I'd like to start, if I may, with a personal confession: my friend and fellow alumnus of Northwestern University , Professor Alessandro Triulzi, has, by flying me across the Atlantic , made a considerable investment in me. Although he surely will not get his money's worth out of me, that fact does not weigh heavily on my mind. More than this, thanks to Bin Laden and Co., the ghost of political Islam has lately drawn academic attention to my professional interests and, in doing so, has turned out to be my premiere meal ticket, a manna from heaven to ensure earthly prosperity.
Somalia is once again, as indeed is the Sudan , the object of attention by the West. The once-neglected villages of Somalia are, as we speak, crawling with CIA agents, looking for the elusive specter of Bin Laden hideouts, presumably in the bushes and in the grazing grounds of camel herds. I am loath not to welcome this development, if only for the enormous employment opportunities it has opened up for us, the Somali elite, as well as expatriate fellow travelers. Who needs, from now on, to trouble with the teaching of complacent, overfed, gum-chewing American undergrads when the CIA pays better--and with far less exertion of the mind as of the body.
As regards the subject of Islam in Somalia : it could be said that Islam may well have come to the Horn of Africa before the new religion flourished in Arabian soil. Some years before the Prophet Muhammad's (may peace be upon him) flight from Mecca in 622, a party of more than seventy Muslim converts fled fearful persecution in Mecca to seek refuge in the Christian court of the Abyssinian king in Axum(Axum is today in the province of Tigrai in Ethiopia). Astonishingly--and mysteriously--the king promptly gave sanctuary to the fleeing Muslims. The pagan chiefs of Mecca gave chase and demanded the immediate surrender of the Muslim refugees, but the king adamantly refused to hand them over. In doing so, he risked doing an irreparable damage to the cordial relations in trade and goodwill between the two Red Sea neighbors. When the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) returned to Mecca in a triumphal march eight years later, most of the Muslims came back, but the record does not make it clear whether, in fact, they all did return. Might some have remained behind to plant the seed of the new religion in the soil of the Horn?
Historians still puzzle over the incredible show of humanity to the persecuted Muslims on the part of the Abyssinian sovereign. In any case, his generosity was not lost on the Prophet who laid it down in a Hadith (the Hadith contains the sayings and deeds of the prophet and, as such, constitutes the second most sacred text of Islam, after the Qur'an) that “ Abyssinia is a land of justice in which nobody is oppressed.” The point was unmistakable: no jihad against Abyssinia , a prophetic injunction that the Muslims seem to have taken to heart. It is a fact, in any case, that in the early energetic centuries of Islam when the empires of the Persians and Byzantines fell like a house of cards before the steady onslaught of victorious Muslim armies, Abyssinia was left alone unmolested. Some historians claim that the forbidding landscape of Abyssinia coupled with the martial spirit of this warrior nation saved it from Muslim invasion. In my view, the Hadithal injunction of no jihad against Abyssinia does more to explain the survival of Abyssinian Christianity in the age of Islamic eruption on the global scene. This was of course to change later, especially in the sixteenth century with the devastating invasions of Abyssinia by the Muslim Ghazi, or holy warrior, Ahmad al-Ghazi, better known by the less flattering Abyssinian appellation of Ahmad Gragne, or the Left-Handed. But even here it is worth to recall that the outbreak of hostility between Muslims and Ethiopian Christianity stemmed from the threat felt by the Muslims of an expansionist, re-energized Christian empire steadily--and inexorably--pushing eastwards towards the Muslim lowlands.
Equally interesting to note is the fact that Muhammad was apparently familiar with Ge'ez, the ancient tongue of Abyssinia , and the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Church today, from the appearance in the text of the Qur'an of Ge'ez words like Neguz, or King. As well, the word for God (Waaq) in the Cushitic languages of Oromo and Somali appears in the Qur'an. Was Muhammad familiar with these Cushitic languages, too? Also–-and this Somalis would not be delighted to hear--the word “Somali” shows up, for the first time in written form, in the royal chronicles of the Abyssinian Neguz Yeshaq, as one of the peoples reduced by him in a recent campaign.
