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Last Updated: Monday, 15 January 2007, 15:29 GMT
What role for Islam in Somalia?
Ayman al-Zawahri
Ayman al-Zawahri called for Somalis to launch suicide attacks
After the rapid retreat of the Union of Islamic Courts in Somalia, what is the future of political Islam in the country?

Recent events in Somalia have once again thrown the country into turmoil, with the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) being driven from Mogadishu and out of power in a matter of days by government forces backed by Ethiopia.

The action drew an angry response from radical Islamists, with al-Qaeda's number two Ayman al-Zawahiri calling for Muslims to rush to Somalia to support a continued insurgency, and describing the country as a "Crusader battlefield where the West is fighting Islam."

The BBC's Mohammad Olad Hassan in Mogadishu said that it cannot be estimated how many Somalis actually supported the Islamic Sharia law under which the country was run by the UIC.

But he added that what the Islamists had brought was stability, and there are now fears of a return to lawlessness.

"When the Islamists were in control in Mogadishu, the situation was very calm - people felt that stability and security was restored," he told BBC World Service's Reporting Religion programme.

"Many people supported the Islamists because of that security, regardless of the other things that they were doing."

Sects

Despite the withdrawal of the UIC from the country's capital, there remains a feeling that, in a country where nearly the entire population are Muslims, Islam as a political force has not been destroyed.

"They feel that regardless of the government in Somalia, there should be respect for the law of Islam," our correspondent added.

Map

Most Somali Muslims are split between the moderate and secular Sufi sects and the more fundamental al-Ittihad sects - from which most of the leaders of the Union of Islamic Courts, and those who supported them, were drawn.

Sufis now say that with al-Ittihad's influence gone, "it is now time to practice the principles of the Sufi sects."

Meanwhile, Haroun Hassan, a Somali journalist based in London, said that some Somalis began to favour the use of Islamic law after becoming disillusioned with democracy.

"The modern political system of Somalia has been based on corruption, nepotism and bad management," he explained.

"That has created, within many Somalis, the feeling that perhaps democracy or man-made constitutions are not the right answer to the political saga.

"They were saying: 'We don't have to be dormant with regard to the running of the country, we should not separate religion from politics, we should base religion on every aspect of life.'

"That's how al-Ittihad came into existence, that's how a good number of former al-Ittihad members came to be in running of the Union of Islamic Courts."

Taking refuge in religion

This religious aspect was brought into the war against Ethiopia, with the UIC declaring jihad, or holy war, against its larger neighbour.

Sheikh Aweys
Sheikh Aweys's UIC was driven out of Mogadishu in days
"What they wanted to do was reach absolute purity - saying: 'Let's defend our country; that's what our religion asks us to do'," Mr Hassan said.

Since the UIC's retreat, the clan from which its leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys belongs has said it would like to take part in the political process as the new transitional government takes over.

The BBC's Mohammad Olad Hassan said that most Somalis would like to see an Islamic element to the way the future government is set up, and that "they are expecting Islamic law to be a major thing."

And Haroun Hassan added that he believes that if the current politicians in the Somali government do not deliver, "then the Union of Islamic Courts will come back.

"It should not surprise us to see members of the Union of Islamic Courts in the streets of Mogadishu in the coming months," he added.

"Somalia's people are confused. They want anybody who can bring them stability for a period of time. That's why they have taken refuge in religion."


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