PostGlobal: Somalia's Islamic Courts

Bashir Goth and Ioan Lewis
Journalist and Professor
Wednesday, August 30, 2006; 11:00 AM

PostGlobal panelist and Somali journalist Bashir Goth and London School of Economics Anthropology Professor Ioan Lewis were online on Wednesday, August 30, at 11AM ET to debate the influence of the Islamic Courts in Somalia. Are they a positive force for peace or the new Taliban?

Bashir Goth is a veteran journalist, freelance writer, the first Somali blogger and editor of a leading news website. He is also a regular contributor to major Middle Eastern and African newspapers and online journals.

Dr. Ioan Lewis is the Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics where he wrote prolifically on Somalia. He is the author of Modern History of the Somali: Nation and State in the Horn of Africa among other works.


Bashir Goth: The Somali Islamic Court's deceptive positive role

Compared to the situation that existed before them, one may be tempted to describe the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) as a positive force. Somali people admire them for defeating the notorious warlords and for restoring a semblance of peace and stability in the capital Mogadishu.

But we may remember that Somalia enjoyed peace and stability for many years under the dictatorial regime of Siyad Barre. Peace also prevailed in Afghanistan under Taliban, Cuba, Former Soviet Union, Iraq under Saddam and many other dictatorial states. Therefore, restoring peace and stability by force cannot be taken as a measure for positive change. Indeed, I can say that the UIC will be worse than Taliban and the longer they are allowed to stay in power they more dangerous the situation will grow.


Ioan Lewis: May I introduce myself as a social anthropologist who has been studying Somali culture and society since the early 1950s. I started my research in Somaliland and moved on to Somalia. I had the privilege of meeting many of the founding members of the modern political movements and became very interested in Somali politics, I was always very interested in the sociology of religion, not as a believer but as someone who studied how religion molded social and political organization. Consequently, I looked particularly at the Sufi brotherhoods and their interaction with Somali society. Of course I was aware of religious developments especially that of Ina 'Abdullah Hassan's Dervish which rejected the Sufi cult of saints such as the Wahabis in Saudi Arabia. This as I understand is the position of the Islamists currently in control of Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia. So we should presumably start from this attempting to understand the beliefs and social program of the Islamic Courts movement.


Toronto, Ontario, Canada: While the separation of religion and state is popular in the western culture, it is, to different degrees, the norm in most of the Muslim world, i.e. early days of Islam and current Wahabi ideology/governance. Do you think UIC leadership is somehow influenced by the latter (Wahabism), knowing that most of them were trained in the Gulf? Will the Somali culture accept it? Please comment.

Bashir Goth: To a great degree most of the top clerics of the Islamic Courts adhere to strict Islamist schools like Wahabism and Salafism. Although Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the moderate face, of the Islamists has denied any knowledge of Wahabism during an interview I conducted with him in early June, it is clear from their actions and statements that the ICU is following the same school of thought as that of Taliban.


Westchester, N.Y.: The international community seems overly impressed about the ICU's ability to bring law & order to the city of Mogadishu. However, the Somaliland gov't has brought a higher degree of law & order to 'One-third of the former Somalia' for over 10 years, yet is still ignored as an alternative structure for the international authorities to deal with in a formal manner. Why this double-standard? And why is it that only those who engage in active warfare & destabilization seem to get leading Western Powers' attentions?

Ioan Lewis: I entirely agree. There are several problems. The so called African union is to a significant extent hostile to what it sees as dismemberment. Those who for their own political motives oppose Somaliland's independence harp hypocritically on this theme. More specifically Egypt which follows an ancient 'Pharaonic' foreign policy of 'protecting the Nile waters' sees a 'united Somalia' as a protection against Ethiopia. Ironically, the residual transitional authority (the TFG) which is devoid of power and has made no contribution to the well fare of the public is now of course in league with Ethiopia which has become its protector!

Bashir Goth: I completely agree with Dr. Lewis. But I believe the double standard of the AU is due to the influence of Egypt supported by some Arab countries like Saudi Arabia. Egypt believes that independent Somaliland can leave the Arab fold and establish ties with Israel; hence Israel which already has friendly relations with Ethiopia will have another strong ally in the Horn of Africa, particularly given to the strategic position of Somaliland.

