In April, the Somali parliament unanimously passed a bill to adopt Islamic law as national legislation. The real issue is not the adoption of Islamic law alone, but how it interpreted and implemented, and whether there can be national consensus on exactly what constitutes Islamic law in Somalia.
This move, initiated by the Somali transitional federal government on 10 March, appeared to appease an umbrella group of influential and politicised Islamic organisations (headed by the extremist group Al Shabaab, meaning “the youth”), which are leading an insurgency effort against President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s fragile federal government.
Discussions between the federal government and Al Shabaab have been highly secretive, with little information released about the nature of negotiations and how judges should actually interpret specific rules and guidelines in the newly adopted system of Islamic law. Overall, the nature of how Islamic law will take shape in Somalia remains ambiguous.
Al Shabaab is largely seen – particularly in the West – as a group of religious hardliners bent on converting the country into a strict, religious-based state that would, for example, oppress women and cut off hands as punishment for robbery. In 2008, the United States officially added Al Shabaab to its list of foreign terrorist organisations.
However, Sheikh Ahmed, who came into office in January and is considered a “middle way” religious leader by the international community, stated that Somalia’s new national system of Islamic law – which was Al Shabaab’s primary goal – could be a vehicle for peace and stability in the country.
A few weeks ago Sheikh Ahmed said, “Islamic law is something that everyone in Somalia believes in and lives by.”
The president is right: a look at the history of Somalia since the advent of Islam in the 7th century shows that the country has a long history of living under Islamic law and adhering to tolerant religious traditions.
Many Somalis follow Sunni Sufi orders: such as Qadiriyah, the oldest Sufi order in Islam, and Ahmadiyah-Idrisiyah, founded in the 18th century and later brought to Somalia by poet and sheikh Ali Maye Durogba. Both these orders are less concerned with regulating people’s behaviour than with worshipping God and celebrating the beauty of nature.
Somali governments, from the time of independence in 1960 to the last central Somali government in 1991 (before the outbreak of civil war), adopted a mix of Islamic law and Western systems of governance that were compatible with Somalis’ sense of moderation and faith.
The extremism we observe today is new in Somalia and alien to Somali culture and its Islamic traditions. Initially, the people of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, backed Al Shabaab and its predecessor group, the Islamic Courts Union, because they were successful in imposing law and order and provided Mogadishu residents with protection from local warlords. As Al Shabaab grew stronger, however, Somalis were shocked to see members of Al Shabaab impart their own form of law, closing cinemas, prohibiting music and stoning a young girl to death who was accused of adultery last year.
While Sheikh Ahmed is wise to seek peaceful ways to reduce violence in the country, he must be careful to not present his “political compromise” as a concession to a religiously extremist ideology.
Moreover, the Somali federal system provides autonomous regions, like the relatively stable Puntland in the northeast, with the right to govern their internal affairs. Today, however, it is unclear whether the Mogadishu-based federal government will honour this charter and Islamic law will extend across the country. Puntland’s information minister made a statement on April 18th indicating that the law does not apply to Puntland.
If political tensions with the autonomous regions increase, further polarisation could result at the expense of peace and stability.
With the threat of polarisation looming, the federal government needs to explain to the Somali people what the implementation of Islamic law would look like for other autonomous regions of Somalia. Not doing so cripples the government’s ability to reach out to all regions, creating fear and confusion.
Somalis urgently need a national debate on the implementation of Islamic law.
Sheikh Ahmed, because of his former leadership role with the Union of Islamic Courts, may have the authority to initiate such national dialogue and reach out to all Somalis, including traditional tribal leaders, intellectuals, religious leaders, the Somali diaspora and regional autonomous governments.
Somalia has experienced war continuously over the past 18 years, with half a million dead, 320,000 displaced within the country and a million refugees outside the country since the outbreak of civil war in 1991.
Somalis deserve to have a say in how the laws that govern them will be formed, so that they can ensure their future is one of peace and stability rather than fighting and disunity.
Hussein Yusuf is a PhD student at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (ICAR) at George Mason University and contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus. This article first appeared in Washington Post/Newsweek’s Post Global and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).