The East African (Nairobi)

Somalia: The Secularists Sleep, the Zealots Are Full of a Passionate Intensity

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Nairobi — Everywhere you turn, you are either reading or hearing on TV or radio that the rout of the Somali warlords in Mogadishu by the Islamic Courts Union came as "a surprise".

The warlords are now dispersed to the far corners of Somalia, leaving the American project of backing their Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism in tatters. There are many who are mourning the fact that the Islamic fundamentalists have won, saying that we are all in danger now. It's not that simple.

What we are witnessing is not the triumph of religious fundamentalism, but the crisis of secularism. Those of us who consider ourselves secularists, the fellows who believe in the separation of religion and state, bear the blame for letting the cause crumble in disgrace.

Where secularists have risen to power in Africa and other parts of the Third World promising great change, many have ended up being maniacal butchers and thieves. We have let cherished freedoms degenerate into a bottomless pit of immorality and excess. Which is fine, except that we also don't expect to pay a price for it.

We allow a hedonistic life, but when our footsoldiers return home wrecked by booze, drugs, and other excesses, we shut the doors of our homes in their faces. We don't even admonish them.

Meanwhile, the fundamentalist mosques and churches take them in, chastise and even flog some, then get them to publicly renounce their waywardness and reward them for abandoning "sin". The Islamist are popular because, among other things, they came down hard on Somalia's criminal gangs, chopping off the hands of robbers, and publicly executing rapists.

Latter 20th century secularism's abhorrence of the hangman, on the other hand, has gradually led it to underestimate how much the victims of violent robbery, rape, and the relatives of murder victims crave retribution.

So you have a corrupt and incompetent Fatah in Palestine, and the world is surprised that it lost the elections to the Hamas hardliners who had a record of a more caring and honest organisation, murderous though it might be. In 1992, the Islamic front FIS won the elections in Algeria, but the army cancelled the results and seized power, setting off an orgy of violence.

Yet the FIS victory wasn't a fluke. In the municipalities they ran, garbage was collected and buses ran on time. The future belongs to organisations like the Islamic Courts Union, unless secularism responds with more than guns and deployment of global power.

Take post-Revolution Iran. In the violence and assassinations that followed the fall of the Shah, nearly three generations of Islamic leaders were wiped out. But the mullahs kept turning out more and more cadres. Iran is one of the few countries in the world that doesn't run short of alternatives.

Before President Ahmadinejad won the last elections, he was relatively unknown. On the other hand, in secularist Russia, even enlightened journalists write about how there is no alternative to President Vladimir Putin.

In the US, they are wringing their fingers about who will replace George Bush. The mosques, on the other hand, turn out so many leaders that Islamic republics never have a shortage of candidates to choose from.

The worst sin of secularists, therefore, is laziness. We don't recruit new warriors, while the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists stay up all night swelling their ranks. We don't have leadership factories, while the religious fundamentalists have their churches (many under trees and on street corners), synagogues, temples, and mosques.

All we do is whine. The Gap, a very secularist group, had a big hit with a song about how nothing comes to sleepers, but their dreams. We partied to it big time, but learnt nothing.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group's managing editor for convergence and new products.

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