The Business of Islamism: A Rational Look at Political Islam in Somalia
Newsletter Article, Belfer Center Newsletter, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
Author: Aisha Ahmad, Former Research Fellow, Initiative on Religion in International Affairs/International Security Program, 2011–2012
The rise of political Islam in failed states is one of the most pressing security concerns in the world today. Given the increasingly tense interaction between the United States and Islamic countries, such as Pakistan and Iran, the potential for new Islamic regimes emerging out of failed states in Africa, Asia and the Middle East could add a notable degree of uncertainty to future international relations.
Somalia is an exemplary case. Earlier this February, Al-Qaeda leader Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri and Somali commander Sheikh Ahmed Godane made a joint public announcement declaring the formal affiliation of Somalia’s radical Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (Movement of the Warrior Youth) with Al-Qaeda Central. As Kenyan and Ethiopian forces escalate their military offensives against Al-Shabaab in the south, the security situation in Somalia is rapidly deteriorating and threatens a broader regional war in East Africa.
While Somalia has been a collapsed state for 21 years, the causes of this recent wave of Islamism are much more recent. In 2006, a domestic Islamic movement called the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) emerged in Mogadishu, calling for an end to the civil war and the construction of a unified government on the basis of a common Islamic identity and Shariah law. Within six months they captured and controlled a majority of the Somali countryside and re-established the rule of law for the first time since the collapse of the state.
In December 2006, a U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia violently overthrew the UIC, with the aim of curbing the rise of Islamism in the Horn of Africa. The plan backfired. Instead, the Ethiopian presence sparked a rally-round-the-flag effect among disaffected Somali youth who were enthused by the achievements of the Islamic Courts. Up until the Ethiopian strike, only a small handful of Al-Qaeda operatives were physically present in Somalia, and transnational terrorist groups found the country to be a very inhospitable and inaccessible operating environment. The US-backed intervention opened the door to transnational extremists, handing Al-Qaeda a golden opportunity to capitalize on the momentum of the youth movement and entrench themselves in the Somali south.
What caused the rise of Islamism in Somalia? Through my interviews with the Mogadishu business elite and members of the original Islamic Courts movement, I discovered that the momentum behind the support for the UIC was largely driven by the practical challenges of doing business under conditions of state failure. In the mid-2000s, the Mogadishu business community invested in the construction of the UIC movement as a mechanism to reduce their costs and increase their access to profitable in-land markets. The interests behind this new Islamic movement were capitalist, not fundamentalist. These interests were not, in principle, in conflict with the non-Islamic world.
My conversations with street vendors in Kabul, traders in Peshawar, and millionaires in Mogadishu have led me to the same conclusions. Outside of failed states, everyone talks about identity, religion and culture. Inside of failed states, everyone talks about money. In fact, I have found the vast majority of political Islamists in failed states to be rational and cost-calculating decision-makers, who would be quite happy to trade and live peacefully with the rest of the world.
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