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Sharia Courts and Military Politics in Stateless Somalia

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What are the reasons for the rise and expansion of political Islam in Somalia? What is the nature of Somalia’s Islamist actors? This book chapter examines the origins and status of political and military Islam in Somalia. It argues that fears of the threat posed by radical Islam in Somalia are exaggerated, but not totally unjustified. The strength of Somalia’s Islamist actors has little to do with clan relations, but is instead based on the provision of security and basic services.

The Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) consolidated its power in Somalia through a local and legitimate political process undertaken in partnership with the Somali business community. However, extremist elements hijacked the courts and used them to pursue radical Islamist goals, resulting in the Ethiopian intervention against the UIC. Nevertheless, the real importance of Somalia’s Islamists is that they successfully targeted the needs of urban society. The business class of Mogadishu found the Islamic courts a useful mechanism for providing law and order, which enabled the Islamists to increase their influence. While external factors and ideological motives are important, the enduring appeal of militant Islamic groups in Somalia lies in their provision of security.

Some argue that the Islamist constituency in Somalia is narrow and that the UIC is dominated by and unable to expand beyond the Hawiye clan. However, while the UIC did not realise its goal, it did intend to transform into a multi-clan national movement. The actions of the UIC during its brief occupation of central and southern Somalia demonstrates the extent to which radical Islam has spread in Somalia. The UIC: 

  • attempted to institute Wahabism as the only form of Islam to be practised in Somalia, revealing the intent and ambition of the Islamist movement;
  • used Somali irredentism and nationalist rhetoric, while in fact pursuing global Islamist goals;
  • imposed a ban on less radical Islamic groups such as the al-Islah;
  • deliberately associated itself with the international confrontation between Islam and non-believers, repeatedly calling for jihad.
The growth of Islamist groups in Somalia is a product of both domestic social and political trends and external influences:
  • Widespread poverty, the failure of the state to provide basic services and the bankruptcy of secular ideologies have created an ideological vacuum. In this context, the message of political Islam is attractive to Somalis.
  • The complete absence of law enforcement has enabled Islamist groups, in the form of the Islamic Courts, to gain acceptance as providers of security. As such, they have gained support from the business community and clan leaders.
  • Big business in Somalia is associated with Islamist finances and links to Dubai and Saudi Arabia. Even if some of these business links are based on self-interest, they inevitably involve activities that promote and defend the Islamist project and cause.
  • Western aid is virtually non-existent in Somalia. Islamic aid agencies, on the other hand, are providing education and health services, supporting mosques and offering scholarships for study in the Middle East.


Author: Medhane Tadesse
Source: Tadesse M., 2008, 'Sharia Courts and Military Politics in Stateless Somalia', in Hot Spot Horn of Afirca Revisited: Approaches to Make Sense of Conflict, Lit Verlag, Berlin