20countries> Do Muslims Really Care About Somalia?
If they do, here's how they can save the country from famine.
BY AKBAR AHMED , FRANKIE MARTIN | SEPTEMBER 29, 2011
A young, rail-thin, and gaunt Somali woman, cradling her starving child in
her arms, looks straight into the camera. Her eyes are dead; she has seen
too much suffering. "Where are the Muslim countries?" she asks. "We are
The image is haunting, and her words keep coming back, though they were
broadcast on the BBC a few weeks ago now. Her plea is real. The richest
Muslims in the world live just across the waters in the Gulf states, where
billions of dollars are spent on indoor skiing facilities, artificial
islands to host luxury hotels and water parks, and frolicking in yachts and
faux European villas. There is never a dearth of funds for magnificent
mosques, but when it comes to alleviating the mass starvation of a people,
Muslims are coming up short.
The only head of state or government to have visited Somalia since the
famine began is Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As if to
emphasize the need to show support, he brought along his wife and his
foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. Erdogan also demonstrated that
instability is no excuse for not aiding Somalis; he presided over the
reopening of Turkey's Mogadishu embassy after two decades of its being
shuttered. Other Muslim leaders, however, are conspicuous by their absence,
ignoring the Quranic command to show charity and compassion to the poor and
Erdogan has also
s-nearly-1b-official-says-1.866179> put his money where his mouth is. In
contrast with Saudi Arabia ($50 million), Kuwait ($41.4 million), and the
United Arab Emirates ($40 million through a recent telethon), Turkey has
raised $300 million and secured an additional $350 million in pledges from
countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Even traditionally
generous countries like the United States have been lukewarm in their
e-relief/> $130 million). This money, and more, needs to be sent without
delay, as the United Nations requires $1 billion for the most immediate
needs. With seasonal rains approaching, more funds will be needed as aid
groups struggle to fight disease in addition to starvation.
Although this Somali woman may ask where the Muslims are, we can ask where
the world is. Are we deaf to this mother's cry and blind to her dying child?
Despite a steady stream of international media reports reflecting the
direness of the situation -- the U.N. estimates that some 750,000 Somalis
will face death in the coming months -- the world's response has been
woefully inadequate. In the United States, media attention has waned
The paltry response and lack of interest can partially be explained by
Somalia's negative image in the United States and around the world,
including in some Muslim countries, as a terrorist- and pirate-infested,
anarchic "failed state." Although Somalia has problems with terrorism and
piracy, the overall perception is false -- it is ahistorical, apolitical,
and acultural. We must not allow it to contribute to the destruction of a
The truth is that Somalia is not a "
> failed state" because in order
to be "failed" it must first exist, and a state, as it is popularly
conceived, has never existed in Somalia. The world's failure to understand
the real sources of power and influence in the country has only contributed
to its ongoing misery. In more than 1,000 years of history, the
traditionally nomadic and independent Somalis, split into opposing clans and
subclans that trace their descent to a common ancestor, have never fully
submitted to the writ of central rule for any substantial length of time.
The millions of Somalis who have been absorbed into surrounding countries
such as Kenya and Ethiopia due to European colonial policies have similarly
proved difficult for their central governments to administer and integrate.
Complaining of marginalization and seeking autonomy, Somalis have fought
extended insurgent wars in both these countries and today face famine.
And yet Somalia is not a nation of anarchy. Somalis have a sophisticated
locally administered system of tribal law called xeer that resembles
democracy, in which elders (every adult male, though those with age,
charisma, and valor are more influential and respected) collectively decide
issues of clan concern according to ancient traditions. Their code of
behavior emphasizes honor, hospitality, and revenge.
Although tribes and tribal law may seem quaint and even primitive, tribes
are a reality in the Muslim world as are proud nations and provinces named
after them -- Saudi Arabia is named after the Al Saud, Afghanistan after the
Afghans, Baluchistan after the Baluchis, and Waziristan after the Wazir.
Tribes tend to disdain hierarchy, which is why they are so persistent in
resisting central rule. They are perhaps the most egalitarian people in the
Muslim world today. Somalis, named after their mythological ancestor
> Samale, are one of the most
tribal peoples on Earth. It is precisely for this reason that it has been so
difficult to institute top-down rule in the country, as Somalia functions
from the bottom up.
This system has remained in place for the last millennium in spite of the
vagaries of European imperialism, a nascent but flawed democracy in the
1960s, and Mohamed Siad Barre's military dictatorship. Siad Barre, like
others before him, attempted to curb tribal law in favor of a central state,
but it imploded due to tribal resistance and the collapse of law and order.
Yet tribal law proved resilient, and elders took advantage of the 1991 fall
of Siad Barre's government to build a "bottom-up" state in the northern
Somaliland region. Today, the area is a comparative oasis of calm, and
despite its being more arid and inhospitable, famine conditions are not
nearly as severe as they are in the south.