Whatever the origins of the spread of Islam in the Horn, Somalia was thoroughly Islamized by the fourteenth century, as we learn from the very helpful account of the globe-trotting Muslim scholar, Ibn Battuta. To compare briefly the influence and distribution of Islam in the countries of the Horn of Africa: Professor Paulos Milkias of Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) has recently come up with some startling, if not explosive, revelations showing the Somali population of Ethiopia to constitute the third largest ethnic group in the country, after the Oromo and Amhara. The Woyane(popular name for the Tigreans in power in Ethiopia today) come fourth. If so, Islam may form a numerical majority in Ethiopia , but power and privilege being dominated by the Christians, Muslims remain a sociological minority in the land. Sudan , I take it, is both numerically and sociologically Muslim, while Somalia is almost 100% Islamic.
Militant Islam is highly unlikely to cause any political mischief in Somalia , for reasons to be offered shortly. Be that as it may, the overwhelming majority of the Somalis are sunnis, adhering to the Shafi'i school of Islamic jurisprudence, and tenuously belong to Sufi brotherhoods. The religious brotherhoods in Somalia include the Qaadiriya, the earliest and the claimer of the largest number of adherents. The Qaadiriya traces its founding and spiritual efficacy to the twelfth century Baghdadi saint, Abdul-Qadir al-Jilani. Then there is the Ahmadiya, founded by the nineteenth century Moroccan mystic and teacher, Ahmad b. Idris, al-Fassi. Finally, the Saalihiya, an off-shoot of Ahmadiya, established by the Sudanese student of al-Fassi's, Muhammad Salih from Dongola on the Nile . It may be recalled that the Somali poet, mystic and warrior, who led the famous and earth-consuming insurrection against British, Italian and Ethiopian rule, the Sayyid Muhammad Abdullah Hasan, il Mullah Pazzo of the Italians, and the Mad Mullah of British colonial literature, was a follower of Muhammad Salih.
At first glance Somalia would appear to be an ideal breeding ground for the rise of a large-scale, grassroots fundamentalist movement: For one thing, Somali Islam is a frontier Islam, hemmed in on all sides by pagan and Christian interlopers. Characteristically, frontier Islam is bellicose, xenophobic and profoundly suspicious of alien influences. This together with the fact that Somalia 's masses are perennially haunted by the specter of famine and anarchy, war, devastation, and other horrors should make it an excellent candidate for a resurgent militant Islam. But the Somalis defy the laws of political science.
In spite of the presence of all the conditions that should unleash cataclysmic upheavals in Somalia , nothing of the sort has happened there, or is likely to happen. What explains this bizarre defiance of anthropological theory? Simply put, the patterns of Somali social organization, or disorganization, provide a most satisfactory if disheartening explanation. (Disheartening especially today, it may be added, in light of the terror and trepidations wrought on Somalia by the jackals gyrating back and forth between Nairobi and Mogadishu, who have grown fat on the loot of the broken body politic of this unhappy country, thus perpetuating Somalia's agony for booty.) To return to the point, the Somali polity is shaped by a single, central principle that overrides all others, namely the phenomenon that social anthropologists call “the segmentary lineage system.” Enrico Cerulli, that Olympian Italian scholar to whom all Somalists–and I might say Ethiopianists, too--are forever indebted, has first drawn attention to the salience of segmentation in Somali society. And I. M. Lewis has later constructed a definitive study of the workings of this principle in A Pastoral Democracy , still deservedly judged the classic study of Somali pastoralism.
