Islamo-Nationalism: Somalia Edition

Apropos of Scott’s reflections on a potentially more nimble stance of the US in foreign policy, as well as the deal or no deal with Hamas posts, I found this Washington Post piece on Somalia quite intriguing.

The wiki on recent Somalia history is a good place to start.  Recall that in 2006 The Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a series of militias and political groups united under an Islamist banner (some so-called moderate Islamists others much more hardline) came to power.  Like the Afghan Taliban of the 90s, they originally rose to control through ending a decade plus long tribal civil war. The ICU in other words, was, another one of these Islamo-nationalist groups.

Similar to the Taliban (and in some ways Hamas, Hezbollah), these groups form their own justice tribunals (“courts”).  Particulalrly in areas of poltical neglect and corruption.  Their form of justice, however, can often be quite brutal.

Regardless the ICU never really got a chance to govern (for better or worse) as the US backed an Ethiopian force that knocked the Islamic Courts out of power, installing a weak, transitional puppet government packed with cruel and corrupt figures.  The US argument was that Somalia would become a base for al-Qaeda terrorism throughout the horn of Africa.  This was at the height of the War on Terror mindset, wherein all manner of often distinct groups were labeled as enemies an linked in some manner with al-Qaeda (Hamas,  Saddam Hussein, Islamic Courts Union, etc.)

Others argued that accepting the ICU group (at least provisionally) was the better course to pursue as a violent response to the group would undoubtedly tip the scales in favor of the violent/more extreme sides

The ICU split into a series of factions, a number of which continued an armed struggle against the transitional government (with both sides accused of human rights violations).  As is well documented, Islamists groups that enter into political theater but are not accepted by outside powers and/or are attacked, sometimes thrown from power, end up inevitably taking up arms.  See Front of Islamic Salvation in 1990s Algeria and Hamas as other examples in addition to the ICU.

The potential during further intense, bloody, urban guerrilla conflict, then exists for these groups to become even more radicalized,  inundated as they are in an environment that might best be labeled “survival of the most extreme”.

Which is exactly what has happened in Somalia (2007-2008) and now the transitional government is on the way out (since it never hada real base of support being totally reliant on outside powers for aid).  Which brings us back to the Wapo article (my emphasis):

The departure of the last Ethiopian tanks from Somalia’s capital is ushering in a new phase of conflict in a nation known for clan warfare: a battle for power among militias flying Islamist banners. In some ways, the situation in Somalia, where people have long practiced a moderate and mostly apolitical form of Islam, has circled back to where it was when the Ethiopians invaded two years ago. After the deaths of at least 10,000 people and the displacement of 1 million, Ethiopia and the United States are now supporting a political compromise that stands to return to power some of the same moderate Islamist leaders they originally ousted.

Except now the cycle of violence and the natural selection logic of insurgency has given birth to a mutated hard core Islamist faction (called Al Shabab):

Those leaders, in turn, face an even worse version of the same problem they had when they first tried to govern: how to control the Shabab, which the United States has labeled a terrorist group. After fighting a two-year-long insurgency, the Shabab has split off from the core movement and become more radical and battle-hardened, with various factions controlling much of southern Somalia.

The article also goes on to say that a number of warlords are getting into the game, re-styling themselves as Islamists (including some named Greasy and White-Eyed!!!!).  The fragmentation continues apace and with a global black weapons market and no economic potential domestically, the price of entry is very low and not lacking in any number of players.

The Bush administration’s policy of outright rejecting of any Islamist group (of whatever flavor) has had massive negative consequences.  The bloodshed of the last two years could potentially have been averted (or at least seriously diminished) had the initial response to the ICU been different.  Who knows.  The key is that the same forces that are driving the difficulties in state-building (i.e. fragmentation, criminality, tribalism, warlordism fueled by black market operations) also put intense pressure on the insurgent groups themselves (like al Shabab).  As in Afghanistan, The Taliban are increasingly bulit as a coaliton of various groups with various tendencies (from ultra-puritannical conservative extremist to less extreme forms).  Similar with Shabab.  It is itself is already splitting up.

