Somalia: Time to pay attention

By Frankie Martin, CGNews,

While the world looks elsewhere, Somalia is in flames. The nation just topped a list of the world’s most unstable countries by Foreign Policy magazine, and the United Nations has declared the humanitarian situation there “worse than Darfur.”

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In the next three months the number of people requiring immediate food aid will reach 3.5 million. Over one million refugees have fled their homes. Due to a raging insurgency against the current transitional government – which has support from both the West and Ethiopia – Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, has earned the nickname “Baghdad on the sea.”

In Somalia, there are no diplomatic superstars like Condoleezza Rice or Kofi Annan, who rushed to Kenya to settle its election crisis; there are no celebrities like Mia Farrow, Stephen Spielberg, or Jim Carrey to urge international action and awareness as they did in Sudan and Burma.

Instead, Somalia has elicited a collective yawn of indifference. Just mentioning the country’s name is enough to cause even the most dedicated diplomat or aid worker to throw up their hands in desperation.

Ironically, unlike the conflicts in Kenya, Burma or Sudan, the current crisis in Somalia has developed in part due to America’s “war on terror” and failure to grasp some of the nuances of Islam.

The Muslim world is not a monolith; there is an ongoing struggle among Muslims with differing interpretations of the religion. Somalia is a traditionally Sufi country – the mystic, open form of Islam distinct from more conservative interpretations such as those seen in places like Saudi Arabia.

But in Somalia, a more conservative movement developed under the secular dictatorship of President Siad Barre and during the anarchy that followed his ouster in 1991. The resulting Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) implemented shari’a law (based on Islamic principles) and although its stricter tenants were opposed by many Somalis, the grassroots movement gained strength because people sought order and justice in a country marred by starvation, warlord violence, and tribal conflict.

Despite internal differences in the interpretation of Islam, the UIC created a state of relative stability that led to the return of Somali businesses. It also united conflicting tribes and ended piracy off Somalia’s perilous shores.

But the ascension of the UIC worried the United States, which believed the group was sheltering al Qaeda members seeking a safe haven in Somalia. The United States intervened by backing secular warlords – reportedly some of the same individuals it had fought during 1993’s “Black Hawk Down” incident – against the UIC. The result was a strengthening, rather than isolation, of extremism in Somalia.

And despite their ample firepower, the warlords, dubbed the “Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism”, were defeated by the UIC in mid-2006.

In December 2006, UIC extremists threatened Somalia’s traditional archrival Ethiopia, which they accused of intervening in Somali affairs. Already concerned the UIC would support a domestic ethnic Somali insurgency, Ethiopia invaded.

The United States backed Ethiopia’s invasion and its ensuing occupation with intelligence, air strikes, Special Forces, and rendition of terror suspects to Guantanamo Bay.

An Iraq-style insurgency soon began inside Somalia, mainly drawn from UIC elements but also members of the Hawiye clan, the tribal base of the UIC. These tribesmen believe the United States and Ethiopians are attacking them by supporting the Somali transitional government, run largely by tribal rivals, the Daarood. Because they are Muslim, they believe Islam is under attack and seek to defend it.

Somalia faces many profound challenges, but a recent ceasefire – which calls for an end to the insurgency ahead of an eventual Ethiopian troop withdrawal in favour of UN troops – has brought some optimism and hope.

The recent momentum in Somalia for a shift to religious conservatism – and sometimes militant extremism – mirrors similar shifts around the Muslim world. However, with quick and responsible action, the United States can still help shift it back.

The United States should first pressure Ethiopia to withdraw and bring all Somali factions to the negotiating table.

It can also work within traditional tribal structures to reach out to Somalia’s people, effect political change and distribute aid. By reaching out to Somali moderates who would be happy to challenge the extremists themselves, and funding development programs that show a renewed respect for local customs and religion, the United States can help swing the pendulum away from extremists who preach that Islam is under attack from the West.

To do this, the United States must immediately change a failed policy. Instead of fighting those individuals who wish America harm in a smart, effective manner, it has taken on the Somali people. The United States should learn from its disasters in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan that using force to myopically crush “terrorists” at the expense of entire populations only strengthens extremists.

These days any attention given to Somalia is encouraging. But to create a stable society that would alleviate the suffering of Somalis and address Western security concerns, something more is required: a true understanding of what has gone wrong and the will to effect positive change.


* Frankie Martin is the Ibn Khaldun Chair research fellow at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC. He did field work among Somalis in Kenya for the book, Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization by Akbar Ahmed (Brookings, 2007). This article first appeared in Washington Post/Newsweek’s Post Global and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).