Do Muslims Really Care About Somalia?

If they do, here's how they can save the country from famine.

A young, rail-thin, and gaunt Somali woman, cradling her starving child in her arms, looks straight into the camera. Her eyes are dead; she has seen too much suffering. "Where are the Muslim countries?" she asks. "We are dying."

The image is haunting, and her words keep coming back, though they were broadcast on the BBC a few weeks ago now. Her plea is real. The richest Muslims in the world live just across the waters in the Gulf states, where billions of dollars are spent on indoor skiing facilities, artificial islands to host luxury hotels and water parks, and frolicking in yachts and faux European villas. There is never a dearth of funds for magnificent mosques, but when it comes to alleviating the mass starvation of a people, Muslims are coming up short.

The only head of state or government to have visited Somalia since the famine began is Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As if to emphasize the need to show support, he brought along his wife and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. Erdogan also demonstrated that instability is no excuse for not aiding Somalis; he presided over the reopening of Turkey's Mogadishu embassy after two decades of its being shuttered. Other Muslim leaders, however, are conspicuous by their absence, ignoring the Quranic command to show charity and compassion to the poor and needy.

Erdogan has also put his money where his mouth is. In contrast with Saudi Arabia ($50 million), Kuwait ($41.4 million), and the United Arab Emirates ($40 million through a recent telethon), Turkey has raised $300 million and secured an additional $350 million in pledges from countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Even traditionally generous countries like the United States have been lukewarm in their assistance (about $130 million). This money, and more, needs to be sent without delay, as the United Nations requires $1 billion for the most immediate needs. With seasonal rains approaching, more funds will be needed as aid groups struggle to fight disease in addition to starvation.

Although this Somali woman may ask where the Muslims are, we can ask where the world is. Are we deaf to this mother's cry and blind to her dying child? Despite a steady stream of international media reports reflecting the direness of the situation -- the U.N. estimates that some 750,000 Somalis will face death in the coming months -- the world's response has been woefully inadequate. In the United States, media attention has waned substantially.

The paltry response and lack of interest can partially be explained by Somalia's negative image in the United States and around the world, including in some Muslim countries, as a terrorist- and pirate-infested, anarchic "failed state." Although Somalia has problems with terrorism and piracy, the overall perception is false -- it is ahistorical, apolitical, and acultural. We must not allow it to contribute to the destruction of a people.

The truth is that Somalia is not a "failed state" because in order to be "failed" it must first exist, and a state, as it is popularly conceived, has never existed in Somalia. The world's failure to understand the real sources of power and influence in the country has only contributed to its ongoing misery. In more than 1,000 years of history, the traditionally nomadic and independent Somalis, split into opposing clans and subclans that trace their descent to a common ancestor, have never fully submitted to the writ of central rule for any substantial length of time.

The millions of Somalis who have been absorbed into surrounding countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia due to European colonial policies have similarly proved difficult for their central governments to administer and integrate. Complaining of marginalization and seeking autonomy, Somalis have fought extended insurgent wars in both these countries and today face famine.

And yet Somalia is not a nation of anarchy. Somalis have a sophisticated locally administered system of tribal law called xeer that resembles democracy, in which elders (every adult male, though those with age, charisma, and valor are more influential and respected) collectively decide issues of clan concern according to ancient traditions. Their code of behavior emphasizes honor, hospitality, and revenge.

Although tribes and tribal law may seem quaint and even primitive, tribes are a reality in the Muslim world as are proud nations and provinces named after them -- Saudi Arabia is named after the Al Saud, Afghanistan after the Afghans, Baluchistan after the Baluchis, and Waziristan after the Wazir. Tribes tend to disdain hierarchy, which is why they are so persistent in resisting central rule. They are perhaps the most egalitarian people in the Muslim world today. Somalis, named after their mythological ancestor Samale, are one of the most tribal peoples on Earth. It is precisely for this reason that it has been so difficult to institute top-down rule in the country, as Somalia functions from the bottom up.