The Western position is dominated by Italy which is the former colonizer of Somalia, former Southern Somalia. Italy has made every effort to block Somaliland's efforts to get support from the EU.


Wheaton, Md.: It seems clear that Somalia is moving in the same direction of the Taliban. Aside from Ethiopia, has any other nation been showing a strong concern about this growing fanaticism?

Bashir Goth: Mr Wheaton, I think all the non-Muslim countries in the IGAD countries are concerned about the growing influence of Islamist in Somalia. Kenya has already been branded by the paramount leader of the Islamists Sheikh Hassan Awey's as an enemy simply because they are supporting the deployment of peace keeping forces to Somalia. Uganda which has already sent some units to Baidoa,the seat of the TFG Government, has also come under fire from the Islamists.

_______________________ There are many questions coming in and not enough time on this forum to answer them all. However, at noon, we will be joined by 8 more Somali writers, politicians and thinkers and they will be online for at least the next hour answering questions here: Please feel free to post your questions on that moderated comment thread as well and join the unfolding debate.


Washington, D.C.: To what extent is the Islamic rhetoric put forth by members of the ICU resonating with the Somali people? It seems to me that Islam in Somalia is a veil thinly worn and as such, Islamist ideals are less important than clan, Somali nationalism, and security.

Ioan Lewis: Certainly, in the final analysis, clan relationships are more important even than Islam. There is, of course, an intriguing mix of clan and Islamic solidarity in the organization of the Courts Union; as is well known most of the leading Islamist figures belong to a particular segment of the Hawiye. This is the primary basis of their solidarity and social energy.


Oslo, Norway: Is it true that Saudi Arabia is a strong supporter of the radicals within Somalia? Maybe this issue of Saudi support is where the US should try and deal with the terrorist problem

Bashir Goth: I cannot say whether the Saudi government supports the UIC but I know that there is a great popular support and sympathy for the ICU in most of the Arab world. There is no doubt also that they get great financial backing from Arab charity organizations and wealth individuals. Therefore, definitely Saudi Arabia can have a huge influence on the UIC.


Washington, D.C.: What do you say to the fact that the UIC is the only actor in Somalia carrying out the functions of government, ie, collecting taxes, providing a degree of law and order, allowing humanitarian access, opening ports and airports to allow commerce? Perhaps they lack the international legitimacy of the TFG, but they for now have an undeniable popular mandate. At what point does that become legitimizing?

Ioan Lewis: I entirely agree with you. In classical politics a state is defined as an organization which controls its territory and the people who live there. In these basic terms, Somaliland is certainly a self-governing state. So arguably is southern Somalia under the Islamic courts.

These have not yet demonstrated that they enjoy a public mandate, but perhaps that will come. Certainly the speed with which they assumed control, and the rapidity with which they have restored public utilities, are impressive.

I wonder what would happen if they explored recognizing each other?

Bashir Goth: The issue is is the world ready to arm and legitimize a group that wants to impose Islamic Sharia and rule the whole country by the precincts of the Koran. The UIC are adamant not only to rule the country by Islam but also to unify all the Somali territories in the Horn of Africa. This means they want to claim parts of Ethiopia and Kenya and may be in the long run Djibouti. Is the world ready to give support and legitimacy to a group that wants to bring chaos to the whole of Africa. I am sure an empowered UIC will be a dream come true for Al Qaeda and all Islamic extremists in the world. It will be like giving legitimacy to Hezbollah.


Austin, Tex.: How can this "sudden" expansion of the Islamists affect Somaliland? In other words, is Somaliland at risk of being attacked by the Islamists?

Thank you.

Abdul Karim H. Allin

Bashir Goth: Mr.Abdul Karim, yes indeed Somaliland's system based on Western democracy is viewed by the Islamists in Mogadishu as a heresy. Apart from their sworn position on returning Somaliland to the union, it is the secular form of government in Somaliland that they see as nemesis to their goal of establishing an Islamic Emirate in Somalia as a whole.


