Tackling the new Wahhabi extremism: Africa’s menace for the coming years

SOMALIA: NOW AND THEN  

If you believe that Somalia’s problems can be pinpointed to particular phenomena such as sea pirates or the terrorist group, Al Shabaab, you are being mistaken. Even the Somali clan politics, the warlords, the so-called spoilers of peace, the secessionists in the north and even the downright anarchists are neither the source nor the propellers of the Somalia conflict. These groups simply act as power brokers or supervisors for the uncontrollable events in the Horn of Africa country.

When the Somali state collapsed in 1991, the government’s social management institution – for cultural and religious guidance – which controlled what is permissible in the country and what is not – went with it. And with the lack of border controls following immediately the collapse of the Somali state, numerous foreign Islamic ideologies were imported into the country. The biggest and most effective of all, the Saudi Arabia’s Wahabi Islam (recently upgraded to Salafism) – which was not traditionally practiced by the African societies – found a fertile ground in the vacuum that followed the overthrow of Siyad Barre’s military government.

Moreover, it is a universally held view that at times of hardship ordinary people seek refuge in extreme forms of religion. If you live in rundown small town America, for example, or the economically deprived cities of northern England, there would certainly be a knock on your door at least once in a fortnight by a deeply religious Jehovah Witness militant, inviting you to their next meeting at church, while at the same time handing out their latest message from Jesus. And had there not been effective governments with sound economies assisted by the free – and increasingly right-wing – mainstream media in both Britain and the USA, these Christian fundamentalists would have possibly caused unimaginable destruction to society. Unfortunately, in the case of Somalia and some parts of Africa, there is no mechanism to ward off the onslaught of the Wahabi Islam extremists across the waters in the Red Sea or the global Jihadists elsewhere.

Following the disintegration of Somalia as a nation, the grief stricken Somali populace – believing that help is at hand – readily embraced the new teachings of Islam, and the incentives for the Somali people are what I call ‘cash for extremism’. Throughout the civil war in Somalia, the Saudis had never supported the security services of the relatively peaceful semi-autonomous states of the north while at the same time sending shiploads of food and Wahabi Islam literature to the South. The outcome was that the overwhelming majority of Somalis – one way or another – developed some sort of Islamic extremism. And largely unnoticed by both the Somali diaspora communities and the general population inside the country, a strange and alien religious fundamentalism was to spiral out of control, diluting and fragmenting the unique Somalia camel boys folklore and poetry-based culture. The fine and tolerant Somali society was fatally wounded.