Mogadishu — Somali religious leaders came together in an unprecedented show of unity Wednesday (September 11th), issuing a fatwa of condemnation against al-Shabaab and charting a new course against extremist ideologies that threaten the future of Somalia.
From September 7-11th, a delegation of over 160 Somali clerics and religious scholars from around the country and abroad came together at Jazeera Hotel in Mogadishu to participate in the National Conference on Tackling the Phenomenon of Extremism in Somalia. The conference, which was convened by Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, aimed to enable broad discussion on extremism in the country and to develop a comprehensive national plan to fight al-Shabaab.
United against al-Shabaab:
At the end of the conference, delegates agreed to stand united in the fight against extremism, to support the government implementation of sharia as approved by the Somali parliament in 2009 and to never tolerate the indiscriminate slaughter of Somalis by al-Shabaab, according to the final communique.
Delegates also agreed that al-Shabaab's ideology has no basis in the Islamic faith, but rather it is driven by the desire to obtain power forcibly via dictatorship-style governance and the unlawful taking of people's properties.
The clerics said al-Shabaab's actions aimed to defeat the Somali people and to destroy their faith, culture and nationalism.
"Al-Shabaab represents a national threat to peace, progress, and stability in Somalia," the communique said. "Supporting and strengthening the Somali government is the best way to fight al-Shabaab's abuses against Somalia and its people, and as such, it shall be the duty of the Somali federal government, the various regional administrations, and the Somali public to stand together to strengthen and protect patriotic values."
Delegates also unanimously issued the following seven-point fatwa:
1. "Al-Shabaab has lost its way and is leading the Somali people onto the wrong path. The ideology they are spreading is a danger to Islam and the existence of the Muslim community."
2. "The Somali government is an Islamic government and it is prohibited to fight against [its members] or regard them as non-Muslims."
3. "The extremist al-Shabaab group must atone to God for their distorted ideologies and horrible criminal actions."
4. "It is prohibited to join al-Shabaab or extend to it any kind of support."
5. "It is a sin to provide shelter to al-Shabaab members. It is a religious duty to turn over al-Shabaab members to the security agencies of the Somali government."
6. "It is a sin to negotiate on behalf of al-Shabaab members in custody of government security agencies."
7. "Somali officials have a religious duty to protect the Somali public from al-Shabaab, likewise, Somali citizens have an obligation assist the government in its operations against al-Shabaab."
Conference attendees outlined recommendations surrounding five major themes: improving security, establishing political stability, promoting economic growth, strengthening the justice system and educating the public about extremism.
Security recommendations include capacity building for security forces, improved collaboration and partnership between police and the public, and improved collaboration with international community partners to apprehend terrorists.
To establish political stability, delegates recommended the government restore patriotic values, keep communication open between the public, the government and religious leaders in order to foster peace and strengthen reconciliation, and provide rehabilitation programmes for members of al-Shabaab who have not been completely radicalised.
Delegates recommended the government enact legislation banning the finance of extremist groups, create an environment conducive to economic growth while also strengthening collaboration between security agencies and the business community, and create a fund dedicated for the rehabilitation of al-Shabaab members.
Justice must be safeguarded in order to promote unity and protect national security, the delegates said.
Clerics also recommended that the government provide training to school and religious teachers in order to adequately prepare students, making them less vulnerable to radicalisation.
The conference closed with calls for the government to establish a national agency to fight the spread of extremist ideology in Somalia within 30 days, and to organise a follow-up conference with Somali and international Islamic scholars within 90 days.
A turning point against extremism:
This is the first time a cross-section of prominent Somali clerics has issued a unified statement against al-Shabaab and collectively supported the government in its fight against terrorism, said Omar Sheikh Abdirahman, director of the Centre for Mediation and Dialogue in Mogadishu.
The fatwa will encourage Somalis to evaluate and reconsider their opinions about extremism, which will hasten al-Shabaab's defeat, Abdirahman told Sabahi.
"Many people who currently think al-Shabaab is on the right path will be convinced they are wrong," he said, adding that explicitly forbidding the support of al-Shabaab will cause many sympathisers to change their minds.
Sheikh Hassan Jami Mohamud, an imam at the Minnesota Dawah Institute in Saint Paul, Minnesota, who travelled to Mogadishu to participate in the meeting, said the conference's biggest achievement was helping Somalis determine their own future. In that endeavour, it is crucial, he said, for clerics, the government and the public to collaborate in the fight against al-Shabaab.
"It is vital that we all unite against the people who are killing innocent civilians [... ] on false ideology that has no base in the religion of Islam," he told Sabahi.
Mohamud said successfully implementing all the recommendations would require a collaborative effort from stakeholders with the government leading the way.
However, he said, recommendations pertaining to security should be prioritised. "The government has to put off other tasks and create a security plan because there is a fear of other explosions that will kill more people," he said.
Despite the overall positive reception, Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa chairman Sheikh Omar Abdulkadir criticised the event saying it was not representative of all clerics.
"We were neither informed nor invited," he told Sabahi.
In addition, he said, some of the clerics who participated in the conference were previously supporters of al-Shabaab. "The person who convinced the people to carry out explosions and cut off heads yesterday cannot convince them otherwise today," he said.
Mohamud responded by saying that a diverse group of Somali clerics attended the conference, and future conferences can be used to address any other grievances.
Winning the war of ideas:
Alas Haji Ahmed, a 32-year-old business student at SIMAD University in Mogadishu, said he welcomed the clerics' recommendations and fatwa but said it was long overdue.
"I wished [the clerics] would have made them a long time ago since al-Shabaab has been carrying out terror attacks throughout the nation for a long time," he told Sabahi.
The only way to win the war against al-Shabaab is for clerics to educate the public about their erroneous ideology, Ahmed said.
"The problem has been a poorly educated public. What we want from the clerics is for them to hold back-to-back sermons across Mogadishu districts so the public can learn that the distorted way al-Shabaab uses religion is not based on Islamic principles," he said.
Roble Dahir, a 28-year-old journalism student at Mogadishu University, said the war against al-Shabaab was a war of ideas.
"It is great to see for the first time clerics speak with one voice against al-Shabaab's ideology," he told Sabahi. "The government should install speakers in public venues to tell people what Islam says about the explosions al-Shabaab carries out that kill civilians."
He said special security should be provided for the clerics when they go to the mosques to deliver their sermons as al-Shabaab has been known to target victims in and around mosques.
Dahir Jibril in Mogadishu contributed to this report.