uniting” and “will all come under the Emirate’s authority.” A self defined “Salafist-jihadist” organization, al-Shabab welcomes foreign fighters to join its struggle and has expressed affinity with al-Qaeda after the U.S. placed it on its list of “terrorist” groups.

Similar to Islamic transnationalism, Islamic nationalism, which is represented in Somalia by the I.C.U. and A.R.S.-A, embraces a political order founded on Shari’a law, but breaks with the former by affirming the nation state and, as a consequence, adds particular perceived national interests to its political formula. Unlike Islamic transnationalism, which remains purely aspirational, there are extant examples of Islamic nationalism, most notably a Sunni version in Saudi Arabia and a Shi’a variant that developed in Iran after its early post-revolutionary internationalism was thwarted.

Islamic pluralism, which is found throughout the Muslim world and is represented in Somalia by A.R.S.-D, is nationalist, but does not insist -at least provisionally – on a Shari’a state and is willing to coexist with non-Islamic political tendencies in a state that is influenced to a greater or lesser degree by Islamic law and practices. Prominent examples of Islamic pluralism are Turkey, in which an Islamic party governs uneasily in an officially secular state, and Pakistan, in which secular parties are dominant in an officially Islamic state. A.R.S.-D, which carried non-Islamic tendencies in the original A.R.S with it when that organization ruptured, embodies Islamic pluralism within itself as well as toward external actors.

The major tendencies in contemporary political Islam are particularly clear-cut in Somalia, because none of them has achieved unrivalled dominance in the broader Courts movement and all of them are active players in the country’s manifold conflicts. All of the tendencies were present during the Courts movement’s revolutionary phase and its phase of regrouping; only now in the movement’s “re-liberation” push have they become sharply configured.

Kismayo, Adan Adde and Djibouti

The most serious and revealing ideological difference that appeared in September was between the I.C.U./A.R.S.-A and al-Shabaab, when the latter led a force that captured Kismayo and then set up an administration of its own choosing headed by a mayor from Somaliland who was not a member of any of the clans that had supported al-Shabaab in its action. On September 9, the I.C.U.’s secretary of social and political affairs, Sheikh Ibrahim Shukri, declared that the new Kismayo administration was “illegitimate” and had been created “behind closed doors” without consultation with al-Shabaab’s I.C.U. and local allies. Shukri demanded that the administration be reformed to include local clerics, intellectuals and other “important social components.” Shukri’s demand was met by the new administration’s communications secretary, Sheikh Hassan Yakoub Ali, with the blunt statement: “There is no point of others sharing the decision making with the combatants who chased the clan militias out of the district.” Al-Shabaab’s self-proclaimed “elder,” Sheikh Hassan al-Turki, added that the appointment of a mayor from Somaliland showed that the new administration was founded on Islam rather than clan representation, commenting that deference to clan would have caused local clans “to fight among each other.”

Apart from considerations of power, the I.C.U.’s criticism of al-Shabaab’s move showed a difference between the former’s conception that wider interests be included in an Islamic political formula and the latter’s insistence on purism. Further evidence of al-Shabaab’s authoritarian tendencies was revealed when their administration called journalists to a meeting and laid down press rules requiring that no reports be disseminated of which the administration was unaware, that only “factual” news be presented, that nothing detrimental to the practice of Shari’a be reported, and that no music be played on the radio that encouraged “sin.” The reporters, in turn, appealed to the administration to take action against the frequent telephone threats they were receiving.

The ideological split between al-Shabaab and the I.C.U./A.R.S.-A widened when, on September 13, the former announced that it would shell Mogadishu’s Adan Adde airport if it was not shut down, citing the uses of the airport as a conduit for Israeli and U.S. intelligence operatives,a supply line for the African Union’s small peacekeeping mission (AMISOM) in Mogadishu and for Ethiopian occupying forces, a source of funds for the Ethiopians, and a transit point for “extraordinary renditions” of suspected “terrorists” by the U.S. and the Ugandan component of AMISOM.

On September 15, the I.C.U.’s spokesman, Sheikh Abdirahin Isse Addow, announced that his group opposed the closure of Adan Adde, offering a counter-list of concerns, including the use of the airport to bring in medical supplies, ferry the sick and wounded for treatment outside Mogadishu, allow members of the diaspora to conduct business and visit friends and relatives, and permit residents of Mogadishu to conduct their affairs outside the city and participate in the Hajj. Addow concluded that the I.C.U. knows that the airport is “dominated by our enemies,” but is also aware that it “serves the interests of everybody.” The I.C.U., he said, would “give priority to the will of the Somali people.”