This system has remained in place for the last millennium in spite of the vagaries of European imperialism, a nascent but flawed democracy in the 1960s, and Mohamed Siad Barre's military dictatorship. Siad Barre, like others before him, attempted to curb tribal law in favor of a central state, but it imploded due to tribal resistance and the collapse of law and order. Yet tribal law proved resilient, and elders took advantage of the 1991 fall of Siad Barre's government to build a "bottom-up" state in the northern Somaliland region. Today, the area is a comparative oasis of calm, and despite its being more arid and inhospitable, famine conditions are not nearly as severe as they are in the south.

Overlapping with tribal law -- and sometimes opposed to it -- is Islamic law, which has been historically administered in coastal sultanates like Mogadishu but seldom in the interior. The exceptions are times of great crisis and social breakdown, in which religious leaders can consolidate and extend their authority over a large area. This has only happened a few times in history, and it is occurring today with the rule of al-Shabab, a religious group that was radicalized in the chaos following the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion and occupation in 2006 and 2007 -- a war conducted in pursuit of just three al Qaeda suspects. In contrast with the area's traditional mystical Sufi Islam and the sophisticated Somali sultans of the past, al-Shabab seems to be implementing the most violent and cruel aspects of its understanding of Islam. Far from uniting the Somali people, the group has now itself become a catalyst for further death and destruction.

Today, Somalia faces an existential crisis. The staggering levels of starvation, destruction, and dislocation have led to social disintegration of immense scale. The glue that held society together -- tribal law and the elders -- has been challenged as never before. The country is being further marginalized by both the Western-backed central government, which has more commonly relied on infamous "warlords" from the Said Barre era, and religious groups like al-Shabab, which condemn tribal law as anti-Islamic. Of the two groups, al-Shabab has proved more adept at negotiating with and gaining the support of elders, but this support can be very shallow. Indeed, al-Shabab has arrested or killed elders who opposed it.

Somalia's human tragedy is exacerbated by its status as a battleground in the war on terror. With the United States constructing what the Washington Post called a "constellation" of drone bases in the region, the conflict will likely escalate. The United States already funds and equips an imported force from other African countries under the banner of the African Union to fight al-Shabab, often through private contractors. Somalia's war-on-terror status complicates famine relief for the plethora of aid agencies working in the country, which are concerned they will run afoul of U.S. anti-terrorism laws by feeding people.

Al-Shabab is of course not blameless. Just as in Pakistan following the earthquake and last year's floods, where some Taliban figures condemned Western aid as an anti-Islamic plot, certain al-Shabab leaders have announced their opposition to and suspicion of such aid. Yet similar opposition in Pakistan did not prevent a massive American and international effort that saved hundreds of thousands of Pakistani lives. The same thing must be done in Somalia.

To deal with such an enormous social crisis, bold action and leadership are needed. The Muslim world must alter its views of Somalia and mount a colossal aid effort, heeding Erdogan's call.

Likewise, the American and international effort must dramatically increase. The United States should announce a moratorium on fighting until the famine is resolved. It needs to include a cessation of drone strikes -- the United States launched a series of such attacks on Somali targets on Sept. 25 -- as well as attacks by the U.S.-backed Somali government and African Union troops. This will build trust among all factions that have a common cause to stave off mass death. It will mean working with both al-Shabab administrators and traditional tribal elders. The Western urge to work exclusively through the central government should be put aside, as more effective authority lies elsewhere, as it always has. If anti-terrorism laws legally restrict U.S. access to any influential party, then non-American aid agencies, the United Nations, the Somali government, the Turks, or the Saudis can work with them instead.

U.S. President Barack Obama should host a fundraiser in the White House with top business and foreign leaders, and he and the first lady should travel to Somalia or at least visit the refugees in Kenya to see the situation for themselves. It is strange that Obama has traveled to Ireland and paid tribute to his distant Irish ancestors but has not returned to the land of his father that is suffering so much.