Stripped of the scientific razzle-dazzle with which it is often presented, segmentation may be expressed in the Arab Bedouin saying: “my uterine brother and I against my half brother, my brother and I against my father, my father's household against my uncle's household, our two households (my father's and uncle's) against the rest of the immediate kin, the immediate kin against non-immediate members of my clan, my clan against other clans and, finally, my nation and I against the world! In lineage segmentation one, literally, does not have a permanent enemy or a permanent friend–not even a permanent Muslim friend–but only a permanent attention to the availability of self-improving opportunities. Depending on a given context, a man–or a group of men, or a state, for that matter–may be your friend or foe. Everything is fluid and ever-changing. Moreover, sad to say, experience seems to show the Somalis as utterly lacking the notion, basic to human decency, of fixed loyalty--loyalty to anything high or low, sacred or secular, and that, on the contrary, the principle of greedy, galloping personal gain tends to over-ride all else among us Somalis. Worse still, the concept of personal responsibility or political accountability seems to be thoroughly missing from the Somali weltanschauung, or worldview; and therefore there is no social mechanism in our culture to serve as a check on an individual's—or a group's--rapacious excesses or to restrain malcontents from wreaking havoc on a helpless bovine populace. Thus, yesterday's mass murderers and the day-before-yesterday's thuggish looters of the nation's resources put themselves forward as today's leaders of the Somali people's destiny. And nobody calls them on it because they are protected on all sides by their kin. Furthermore, it is indeed a depressing thought to observe that a Somali crook's kinsmen seldom ask themselves what interest accrue to them collectively from protecting an extortionist thug who ruthlessly exploits them by killing and stealing in their name without even sharing the loot with them! I could name names and cite examples of the above but will refrain from doing so for reasons of charity, perhaps of self-interest—ergo, I, too, being a Somali must utter these remarks with an eye to self-interest! (Remember the venerable Somali aphorism: Shiikh tolkiis kama janna tego!) No wonder we have come to acquire a global reputation as a nation of victims and criminals.
Segmentation, in other words, is a social system that results in, and sanctions, institutional instability as a cultural norm. Thus it may be stated as a general rule, without hesitation or heart-searching, that instability as a way of life informs the Somali world!
Shaped thus by the weird quirks of lineage segmentation, the Somalis, as a society, are segmental, warlike, schismatic, and extremely addicted to self-based pragmatism, at least as they understand pragmatism. What is in it for me? a Somali is likely to ask on any given issue. In view of the rigorous exigencies of the Somali environment, a Somali is invariably predisposed to look out for numero uno. Therefore the ideology of self-sacrifice essential for the rise of a great grassroots movement is alien to his psyche. No Somali, for example, will ever blow himself up for the cause of al-Islam. A classic Somali adage holds that “ Ilaah iyo ‘Atoosh baa nego degaallamaya, dhankii ‘Atoosh baannuna u liicaynaa: once upon a time, Allah and a warrior chieftain named ‘Atoosh began to wage a terrific fight over us(Somalis), and we forthwith went with the chief against Allah, because the chief could deliver the goods faster than Allah.” That is, a Somali would promptly go against the law of Allah, if doing so turns out to be in his material interest. (I do appreciate that in making these remarks, I am painting my countrymen as a bunch of unprincipled opportunists). Well, the Somali environment does tend to produce a pragmatic worldview! And that pragmatic desert worldview militates against the growth of organized, Islamic militancy or, for that matter, large scale movement of any sort.
Arguably, the Sayyid Muhammad, the George Washington of Somali nationalism and the Dante Alighieri of Somali literature, did succeed in leading a rather drawn-out, grassroots resistance against the combined powers of Britain, Italy and Ethiopia(1898-1920). And yet his movement killed an estimated one million Somalis and precious few infidels. As the Italian Consul in Aden, cavalliere Pestalozza, the only European to set eyes on the elusive mullah, reminds us, the Sayyid's movement, having miserably failed to unify Somalis against infidel rule, deteriorated into a destructive civil war.
The same headache confronts the hyena-thugs fighting over the decomposed body of the Somali polity today. It is a great misconception to call these free-lance looters warlords, at least in the sense Westerners understand the term. In Western political discourse a warlord is a figure who can bring a unified horde of followers either to the battle field or to the negotiating table. To be sure, a Somali “warlord” may manage to field a hundred men into a concerted action, if the perceived interests of the clan as a whole are threatened, or the prospects of a lucrative booty look good. But as soon as the organizing emergency evaporates, each man goes his merry way, unfettered by any binding loyalty to a transcendent cause.
