Is promoting Sufi Islam the best chance for peace in Somalia?

Hargeisa, 26 June 2009 (Somalilandcurrent) – Some armed groups who adhere to a more moderate interpretation of Islam have begun battling Al Qaeda-linked extremists.

Somalia is beginning to seem more and more like the Swat Valley of eastern Africa – a place where Al Qaeda-linked insurgents are setting up religious law courts, assassinating government ministers, and spreading their tentacles farther and deeper.

This week, Al Shabab, the top militant Islamist force that controls most of the country, tried and convicted four thieves. Their punishment: amputation of one hand and one foot each, in accordance with a strict, literal reading of Islamic law. The sentence has been temporarily delayed, but it’s the latest sign that Somalia is fast becoming an extremist haven. (Last month, Islamists invited a crowd to see a man suspected of stealing $90 worth of clothing get his hand cut off, BBC reports in a detailed eye witness account.)

And as in Pakistan, many are looking to armed tribes in Somalia who adhere to Sufism – a mystical, moderate interpretation of Islam – as the best chance for peace.

A Somalian writer – identifying himself only as Mr. Muthuma – writes in an opinion piece published on Bartamaha, an independent Somalian news portal, that a “new axis” of conflict has formed in Somalia, in which fighters are battling one another along religious lines.

Moderate Sufi scholars, whose tolerant beliefs have come under attack, have decided to fight back against al-Shabaab for destroying their shrines and murdering their imams….

It is an Islamist versus Islamist war, and the Sufi scholars are part of a broader moderate movement that Western nations are counting on to repel Somalia’s increasingly powerful extremists.

Whether Somalia becomes a terrorist haven and a genuine regional threat – which is already beginning to happen, with hundreds of heavily armed foreign jihadists flocking here to fight for Al Shabab – or whether this country steadies itself and ends the years of bloodshed, may hinge on who wins these ideological, sectarian battles.

But not everyone agrees. Ali Eteraz, writing in Foreign Policy this month, laments the goal of propping up Sufis against other religious sects.

The usual response by supporters of the Sufi solution is that thanks to the extremists, Islam has already been politicized, and therefore propagandist measures promoting Sufism are the only way to fight back. But that’s precisely the problem: Propaganda is inherently discrediting. Besides, state-sponsored Sufism … gets everything backward: In an environment where demagogues are using religion to conceal their true political and material ambitions, establishing another official, “preferred” theological ideology won’t roll back their influence. Minimizing the role of all religion in government would be a better idea. Only then could people begin to speak about rights and liberty.

It remains to be seen how this internal struggle will play out. In the meantime, could an “Islamic-led international engagement” from outside be the answer?

That’s the argument of Nuradin Dirie, a former presidential candidate in Puntland, a semiautonomous region in Somalia. Somaliweyn, a Somali news portal, reprinted this speech Mr. Dirie gave recently in London:

Security and capacity for governance, economic growth and forces of moderation. Where can we find such ingredients of international intervention? How about a state-building intervention that is initiated, financed, and staffed by a coalition of Muslim countries? It would have to be specifically designed to build foundations for governance, investment in economic infrastructure and something quite new. We need something I will call a ‘moderation package.’ An intervention made up of prominent Muslim scholars that can challenge forces of extremism with messages of peace, order and coexistence with the rest of the world.

The defining characteristic of this intervention should be that it is a Muslim World project. The UN and the rest of the International community can support this initiative at an arms-length.

By David Montero
The Christian Science Monitor

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