One would expect that the events taking place in Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania in the last decade or so will make these countries a fertile ground for Jihadists and radical Islamists. Somalia has witnessed the rise and fall of the Islamic Courts Union – a combination of Jihadists, Salafis, and Sufis – followed by the Ethiopian conquest and Hawiye clan/Islamists insurgency. Tanzania has witnessed the US Embassies Bombings in Dar es-Salaam in 1998 and the rise of Wahhabist-influenced forces in Zanzibar. Kenya has witnessed the US Embassies Bombings in Nairobi in 1998 and the terrorist attack against an Israeli-owned tourist resort in Mombasa as well as a failed attempt to shoot down an Israeli airplane in 2002. Still, the most remarkable feature is that Islamist militancy has not become more firmly rooted in these countries. Rather, it has failed to gain broad popular support and encountered widespread hostility on the Sufis' part instead.
So, naturally, the question asked is why in Somalia Sufis and Jihadists are cooperating with each other whereas in Kenya and Tanzania they are in conflict with each other?
Although there are many factors contributing to the cooperation and conflict between Sufis and Jihadists or Salafis in Somalia and East Africa including: the proximity of this part of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula and, as a result, the transfer of radical ideas and ideologies from Egypt and Saudi Arabia to the Horn of Africa and East Africa; the activity of Islamic NGOs in Africa and their converting into Islam, and then even into Wahhabism or Salafism, many pagan and Christian peoples due to development and education projects they conduct among them; the wide scale activity of Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in these countries; sending African students to study Islamic religious studies or other professional studies in Arab universities and when coming back to their countries of origin they bring with them radical ideas. Yet, in this paper, I will deal only with the most interesting subject of the influence of ethnic/racial divides on the evolution of this conflict.
Religious Conflict – Theoretical Approach
The term "religious conflict" does not refer only, or even mainly, to religious or theological disputes between different religions or within a single religion. Rather, the term is used more broadly to designate any conflict that comes to be expressed wholly or partially in religious terms, whether by one or all parties. Since the core issues of many "religious conflicts" are not religious, it would be more correct in such instances to refer to the "religious dimension of conflict". Conflict expressed in religious terms usually reflects other kinds of secular tensions (economic, political, social, racial, ethnic, ideological), and such a conflict more often than not embodies several issues of contention. Religious conflict often arises as a component of broader cultural misunderstanding, involving an unwillingness or inability to comprehend and respect the aspirations, customs and values of an unfamiliar religion and culture. Such misunderstanding can occur between individuals, between peoples, and between a government and a governed people. Religious conflict is especially difficult to resolve when it takes place along cultural (and ethnic) boundaries. These tend to exacerbate disagreements by re-enforcing a "we-they" attitude. Cultural diversity can produce dissimilar perceptions, not only of the issues that need to be resolved, but of the means of resolution.
Groups in conflict may have real religious differences, but these differences in themselves are usually not sufficient either to explain the conflict taking place or to assess the nature of that conflict. In order to do that, one has to identify and address the key underlying causes of the conflict at hand.
Sufis and Jihadists in Somalia between Alienation and Cooperation
In Somalia, including Somaliland and Puntland, Muslims comprise 99 percent of the population. Somali society is organized according to segmentary lineage principles that divide communities into patrilineal clans. However, Islamic faith is one of the horizontal identities (including class, race, and location of origin) that cut across clan lines. In pre-colonial times, rural Somali communities recognized two distinct authorities, clan elders and religious leaders, whose responsibilities in the conduct of individual and community affairs overlapped to the extent that Islam was essentially assimilated into clan culture. This symbiotic relationship has persisted throughout the colonial and post-colonial era. Thus, clans are the basic point of cultural and political identity for Somalis. Clans are genealogically based and cut across language lines. The Somalis' commitment to Islam has led to the development of legendary claims of lineages in the Arabian Peninsula, but these claims are not based on anything solid. Yet, some Somalis refer to themselves as Arabs.
