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.”
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.
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.
We stopped in the middle of a street. Nur leaned out his window to speak to a narrow-eyed man in his 30s who was wearing a white skullcap, a white robe and a red-checked shawl. As Nur spoke, the man’s eyes shifted over and fixed mine with a look of almost venomous suspicion. Somehow Nur persuaded the man, a sheik named Sharif Abokor, to meet with us the next day.
The window of my small hotel room looked directly across the street on a mosque, and the amplified muezzin seemed to thunder all night long. A meal of boiled camel deep-fried in ghee wasn’t sitting well, and in my weakened state I hallucinated slightly–at 4 am it sounded like the voice of Allah in my ear, exhorting me to pray before it was too late. I thought about chaos and death, and it was suddenly a little easier to imagine myself a Somali. Nur had told me: “Allah will ask you, ‘What did you do for the time I gave you?’ I’ll say I prayed, I fasted, I gave to the poor. So one goes to the hell and one goes to the heaven. I want to be one of those who goes to the heaven.”
In the morning Nur and the sheik were waiting in Nur’s small office, behind a stockroom crammed with plumbing fixtures and boxes of floor tiles. The sheik wasted no time getting to the point. “We are real Muslims, but we are not terrorists,” he said. “We did not know the meaning of Al Qaeda until we heard it on the BBC. They are far away from us. We live in East Africa.” I asked about al-Itihaad’s presence in Burao in the early 1990s. Nur, who had been running his newspaper at the time, said the lesson of the extremists’ failure was that “the people of Somalia don’t really believe Islam, they believe in tribalism. There is something deeper than Islam that the people believe. Even some sheiks, the fanatics, if there is a fight they will go to the tribe.”
“The wars were a power struggle,” Sharif said. “They were outside Islam–they were wrong. Allah promised us if we don’t fight we will get peace and prosperity. We have peace. We are waiting for the rest–here, or in paradise.” The sheik, who said that he was unemployed, readily accepted the name fundamentalist. But he sketched a picture of Islam that was almost as tolerant as Unitarianism. Beards and veils were not the point, he said; compulsion was alien to Islam, and Western knowledge was welcome; the point was to obey God.
When I had finished asking my questions, the sheik began to interview me. What did I think about the United States putting Somalia on its list of terrorist countries? Was killing civilians in Afghanistan democratic? Had I ever written anything against US foreign policy? Did I have any information on whether the United States was coming here or not? I knew what was coming next. “What religion do you follow?” When I said that I was a nonbeliever, the sheik was momentarily speechless. “Why don’t you have faith in Allah? Who created humanity? Who created this pen?” He stared at me the way he had when he first saw me with Nur. “Even the Christians are better than you.” Nur seemed slightly embarrassed by this judgment. Before I left, he took from his desk a paperback, written by a Pakistani, called Islamic Faith and Practice, and urged me to read it. Then he asked if I could put him in touch with an American hardware exporter.
On the way back to Hargeisa, my two traveling companions asked how the encounter had gone. I said that I had liked Nur very much, and that the sheik had perhaps not been entirely candid. They asked the sheik’s name. When I told them, they exchanged a smile. The sheik, it turned out, wasn’t unemployed; he’s an agent for a money-transfer operation, a fact he might have concealed to avoid confusion with al-Barakaat. But there was more. “In 1992 he was one of the most active in al-Itihaad, mobilizing, recruiting. He was number four or five in the Burao organization. And Nur gave them support, financial and moral. The newspaper was a cover. You were talking to their nucleus.”
Perhaps Somalis like Nur and the Amoud students have a radical, long-term strategy to Islamize their country–or perhaps not. For now they’re Somaliland’s best chance to create something other than endless war out of the ruins, and as we descended the escarpment toward the Indian Ocean I found myself wishing Nur’s hardware business success.