The latest outrage by the Somali jihadist group al-Shabaab – a truck bombing in Mogadishu that killed more than 100 people, targeting students lined up for news about scholarships to Turkey – has produced condemnation from the United Nations, Western states, the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG), and Somali civic groups.
That makes no difference at all. Al-Shabaab’s leadership wears criticism from the West like a badge of honor. As for the Somali people, al-Shabaab treats them like cannon fodder, and uses their country as a platform for jihad and as a base for a small financial empire based on extortion and environmentally rapacious charcoal exports.
Most of al-Shabaab’s fighters are forced conscripts – young boys offered up by frightened, destitute households in lieu of taxes. Worst of all is its shocking handling of the massive famine now taking place in southern Somalia.
Al-Shabaab is blocking most international relief agencies from accessing famine areas, preventing famine victims from reaching help, and forcing farmers back to their barren land, where most will die unseen and unrecorded. A half-million people could perish on al-Shabaab’s watch.
Al-Shabaab justifies its brutal behavior with a deeply twisted ideology that combines a crude distortion of Islam with a Khmer Rouge-style embrace of radical agrarian-based autarky and murderous contempt for those with formal education. In the process, it is managing the singular feat of glorifying Somali peasants while starving them to death, and blowing up Somali youth hoping to secure an education abroad.
An interpretation of Islam that sanctions such violence is an affront to every Muslim. Even al-Qaeda must be dismayed that it is affiliated with the group – it has been deafeningly silent about al-Shabaab’s handling of the famine. Imagine that: a group so extreme that even al-Qaeda’s leaders are embarrassed.
There was a time several years ago when al-Shabaab’s claim to be waging jihad against infidels had currency in the Islamic world and among Somalis. Indeed, American and Ethiopian policies in the recent past are largely to blame for al-Shabaab’s rise. But, since 2008, al-Shabaab’s top leaders have mutated into hyper-violent ultra-extremists whose actions appear to have nothing to do with Islam or defensive jihad and everything to do with raw survivalism.
They have nowhere to go if Somalia is stabilized, which gives them every reason to need to keep Somalia engulfed in chaos and violence. They are now just another spoiler – Islamo-warlords – in a political landscape replete with predators feeding off of Somalia’s prolonged misery.
So, what can be done? In a recent article, “Do Muslims Really Care about Somalia?”, Akbar Ahmed and Frankie Martin challenged the Muslim world to increase its aid to Somalia. This is a laudable initiative, and concerned Muslims and non-Muslims alike should be encouraged to help. Aid agencies that have managed to negotiate access with al-Shabaab should continue to do so, even though their activities are severely restricted. But the main problem is not inadequate aid; the problem is getting access to those who need it.
What the Muslim world should provide, aside from more aid, is intense pressure on al-Shabaab, in the form of fatwas – lots of them. Muslims should call on every eminent Islamic scholar and cleric in every country, representing every school of Islamic thought, to issue a legal opinion on the morality of al-Shabaab’s policies and behavior. Al-Shabaab’s leaders must be left with no doubt that they are viewed by the entire Muslim world – from Sufi to Salafi, and by Sunni and Shia alike – as un-Islamic war criminals.
Will this lead al-Shabaab hardliners to change their behavior, allow food aid to flow unimpeded into southern Somalia, and avert a famine? Probably not. But it would help to isolate the group still further, dry up any remaining sources of external funding, and mobilize Somalis to resist it. A wave of fatwas from the Islamic world might even embolden less radical factions within al-Shabaab to defect or take action against the small circle of extremists at the top of the group.
A public, massive repudiation of al-Shabaab by eminent Islamic figures is important not only for Somalia, but for Islam itself. Al-Shabaab’s actions – its gratuitous violence and starving of its own people – have nothing to do with Islam, and it should not be allowed to tarnish the faith by claiming to advance its cause.
Ken Menkhaus is a professor of political science at Davidson College and a fellow at the Enough Project, an anti-genocide group based in Washington, DC.