Religious Sufi orders have played a significant role in Somali Islam. In Somalia, Sufi orders appeared in towns during the fifteenth century and rapidly became a revitalizing force. Three Sufi orders have been prominent in Somalia: the Qadiriyyah, Idrisiyyah, and Salihiyyah. The Rifa'iyyah, an offshoot of the Qadiriyyah, was represented mainly among Arabs resident in Mogadishu.
It had been difficult to adapt Islam to the social, economic, and political changes that began with the expansion of colonial rule in the late nineteenth century. One response was to stress a return to orthodox Muslim traditions and to oppose Westernization totally. The Sufi orders were at the forefront of this movement, personified in Somalia by the Salihiyyah leader, Muhammad Abdullah Hassan (1864 – 1920), who led the resistance of the Dervishes to British and Italian colonial rule in the early 1900s. Travelling to Mecca, he was initiated by Shaykh Muhammad Salih (d. 1919), the founder of the Salihiyyah, and on his return to Somalia he tried to gather support for the order in both Mogadishu and the interior. He had so much success that in 1895 he proclaimed himself overall khalifa of the order in Somalia. He preached reform of the local Islam, against the use of tobacco and ghat, as well as the worshipping of graves. He thus came into a heated conflict with Uways, the Qadiri leader in the south, with whom I will deal later on. In any case, he did not receive the backing of the Salihiyyah at large; he was repudiated by the leader of the order in Mecca. Thus, the first attempt on reform from within the Sufi orders in Somalia failed.
Later, during the 1980s, the famous Somali radical Islamic organization al-Itihaad al-Islaami, which was linked to the US Embassies Bombings in 1998, had challenged Somalia's Sufi orders, ridiculing their emphasis on spirituality and disparaging some of their traditional practices as un-Islamic. In return, Sufi leaders denounced AIAI's adherents as "innovators" and labeled the movement "al-Saruuriyyin" – an epithet meaning the disciples of Shaykh Muhammad Zayn al-Abidin Saruur, a Saudi religious dissident expelled from the kingdom for his radical teachings. Towards the end of the 1980s, tensions between the Salafis and the Sufis began to spill from the mosques into the streets. Clashes between youths from the two groups were common and occasionally cost lives.
Following the collapse of Siad Barre's government in 1991 and on the background of these clashes between Sufis and radical Muslims, the Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jama'ah (ASWJ), comprising of traditional Somali Sufi leaders, was created in 1991 to counter the influence of the radical Islamic trends. The movement brings together politically motivated Shaykhs whose primary goal is to unify the Sufi community under one unified leadership capable of consolidating the powers of the three main Sufi orders into one front whose sole mission is the rejuvenation of the "traditionalist" interpretation of Islam and the de-legitimization of the beliefs and political views of the radical Islamist movements.
Yet, both groups – Sufis and radical Islamists – have been part of the Islamic Courts Union, the umbrella organization for Mogadishu's Shari'ah courts. The Islamic Courts Union consisted of three groups, each with its own goal and objective. At the head of the moderate group stood Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a cleric previously associated with the traditionalist Sufi association Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jama'ah, who was elected as its chairman. In general, it has only one goal, to bring back security and unite the country. Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, previously the head of al-Itihaad al-Islaami, heads the Jihadi-Salafi group, which wants to establish a Taliban-like regime in Somalia. The third group consists of the remnants of the Greater Somalia advocates. The greater Somalia is comprised of Somalia and Somali-inhabited regions in Ethiopia and Kenya.
Within six months the Islamic Courts Union succeeded in defeating the warlords, taking control of Mogadishu and of most of southern Somalia. Its ability to move so effectively with singleness of purpose was, as happened in the beginning of the twentieth century, due to the eruption of Somali nationalism throughout the first half of 2006. Thus, the immediate cause for its power surge was revelations in early 2006 that the warlords had been receiving funds to arm themselves from the US through the CIA working with the Ethiopian secret services. These revelations, and especially the implication of Somalia's traditional adversary Ethiopia in the affair, set of a nationalist reaction, which was exploited to the full by the ICU. Thus, this union of Sufis and radical Muslims was based on the heritage of the Sufi Jihad against colonialism in the beginning of the twentieth century.
