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An Ugly Marriage
On the face of it Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan have little in common besides their predominantly Muslim populations. Even the nature and the traditions of Islam practiced in each country, to say nothing of their economic and social backgrounds, are different.
However, there is one thing these countries have in common, and it gives rise to the most important geo-strategic question in the world. Why is it that in all the places in the Islamic world where America has intervened militarily over the past two decades, radical Islamists are either in power or on the rise?
The conflicts were justified not only in terms of global and regional security, but as "humanitarian intervention". Now, in Afghanistan, the Taliban have re-emerged as a political and military force; in Iraq Islamist political organizations dominate the government (to say nothing of insurgent groups) and, this last week, an Islamist movement with support and legitimacy among Mogadishu's traumatized population took control of the Somali capital and, for the moment at least, has freed the city of the lawlessness and venality of the warlords.
In each of these countries the chasm has been enormous between the public pronouncements about intervening for humanitarian reasons and the reality of policies whose overriding aim has been solely counter-terrorism. The "humanitarian" part of the cases for intervening in these three countries has at best been, to borrow a phrase from the British Home Secretary, "not fit for purpose". And I speak not as a journalist, but as someone who has members of my extended family living in Mogadishu from whom I and the rest of my family hear about the realities of what led to the victory of the Union of Islamic Courts in Mogadishu.
Within a matter of days, and with almost no fighting, this federation of locally formed and supported sharia courts drove out all of Somalia's hated warlords and their militia from the capital. Such has been the callous and arbitrary rule of the warlords operating with utter impunity amid Somalia's vacuum of state power and control that most Somalis would have supported anyone who got rid of them.
The Islamists were the only ones who said they would do this. It is for this reason alone that Mogadishu's wealthy businessmen, traditional clan leaders and ordinary people have backed them.
The Union of Islamic Courts is a loose federation. Some of its leaders have no aspirations to govern and have no political programme; others do have an ideological mission to create a strict Islamic state. I have no doubt that the honeymoon will come to an end once some of these leaders try to impose their own moral and social dictates on Mogadishu's citizens.
However, I don't think this will happen as easily as many people presume. Relatives and family friends who have been in Mogadishu talk of the high level of disillusionment and cynicism about the international community's response to the situation in Somalia.
Earlier this year the warlords knew that they faced a powerful and popular movement ranged against them. Their response was merely to appeal to Washington - in a way they believed would succeed. Literally overnight, this collection of mass murderers formed what they called the "Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism". These last words were enough for the US administration who, incredibly, decided to provide the warlords with money and arms, solely because they said they would fight the Union of Islamic Courts.
It did not matter how much blood of ordinary Somalis they had on their hands; it did not matter that the warlords had threatened members of Somalia's internationally backed transitional government if they returned to Mogadishu; it did not matter that their militias were guilty of war crimes. Even the prime minister of Somalia's exiled transitional government, Ali Mohammed Ghedi, said he preferred to deal with the Union of Islamic Courts than with the warlords because the latter had never been ready to accept a peaceful government which might threaten their rapacious economic interests.
None of that mattered to Washington. Yet this amoral marriage of expedience with the warlords failed almost instantaneously. This was the moment when the warlords were doomed in the eyes of ordinary Somalis. They saw the alliance for what it was. An act of desperation had revealed a greater failure.
My relatives ask me why it is that nothing was reported on, or from, Somalia for a decade, yet the moment that the Union of Islamic Courts came to power, every major news organization seemed suddenly to be rushing to Mogadishu to report from there. "Where were they when we were dying in our wretched hospitals without aid workers or the UN or anyone?" an uncle of mine asked me. "Now suddenly I see on the TV in London that the world is talking about intervening again in Somalia. On whose behalf are they thinking of intervening?" On whose behalf indeed.
Rageh Omaar's "Only Half of Me: being a Muslim in Britain" is published by Viking (£17.99)
This article first appeared in the New Statesman.
Monday 26th June 2006