If “impossible” is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools as remarked by Napoleon Bonaparte, the world may see the Somali Islamist fighters of the Union of Islamic Courts in Mogadishu reversing the trend of history by turning tables on advocates of the clash of civilisations, by inventing a new meaning for the concept of Islamism and by becoming alien contenders for the Nobel peace prize.
A bizarre idea you may say, and I would agree with you as long as you and I are normal people living under normal circumstances. But imagine if you lived for 15 years in a state of lawlessness where your day starts with death and ends with death; where your only hope in life is to return safely to your family from the shortest trip to the bakery; where you live in constant fear of an imminent rape for the womenfolk of your household; where an hour without seeing a bullet riddled corpse at your doorstep is heaven’s gift; where your children’s lullaby is the sound of mortar explosions; and where their games are to compete with each other figuring out which sound belonged to which gun.
Imagine if you lived in a city that has been destroyed beyond recognition; where 90 per cent of your neighbourhood have either been killed or have left without any hope of returning; where ruthless warlords coerce you and rob you of anything of value that you own; where your relatives, your friends, your childhood classmates have either been murdered, crippled or have died on the high seas while seeking a safer place. Imagine you live in a city where the only familiar sound you hear, reminding you of the good old days and giving you hope for the future, is the prayer call coming from your neighbourhood mosque.
This situation is the life that millions of Somalis have led since 1991 when the late military dictator Mohammed Siyad Barre was driven out of power by a coalition of clan militias in 1991. Ever since, Somalia has fallen into the hands of feuding warlords who have divided the country into fiefdoms and blocked 14 attempts by the international community to restore peace and stability. Spreading a culture of gangsterism, big warlords have subcontracted lesser cronies, turning Mogadishu into the largest arms market in the Horn of Africa and a hiding place for terrorism. The warlords also made lucrative business by piracy and by making deals with international mafia companies that dumped all kinds of hazardous waste in Somalia and coastal areas.
It is amid this background that Islamic clerics have stepped in to establish Islamic sharia courts with the aim of protecting their neighbourhoods against the marauding militias of the various warlords. Tired of lawlessness, and false hopes on stillborn transitional governments formed in foreign capitals - first in 2000 in Djibouti and in 2004 in Nairobi - the Somali people have found the idea of finding safety in their own neighbourhoods. They have set up their own bakeries and grocery shops; they send their children to school albeit in madrassas; and are building their lives in small steps.
They are concentrating on more practical and attainable goals rather than building up hope of a return to central government and restoration of peace and stability to a country that has been fragmentised beyond reparation.
This is how local imams, preaching peace and brotherhood in the familiar language of Islam, have won hearts and minds despite the stigma from terrorism hanging over them like Damocles’ sword.
As the warlords, who had held the country hostage for more than 15 years, found themselves cornered they cried wolf and succeeded in exploiting Washington’s paranoia of Islamic extremism in the region.
The jubilation of the Somali people at the fall of the warlords was no less than the sense of liberation and freedom felt by the people of Romania at the ousting and execution of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu: a feeling that the US administration needs to note.
The rise of the Islamists in Mogadishu, however, has sent fears through the region, drawing comparisons to the march of the Taliban against the warlords in Afghanistan.
These fears are not unfounded. The Islamic Courts Union (ICU) is not a monolithic entity: it includes a kaleidoscopic mixture of Islamic movements, such as Al Ittihad Al Islami, Al Takfiir Wal Hijra, Al Islah and Al Tabligh.
The Al Ittihad Al Islami, an organisation suspected by Washington of having links with Al-Qaida, was found to be behind killings of foreign aid workers in Somaliland, the self-declared state overlooking the Gulf of Aden. Armed militants arrested in Hargeisa confessed that they had been taking orders from Ahmed Hashi Ayro, an Afghan-trained militant and a senior commander of the ICU forces. Ayro is also accused of being behind the digging up of the old Italian cemetery in Mogadishu and dumping the human remains in garbage pits.
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