Somalia and the Two Faces of Islamism


In my first fortnightly column for New York’s Hudson Institute, I describe how the current conflict in Somalia can be framed as a struggle between the two predominant strains of Islamism.  It is also reproduced below, in full.

Somalia is now an open battleground between two main strains of Islamism: that of the more “moderate” and pragmatic Muslim Brotherhood, and that of the more rigid and violent al-Qaeda.

The situation in Somalia is a prism through which can be seen the differences that exist worldwide between Muslim Brotherhood inspired Islamists and al-Qaeda Islamists.  The former, represented by Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, show a flexibility and ability to adapt their ideology to certain times and places.  The latter, al-Shabaab, are al-Qaeda jihadists who are completely inflexible and uncompromising in their aims to take control of Somalia and the surrounding region, and will not be placated by a long term programme of Islamisation and sharia.

The al Shabaab al Mujaihideen is one of the more recent jihadist Islamist groups to gain the notice of the international community.  It is an offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which was formed in order to establish sharia law in Somalia.  The ICU is itself a product of the Al-Itihad Al-Islamiya (AIAI), which according to its former spokesman, Rashid Mohammad Husain, “is a Dawa and Jihad movement which was established to co-operate with its members on loyalty and piety, and invite and struggle in the path of Allah.”

Due to his relative moderation, compared to the al-Shabaab, Sheikh Sharif is often described as a moderate and reformer.  However, he was a leading member of the ICU when it began enforcing strict sharia codes and sanctioning the use of suicide bombings.  He, like the Muslim Brotherhood, has reached a far more practical and realistic conclusion concerning the Islamist takeover of Somalia, seeing little advantage in threatening neighbouring countries and openly supporting al-Qaeda.  It is notable that both Sheikh Sharif the al-Shabaab are products of the violent and expansionist sharia ideology of the ICU, and a good demonstration of the different paths that can be taken by adherents to this ideology.

It was in 2006, when Transitional Federal Government (TFG) allowed Ethiopian troops to enter Somalia, that the ICU’s pro al-Qaeda faction first rose to prominence. The eventual founder of the al-Shabaab and at the time a member of the ICU, Commander Aden Hashi Ayrow, was able to present the mission as one which sought to expel an invading occupation force, and was able to attract a large number of recruits with this narrative.  Ethiopia, backed by the United States, intended to remove the ICU from power in a number of Somali regions, as they regarded the sharia driven ICU as a threat to their own neighbouring secular government. 

In 2007, the less militant members of the ICU, including Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, met with Somali opposition leaders, some of them secular, in Eritrea to compromise and form the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS), which was intended to remove the Ethiopian backed TFG.  Islamists comprised 45% of the ARS, with the rest made up of former MPs of the TFG and secular members of the opposition.  It was also during this time that the al-Qaeda affiliated members of the ICU lost patience with the more moderate Islamists who were betraying what they regarded as the Islamic duty of creating a Taliban-style Islamic state.  By December 2007, the al-Shabaab had fully split with the ICU and issued a statement clarifying their differing positions:

ideals and principles of the Islamic Courts (otherwise known as the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia): a belief in peaceful co-existence, mutual respect and cooperation with the nations of the free world, and especially its neighbors… respect for international treaties, and working to improve relations with all international and regional organizations… a belief in the sanctity of human rights… an interest in gathering together all Somalis, regardless of whether they are secular, democratic, parliamentarian, [or] apostates…[and] avoiding adopting the cause of jihad in delivering their political message…

…[al-Shabaab is] seeking to establish an Islamic state along the lines of the Taliban ruled by the law of Allah in the land of Somalia; regards the rulers of the Muslim world today as branches of the international conspiracy against Islam, and thus they are to be regarded as infidels and overthrown; [and] seeks to expand the jihad to Somalia’s Christian neighbors, with the intent of driving the infidels out of the Horn of Africa, along the same lines as al-Qaida has been striving to do under the slogan, ‘expelling the infidels out of the Arabian Peninsula.

This statement was a message that the al-Shabaab had now fully embraced the worldwide al-Qaeda ideology, and the alliance with al-Qaeda has been growing ever since.  Moreover, the position held by al-Shabaab towards those willing to compromise with ‘apostates’ and ‘unbelievers’, namely that choosing compromise over jihad is unacceptable, fits with the jihadist ideology of al-Qaeda. 

Sheikh Sharif and the more moderate tearaways of the ICU as well as members of the ARS took over the TFG in January 2009 with the help of UN and US backed deals and is currently locked in combat with the al-Shabaab. 

The TFG is itself an Islamist government that implemented sharia law in March 2009.  This was done in an attempt to quell the al-Shabaab rebellion but it did not succeed.  Sharif pledged not to enforce the strict, isolationist Taliban interpretation of sharia, and still allowed non-Muslims in his government.  Additionally, he stated his intention to re build working relationships with the surrounding countries.   For the most extreme Islamist this is unacceptable and thus, shortly after Sheikh Sharif’s sharia implementation, Osama bin Laden released an audio through the As-Sahab media group, condemning Sharif as an apostate and supporting the ongoing jihad of the al-Shabaab:

He [Sheikh Sharif] was the president of the Islamic Courts and with the Mujahideen, but as a result of the inducements and offers…he changed and turned back on his heels [as an apostate], and agreed to partner infidel positive law with Islamic shari’ah to set up a government of national unity, and this partnering is greater polytheism which expels one from Islam.

The flexibility of the more practical Muslim Brotherhood approach over al-Qaeda’s gung ho militancy was also displayed in February of this year when Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Brotherhood’s leading ideologue, backed Sheikh Sharif and called for the al-Shabaab to join in peace talks with the new Somali government. 

The violence and rhetoric of the al-Shabaab certainly makes Sheikh Sharif the more moderate option and the same can be said of the global al-Qaeda movement and the global Muslim Brotherhood movement. Muslim Brotherhood Islamists recognize the detrimental effect of global jihadist rhetoric and have had significant success in portraying themselves as the moderate alternative to al-Qaeda.  The Brotherhood are certainly the more moderate of the two, but many of their aims overlap with those of al-Qaeda, as Sharif’s own enforcement of sharia in TFG controlled areas demonstrates.  Many of the legal decisions made by the TFG are through sharia courts which were set up by the ICU, a group which has itself fought jihad in Somalia in order to implement sharia.  The dispute between them may differ in tactics – the uncompromising violence of al-Shabaab as opposed to the series of deals and negotiations of Sheikh Shareef – however, the ideology of both is very similar; namely, the perceived duty of spreading sharia throughout the Horn of Africa.

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