Fortunately the US has begun to back a UN sponsored arrangement that would involve various groups (including some “moderate” elements of the ICU).   Obama would in my mind be well advised to follow this course.  This scenario seems to me to set up perfectly into Obama’s wheelhouse of diplomacy and returning American standing.  A number of countries could be brought in on this deal (including China).

As political Islam, in various guises and forms, increasingly becomes the only alternative to corrupt dictatorships throughout The Middle East, much of the Horn of Africa, perhaps this deal, if it leads to a longer-standing and potentially more effective government, could be a prototype for dealing with this type of scenario in the future.  Because I guarantee this is only one of many  such similar situations to come (particularly throughout segments of Africa).

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One thought on “Islamo-Nationalism: Somalia Edition

  1. We are fighting an ideology that is represented by a series of non-state actors: these groups challenge the authority of states, challenge the rule of law, operate across state boundaries, use indiscriminate violence in an asymmetric fight to achieve their aims and so forth. If we don’t understand the enemy, we’re doomed from the start. This “islamo-nationalism” idea doesn’t help and that the only support you have for it is Oliver Roy just makes it worse. Why do you rely on him? Of all the scholars of Islam I can think of, he’s the least reliable. In 2004, he said that Hamas was cooperating with Fatah in the interests of “islamo-nationalism.” His ideas lead to such egregious errors.

    If nationalism was an important part of Arab or Islamic ideology, then what was stopping them from negotiating in 1937/1947/2000 with respect to Palestine/Israel? In contrast, Zionism is a nationalist ideology and they had no qualms in those years of accepting an offer of a nation-state, even if the offer didn’t fullfil all their desires. Arabs, in contrast, accept no compromise, in part because they do not accept the idea of the nation-state if it isn’t somehow Islamic–which means that it isn’t based on nationalism in the first place. If they won’t compromise, then they must be defeated. To preempt my being called a racist neo imperialist warmonger, this defeat does not have to be a genocidal bloodbath. It can happen through diplomacy, if people in the West agree that it should happen. Unfortunately, this is not happening today so the bloodshed will go on.

    “Islamo-nationalism” will appeal to people who lack an understanding of the Arab/Islamic world because it appeals to a founding principle of the Western political world-view. It’s a “given.” But it isn’t a given in the Arab/Islamic world, where people’s primary loyalties go to the family, tribe, region, sect, and ultimately, religion. Even more so, it’s anathema to the Islamist ideology. Of course, everyone today lives in a nation-state even if they want to overthrow it. That’s because the West has succeeded in imposing this idea on the whole world. It’s part of the idea of globalization. But that hardly implies that everyone wants to preserve the western model, even if they want to overthrow a particular nation-state and replace it with another (their own). Islamists reject the Western model in its entirety, and this includes nationalism. They want to impose an Islamic model of globalization on the world, not just tweak the Western model so as to get more “rights” and “freedom.” These ideas are not even part of their world view to begin with. By trying to understand today’s Islamists as nationalists, we’re distorting reality in unacceptable ways. Roy’s intention is to oppose the US-led backlash against the Islamist attacks, not to provide an analysis that will be useful for us in this fight.

    If there’s any place on earth that shows the folly of imposing nationalism on the Arab/Islamic world view, that place is Somalia. There has never been a nation-state there. It is wholly a creation of European colonialism and did not make the transition to post colonialism. This imposition of the Western worldview has generated crisis after crisis in Somalia. For a contrast, just look at Djibouti. The West has never cared about it, so they have been able to organize things in their own way, which means that Djibouti is controlled by clans.

    The Bush administration’s policy of rejecting any Islamist group is the correct one and it will be followed by the Obama administration as well. This policy did not cause any bloodshed whatsoever. The bloodshed was and is caused by the Islamist’s attacks on us, which we responded to correctly by putting ourselves on a war footing. That’s because Islamism has the goal of replacing the Western world order with an Islamist world order. At this level, no negotiations are possible, and never will be until either we or the Islamists are defeated. I want our side to win. What about you?

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