Somalia's problems are daunting, and they challenge all of the global community. But Muslim countries and international actors -- working closely with Somalis across the spectrum of society -- need to plot a new political course for the nation, which can only happen if there's an unbiased understanding of Somalia and the way this society functions. They can draw on the work and expertise of exasperated scholars who have spent their lifetimes studying Somalia and see the same wrong decisions being made time and time again. (Noted British anthropologist I.M. Lewis, for example, has slammed the West for imposing a top-down government on the independent Somalis instead of "building up a hierarchy of increasingly more inclusive local groups" -- an ill-fated choice he calls "Alice in Wonderland.")

The humanitarian crisis in Somalia is a special test for the Muslim world. While we have heard much talk about the need to come to the aid of the suffering global community of Muslims, or ummah, through jihad, they need to rediscover the more powerful notions of Islamic compassion and mercy. Especially given the tragic compassion fatigue in non-Muslim countries like the United States as far as Somalia is concerned, the Islamic world simply cannot allow this slow-motion death of an entire people to continue. Can Muslim leaders sleep peacefully at night with the words of the Somali woman ringing in their ears?



Yemen's Unhappy Ending

Sometimes, the bad guys win.

Back in June, when Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh left for Saudi Arabia for treatment of his wounds, most observers thought Yemen's political crisis would be resolved in favor of the political opposition and the revolutionary street protesters. If Saleh -- who was badly burned in an attack on his presidential mosque -- did not die, then he would at least be prisoner of the Saudis, who had been actively seeking his resignation. Few thought he would ever return. And inside Yemen, the pro-Saleh forces would be weak without the president, so it was a hopeful time for those opposed to Saleh's rule. A transitional government would oversee a new set of elections that would usher in a new post-Saleh era.

That was then.

Over the bloody summer, the Saleh clan proved itself more than capable of holding on to its political position. The president's sons and nephews, who preside over key security and military positions, aggressively sought conflict. Sporadic fighting raged all over the country: in Taiz, in Sanaa, in Arhab, in Abyan, in Aden, and elsewhere. 

In Sanaa, most victims of the fighting were civilians. Saleh's supporters seemed to almost relish provoking the military defectors aligned with Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the top general who joined the "revolutionaries" in March and promised to protect them.

The attacks on civilians not only sent a message to protesters, but also revealed the weakness of Ahmar's forces. Indeed, all the various groups opposed to Saleh's rule -- including Ahmar's 1st Armored Division, the revolutionaries in the streets, the forces allied with tribal leader Sadeq al-Ahmar (not related to Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar), and the political parties of the Yemeni opposition -- together appeared incapable of tipping the balance of power in their favor. There were no elections, nor was the opposition able to form a successful transitional government, despite attempts to do so.

And Saleh did not die from his wounds. As a "guest" of Saudi Arabia, he recovered and over the summer was seen acting presidential -- meeting in the hospital compound with some of the other Yemeni government officials who were injured in the attack.

Western officials tried to quickly manufacture facts on the ground by dealing with the vice president, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, as if he truly were the acting power in Yemen. Formally, Hadi was the acting head of state, but Ahmed Saleh, the president's son and commander of the Republican Guard, locked Hadi out of the presidential palace and forced him to work at home -- sending a clear signal about who was in charge.

Hadi did prove useful to the Americans, however. With his military background and local connections, he was able to rally the local forces and turn the tide against al Qaeda's ground assault in Abyan governorate. Hadi promised his cooperation and assured the Americans that Yemen would not allow al Qaeda to take advantage of Yemen's crisis. Local reports from Abyan say that Saudi and American airdrops were critical in keeping the loyalist 25 Mika Brigade alive while it was besieged for three months by militants in Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan. (Saleh thanked both the Americans and the Saudis for their support in the war on al Qaeda in a speech shortly after his return to Sanaa.)

The Americans and Europeans wanted Hadi to go further and implement the Gulf agreement that called for Saleh to step aside one month after signing it and for a transitional government to oversee new elections. They wanted a political settlement that would resolve the crisis that was clearly feeding Yemen's instability and preventing the country from addressing its badly deteriorating economy.

But Saleh's clan effectively prevented any political settlement, subjecting street protesters to live fire by snipers or random shelling, almost to show that it could act with impunity against its opponents.