S. Magi, Canada: I am wondering what is the basic Islamic jurisprudence system in Somalia? It is based on what Sonni school (Shafei, Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, ...)?

Bashir Goth: Somali people follow the Shafi school.


Baltimore, Md.: We have heard about the crisis ongoing in Somalia between the government there and the rising Islamist Courts powers based in Mogadishu. We have heard little about Somaliland. Has the relatively peaceful northern republic succeeded in avoiding Islamist influence and, if so, why?

Ioan Lewis: It is fortunately true that Somaliland has managed to preserve its secular system of modern democracy, despite the presence of fundamentalist undercurrents. I think its stability reflects general satisfaction with its democratic system and two chamber legislature. Its stability is likely to be further strengthened by international recognition. This is something the sources of recognition should surely consider.


St Paul, Minn.: are there foreign individuals who members of the ICU group in Mogadishu ?

Ioan Lewis: Not as far as I know. I doubt very much that foreigners would be welcomed in this role by Somalis.

Bashir Goth: There are reports on the existence of foreign advisors for the UIC but not foot soldiers.


Munich, Germany: Can you tell us something about Hassan Dahir Aweys, his background and his worldview?

Bashir Goth: Hassan Dahir Aways is a former Colonel of the Somali Armed Forces. After the collapse of the Somali central government he had become a new born Muslim and a leader of the Al Ittiahd Islamic Group. In the early 1990s he established cells of the Al Ittihad in many parts of Somalia and Somaliland. He nearly took over Galkayo at some point but was badly beaten and defeated by Colonel Abdillahi Yusuf, current TFG president and former ruler of Puntlan. He then came to Mogadishu and started creating the Islamic Courts with Abdul Qasim Salat Hassan, former president of the Government formed in Djibouti in 2000.


Montreal : I am very happy to hear that Mogadishu is enjoying quite and peaceful period. Just go on bit south Afgoi and Marka all the way to Kismayo where the natives are still being oppressed by Indho-Ade and alliance. Who is biggest supporter of the courts. My question, is is Islamic courts, real or religion is an shirt worn by the dominant ex-moryans now new born islamists.

Ioan Lewis: I am sure that to a variable extent, for the Courts Union Islam is a flag of convenience and route to power. Some individuals who have emerged as leaders have unsavory backgrounds. You mention Indo Ade who seems a prime example of this unconvincing transformation. There must be others but perhaps no so gross?

Bashir Goth: Definitely there is a semblance of peace now but as I have said earlier Somalis have enjoyed peace and stability many years under Siyad Barre before they took arms against him. People can tolerate tyranny for sometime and under certain circumstances but people will wake up to the bitter reality of tyranny after it is too late.


St Paul, Minn.: since the ICU signed the last agreement that the only legitimate authority in the country is TFG and I wonder if that has changed so far, or is still the case here ?

Omar Jamal, Executive Director, Somali Justice Advocacy Center

Ioan Lewis: I don't think any of the current major players in Somalia are really much influenced by agreements they have signed. Most of these seem largely tactical devices, as we have already seen with the TFG whose huge accompanying apparatus of treaties and bureaucratic documentation seems to me largely valueless. Of course with their ethnocentric ignorance these are the things that the UN and EU take so seriously.

Bashir Goth: The UIC has never accepted the TFG as a legitimate government. They signed a Memorandum of Understanding with them on continuing the negotiations but they never relented any legitimacy to the TFG.

It is obvious that the UIC see themselves as the real force on the ground and they don't to give up power. Soon we will see them forming shura committees and establishing the structure of and Islamic state.


Helsinki, Finland: Can peace and development be promoted in Somalia without resorting to a deeper discussion to the root causes for the prolonged armed conflict and to the serious breeches of human rights and international humanitarian laws committed in the past? Are there prospects of issues of this kind being taken to the e.g. ICC, or is a homegrown processing of reconciliation and reconstruction of healthy social fabrics conceivable?

Bashir Goth: Any peace that is not based on confirmed and clear map road regarding human rights, civil liberties, properties and a fair distribution of resources and political posts will remain a cosmetic measure.

The best option that is often ignored by the AU and the international community is to leave Somaliland out of the equation and let Somalia resolve its problems.

