COMMENT: Pirates and piety —Saleem H Ali
What is remarkable is that the new Somali government has managed to form an alliance between a group of devoutly religious Islamists and a bunch of Western-educated technocrats. There is still a group of even more hardened young jihadists (known as Al Shabab) who continue to call for the retrogressive interpretation of sharia
A few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to meet the foreign minister of Somalia at an event organised after the Arab League Summit in Doha. Mr Mohamed A Omaar is a suave Oxford-educated gentleman who spent much of his career overseas but was convinced to return to his homeland and become part of the new coalition government that has recently been formed in Mogadishu.
I marvelled at his willingness to leave a relatively comfortable life to take on a high-risk career in a country that has most often been associated with the term “state failure”. Several decades of civil war; a short but failed effort at stabilisation by the US; the secession of its northern region of Somaliland; and an armed intervention from some of its African neighbours have left the country utterly fractured and dysfunctional.
The result has been a dramatic rise in a loot-driven economy, most acutely manifest in the rise of piracy from the Somali coast in which a whole bevy of characters from fishermen to former navy officials have been implicated. The International Maritime Bureau reported that 111 of the 293 incidents of piracy or armed robbery at sea worldwide in 2008 took place off the coast of Somalia — double the number from the preceding year.
Sadly, it is the novelty and drama of piracy on the high seas that has brought back the world’s attention to this beleaguered yet promising land of frankincense. Accounts of Somali piracy have ranged from sheer dread of their links to Al Qaeda to a romanticisation of their efforts to stop illegal dumping and over-fishing in the region.
Anyhow, the American media got a diversion from covering Pakistan’s turmoil this week by focusing on the dramatic rescue of an American captain from Somali pirates. In another engaging twist to this story, the ship that was pirated was not some commercial vessel carrying goods to fuel global trade but rather food aid for impoverished Africans!
Captain Richard Phillips hails from my home state of Vermont and got a hero’s welcome when he returned to his village of Underhill, a few miles from our home. At the same time, a Somali pirate was also brought back to the US to face a piracy trial for the first time in almost a century. There is bewildered amusement on American talk shows about this young captive whose age is not known by even his parents.
Interestingly enough, many small towns in the United State have encountered Somalis in various capacities because of the United States’ willingness to accept several thousand refugees from the country over the past decade. Many of them have been placed in far-flung states and are beginning to build their lives as so many other immigrants have done in the fabled American “melting pot”.
Yet the captive pirate is more of a curiosity than any of the immigrants and brings home the striking interactions that can occur between communities in a globalised economic system. Negligence to consider deteriorating state circumstances across the world can impact communities far removed from each other. The same argument for imminent intervention is being used regarding Pakistan’s situation.
Surprisingly enough, Pakistan and Somalia have had peculiar ties and commonalities. Among the few foreign students still enrolled at Karachi University is a group of Somalis, whose interest in coming to Pakistan for higher education is representative of several decades of educational cooperation between the two countries. Perhaps a more striking commonality that the two countries seem to currently share is that both governments are negotiating with Islamists. The new President of Somalia, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, is a hafiz-ul Quran trained at Sudanese and Libyan Islamic institutes and was formerly commander of the Islamic Courts Union. Interestingly, the Islamist movement in Somalia also arose out of the need for judicial reform, similar to what happened in Swat.
What is remarkable is that the new Somali government has managed to form an alliance between a group of devoutly religious Islamists and a bunch of Western-educated technocrats. There is still a group of even more hardened young jihadists (known as Al Shabab) who continue to call for the retrogressive interpretation of sharia. However, they are being marginalised by the Islamic Courts Union itself and most religious clerics in the country as misguided absolutists. The country seems to finally be seeing some light at the end of the tunnel and got commitments of more than $300 million in development assistance at a donors’ conference in Brussels earlier in the week.
These developments augur well for Somalia but also have some important lessons for our own Islamist parties in Pakistan. It is high time that some of the educated Muslim scholars from the Jama’at-e Islaami and other religious institutions as well make it clear that the Taliban brand of Islam is a caricature of this great faith. Just as the Islamic Courts Union has disassociated itself from Al Shabab and Al Qaeda, and formed an alliance for the implementation of a pluralistic vision of Islam, the Pakistani ulema must actively sermonise to reclaim the minds of the youth in the Frontier from the infection of militancy.
If such a transformation is possible in Somalia, that has held the epithet of Islamist state failure for so many decades, it can surely be possible in Pakistan too.
Dr Saleem H Ali is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s research centre in Doha, Qatar and an associate professor of environmental planning and Asian Studies at the University of Vermont. His latest book is Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan’s Madrassahs (Oxford University Press, 2009). www.saleemali.net