Finally, in mid-September, news came that Saleh had authorized Hadi to negotiate a settlement based on the Gulf agreement. At last it seemed that there was hope for a political resolution. In a pattern that now seems all too familiar though, violence erupted almost immediately and soured hope that a political settlement was possible. 

The origins of this latest round of violence are murky. Troops loyal to the government opened fire on the protesters in Sanaa. That much is clear, but it appears that the protesters were moving out of their positions toward the presidential palace and that Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar's troops were taking advantage of the movement to gain military advantage on the ground. In Yemen many accused Ahmar of instigating this round of fighting out of fear that he would be left out of a negotiated political settlement. Whatever the source of the flare-up, fierce fighting erupted that killed more than 100 people, mostly protesters, but also a significant number of soldiers due to clashes between loyalists and defecting military units.

Then, in an entirely new development, Saleh appeared with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in what appeared to be an official state visit. It suddenly appeared that the Saudis, who had actively sought Saleh's departure in the spring, were now officially backing Saleh. Just a few days later, he made his surprise return to Sanaa.

Officially, Saleh said he had returned to oversee a political settlement, claiming that dialogue was the only solution and that he came carrying an olive branch and a dove of peace. Immediately upon his return, however, there was an onslaught of new violence as Saleh loyalists tried to make a clear statement that any political settlement would be on terms dictated by the president. The Hasaba district where Sadeq al-Ahmar, the leader of the Hashid tribal confederation lives, once again came under attack. The home of his brother, Himyar al-Ahmar, in the upscale Hadda district was reportedly attacked as well, as was the headquarters of Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar's 1st Armored Division. Peaceful protesters came under intense fire once again in Change Square. Either Saleh's supporters had been emboldened to press for a military solution, or they were seeking to weaken their adversaries.

Publicly, Saleh professes his commitment to peace. On Sunday, Sept. 25, he renewed his commitment to the Gulf agreement and reiterated that his vice president could sign it on his behalf. At this point such promises ring hollow. The Yemeni opposition and the revolutionaries in the streets refuse to accept any transitional government with Saleh's participation precisely because the president has long been a master at appearing to bow to popular pressure while in fact implementing his own plans on his own terms. 

That is exactly what Saleh appears to be doing now. Three times, he has promised to sign the Gulf agreement, and three times he has changed his mind at the last moment. (On one of those occasions, he changed his mind with the U.S. ambassador at his side waiting to witness the signing.) From Saleh's perspective, he has survived not only an attempted physical assassination, but also a political assassination backed by the entire international community, including the all-important Saudis. But the Saudis appear to have reversed course and are tacitly backing him again. Why should he quit now?

U.S. officials have grown weary of Saleh's insolence, and they officially announced twice in the first two days of his return that they want him to initiate a transitional government, and then resign. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah likewise called for Saleh to step down just a day after he left the kingdom for Sanaa.

Both countries' positions are comical in light of political realities in Yemen. U.S. policymakers will most certainly recognize Saleh's "facts on the ground" and support him, even for the rest of his term until 2013 and beyond. Saleh not only foiled the American attempt to create "facts on the ground" in the form of a transitional government without him, but he has created new "facts on the ground" that will enable him to stay in power regardless of U.S. and Saudi official platitudes, even if these are genuine.

Once again, Saleh has fashioned himself into the only viable game in town. This means that Yemen will not see any political settlement and that violence will continue. The revolutionaries in the streets will not give up, and Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and the Ahmar brothers will only dig in for a long conflict -- they have no choice.

Meanwhile, the economy -- and with it a growing humanitarian crisis-- will continue to worsen. In the north, there are already refugee camps from the years of the Houthi conflict; new refugee camps are emerging in the south as a result of the fighting in Abyan. Yemen's leaders appear bent on maintaining power at any cost, even the starvation of their own people, just as long as they remain on top.

The only real hope for Yemen now is another unexpected political surprise that will lead to a transitional government and legitimate elections. Given Saleh's evident advantage in a now deeply fractured and divided country, that is a thin hope indeed.