Following its taking control of Mogadishu, internal divisions emerged between moderates and radicals in debates over whether to negotiate with the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) on a national unity government or to form separate government based on Islamic law. Another bone of contention was the attitudes towards foreign influences. The hardliners wanted to curb foreign influences, while the moderates did not wish to do so.
With time, the more radical elements prevailed over the moderates. Thus, already at the beginning of its rule, the radical elements within the ICU used to shut cinema halls and to bar residents from watching the World Cup Soccer games. The ICU's militias had beaten members of the Mogadishu Stars, a musical band, with "electric cables" after performing at a wedding ceremony, since the wedding included the mixing of men and women as well as playing music, which were regarded as un-Islamic. These and much more repressive measures, such as banning the use, sale, and transportation of the Ghat and the sale of cigarettes, that were enacted against the population, which contrasted with the moderate Islam that has dominated the Somali culture for centuries, led the Somalis to demonstrate against the regime. The ICU that in the beginning was regarded as bearing the banner of Somali nationalism was now regarded as preaching radical Islamism, alien to most Somali citizens, who belong to the Sufi orders. Thus, the second attempt at reforming the Somali Muslim society, this time by Jihadists and Sufis combined, failed.
Still, following the Ethiopian invasion to Somalia in December 2006, the Jihadists and Sufis have united their forces yet again in order to expel their long time Ethiopian Christian enemies from their country.
Sufis and Radical Muslims in Kenya and Tanzania – Continuity of Alienation along Ethnic/Racial Divides
Unlike the situation in Somalia, in Kenya and Tanzania Muslims comprise large minority groups. In Kenya Muslims comprise, according to some assessments, between 6 to 35 percent of the population. These Muslims are located mainly in the North-Eastern Province and in the Coast Province, while other small communities are located in rural and urban areas in the interior. Muslims in Tanzania comprise between 30 to 40 percent of the population and comprise the largest Muslim minority in the whole of East Africa. Most of them concentrate in the Zanzibar archipelago, where they comprise more than 99 percent of the population, and the others are dispersed in the coast and in urban and rural concentrations throughout the country.
The Muslim communities in these countries are marked by divisions based on ethnicity, race and religion. Ethnic divisions are primarily between Arabs on the one hand (together with Swahilis, who wish to be regarded as Arabs), and Black African Muslims from Bantu ethnic groups on the other. The former group regards itself as superior partly because, in the pre-colonial period, it ruled the coast.
Until the mid-nineteenth century, Islam was closely identified with Arab domination on the East African coast, which had resulted in a kind of "cultural hegemony". Islam was the ideology of the slave-owners, and the attendant legal stratification (which was not restricted to a simple system submitting African slaves to Arab masters) resulted in a contradiction: because Islam was a decisive constituent of respectability (heshima), access to it was limited to the social elites (i.e., the Arabs), whereas ordinary people (i.e., Africans living in the hinterland and slaves) were bound to the lower status of washenzi (savages) and consequently denied access to the sophisticated values of Islam. Only a few washenzi, for various reasons, were educated in the rudiments of Islam, a process which contributed to the emergence of an intermediate group which, while attempting to separate from its African roots, was not admitted into Arab society. These frustrated "in-between people" became the WaSwahili.
Throughout the nineteenth century Zanzibar attracted some of the ablest scholars of Mombasa, the Lamu region, the Comoro Islands, and the Benadir towns. Prosperity and the chance of finding employment made Zanzibar an attractive destination for religious scholars from all over the region. Given these conditions, throughout the nineteenth century the standard of religious education and scholarship continued to wax higher. Qur'an schools offered basic instruction to anyone who desired it, and most 'ulama offered advanced training in some specialized science. The quality of religious education benefited especially from men like Shaykh Ali bin Abdallah Mazru'I, Sayyid Ahmad bin Sumayt, and Shaykh Abdallah Bakathir from the Alawiyyah Sufi order who traveled to southern Arabia and the Hijaz to receive training that they then passed on to their students. In most cases the shaykhs of "Arab" families such as the Mazru'I, bin Sumayt, Maawi, Husayni, and Mandhiry offered higher-level lessons only to select people of "Arab" clans. They provided such classes in the privacy of their homes and only at special hours.