Somalia can learn from the bottom up formula of reconciliation of Somaliland.

Ioan Lewis: I think that the most amazing failure on the part of the international community has been to neglect the Somaliland home-made peace process as an example of how to reestablish law and order and build a form of government suitable to Somali conditions. I am personally sick on hearing international personnel pontificating about the 'Somali Peace Process' without considering locally viable institutions. In my opinion international opinion and action is essantially ethnocentric and arrogant. Of course the international peace bureaucracies have a large financial interest here. It is especially notable that Kofi Annan, despite his roots in Africa, has no insight into the kind of traditionally uncentralised Somali political system, being himself the product of a West African kingdom.

_______________________ Thank you for these thoughtful questions. Just a reminder, right now 8 more Somali writers, politicians and thinkers are online to debate and answer questions here: Please feel free to post your questions on that moderated comment thread as well and join the unfolding debate.


Washington, D.C.: BBC reported in 2005 that members of the Islamic courts dug up an Italian cemetery in Mogadishu and dumped the body near the airport. Then, they built a mosque on top of the cemetery. What does this say about the future of Somalia and the safety of non-Muslims there?

Bashir Goth: It says exactly what you we have seen. The UIC will not hesitate to cleanse the country of everything they view as western or heretic in their eyes. They have already expressed their hatred for the civil societies, accusing them to be parasites living on the people's blood. They want to introduce a system of Zakat and Islamic charity.

The UIC is typically a replica of Taliban. sheikh Abdul Razak Yusuf Adam, a traditional Muslim Sheikh, to whom I spoke before this discussion start red told they are even worse then Taliban. He is a man from Mogadishu and a very close relative of Sheikh Dahir Aways. He is one of the Ahlu Sunna, or moderate clerics of Traditional Somali Islam. He said if he goes to Mogadishu they will shoot him because they don't want to see moderate voices among them.


St. Paul, Minn.: How can we take the Islamists in Mogadishu seriously when they do not allow any of the intellectuals and civil societies to join them? On the on the hand, the very top members of the Shura are all from the same clan, isn't this the same Siad Barre mentality in which one clan will lead all of the Somalis?


Bashir Goth: In fact we can say that the UIC is another name for Union of Islamic Clans. Each court represents a certain clan. I can see how a system based on clannism claims to rule in the name of Islam. Doesn't Islam stand for equality and a meritocratic system?


Minneapolis, Minn.: My name is Abdi-rahman Takhal. The question I have is:

We've seen public lashings, executions and forcefully intervening individually owned business. How do the ICU differ from Talibans when they are doing exactly what the Taliban has done?

Bashir Goth: The world will see more such lashings and draconian rules if the UIC are allowed to consolidate their rule. They have to be stopped now before they have become another Taliban.


Kuala lumpur, Malaysia: what is wrong if Mogdisho's people choose the islamic courts to be their rulers?

Bashir Goth: Nothing is wrong if the people choose the Islamist in a free and fair elections. But the question is who elected the UIC? they have fought their way to power just like the Warlords before them did. They claim to have come to power by popular uprising. I have yet to see a peaceful, popular uprising like that of Ukraine in Mogadishu. If they have come by popular uprising why they are still fighting? What can we say also about the thousands of people who fled the country and crossed to Kenya since the Islamists came to power?


Seattle, Wash.: What are the prospects of the forthcoming Khartoum conference?

Would Ethiopia be willing to accept a govt. consisting of elements of the ICU or will it work towards scuttling any chances of rapproachment between the two parties?

Bashir Goth: It depends how much serious are the two parties about the talks. I think each party is just buying time to build its forces and consolidate its position. I don't think either party is sincere about making a headway in Khartoum talks.


Cairo, Egypt: What would your advice to the US and the West be in engaging with the Islamic Courts in Somalia? Would you suggest treating them like the Taliban; politically isolating them and imposing sanctions and eventually encourage a more acceptable regime, through violent upheaval if 'necessary' ? Or would you treat them like a liberation movement which has just rid much of their country from the chaos and anarchy of years of abuse by armed warlords? Would you suggest engaging with them with the view of eventually toning down their militancy?