How the Italians managed to impose a semblance of order on the Somalis for eighty years remains a matter for astonishment--no doubt by methods that would be considered extraordinary in this human-rights-sensitive age. Italians, please, do come and re-colonize us again. The long-necked Somali lasses are there, still waiting for you. (Mama mia, come dolce, Khadija!”)
On a serious note: while the British neglected British Somaliland by merely using it as Aden's “butcher shop,”(a supplier of meat to their Aden garrison), British development energies being spent in nearby Kenya, the Italians, by contrast, made a serious attempt to develop and modernize Italian Somalia. They created the vast banana plantations and varieties of citrus fruits that in time came to constitute Somalia's leading export earner. To this day Somali bananas remain the wonder of culinary connoisseurs. Then why, one should duly ask, does Somaliland republic enjoy a semblance of peace and stability that has eluded Italian Somalia? The answer is as simple as it is discouraging: Ex-Italian Somalia is too changed to leave an effective role for the traditional institutions of elders and shirka, or assembly, debates and too unchanged to accommodate modern methods of governance. She is stuck in a limbo, between the rock of pre-industrial outlook and attitudes on the one hand and the hard place of half-baked modernization on the other.
To return to the subject of political Islam in Somalia, segmentation has forbidden the emergence of a creditable Islamic fundamentalist force to make a bid for political power. There was one notable exception: in the early 1990s, the shadowy, toothless entity known as al-Itihaad attempted to seize power in Puntland, with a view to establishing a theocratic regime in that region.
Warlord Abdullahi Yuusuf (today's putative president of Somalia), a leathery survivor of innumerable gun fights and therefore not particularly noted for mildness of character, unleashed his militia on the holy warriors in a fearful massacre, driving the mullahs out into the wilderness and mercilessly hunting them down in their mountain hideouts. Inexplicably, the desperate pleas of God's soldiers for divine intervention in the face of Abdullahi's fury was completely ignored by the Almighty who indifferently looked the other way as the self-styled holy men were systematically obliterated.
The hapless remnants of al-Itihaad have fled westwards to the region of Luuq Ferrandi on the Somali-Ethiopian border. Their bogey-man presence in that sensitive border area has turned out to be a gift from heaven for the once-beleaguered (but now strengthened , thanks to al-Itihaad) regime of Meles Zennawi in Ethiopia. The wily Zennawi has used (and continues to use) the perceived threat of al-Itihaad as an effective weapon to milk the fundamentalist-paranoid American cash cow.
Despite the fact that the Somali social fabric cuts against the growth of a fundamentalist movement, the Pentagon and State Department bureaucrats insist on a Bin Laden presence in Somalia. To settle the matter once and for all, I asked my colleague Sunni Khalid, of the Voice of America, to host an on-the-air panel to discuss the issue. The panelist who represented the American government view, whom I suspected to be a CIA spook, fiercely contended that there were Bin Laden camps in Somalia. And when pressed to name one camp, he began to fudge ambiguously. Finally, the moderator of the panel, a Senegalese journalist, apparently acting on a whisper from him, named Ras Kamboni, south of Kismayu on the Indian Ocean as a Bin Laden stronghold. After the panel ended, perplexed and embarrassed over the possibility that this panelist might know something I did not, I phoned a colleague in the field to check it out.
He journeyed to Ras Kamboni and found there a single one-eyed mullah and three Bantu followers! Some stronghold! Bin Laden knows better than to trust his person or that of his lieutenants to the individualistic environment of the Somalis where everything is open and without secrecy, and where opportunism and the numero uno outlook of personal survival form the prevailing traits.
Therefore, where Somalia is concerned, the West has nothing to fear with respect to the upsurge of militant Islam. The Islamic history of the Sudan tells a different story. Though I am ill-equipped to speak to Sudanese Islam, the obvious can be stated: the Sudan tends to spawn messianic characters en masse, the great Mahdi near the end of the nineteenth century being the prime example, but there also having flourished a legion of small-time mahdis, Nebbi ‘Issas , Nebbi Khadhar s, Nebbi this, Nebbi that, Nebbi the other.