In other ways, as Zanzibar became the new focal point of the cultural and religious life of the coast in the nineteenth century, coastal Muslims of all sects came to look to the Arabs, the sultans, the sultans' courts, and the new Zanzibar 'ulamas and their schools as the new cynosures of Islamic probity and prestige. The old term for a civilized and cultured person, uungwana (literally, a freeborn, city person), thus gave way to ustaarabu (to be Arab-like), and it was between 1650 and 1900 that most of the Arabic loanwords presently in the language were absorbed. In the 1800s, the Zanzibar dialect, Kiunguja, replaced that of the Pate-Lamu archipelago as the prevalent dialect of KiSwahili. These changes in the Swahili language itself reflected the escalating cultural and religious prestige of the Arabs and Zanzibar.
Not only did the nineteenth century see growing depth to local standards of literacy and scholarship, but in some respects the new standards became more popular and widespread. In East Africa, the rise of the Qadiriyyah and Shadhiliyyah Sufi orders from the 1880s was an indigenous reaction to Arab dominance as well as a response to the Western colonial transformation. Here, African Sufi leaders contributed to the spread of Islam among indigenous peoples and slaves in a way never contemplated by the ruling Arab Muslims of the coastal areas whose monopoly over the Arab-Islamic culture was a cornerstone of their position of quasi-hegemony. In general, the Africanization of Islam through Sufism counteracted Arab dominance and radicalism.
Sufism was spread into East Africa indigenous people due to the work of the Somali Shaykh Uways bin Muhammad al-Barawi (1847 – 1909). Centered on his native town Brava, his branch, some times called the Uwaysiyyah, spread throughout East Africa, reaching Mozambique and Madagascar. His family was already linked to the Qadiriyyah, but he went to Baghdad to receive re-initiation there. Uways traveled widely in East Africa, and was invited to Zanzibar by Sultan Barghash in 1884. He made the city the second center for his branch and initiated a number of local followers. Sufism was already present in Zanzibar, but it was mostly confined to the Arab inhabitants; thus, in particular, the Aydarusiyyah/Alawiyyah branches of the Qadiriyyah which were closed to outsiders and open only to families of the shurafaa and a small number of other Arab families. Uways's branch and other new brotherhoods of the 1880s changed this situation by being independent of family and ethnic identities, eventually opening up to the African majority.
The Uwaysiyyah was not the only branch in Tanganyika: in fact, the branch formed by Shaykh Ramiyya in Bagamoyo in 1905 may have surpassed it and become the largest Qadiri branch in the region. This was purely African-based branch. Ramiyya (d. 1931), a former slave from the Congo, grew to prominence in Bagamoyo because of his scholarliness. He had already set up a school teaching Islamic sciences when he was initiated into the Qadiriyyah by a traveler from the Middle East – independently of the Somali/Uwaysi line. Ramiyya quickly developed a hierarchical structure around his order; and his success in business was no doubt another factor in the success of the branch. Both he and his son and successor Muhammad were active in nationalist politics, which among Muslims in Tanganyika was closely linked to the Sufi orders.
The Sufi orders clearly played a major part in spreading Islam in East Africa. The majority of Muslims there adhere to one or another order, the Qadiriyyah, overall, being the dominant one. The social basis of the orders in African society was varied: both the slave trader Rumaliza and the slave Ramiyya were shaykhs of the Qadiriyyah order. The admission of former slaves into high office in the orders was undoubtedly important, both as a way to garner support, in particular among African communities on the coast, and as a way for these individuals to gain leadership of their communities; often, as in the case of Ramiyya, this would place them over their former masters.
In light of the above mentioned, it is interesting to note that within the Qadiriyyah in East Africa a divide based on ethnic/racial lines developed already in the late nineteenth century between the Alawiyyah branch, which was restricted to Arab families; the Uwaysiyyah, which included Arab as well as indigenous peoples; and the branch of Ramiyya, which was purely African-based.
