Moderate Islamists take on hard-liners in battle for Somalia
Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a moderate, was elected president last week by Somalia's transitional parliament. But hard-line militant Islamists are fighting to take over the country.
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Perhaps the only thing standing in Al Shabab's way is an unlikely enemy: an army of citizens and clerics who are fighting to preserve what's left of the Somalia that they have known for generations.
Western experts call them moderate Islamists; they call themselves Ahlu Sunna wa Jamaa.
Compared with the highly trained, well-funded Al Shabab, which took the transitional capital of Baidoa last week, Ahlu Sunna is poorly armed, but popular. And although the moderate Sheikh Sharif Ahmed was elected president of Somalia by a transitional parliament last week, Ahlu Sunna knows that its time is running out.
"For Ahlu Sunna, a key concept is that everyone has the right to human dignity and peaceful coexistence, and a political war is not part of our principles," says Sheikh Mahamad Moallem Hussein, the secretary-general of Ahlu Sunna, in a recent interview in Kenya's capital, Nairobi. "But when we came to see that there is no life security for the common man, no law and order, and even the dead are not safe – their tombs are destroyed and looted – that is when the situation could not be tolerated any longer."
As adherents of a passivist Sufi order, Mr. Hussein and the members of Ahlu Sunna do not make natural warriors, but they may be Somalia's last best hope for restoring peace.
Claiming to represent a broad swath of Somalia's citizens, Ahlu Sunna have recently taken up arms and secured a number of military victories over the better armed, better funded Al Shabab.
Now, as Ethiopian peacekeepers withdraw, and a secular transitional government appear to be all but forced into exile, Ahlu Sunna's time for testing appears to have finally come.
"Al Shabab has consolidated its control over southern Somalia, and it's a caricature to call them, as you see in the news media, a rag tag militia with a harsh version of Islam – in fact they are quite sophisticated and are much more in touch with the common man than the secularists," says Rashid Abdi, a Somali expert at the International Crisis Group in Nairobi.
Mr. Abdi admits that Ahlu Sunna's passivist and spiritual outlook is more in tune with Somali society, even after decades of war, but the Sufi clerics are taking a big risk by taking up arms and entering politics.
"The dilemma for Ahlu Sunna is that the more they take arms and pursue a military agenda, the more they erode their moral high ground and credibility," he says. "It's a contradiction for Sufi clerics to go to battle, for whom quietism and passivism are the highest ideals. But for Al Shabab, violence is sacrosanct."