Early month, as much of the western world was either wallowing in sentimental commemorations of the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001, or reflecting on the far greater atrocities perpetrated by the US in its aggressive exploitation of 9/11 in pursuit of their imperialist interests worldwide, warnings of an emerging tragedy of potentially even greater proportions were largely ignored.
Early month, as much of the western world was either wallowing in sentimental commemorations of the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001, or reflecting on the far greater atrocities perpetrated by the US in its aggressive exploitation of 9/11 in pursuit of their imperialist interests worldwide, warnings of an emerging tragedy of potentially even greater proportions were largely ignored. Aid agencies active in northern Kenya reported increasing numbers of Somali refugees crossing the border, trying to escape from an intensifying famine in Somalia, and humanitarian organizations warned that up to 750,000 people could die by the end of the year, far more even than died in the famines of the 1990s.
Few people would have connected these two stories; Somalia has been in the news for such reasons for so long that many people have become desensitised to stories about problems there. But the fact is that the current tragedy is almost entirely due to the effects of US policies as part of their “war on terror” since 9/11, which have prevented Somali people from effectively addressing their own problems, and have promoted conflict and chaos in preference to order and stability established by the natural leaders of local communities — the local Islamic movements. For this reason, Somalia has for the last decade been victim to covert American military operations, political manipulation and proxy wars — hot and cold — conducted by local allies such as Ethiopia and Kenya. The result has been that Somalia ranks alongside Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan as the main victims for the war on terror, but with little of international attention that those countries have attracted.
Almost inevitably, what awareness there is focuses on the immediate situation rather than the bigger picture. Thus the current problems in Somalia are blamed entirely on the civil war between the government of Sherif Sheikh Ahmed and the al-Shabab Islamic movement, with the bulk of opprobrium directed at al-Shabab for supposedly refusing to accept the authority of the legitimate, internationally recognised government. This is a wholly one-sided and unreasonable characterization of the situation, the equivalent of blaming the Palestinians for their own suffering because they refuse to surrender to the Israeli occupiers. But unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, Somalia’s plight, and the background to it, is far less known than the situations of Muslim communities suffering similarly elsewhere. One reason is that the news agenda in the Muslim world reflects almost entirely that of the western press; and while the West has focussed intensely on Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Palestine, for in all those cases the West has been directly involved, Somalia has been ignored in the western media, and therefore in most of the Muslim media as well.
It is therefore worth revisiting one key element of Somalia’s recent history: its brief period of peace and stability under Islamic rule in 2006. This came as a result of the emergence of indigenous, grassroots Islamic institutions after the collapse of the Somali state in 1991. As the country suffered 15 years of lawlessness and chaos, with no effective state institutions, and warlords controlling the country by brute force, ordinary Somalis needed simply to manage their own affairs and survive as best they could. For this, they needed community institutions, so they created their own on the basis of their common values, those of Islam, and their traditional leaders, their ‘ulama.
The Islamic movement in Somalia thus emerged from the grassroots of Somali society, to serve the needs of ordinary people, in a political and institutional vacuum. This movement, evolving over time according to the needs and expectations of Somalia’s people, gradually developed military power in order to be able to protect Somalis from the warlords abusing them. In June 2006, the Islamic Courts Union took power in Mogadishu, bringing peace and stability to Somalia’s capital after a decade and a half of war and anarchy. As numerous Western media reported, for the first time it was safe for local people and foreigners to move around the city; for the first time there were no guns on the streets; for the first time businesses, schools and hospitals could operate safely without fear of attack. In July 2006, Mogadishu Airport opened to international flights after having been closed since 1991.
The Western response was telling. After years of ignoring the plight of the Somalis, the US immediately launched political war on the new government. When all else failed, in December 2006 they encouraged Ethiopia to invade, in support of “president” Abdullahi Yusuf, another warlord. The Americans initially supported the Ethiopians from behind the scenes, and then, once Mogadishu had been captured and success was assured, confirmed their support for the toppling of Somalia’s only popular and legitimate government by launching a series of murderous air raids against villages continuing to resist Ethiopian rule. The puppet government installed by the Ethiopians was granted international recognition, and the fact that many ICU members and other Somalis continued to resist the occupation of their country was presented as evidence of their extremism and their terrorist tendencies, and so as post-facto justification of the US-Ethiopian action.
Perhaps inevitably, Somalia’s subsequent political history has been more complicated. The country’s Islamic movement split over how best to move forward given the reality of Ethiopian occupation and the West’s determination not to allow Islamic rule in the country. In a pattern that is far from unfamiliar, one faction, under former ICU leader Sherif Sheikh Ahmed, opted to reach an agreement with the puppet government in 2008, under which Ethiopian troops formally withdrew from the country, and Ahmed became leader of a coalition government of national unity supported by Ethiopia and the West. However, other Islamic activists, notably the al-Shabab group, rejected this as an unacceptable compromise amounting to surrender, and have maintained military resistance ever since, now in the form of a civil war against the Ahmed government rather than one against foreign occupation.
Discussing the rights and wrongs of these positions is beyond the scope of this article; the demands of the situations in which they found themselves have no doubt driven both parties into positions, policies and actions that their supporters — and they themselves — would previously have considered unthinkable. Trying to analyse these respective positions, and the debates of their supporters, would be an exercise in counterfactual speculation that would be impossible and pointless.
What is clear, however, and what Muslims must not forget, is that for a short time at least, left to find their own answers to their problems, the Muslims of Somalis demonstrated that they could produce their own community institutions and leaders, and address and solve their own problems, on the basis of their Islamic faith and values. They also demonstrated that it was possible for Muslims of different understandings of Islam to work together to create an Islamic order that worked in Sufi-dominated Somali society. And Muslims should also remember the West’s response to this situation: to bomb the Somalis into submission and re-impose chaos and disorder on one of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable peoples.
That is the real story behind the emerging stories of new mass famine in Somalia, albeit one which will be ignored as the West once again trumpets its supposed humanitarian generosity and — with its usual blatant hypocrisy — blames all the suffering of the Somali people on the supposed extremism, intransigence and ruthless self-interest of the Islamic movement.