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Letter From Somaliland | The Nation

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Letter From Somaliland

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I sat in on a social science class taught by a Canadian-trained scholar named Ahmed Mah, nicknamed Mubarak, who had come back to his homeland from Toronto with the latest theories about dominant discourses. I noticed that of the five young women in the room, two were wearing the niqab, the veil that covers everything but the eyes. These were the first I'd seen in Somaliland, and it was strange to find them here, at the university, in a class on "Social Deviance and Social Control." Somali women, who are famous for their beauty, traditionally cover their hair in a loose, brightly colored silk scarf from India called a shalma, whose function seems to be attraction at least as much as concealment. The more rural and uneducated the woman, the more likely she is to veil herself lightly or not at all. The drab, nunnish niqab and hijab--the veil that wraps tight under the chin--are new styles among urban girls, high school and university students, nurses in training, teachers. Some young women picked up the habit in the Gulf countries where their fathers held menial jobs; others saw it on CNN and the Arabic satellite network Al Jazeera. In Somaliland, puritanical Arab women's dress is a sign of Islamic sophistication, a globalization of "correct" Islam from the Arab countries outward.

About the Author

George Packer
George Packer is the author of two novels and two works of nonfiction, most recently Blood of the Liberals, which won...

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Dinesh D'Souza became a right-wing campus radical at Dartmouth in the late Carter years. His motives should be recognizable to former campus radicals of the other variety.

But for an hour at Amoud, the young women discussed whether their veils might be a socially constructed tool of the dominant discourse. After class, I met with a small group of bright, ambitious, strictly Islamic students. I asked what kind of Muslims they considered themselves to be. The answer that came back was "new Muslims." By this they meant new in Somalia. In terms of faith and practice, they wanted to be as old as the Koran and the Prophet. "The Islamic revival is nothing else but the Somali people using the correct way," said a large-eyed, goateed young man named Ahmed. "The former Somali scholars didn't apply the basic teachings." He meant the Sufist sheiks, the old men with hennaed beards who worship saints and practice a kind of spiritual magic. "They took culture and turned it into religion," said Kadra, a young woman whose accent betrayed that she had grown up in Canada. "So what people believe now is the true religion." A boy named Ridwaan said, "Before 1990, I never saw a woman wearing a veil. Even some girls in my class didn't cover their hair." "And it is written in Holy Koran!" exclaimed Hassan, holding his copy aloft.

The young people were against music and dancing, but they welcomed the culture and technology of the West as long as it didn't violate their religion ("sexy" films were a particular worry). They longed for Islamic law to be instituted in Somaliland, but there was disagreement about the relationship between Islam and democracy. Ahmed saw them as compatible; for Hassan, democracy was a product of Western culture, and "Islam is higher, so they cannot go together." Above all, they wanted education, as much as possible--religious and secular, for women as well as men. This was what it meant to be "new" Muslims. I said that in some Western countries education seems to have made the public less religious. Weren't they afraid of the same thing happening here? "Would you say it's education, or freedom?" Kadra countered. "Religion limits freedom, because if there is a lot of freedom people would forget God and get into a lot of things such as alcohol, drugs and intercourse." I told them that I'd always assumed young people everywhere wanted more freedom. "We want the freedom," said Ahmed. "Inside Islam."

All at once, the students got up to leave. The muezzin was summoning them to 3 o'clock prayer.

Americans have come to believe that the religious revival across the vast Muslim world represents a rejection of modern civilization. But in Somaliland, it's driven by all the pressures of modern life. It thrives in the swollen new towns, where refugees are thrown together in a disorienting mix of clans. Its followers include small-scale entrepreneurs, telecommunications company employees, high school and university students, nurses in training, private schoolteachers--the small, striving middle class that's the only reliable engine of development in a destitute country. Those with satellite television watch both CNN in English and Al Jazeera in Arabic without a sense of contradiction. Each network brings news from a world they want to join. No one talks about having to choose between the two. The Somali brand of Islamic fundamentalism, which initially took a violent form, now answers the almost existential need of a generation that came of age in a failed country. What identity is available to them? Somalia no longer exists here. Somaliland is a wish in which the world shows no interest. At their back, the continent to which they belong offers an image of unrelieved misery. The West is still a tempting, threatening rumor. The nomad world is at once too harsh and too sensuous, the religion of their fathers superstitious and corrupted. The young Somalis who have turned to Islam long for a life that's correct, austere and purposeful. With their cerebral devotion to the Word, their estrangement from the communal consolations of pastoral life, their insistence on a direct relationship with Allah, their capitalist ethic, Somali fundamentalists reminded me of nothing so much as the Reformation Protestants who rejected the corrupt ways of the Church and became modern by going back to the written source of indisputable truth. In short, they are people with whom Americans can do business--which is exactly what they want from us.

If armed Islamic extremism resurfaces in Somaliland, it might well appear first in Burao, in the rugged highlands east of the capital, Hargeisa. Burao is the last city under the Somaliland government's authority--beyond it, one enters the rule of the clans. And Burao itself has the feel of a dusty, tough frontier town. An outsider draws longer and harder stares than elsewhere, and I was warned not to walk around by myself--a German had had his throat cut the year before. Al-Itihaad set up a major base here in the early 1990s, recruiting several thousand fighters who participated in a failed attempt to take power in Bosaso and were subsequently expelled to the south by clan elders. Their leader in Burao was even obliged to pay blood compensation of a hundred camels to a family who'd lost a son in the battle for Bosaso. I went to Burao to meet a hardware dealer named Nureddin Dualle, who had been described by a friend as "a clean, straightforward fundamentalist."

Nur is 35 years old, a tall, soft-spoken man with a beard, glasses and an earnest smile. In 1992 he started a small newspaper in Burao, and when that failed he went to Pakistan to earn an MBA, even spending a few months working for an Islamic relief group in Afghanistan. The effect of those experiences, he said, was to make him more broad-minded and more determined to succeed in business. When he returned to Burao, he opened a hardware store with a small group of family members as shareholders; now he owns another shop, in Hargeisa, importing most of his supplies from Gulf countries. As we drove around Burao's thronging, unpaved streets in Nur's pickup truck, the substance of his commentary wasn't religion but economics.

Unemployment in Burao is 95 percent, he said, pointing to the rows and rows of men idly drinking tea by the road and waiting for the sun to go down so they could chew khat, the stimulant shrub that makes life bearable for large numbers of Somalis. Every morning a hundred people came to his shop to ask for food. Somalis who had returned from overseas used their savings to set up stores, but no one could afford to buy anything, and inflation had rendered the Somaliland shilling almost worthless against the dollar. His hardware business was severely disrupted when the Bush Administration froze the foreign assets of the al-Barakaat telecommunications and financial services company on suspicion of funding Al Qaeda. Faith, Nur said, provided solace to the desperate, but what Burao needed most was business.

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