The coming of the popular orders had two main results: it helped to popularize Islam and it contributed to the ethnic tension and conflict that was characteristic of the colonial era; it still echoes today in East Africa. Most of the adherents of the tariqas managed to get some degree of advanced education; thus, today one hears of many Swahili and non-Swahili "middle-level" and "little" 'ulama of former times whose religious education, though sometimes considerable, did not quite rival the scope of that of the "great" shaykhs. Many of them mixed elements of literacy with related sciences such as amulet-making, numerology, and falak (Islamic divination). This "Africanization" of popular Islam even extended to changing perceptions of the Prophet Muhammad, who was seen by some as Black. Such opinions and practices, along with public, and frequently noisy, performances of their dhikrs, aroused the opprobrium of the 'ulama. Because most 'ulama who opposed the popular orders were from the traditionally trained, immigrant clans, rivalries between "orthodoxy" and "heterodoxy" became an expression of a kind of class conflict. Later, in the post-colonial era, these rivalries took on an ethnic appearance that pitted "Africans" against "Arabs".
The reform movement in East Africa has its origins in developments in the Middle East in the nineteenth century. The ideas of Muslim reformers such as Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, and Rashid Rida began to filter first into the Arab-based Alawiyyah branch already at the beginning of 1900s. But, still, it was restricted to the Alawiyyah branch. It is not surprising, then, that the next champions of reform in East Africa have been Arab.
Shaykh al-Amin Mazru'I, the Chief Qadi of Kenya until his death in 1947, emerged later as the leading champion of reform against "religious innovations" as well as modernist reformist ideas. He sought both to promote a stricter form of Islam (in opposition to the local popular version) and to suggest ways in which Kenyan Muslims on the coast could respond to the changes brought about by colonialism. This crusade for reforms was continued by a former student of al-Mazru'I, Shaykh Abdulla Saleh al-Farsy, who became Chief Qadi of Kenya in 1968. Born in Zanzibar, where he lived until 1967, when he moved to Mombasa, he died in 1982. Farsy, had access to radio and other forums. He also gave sermons and public lectures in mosques, and his many writings, which were widely read, included the first complete translation of the Qur'an to KiSwahili. He opposed local practices such as saint veneration, costly khitmas (mourning rites) and the lavish celebration of mawlid.
Al-Farsy inspired a whole generation of young Arab and Swahili Muslims. The new group of scholars (both locally and foreign trained) represented by him are motivated by an impulse to restructure the local understanding of the Muslim faith along strict Salafi and Arab lines. Those who espouse reform (a return to a stricter form of Islam in line with the scripture and the prophetic model) refer to themselves as Salafi. There are also some Muslim youth organizations, such as Ansaar al-Sunnah in Tanga and Uamsho in Zanzibar, some of whose members have been exposed to Wahhabi teachings or Saudi-based education, that have attempted to recast the Islamic discourse along scripturalist – traditionalist lines. Such groups have opened their own mosques to propagate their ideas unhindered. Their Arabic-language skills have provided them with the means to challenge the traditional 'ulamaa.
Thus, a high proportion of religious conflict among Muslims in Kenya and Tanzania involves internal disputes centered on religious institutions or associations, what might be called "the control of religious and ideological space". An example for this kind of conflict is the institution of the mosque. In Kenya and Tanzania, this institution is decentralized as there is a complete separation between religion and state. Most Muslim communities in these countries have their own mosques, built and maintained through the joint effort of members of the community. A local elected committee supervises the running of the mosque, soliciting help as needed from the community and from other benefactors. Where a single mosque serves more than one ethnic or racial group, there is always potential for disagreement, particularly if one of the groups, for whatever reason, monopolizes positions of responsibility and control. Local rivalry for the control of the imamship, and membership of the mosque committee, can also arise out of ideological differences. Such rivalry may result in an attempt by one group to take over the mosque and imamship, or to the building of a second Friday mosque in the same vicinity, or simply to a prolonged state of version.
