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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Violence, in any case, has been the story of Somalia's past 18 years, since the fall of its last real government under the dictator Siad Barre in 1991.Skip to next paragraph
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As rival clans sought to impose their control over the country, nearly 1.1 million Somalis have been displaced from their homes, and a staggering 3.2 million Somalis (40 percent of the population) now rely on food aid for survival.
Unifying power of Islam?
Amid the constant clan-based wars, the one possible unifying force continues to be Islam, a religion that more than 95 percent of Somalis share. But which version of Islam will Somalis embrace?
War has undermined the traditional Sufi school of Islam, whose clerics have often supported one clan leader or warlord in the past two decades.
Many young Somalis find the forceful message of violent action espoused by the Salafists – and the $200 per month salary they offer young fighters – more attractive than the patient approach of compromise taught by the Sufis.
When Islamists took control of most of Somalia in July 2006, under a coalition calling itself the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), much of the Somali population also found them attractive.
In short order, the Islamists dismantled the checkpoints of various warlord factions, restored law and order, and even put a brief stop to piracy. But threats by radicals within the UIC promises to create a Greater Somalia, including ethnic Somali areas in Ethiopia and Kenya, prompted Ethiopia to send in troops and overthrow the Islamic Courts six months later, backed quietly by the US.
Foreign peacekeepers leave
Ethiopia's forceful two-year intervention succeeded in dislodging Al Shabab and other Islamist militias from political control, but it also increased their popularity, as scores of young Somalis took up arms to expel the foreign force.
Al Shabab has been using Ethiopia's departure last month as a rallying cry to take over.
Sheikh Hussein, the Ahlu Sunna's secretary-general, admits that his group is less well armed than Al Shabab, but he insists that the public is firmly behind Ahlu Sunna. "Because we have the population on our side, we are going to succeed without large casualties," he says. "We can isolate our population from Al Shabab, and we will make inroads to get the hearts of youths. If we can succeed with that, then definitely we can start to dismantle their military power."
While the notion of an Islamist government makes countries like the US uneasy, most experts agree that Somalia can only have peace if Islamists take a role in government.
"The reason past governments have failed is that they always ended up being dominated by one group, with several other groups left out," says Iqbal Jhazbhay, a Horn of Africa specialist at the University of South Africa in Tshwane. "But if they can find a way to bring the Islamists on board, they may be able to neutralize and soften some of the non-moderate ideas. The Somalis themselves are a pragmatic people, and they will be a check and balance on the hardness of the Islamists."