Whether in Somalia or elsewhere, any attempt to tame religious extremism with violence leads to costly tragedies and disenchantments. And anyone who doubts this ought to simply reevaluate the miserable results of GWT — the global war on terrorism.
So it goes without saying: a non-violent paradigm to solving problems is direly needed. And since political problems are often fueled by internal and external elements, effective collaboration between these elements is necessary for the non-violent approach to work.
That said: the Somali political problem is escalating into a new phase of violent struggle. And unless the current momentum is significantly slowed, a longer-lasting, much bloodier sectarian war is bound to replace the old ones.
The Islamist group that led a successful insurgency campaign that ended the Ethiopian occupation has primarily split into one faction that is now part of the unity government and another that is sworn to oppose it to the end. And, in recent months, in what is clearly a politically-driven campaign to decapitate the unity government, the opposition faction made of al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam, an entity that I refer to as the neo-Islamists, have carried out strings of violent attacks, high profile assassinations and suicide bombings in various parts of the country. However, few have openly challenged their self-righteous claim to be fighting a just, religious war. Indeed, even fewer challenged the religious justification they employ in defending their deadly campaign. Instead, the unity government, in what seems like a reactionary move, opted to follow the ill-advised strategy of its predecessor — the former TFG — by responding to violence with equally indiscriminate violence without any regard for the helpless civilians.
However, according to the latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine, “a recent report by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center revealed that Osama bin Laden’s outfit had an awful experience trying to operate out of Somalia, for all the same reasons that international peacekeepers found Somalia unmanageable in the 1990s: terrible infrastructure, excessive violence and criminality, and few basic services, among other factors. In short, Somalia was too failed even for al Qaeda.”
In spite of this, the theatrical blame game continues in full force. And the hyperbole of the two actors currently competing for power is already setting off alarm bells as well as setting the stage for ramifications that could outlast any future peace reconciliations. The neo-Islamists accuse the unity government of being a foreign agent installed in power by the U.N. and the West and believe they are religiously ordained to end that foreign domination. And the unity government on its part accuses the neo-Islamists in being agents of al-Qaida and foreign terrorists who want to launch transnational terror campaigns from lawless Somalia.
The latter accusation has only worked to lionize the neo-Islamists to legendary status. They rapidly developed a reputation as brainwashed “global jihadists” with whom resistance is futile. Now, as anecdotal stories go, they routinely enter villages or towns and demand youth to fight on their side or their families to pay into their war chest. In an oral culture where scrutiny is irrelevant and facts and fiction often converge, this kind of reputation is more potent than any army. So it should surprise no one that the neo-Islamists are rapidly spreading their sphere of influence and now control much wider territories than the unity government.
However, the current coalition of neo-Islamists is not a monolith and therefore should not be treated as such. Among them are political pragmatists such as Sheikh Hassan Dahir Awes who, at least at this juncture, is driven by existentialist motives. These individuals are influential stakeholders who led the insurgency who could not partake in post occupation power-sharing mainly because they are on a U.S. terrorist watch list and are “wanted, dead or alive.”
All the neo-Islamists are not emotionally-driven jihadists whose ultimate goal is to be killed on the battle field. They make rational decisions when they deem it necessary. Why else would they tactically retreat when they were facing annihilation between the Ethiopian land invasion and American aerial bombardment in late 2006 and early 2007? If their ultimate goal is engaging the enemy face-to-face and attaining martyrdom through that process, why would many of them hide their identities by covering their faces?
So, it is not entirely implausible for these rational survivalist individuals to sign on to any deal that would ensure them positions and take them off that controversial list which mainly worked to further radicalize many individuals and groups around the world.
Granted, the unity government has been in dialogue with these individuals. However, the unity government, more specifically the Transitional Parliament, has resorted to what many consider a haphazard call for help as President Ahmed’s office continued their behind the scene negotiation with key figures of the neo-Islamists.
In a statement that would not only offend the supporters of the unity government but also work to further radicalize the neo-Islamists, the Speaker of the Parliament did the unthinkable. He called on Somalia’s neighboring states among which are the very Ethiopian troops whose oppressive occupation ended only a few months earlier. “We ask neighboring countries — including Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Yemen — to send troops to Somalia within 24 hours,” said Sheikh Aden Mohamed Nur.
And while there are some parliament members known for decency and high integrity, by and large, that institution has earned a profound reputation for corruption. It is infested with pro Ethiopia demagogues who could care less about the well being of their people and the interest of their nation.
So what is the alternative to violence?
Aside from refraining to rush into an artificial collective reconciliation process, there should be an attempt made to restore confidence and change people’s defeated psyche by providing them (including the armed ones) the essentials that they immediately need. In other words, food, medicine and the right understanding of their religion!
Instead of sending more weapons to Somalia, as did the Obama administration recently, imagine a two-track benevolent campaign launched concurrently to positively impact hearts and minds.
Operation 3.5: A two year goodwill campaign whose primary objective is to save the 3.5 million Somalis on the verge of starvation by flooding the country with food and medicine. The unity government, assisted by a commission appointed by the donor countries, could set up a sound, transparent checks and balances process. And, instead of contracting the big name international Non-Governmental Organizations, many of whom have already taken an antagonistic position against the neo-Islamists, to contract faith-based NGOs such as Islamic Relief, Life, Somali Relief Fund, Mercy International, and Somali operated ARAHA — America Relief Agency for the Horn of Africa — to distribute the food and medicine. The African peacekeepers — AMISOM — could provide the security necessary to operate the distribution stations in strategic places.
Done right, the likely credibility that this kind of operation would earn the unity government, the donor nations, AMISOM, etc. is beyond measure. More importantly, this seemingly grandiose humanitarian endeavor could cost a fraction of the billions of dollars spent on Somalia since 1991.
Operation Middle Ground (Deen Al Wasata): this campaign could be launched immediately after Operation 3.5 gets off the ground. It is primary objective is to cultivate an environment conducive to the discovery, teaching and reinforcement of the right teachings of Islam which is described in the Quran itself as “the middle ground religion”; particularly in areas of peace and coexistence, freedom of religion and choice, etc.
In this campaign, the unity government could solicit Muslim scholars, mosques, schools, Islamic courts, dugsis (madrasas) to teach how forcing religion upon people negates the teachings of Islam.
The following are examples of what the Quran teaches about forcing one’s understanding or faith upon others. Allah (God) commands that “There is no compulsion in religion” Surah (Chapter) 2, Ayah (Verse) 256. He also says “So remind them (O’ Muhammad) for you are only a reminder. You are not one who should be authoritarian over them (in teaching them about their religion)” Chapter 88, Verses 21 and 22. He also says “And if it had been thy Lord’s will, they would all have believed (all mankind.) Wilt thou (O’ Muhammad) then compel mankind, against their will to Believe? (Nay!)” Chapter 10, Verses 99 and 100. [This particular kind of operation could be extended to countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, etc.]
The survival of the unity government and indeed the restoration of peace and order depend on the support of the masses. That is what helped the Islamic Courts Union defeat the warlords and that is what helped the insurgency end the two year brutal Ethiopian occupation. It is all about ‘What have you done for us lately?’