By Hassan M. Abukar
The Internet is buzzing with talk about a Somali cleric and an American-based highbrow who has riled him.
Two years ago, a public debate, better known in Somali as “Fagaaraha,” was held in Minneapolis in which Faisal Roble, a renowned writer and political analyst based in Los Angeles, participated along with another speaker, Mohamed Abdi. This was number 14 of that series of debates, which have recently degenerated into political chatter and a sideshow. The guest speakers were asked the following political question: “Do you agree with Somalia implementing Islam?” With unusual candor and utter seriousness, Faisal responded: “No, I do not agree with Somalia being governed by Islamic rule.” Abdi followed and agreed with his “friend, Faisal,” but added that the American founding fathers had astutely separated church and state and that these leaders “were smarter, more educated, and more experienced than us (Somalis)” when they chose that path. That was, in short, the major excerpt from that infamous debate.
There was no public reaction to the video in 2014 and it was soon forgotten, or so it seemed.
One group, with limited reach but a virulent radical ideology, noticed it immediately and had a quick response. Al-Shabaab’s Andalus Radio devoted an entire hour in December 2014 to discussing the incident. The guest on that program was none other than Sheikh Abdulkhadir Mumin, then a religious scholar with the radical group and now the head of Somalia’s ISIS branch. Mumin excoriated the two “secular” Somali speakers in the U.S. for their transgression in denying “God’s rule” and for imbibing “Western and anti-Islamic ideology.”
Then, a few months ago, the video resurfaced, but this time it went viral. Suddenly, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Sheikh Mohamed A. Umal, a popular Somali religious scholar based in Kenya, saw it and immediately responded to what he termed a carefully calibrated attempt by these “two Westernized, American-educated professors to lead the Somali people astray.” Umal denounced attempts to keep Muslims in Somalia from implementing Islam and Sharia. He was followed by another cleric based in Puntland who added more fuel to the fire. In short, the cleric in Puntland hectored and lashed out at Faisal and Abdi calling for all Somalis to fight and defend their religion from the duo’s “insidious, secular war against Islam.”
Last month, one of the speakers in question, Abdi, released a short video in which he responded to Umal and his colleague in Puntland. The response, unfortunately, failed to impress. Abdi denied being “an enemy of Islam” and Sharia because he is, in his words, an avowed Muslim who “prays five times a day, fasts, and pays Zakat (alms-giving).” His friend, Faisal, a man never shy with his opinions, took the exceedingly rare step of not commenting on Umal’s attacks.
Sheikh Umal enjoys immense popularity with many Somalis due to his knowledge of Islam, supple mind, and facility with words. He is considered the public face of Somalia’s Salafis and their attempt to pursue a puritanical approach to Islam. He has also been a lightning rod for controversy. In 2015, the Kenyan government put him on a list of individuals allegedly tied to Al-Shabaab and hence banned him and froze his property. The ban was lifted shortly, but with no government explanation. Several years ago, Umal issued a fatwa (a religious edit) in which he said eating the meat of the hyena is permissible. The fatwa flew in the face of Somalis’ beliefs as they have always refrained from eating carnivorous animals. It also generated wide criticism from other Somali religious scholars. Even so, Umal stuck to his guns and never wavered. Interestingly, his fatwa concurred with another issued by Al-Shabaab. In fairness, if there is one thing Faisal Roble and Umal have in common, it is that both have been condemned by Al-Shabaab for being secular (Faisal) and heretic (Umal). Secularism, in the eyes of Al-Shabaab, is tantamount to being an unbeliever.
Faisal Roble is an influential political analyst and former editor-in- chief of Wardheernews. He is also an effective public speaker who is regularly invited to speak on the lecture circuit and at media events in North America. Like any prominent figure, depending on whom you ask, many people admire him and others revile him. Mentioning his name in certain circles can unleash a powerful response. Some of his supporters have lashed out at Umal for his “unfair “condemnation of Faisal. They believe Umal overreacted to the video, thereby creating a problem where none existed. Then, there were other friends who felt the lingering discomfort that comes from seeing their hero commit a major blunder. Faisal’s rejection of Sharia implementation was too obvious and emphatic to defend. They bristled with indignation: “Does he really believe that?”