Bashir Goth: I would advise the international community to pressurize them to sit down with the TFG and work out an acceptable resolution with them. The world community should pressurize both UIC and TFG to resolve their difference and form a coalition government.


Forest Hills, N.Y.: Given the draconian penology of Sh'aria, as well as traditional Islamic animus against communicants in other religions, an entrenched tendency to equate justice with revenge, and the pervasiveness of atavistic customs such as honor killing and female circumcision in traditional Islamic communities, how can Islam promote peace within its sphere of influence, short of reforms that in the short run are improbable to the point of being unimaginable?

Ioan Lewis: The shortest reply is to simply cite the local model democracy of Somaliland. It meets most of the criteria the questioner appears to advocate. If the international community is really interested in promoting democracy in Afica why does it not recognize this small state and its heroic achievements? One may conclude that the West is more interested in manufacturing 'democracy' that in recognizing it where it turns up naturally. Sadly perhaps the West is happy to go the lengths of intervention followed in Iraq to 'promote democracy'.


London, United Kingdom: Do you think what used to be called Somalia will end up in the near future as Statelets either supported by Ethiopia on one side or Eriteria and Arab allies on the otherside?

Thank you

Mohamed osman Ahmed

Bashir Goth: It may take sometime but Somalia will eventually resolve its problems unless the UIC insist on creating an Islamic Emirate. But Somaliland will never join Somalia. Therefore, I can see two sisterly states, Somalia with federal states, and Somaliland emerging from the ashes of former Somalia.


Cairo, Egypt: What would your advice to the US and the West be in engaging with the Islamic Courts in Somalia? Would you suggest treating them like the Taliban; politically isolating them and imposing sanctions and eventually encourage a more acceptable regime, through violent upheaval if 'necessary' ? Or would you treat them like a liberation movement which has just rid much of their country from the chaos and anarchy of years of abuse by armed warlords? Would you suggest engaging with them with the view of eventually toning down their militancy?

Ioan Lewis: The latter would be more sensible. A militant Western response would simply increase their local popularity and the misery of the general Somali population who have already surely suffered enough.


South Africa: Can the TFG and UIC possibly agree on terms for long time peace settlement for the Somali crisis, given the nature of the UIC and the composition of the TFG, and the TFG's complete absence of independence and its reliance of Ethiopia?

Bashir Goth: Everything depends on the UIC. When they routed the warlords they said they were not interested in power. They showed their readiness to talk to the TFG and have indeed sent a delegation to Khartoum to show their goodwill. It is clear now that they were only buying time. The UIC goal is clear, they want to establish a government based on Islamic Sharia. They are in no way interested in western democracy or secular constitution. Therefore, any willingness they show for talk with the TFG will only be a ruse aimed at buying more time until they consolidate their power and capture more land.


Tehran, Iran: Can you please clarify whether Islamic Courts are essentially common law courts in Somalia or that the entire body of Somali legislation is now annulled and new, unwritten, laws are enforced with subjective interpretation of Islamic Laws?

Bashir Goth: If the Islamic Courts have their way, they will annul Somali culture and traditions as a whole. They have already banned music, cinema and mixed weddings. These were the core of the Somali culture. They don't even allow traditional Somali Islam to have a say. They want to apply a strict Wahabi/Salafi school.


Chicago: What effect do you think that the UIC will have on Northern Somalia's Secessionist movement?

Bashir Goth: The UIC have to solve the problems of Southern Somali first before they worry about Somaliland. Somaliland is peaceful, stable and established democracy. It will be foolish of the UIC to talk about Somaliland when thousands of Mogadishu people have fled the country since they came to power.


Ioan Lewis: From Bashir's responses it is clear that he has a rather gloomy view of the flexibility of the Islamic Courts. He may be right and we shall certainly soon know. The West does not seem yet to have devised a formula for dealing with regimes it dislikes. Surely we have somehow to take more account of local attitudes, positive or negative, to the regimes people find themselves governed by.

_______________________ The conversation continues here with 8 more Somali writers, politicians and thinkers online. Go to: This Live On Line is now closed. Thank you for a thoughtful discussion.


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