Now I have a theory as to why the Sudan tends to be a breeding ground for messianic figures, which I want to try out on the Sudanese scholars at this conference. My wildly speculative view holds that the Sudan represents a dramatic clash between African Ju-Ju(for those unfamiliar with this term, Ju-Ju is an all-purpose word throughout black Africa for magic, witchcraft, sorcery and related para-normal phenomena) and Semitic mysticism. When the mind of the witch doctor fuses with that of the Sufi, or Muslim mystic, the result can be a powerful mental detonation that ignites into existence a multitude of messiahs.
Though Somalia per se is unlikely to serve as a fertile soil for Islamic fundamentalism, it may be caught up in a global Islamic revolutionary upheaval. Muslims are assured in the Qur'an: “you are the noblest community ever raised for mankind.” Yet sober Muslims surely must wonder whether their present-day reality-–downtrodden masses, ignorance, rigid backward looking interpretation of the tenets of their faith, a degrading defeat after defeat at the hands of Christian Westerners and Jews, complete loss of their onced-fabled lead in science and philosophy–justifies their view of themselves as a noble community. In short, Muslims are a people with a magnificent past and a humiliating present. In particular, the last two centuries have not been kind to the ummah, or the Islamic universal community of faith, as the Muslims watched helplessly the steady erosion of their position versus the dynamic, secular resurgent West. No matter how one looks at it, the heart of the Muslim dilemma goes to a problem that the Reformation and the enlightenment movement have permanently solved for Westerners, notably the question of what should be the basis for social and economic development in the community: human reason or revealed faith? Westerners have effectively, and for good, settled that question by the well-known principle of the separation of Church and state. It took Europeans three hundred years of blood and tears to transform themselves from a faith-driven worldview to secularized, reason-driven socio-economic systems. Will Muslims undertake the painful reform of society, and even more painful re-interpretation of their faith to bring Islamic theory and practice in accordance with the dictates of the modern world? Will there ever arise a Muslim Voltaire or a Muslim Ernest Renan to declare war on the body of hidebound conservative Muslim jurists whose narrow, rigid, literalist interpretation of the Qur'an and Hadith, have sunk the Muslim community into the ground?
I will offer one remarkable example: everyone at this symposium, whether of Muslim or Christian heritage, takes it as a given of the Muslim's God-given right to take four wives. In fact the scriptural pronouncements on the matter are found in two references in the fourth chapter of the Qur'an entitled, the Women's chapter. In that chapter, the whole range of the rights and obligations of women in the Muslim community are spelled out. The first reference appears in verses 1, 2, and 3: it reads: that Muslim men are allowed to marry two, three or four wives. But Muslim men choose to forget the second part of the Qur'anic injunction, which reads: But if you fear that you cannot administer absolute justice among your wives, then you are commanded to take only one wife; a few paragraphs later, the same chapter lays down that “you, men, with your human short comings, will never, ever, be able to administer justice among your wives.” What inference can be drawn from this? Umistakably, monogamy. Yet, Muslims throughout history have chosen to embrace the first of the Qur'anic instructions and to ignore the second, obviously because Muslim women have never had a say about the interpretation of the Qur'an. In any case, the prophet's permission for his disciples to take four wives stemmed more from a sociological reason than religious. As a warrior community, the Muslims were perennially fighting, and too many married men were falling in battle. As a result, the prophet was confronted with the nightmare of multitudes of young widows with children clamoring for support, whereupon he sensibly cleared the way for plural marriages.
In the heart of Islam in Saudi Arabia, no woman is allowed to venture out of the house without the Hijaab, or the notorious black veil. To my knowledge, nowhere do you find the imposition of veils on women in the early Muslim community. All that the Qur'an decrees is for women to dress modestly, as indeed Christian women are also commanded. In fact the practice of covering does not even figure in early Arab culture. Covering as a cultural practice originates as a Persian custom and only becomes a widespread Islamic practice centuries later, with the incorporation of Persia into the Muslim world.