Overlapping with tribal law -- and sometimes opposed to it -- is Islamic
law, which has been historically administered in coastal sultanates like
Mogadishu but seldom in the interior. The exceptions are times of great
crisis and social breakdown, in which religious leaders can consolidate and
extend their authority over a large area. This has only happened a few times
in history, and it is occurring today with the rule of al-Shabab, a
religious group that was radicalized in the chaos following the U.S.-backed
Ethiopian invasion and occupation in 2006 and 2007 -- a war conducted in
pursuit of <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/6251077.stm
> just three al
Qaeda suspects. In contrast with the area's traditional mystical Sufi Islam
and the sophisticated Somali sultans of the past, al-Shabab seems to be
implementing the most violent and cruel aspects of its understanding of
Islam. Far from uniting the Somali people, the group has now itself become a
catalyst for further death and destruction.
Today, Somalia faces an existential crisis. The staggering levels of
starvation, destruction, and dislocation have led to social disintegration
of immense scale. The glue that held society together -- tribal law and the
elders -- has been challenged as never before. The country is being further
marginalized by both the Western-backed central government, which has more
commonly relied on infamous "warlords" from the Said Barre era, and
religious groups like al-Shabab, which condemn tribal law as anti-Islamic.
Of the two groups, al-Shabab has proved more adept at negotiating with and
gaining the support of elders, but this support can be very shallow. Indeed,
al-Shabab has arrested or killed elders who opposed it.
Somalia's human tragedy is exacerbated by its status as a battleground in
the war on terror. With the United States constructing what the Washington
ory.html> called a "constellation" of drone bases in the region, the
conflict will likely escalate. The United States already funds and equips an
imported force from other African countries under the banner of the African
Union to fight al-Shabab, often through private contractors. Somalia's
war-on-terror status complicates famine relief for the plethora of aid
agencies working in the country, which are concerned they will run afoul of
U.S. anti-terrorism laws by feeding people.
Al-Shabab is of course not blameless. Just as in Pakistan following the
earthquake and last year's floods, where some Taliban figures condemned
Western aid as an anti-Islamic plot, certain al-Shabab leaders have
announced their opposition to and suspicion of such aid. Yet similar
opposition in Pakistan did not prevent a massive American and international
effort that saved hundreds of thousands of Pakistani lives. The same thing
must be done in Somalia.
To deal with such an enormous social crisis, bold action and leadership are
needed. The Muslim world must alter its views of Somalia and mount a
colossal aid effort, heeding Erdogan's call.
Likewise, the American and international effort must dramatically increase.
The United States should announce a moratorium on fighting until the famine
is resolved. It needs to include a cessation of drone strikes -- the United
States launched a <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-15052484
of such attacks on Somali targets on Sept. 25 -- as well as attacks by the
U.S.-backed Somali government and African Union troops. This will build
trust among all factions that have a common cause to stave off mass death.
It will mean working with both al-Shabab administrators and traditional
tribal elders. The Western urge to work exclusively through the central
government should be put aside, as more effective authority lies elsewhere,
as it always has. If anti-terrorism laws legally restrict U.S. access to any
influential party, then non-American aid agencies, the United Nations, the
Somali government, the Turks, or the Saudis can work with them instead.
U.S. President Barack Obama should host a fundraiser in the White House with
top business and foreign leaders, and he and the first lady should travel to
Somalia or at least visit the refugees in Kenya to see the situation for
themselves. It is strange that Obama has traveled to Ireland and paid
tribute to his distant Irish ancestors but has not returned to the land of
his father that is suffering so much.
Somalia's problems are daunting, and they challenge all of the global
community. But Muslim countries and international actors -- working closely
with Somalis across the spectrum of society -- need to plot a new political
course for the nation, which can only happen if there's an unbiased
understanding of Somalia and the way this society functions. They can draw
on the work and expertise of exasperated scholars who have spent their
lifetimes studying Somalia and see the same wrong decisions being made time
and time again. (Noted British anthropologist I.M. Lewis, for example, has
slammed the West for imposing a top-down government on the independent
Somalis instead of "building up a hierarchy of increasingly more inclusive
local groups" -- an ill-fated choice he calls "Alice in Wonderland.")
The humanitarian crisis in Somalia is a special test for the Muslim world.
While we have heard much talk about the need to come to the aid of the
suffering global community of Muslims, or ummah, through jihad, they need to
rediscover the more powerful notions of Islamic compassion and mercy.
Especially given the tragic compassion fatigue in non-Muslim countries like
the United States as far as Somalia is concerned, the Islamic world simply
cannot allow this slow-motion death of an entire people to continue. Can
Muslim leaders sleep peacefully at night with the words of the Somali woman
ringing in their ears?
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Received on Thu Sep 29 2011 - 16:44:23 EDT