Somalia, outside the Violence Box

Hardline Islamic fighters of Hizbul Islam train with high-caliber automatic weapons in Mogadishu on June 23. (Photo: Mohamed Dahir/ AFP-Getty Images)

Whether in Somalia or elsewhere, any attempt to tame religious extremism with violence leads to costly tragedies and disenchantments. Anyone who doubts this ought to simply evaluate the miserable results of the global war on terrorism.

The Somali political problem is escalating into a new phase of violent struggle. Unless the current momentum is significantly slowed, a longer lasting, much bloodier sectarian war is bound to replace the existing one. Thus a non-violent paradigm for solving problems is direly needed, one that constructs effective collaboration between multiple organizations.

The Islamist group that led a successful insurgency campaign and ended the Ethiopian occupation has primarily split into two factions, one 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 I refer to as the neo-Islamists, has carried out strings of violent attacks, high-profile assassinations and suicide bombings in various parts of the country. Few have openly challenged their self-righteous claim to be fighting a just, religious war. Indeed, even fewer have challenged the religious justification they employ in defending their deadly campaign. Instead, the unity government, in what seems like a reactionary move, has opted to follow the ill-advised strategy of its predecessor—the former T.F.G.—by responding to violence with equally indiscriminate violence without any regard for the helpless civilians.

According to the latest 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 1990's: 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. The unity government, on its part, accuses the neo-Islamists of 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. As anecdotal stories go, they routinely enter villages or towns and demand that youth fight on their side or that their families pay into the war chest. In an oral culture where scrutiny is irrelevant and facts and fiction often conflate, 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 monolithic and 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 and 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.

Not all the neo-Islamists are emotionally-driven jihadists whose ultimate goal is to be killed on the battlefield. 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 implausible that these rational survivalist individuals could sign a deal that would ensure them positions and take them off that controversial list that has mainly worked to further radicalize many individuals and groups around the world.

Granted, the unity government has been in dialogue with these individuals. But 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-scenes negotiation with key figures of the neo-Islamists.

In a statement that not only offended the supporters of the unity government but also worked to further radicalize the neo-Islamists, Speaker of the Parliament Sheikh Aden Mohamed Nur 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," Nur said.

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, such as food and medicine, and also facilitating a more peaceful understanding of religion.

Instead of sending more weapons to Somalia, as the Obama administration did 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. Instead of contracting the big name international NGOs, 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 the Somali-operated America Relief Agency for the Horn of Africa —to distribute the food and medicine. The African peacekeepers—A.M.I.S.O.M.—could provide the security necessary to operate the distribution stations in strategic places.

Done right, the credibility that this kind of operation would likely earn the unity government, the donor nations, A.M.I.S.O.M., 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): The primary objective of this campaign would be to cultivate an environment conducive to the discovery, teaching and reinforcement of the right teachings of Islam described in the Quran itself as "the middle ground religion," particularly in areas of peace and coexistence, of freedom of religion and choice. The unity government could solicit Muslim scholars, mosques, schools, Islamic courts and dugsis (madrasas) to teach how forcing religion upon people negates the teachings of Islam.

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 brutal two-year Ethiopian occupation. But for the people to support the government, the government must first support the people.

Abukar Arman is writer who lives in Ohio. His articles and analysis are widely published.