What about the issue of dissent based on individual conscience? Again, the Reformation has settled this matter in the West. By contrast, to my knowledge, there is no room for individual disagreement based on one's conscience in the Islamic world. The example of Sheikh M. M. Taha is sadly instructive here. Taha, a Sudanese national, a great Muslim scholar and one of the most original minds of the twentieth century in the Muslim world, was executed in 1983 by Jaafar al-Nimeiry, former dictator of the Sudan, on grounds of religious heresy. Sheikh Taha's sin: he ventured to offer the opinion that it was not necessary to pray 5 times a day, and that the love of God in the heart overrides these anachronistic daily rituals. Rituals were meant, said he, for Bedouin tribes some fourteen centuries ago. For the record, I disagree with Taha, as I firmly hold the opinion that rituals are essential for the endurance of religion. Look at the Catholics and Jews. But was this enough to hang the greatest mind in the land? When was the last Westerner to be executed for religious heresy? I bet none, since Savonarola was burned at the stake by the Borgia Pope, Alexander VI in the fifteenth century. Nimeiry asked Sheikh Taha to recant. Recant? That word vanished from European vocabulary with the Reformation. And Sheikh Taha's passion on the way to the hanging Tower still resonates, every bit as passionately, dramatically and pathetically as that of Christ on the way to Calvary.
What about the humane tolerance of peoples of other faiths that was the hallmark of the classical age of Islam? Here, in Rome, the heart of Christianity, Muslims are completely at liberty to construct Mosques and other houses of worship with complete religious freedom. Would the heart of Islam, namely, Saudi Arabia, return the courtesy by allowing Christians to build churches in Mecca and Medina!? Is it not time for Muslims to engage in a painful, collective self-examination? Too often we hear the litany of exhortations calling upon the West to understand Islam. That is putting the question upside down. Westerners need no new understanding of Muslims, they already do understand Islam and Muslims exceptionally well. Every university worthy of the name in Europe and America has a department of Islamic studies. My colleague here, Alessandro, is a leading faculty member of an entire institution that does nothing but specialize in studying Islam and Muslims. Can one locate a single university offering advanced degrees on Western civilization in any Muslim country, perhaps with the possible exception of Turkey and Egypt? So, to put the issue of understanding right side up, it is of pressing urgency for Muslims to understand Europeans and their heritage.
In short, blind conservatism has imprisoned the mind of Muslims. Smugly comfortable in our untroubled ignorance, we Muslims want to sleep in complacent indolence. But Westerners would not let us sleep. They keep on kicking us in the backside, in order to give us a rude awakening. Will Muslims do it-–undergo the agonizing pains of reform in order to transform their societies to a competitive level? Here a troubling question obtrudes: why isn't there a single democratic country in the Muslim world? Turkey?–well, a democracy of sorts? Why does democracy work in India, and not in Pakistan? The two countries are about the same level of technical and economic development. In fact, were it not for the religious factor, Pakistan and India would be practically indistinguishable. Then why does democracy work in the one, and not in the other? Is there something about Islamic culture, at least as it is practiced today, that is fundamentally and inherently anti-democratic?
All too often Muslims do not ask these questions, and when they do, do not make them actionable. If so–-and in the absence of urgent reforms--Muslims are likely to continue to chafe under the oppressive heel of secularized, highly skilled Western barbarians. And they will fall further and further behind the West in science and technology, and therefore in economic and political well being Then the unhappy, hungry masses of Islam from Nigeria to Indonesia are likely to rise in a massive insurrection, which will no doubt result in cataclysmic social upheavals that are likely to throw up a million Bin Ladens to the forefront. Then the West will see a kind of rage and terror that is bound to make the present disturbances look like a child's play.
(Note: This is a revised version of a paper presented on May 27, 2002 before an audience of diplomats and professionals with interest in the Horn of Africa at the Italian Foreign Ministry.)
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