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Running The Show
The Islamic Courts Union is facing its greatest test, as it squares up to the Western-backed Somali transitional government, writes Gamal Nkrumah
It was a short honeymoon. The Somali transitional government, headed by President Abdullah Youssef and Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi, was sympathetic to the Islamic Courts Union in their battle against the much detested warlords backed by the United States in a loose coalition called the Anti-Terror Alliance. Soon enough, serious political and ideological differences began to emerge between the secular government and the militant Islamists. "Somalia is a Muslim nation and its people are 100 per cent Muslim. Any government we agree on would be based on the Quran and the teachings of our Prophet Mohamed," warned Hassan Dhaher Aweis, the newly elected head of the self-styled Somali Supreme Islamic Courts Council -- the new and somewhat clumsy name for the Islamic Courts Union.
Aweis is an old rival of President Youssef. The two men do not see eye to eye. The Somali president insists on a secular Somali nation. Aweis wants to institute an Islamic state. "There is now one party in Mogadishu," Aweis boasted. "It is Islam."
Few expressions in the political lexicon have been more used and abused over the past decade than "militant Islamism", "Islamic fundamentalism" and "political Islam". The phenomenon in Somalia is no exception. Even to insiders, this later turn of events has come as a surprise.
Militant Islamists might be the new lepers in the West, but in this part of the world -- and that includes much of Africa, the Middle East and parts of Central, South and Southeast Asia -- there is tremendous public enthusiasm for political Islam and Islamic Sharia law. As far as Somalis are concerned, political Islam is morally good, politically correct, and support for the Islamic Courts Union is a mark of national pride. Through the Islamic Courts, Somalis have rediscovered their own sense of themselves as a people with deep connections to their religion.
A sanguine interpretation of this week's events is that the harsh economic and horrendous security situation in Somalia has driven the war-torn country's populace into the hands of the militant Islamists.
The failure of the international community to grasp the impact of the new political reality in Mogadishu could lead to disastrous consequences. There are many reasons why Somalis, or at least the vast majority of them, have chosen to support the Islamic Courts Union. This is the path that the vast majority of Somalis want to follow. They are fed up with the warlords of the Anti-Terror Alliance who make their lives utterly unbearable.
As far as the leaders of the Islamic Courts Union are concerned there is more at stake here than self-interest. They are determined to enforce social justice -- naturally from an Islamic perspective. They are equally resolute about enforcing law and order in the manner prescribed by the Islamic Sharia.
It is in this context that Sheikh Hassan Dhaher Aweis, on Washington's list of terrorists, once head of Al-Ittihad Al-Islami and reputed to have connections with Al-Qaeda, has suddenly metamorphosed into a rising political star. Aweis is now head of the 88-strong legislative council.
A new eight-member executive committee is chaired by Sheikh Sherif Ahmed. All this must feel like a new lease of life for Somalia's militant Islamists, and especially for Aweis. A few years ago, the Ethiopians were determined to finish him off. Indeed, Aweis stared death in the face.
Before his latest political elevation, Aweis was the head of an organization branded a terrorist group by the United States -- Al-Ittihad Al-Islami. The group was hotly pursued by the Ethiopian armed forces and were routed towards the end of the 1990s and the early years of this century. They were militarily exhausted and politically finished, or so it seemed barely two years ago. Today, they have obviously regrouped and resurfaced as the leaders of the Islamic Courts -- they were widely seen as the defenders of the Islamic faith, saviors of the Somali people and champions of the underdog.
Another equally important but very different political figure is that of Sheikh Sherif Ahmed. He is widely perceived as a man who is robust enough in his defense of traditional Islamic values to reassure his own devout followers and broadly religious compatriots, and charitable enough in his treatment of his political foes. In short, he is regarded as a moderate. He is learned and articulate and inclined to take a softer approach towards the secularists. Indeed, he stressed that the Islamic Courts Union will not run a Taleban-like state.
In fact, the appointment of Aweis makes sense only in the light of the broader travails now afflicting the Somali people. The United Nations has declared southern Somalia a humanitarian disaster zone. Hundreds of thousands of children teeter desperately on the verge of starvation. Malnutrition is rife and abject poverty rampant.
Nor is it clear that the Islamic Courts Union has chosen the right propositions to deal with the modalities of the political and governmental structures of the country. The two tools they are left with are controversial. One is to insist, as Aweis does, on an Islamic state, run according to Islamic Sharia law. To do so would bring down on their heads not only the wrath of neighboring countries and Western powers, it would also damage, perhaps irretrievably, the militant Islamist cause.
Perhaps this scenario was inevitable. A look at the map of the Horn of Africa explains why. Sandwiched between Sudan and Somalia, Ethiopia appears to be surrounded by predominantly Muslim nations. Nor is this the only reason why Ethiopia and Kenya, another of Somalia's non- Muslim neighbors, are worried. The Arabian Peninsula is the closest geographical region outside the continent to the Horn of Africa, which is therefore most vulnerable to the influence of the brand of militant Islam exported from Arabia. To complicate matters even further, a powerful American anti-terrorist military force is stationed in neighboring Djibouti, a tiny and predominantly Muslim nation commanding a vitally strategic position.
US officials have declared that they are not prepared to deal with Aweis. These events may be less unpalatable if the militant Islamists were not gaining so much political ground. It could be a costly political mistake to ignore the Islamic Courts' political clout.
The need to reform the political mess in Somalia is so urgent that the Islamic Courts Union are in a strong position to intervene. For all the deficiencies of its politics, the Islamic Courts have enforced law and order. But how much of the Somali predicament is even within the power of the Islamic Courts Union to correct?
It is no coincidence that these things are happening now in Somalia. If this week's events reveal anything, it is that the transitional Somali government is very vulnerable inside the country, but is increasingly popular among Somalia's neighbors and throughout the international community at large.
The other option open to the Islamic Courts Union is to compromise, alienate many followers, and try to work out a deal with the largely secular transitional government which has solicited foreign support, but part of the Islamic Courts Union's problem is that it has become the victim of its own success. The more popular it becomes at home, the more feared and hated it becomes abroad.
Even if the turbulence passes, this week's events and the pressure of time will not help. Next week will be crucial as the battle lines are drawn up between the resolute Islamic government in Mogadishu and the rickety secular one in Baidoa: but that may not be the whole story.
Somalia faces a choice between one group of leaders who could reform but will not, and another group who would like to but cannot. The Islamists' differences with the secular government must be ironed out, otherwise Somalia is on the brink of another wasted opportunity. The country cannot remain indefinitely leaderless and faction- ridden.
Source: Al-Ahram Weekly - 29 June - 5 July 2006- Issue No. 801