The contrast between the ideological purism and armed jihadism of al-Shabab’s program and the nationalist accomodationism of the I.C.U./A.R.S.-A could not be presented more starkly than in the debate over the airport closure. Leaving aside any judgment of the moral, strategic and tactical merits of each side’s case, it is clear that al-Shabaab is focussed solely on defeating the enemy and that the I.C.U./A.R.S.-A emphasizes its perception of broader national interests, despite its own commitment to jihad and the establishment of a Shari’a state. This clash of perspectives reveals a fault line in the armed opposition that runs much deeper than divergence in tactics and is only imperfectly designated by abstract terms such as “extremism” and “moderation.” In order to understand the differences among the components of the Courts movement and the course that it will take, it is necessary to factor in ideology.

As al-Shabaab and the I.C.U./A.R.S.-A sparred over representation in Kismayo and the attempted closure of Adan Adde, A.R.S.-D encountered the limits of its pluralist program at a fresh round of negotiations with the T.F.G. in Djibouti aimed by its United Nations brokers and Western and regional backers at the signing of a cease-fire agreement.

Facing denunciation from al-Shabaab and the I.C.U./A.R.S.-A that it had capitulated to Ethiopia and the U.S., A.R.S.-D remained committed to its publicly stated belief that an Ethiopian withdrawal from Somalia would satisfy the goals of the resistance and that power-sharing with the T.F.G. would give the Courts movement an essential role in the country’s political future.

On arriving at the talks in mid-September, A.R.S.-D soon learned that the cards had been stacked against it. Rather than facing a balanced negotiating environment, A.R.S.-D found itself confronted by a TFG. supported by the revived Washington-inspired International Contact Group (I.C.G.), which had expanded from its original base of Western powers to include the African Union, Arab League, Organization of the Islamic Conference and a smattering of Arab and African states, including Ethiopia. When A.R.S.-D became aware of the Ethiopian presence, it walked out of the talks; local media reported that the T.F.G. had prepared to meet A.R.S.-D “flanked” by observers from the I.C.G.

It stretches the political imagination to reason out why the ICG.adopted an intimidation strategy against A.R.S.-D, which was fast losing its credibility and needed to be seen to be taken seriously; perhaps Washington believed that having made concessions in the past, A.R.S.-D would stand for anything. Nonetheless, despite its resistance, the Italian ambassador to Djibouti succeeded in bringing A.R.S.-D back into the talks, but, as it turned out, to no avail.

When it became clear that the T.F.G. had not brought a timetable for Ethiopian withdrawal to the talks, as A.R.S.-D had expected it would, but instead floated a proposal to defer the timetable and offer an Ethiopian pull back from densely populated civilian areas, A.R.S.-D for the first time put its back up and refused to sign a cease-fire that al-Shabaab and the I.C.U./A.R.S.-A would not have honored in any case, and would have left A.R.S.-D void of credibility and a captive of foreign powers. A.R.S.-D’s security committee chair and secretary-general, Umar Hashi Adan, explained that a solution to Somalia’s conflicts “can easily be found if Ethiopia withdraws, and that there could be no cease-fire without a timetable.

By finally resisting external pressure, A.R.S.-D has pumped a little life into its pluralist program and has a chance, albeit slim, to become a subordinate player in the Courts movement, rather than the isolated outlier that it had become. Had A.R.S.-D signed on to even a meaningless and merely symbolic cease-fire, Islamic pluralism would have become a dead issue in Somalia.

Ideological Diversity and the Courts Movement’s Future

As the current protagonist in Somalia’s political conflicts – a status that is only due to the gains on the ground of al-Shabaab and the I.C.U. – the Courts movement is faced with containing the outbreak of overt ideological diversity within it. On an ideological plane, the movement has the advantage of confronting an adversary in the T.F.G. that has no ideology at all – no vision – but only the prospect of continued clan-based politics and attendant corrupt warlordism. Despite that advantage, however, there is a higher likelihood of a breakdown into discord than of healthy competitive collaboration, given Somalia’s and the movement’s recent past.

Were the Courts movement to infuse itself with political vitality, its three ideological tendencies would cultivate mutual forbearance while retaining their relative independence, which could be achieved without their subsumption into a common organization. In such a process, A.R.S.-D would mediate the movement to external actors, the I.C.U./A.R.S.-A would mediate A.R.S.-D to al-Shabaab, and al-Shabaab would defer its maximal revolutionary aims. This scenario would require A.R.S.-D to continue to stiffen its bargaining position, drawing it closer to the I.C.U./A.R.S.-A; and al-Shabaab to moderate its purism, again drawing it closer to the I.C.U./A.R.S.-A. In turn, the I.C.U./A.R.S.-A would seize its mediating role and act accordingly.

Of the ideological components of the Courts movement, the I.C.U./A.R.S.-A holds the vital center. All of the ideological tendencies in the movement would have to acknowledge and accept that if the Courts movement is to remain intact



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