The sun was dropping behind the stony hills along the Ethiopian border, and the muezzin was calling the faithful of Borama to the day’s fourth prayer. A moment before, the town had seemed empty; suddenly, in the dying light, Somali men materialized from all sides on their way to the mosque. I fell in with a young man, who greeted me in the Somali way that’s so aggressively welcoming as to seem like a hostile challenge.
“Are you going to pray?” he asked.
“No, to watch.”
His brow furrowed in consternation. “I want you to become a Muslim and go to paradise. It’s the best place.”
I asked how I should proceed.
“Read the Koran and the sayings of the Prophet,” he advised me. “Then, take a bath. Then, pray.” He wanted to know where I was from and what I was doing in his country. I said that I had come from America to learn about Islam.
The young man stopped in his tracks. “I think you are looking for terrorists.”
Borama lies in the northwestern highlands of what used to be Somalia. Since 1991, when Somalia collapsed in civil war, the region’s clans have maintained relative peace and established a weak but functioning central government of an independent republic that calls itself Somaliland–an entity that the rest of the world has steadily refused to recognize. I went there looking for fundamentalism, not terrorism. What I found at the very least complicated the American idea of who “they” are. The Islamists I met turned out to be a group of earnest, right-living strivers, many of whom would have been at home in Orem, Utah. Their turn to Islam has less to do with rejecting the West than with wanting to join the modern world.
Ten years ago, armed Islamic extremists of a group called al-Itihaad, which recently turned up on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations connected to Al Qaeda, tried to unify Somalia by force in the name of Allah. They set up a training camp in an abandoned high school called Amoud, a collection of sunbaked stone buildings just a few kilometers down a rugged dirt road and across a dry riverbed from Borama. But in Somalia clan trumps everything, including Islam, and local elders soon forced al-Itihaad to leave. Over the following decade, al-Itihaad was defeated again and again, and today it no longer exists in Somaliland. Meanwhile, Amoud now houses Somaliland’s first university, founded in 1997 with considerable help from Somalis living in North America and supplied by American schools and publishers. One afternoon during Ramadan, Ahmed Hashi Abib, Amoud’s vice president, gave me a tour of the empty grounds.
“The university was built by Americans, and we are very grateful,” he said as we walked around the rocky campus where goats were nibbling on thorn bushes. Rooms where Islamic militants once trained now hold 70,000 almost entirely American books. It still looks like a rough and bare-bones undertaking, but given the utter devastation of Somaliland just ten years ago, Amoud is an achievement. The meaning of the tour seemed clear, but in case I missed it, Abib, a cheerful, bespectacled man with a rich didactic voice, was ready to spell it out. “I think it’s good for the United States to nurture places that were once a threat. Where there is no threat, you apply certain policies that transform places into a threat. That’s what we want America to avoid,” he said. “If you want to measure how strong Islamic extremism is by measuring the number of mosques and the number of women wearing the veil, that would be a wrong measure. If American satellites could somehow count these things, they would have a very wrong measure. There’s nothing behind it, absolutely nothing behind it. Even the ones who wear the veil drink alcohol, go to sleep with men and hide their identity.” He concluded, without irony, “We hope this place will become the Mecca for education all over Somalia.”