The importance given to controlling mosque leadership is evident when one understands that much of the ideological debate within Islam revolves around such religious practices as mauled and funeral prayers, which are usually carried out by the imam. These practices, considered bid'a by Wahhabis and Salafis, have been a part of Swahili Islam, and of the various ethnic varieties of Islam in the interior, for a long time. Almost all rural African Muslim communities have had a tradition of celebrating mauled, and many East African Muslims first embraced Islam attracted by the mauled celebrations. The celebration of mauled has thus come to symbolize the ideological conflict between popular Swahili Islam and Wahhabi Islam.
Furthermore, the Islamist goal is to establish Shari'ah, as the basis of Muslim societies and Islamic states. This implies criticism of both Sufis and secularist-oriented ruling elites. Thus, Sufi cooperation with secular rulers in colonial and post-colonial periods is one of the reasons for the often vehement Islamist attacks against Sufi Muslims. Sufi leaders collected tributes from their subjects or disciples and in return, received subsidies from secular governments. Like the colonial regimes, newly independent governments kept a wary eye on reformist or Islamist-oriented groups. Outright rejections of secularism and pan-Islamic ideas were regarded as serious threats to the precarious attempts at nation-building in multi-religious states.
Islamist organizations are mainly a phenomenon of the post-colonial period. The great spread of such organizations started in the 1970s and has continued since then. Their actions have been directed not only against Sufi Muslim and Christian institutions but also against national Islamic umbrella organizations representing a form of established Islam. In order to control and elicit support from Muslim as well as from Christian leaders and other followers of these religions, the new post-colonial regimes formed or supported the formation of both Muslim and Christian national organizations. Official Islam, and Christianity, could provide a religious legitimization for secular rulers. Among other things, national religious umbrella organizations were supposed to assist or cooperate with governments and to promote inter-religious dialogue and harmony. As expected, the official national Islamic organizations tended to further the interests of those who held power. Islamist organizations, by contrast, have resisted such established institutions supporting the political status quo. Whereas Sufi Muslims have often been well represented on the boards of official Islamic associations, few if any Islamists have been members of such boards. Rather, they have been more or less vehemently opposed to the attitudes and actions of people supporting such institutions.
Unlike the situation prevailing in Somalia, where Muslims comprise 99 percent of the population and the society is comprised of clans and sub-clans, where Islam has a dominant role in defining the Somalis' identity and thus, Sufis and Jihadists can unite their forces against a foreign Christian and Western aggressors, based on the heritage of the Jihad and failed reform attempts of Muhammad Abdullah Hassan and in the name of nationalism, in East Africa the Muslims comprise a minority group, which feels discriminated against vis-à-vis Christians and more importantly, which is divided from within into various ethnic/racial groups. These divides, which originated in the pre-colonial period and enhanced during the colonial period, still influence Muslims today.
The Islamists have, in Somalia but not only there, demonstrated a strong willingness to form short-term tactical alliances with Sufis, recognizing the imperative of Muslim unity for the immediate purpose of defeating external challenges. These short-term alliances have not been formed in Tanzania and Kenya since it is very difficult for the Sufis and Islamists to bridge their racial/ethnic differences and free themselves from the slavery and "Arab" hegemony heritage over the African Blacks. Overall, one can see that radical Muslims tend to be anti-Sufism but not anti-Sufis, at least not everywhere.
As for the Sufi orders, they are currently under attack from radical Muslims, who see them as carriers of "African" and un-Islamic traditions that they wish to replace with Islamists ones. Thus, in multi-religious countries, such as Kenya and Tanzania, the pan-Islamic orientation of Islamism is strongly counteracted by national leaders who see the separation of religion and state as the only viable policy of religion, and who in some cases may also fear a new Arab dominance and a return to the pre-colonial period, when the Arab in Zanzibar were the dominant force. Moreover, by modernizing their own activities and by expanding their presence in urban centers, where the Islamists have their strongholds, Sufi Muslims have in many cases responded effectively to the challenge of Islamism. Despite the continued growth of Islamist groups in Somalia, Kenya, and Tanzania, Sufism is still the strongest force of Islam in these countries and the African indigenous peoples feel more affiliated with Sufism combined with African rites than with Islamism, which is perceived as alien and foreign force used by the Arab in order to control them again.