Author: Cedric Barnes and Harun Hassan
Institution: Chatham House and the Horn of Africa Group
Publication Date: 2007
Keywords: Religion, Somalia
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The paper examines the evolution of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in Somalia and how religion, alongside other political drivers, appears to have had unifying power across a range of disparate groups as well as the ability to mobilise substantial popular support. The paper finds that while the courts arose out of a need to improve law and order, ideological divisions became more pronounced over time and ultimately contributing to their down fall. The case study highlights the multi-dimensional nature of religious ideology; how it can interweave with clan or traditional identities and systems, and how it can adapt to the pressures of external influences, subsequently affecting governance and political processes positively and negatively. This paper is useful for those interested in religion’s role in uniting populations and maintaining security and legitimacy within a fragile state.
In 2006, a variety of Islamist organisations, centred on an established network of local Islamic or sharia courts in Mogadishu, formed the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). The movement seized control, uniting Mogadishu for the first time in 16 years.Although far from universally popular The ICU improved security for many, enjoyed the support of the business community and provided alternative means of governance based on sharia law. A significantcontrast to the pre-2006 Warlord dominated era.
To most observers, the Islamic Courts Union was a ‘broad mosque’, bringing together people from moderate and extreme wings of political Islam. It appears that the ICU initially arose out of a need to improve law and order more than religious imperative. The Courts were not presided over by expert Islamic judges, nor were they adherents to any specific school of Islamic law; in fact they resorted to clan structures to enforce their rulings. The Courts gained support from key activists who began to subscribe to forms of political Islam ranging from Quttubism to Wahhabism which exhibited radical, violent and anti-Western sentiment. The paper infers that these ideological divisions in the Islamic Courts Union became clear as various wings began to make policies and statements without reference to the collective leadership. The paper argues that the ICU’s downfall can be accredited to the subsequent inconsistencies in their diplomatic position and their failed negotiations with the Transitional Federal Government and external players. Increased tension and lack of transparency ultimately worked against the collective leadership of the Courts. Their lack of clarity on policy towards terrorism elicited increased international pressure and ultimately to the internationally backed Ethiopian intervention which established the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu in 2007.
The Islamic Courts’ military and administrative presence appeared to collapse under growing opposition and their reign over south-central Somalia ended abruptly in 2007. Any problems of rule under the Islamic Courts were later dwarfed by the violence and chaos that followed the Ethiopian intervention. The paper concludes by predicting that what ever Somalia’s future the popularity of the courts is not likely to dissipate. It was out of this context that al-Shabaab ‘the Youth’ emerged, related to, but seemingly autonomous of, the broad-based Courts movement.
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