The clash between Faisal and Umal is a manifestation of the rise and emergence of the fatwa machine among clerics, the growing disengagement of some Somali educated class from the majority of Somalis, and the trivialization of debates that fail to address the issues gripping the country.
Umal and his colleagues live in their own cosmos. They have a penchant for issuing fatwas right and left like an assembly line, and that at times gives the impression of an easy way of out of addressing serious problems. He has condemned, among other things, the Somali provisional constitution, holding elections, forming the National Parliament, establishing political parties, credit cards, and most forms of hawala as un-Islamic. Several years ago, about 22 Somali Salafi clerics met in Nairobi and issued a fatwa calling another Somali Salafi scholar a heretic; see my article, “Somalia’s Salafi Groups and the Fatwa Wars,” (Wardheernews, November 21, 2012). Sometimes these fights verge on the bizarre and some clerics have ended up being ”excommunicated” from Islam.
Then there is the growing gap between Somalia’s educated elite in the West and their public calls prescribing “Western values” for Somalia, a conservative Muslim country. In other words, what is good for London or Paris, the argument goes, must be good for Mogadishu. It is noble to borrow what is good from other cultures, but blindly following other countries and imposing their values on Somalia would never work. For example, George W. Bush tried to export “democracy” to Iraq and we all know what happened. Muktar M. Omer has eloquently written about the dilemma faced by “some” (not all, mind you) Somali secularists in dealing with their brethren and their country. In his article, “Hating Abdalla, Loving Johnny: Idiosyncrasies of the Westernized Somalis” (Sahan Journal, June 14, 2015), Omer singled out what he called “a confrontational sect within the larger secular Somali communities—a vocal sect which adores Western values, ideas, and mannerisms and abhors Somali culture and values as practiced by the majority of Somalis.”
The late Egyptian literary figure and former education minister, Dr. Taha Hussein, identified with such a vocal sect when he advocated in his book, The Future of Culture in Egypt, that his country could only progress if it followed not the “East” (a euphemism for Islam and Muslim culture) but the West. “We have to follow the Western civilization,” argued Hussein, “in all its manifestations and experiences including its good, bad, and ugly.”
Perhaps, one can question the way these public debates are held to discuss the issues ailing Somalia. The debates are sensational and entertaining. Whether to establish Islamic rule in Somalia is a matter worthy of discussion. However, this would require a serious debate that involves people who are knowledgeable of the subject at hand. Neither Faisal nor Abdi have shown any grasp of the vast, complicated topic of Sharia rule. It is a topic that affects Somalia as one militant group is bent on imposing its draconian brand of Sharia. Does Somalia want the current crop of Islamic groups to rule the country and apply their narrow version of Sharia? The answer is an emphatic no. Applying Sharia, as has been advocated by knowledgeable Islamic thinkers, requires deep commitment and understanding of freedom, liberty, social justice, and the sanctity of human life and dignity. These are values, these scholars argue, that can be found in the Qur’an and hence are embedded in Sharia (broadly conceived). Unfortunately, many see Sharia as merely amputating limbs and stoning criminals.
Either public and exhaustive debates about these political and social issues are held or we adopt the Somali novelist Nuradin Farah’s approach. Many years ago, the novelist was invited to speak by the University of San Diego and a local Somali community group. He was asked about Somali youth and an issue of morality. Farah pondered momentarily and then said: “That is an issue you have to ask your religious scholars.” I thought Farah was too smart to walk into a subject full of mines. Or, perhaps, the novelist simply wanted to defer the matter to people who are well versed in the subject. Either way, his response is worth noting.
Hassan M. Abukar
Mr. Abukar is a regular contributor to Wardheernews and writes about politics, social issues, and Islamic groups. He can be contacted at [email protected].
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