“The only people who care at all about Somalis are the people who are working out of mosques. But I’m told that if they’re working out of mosques, they’re bad guys.”
That’s the conundrum that Columbia Professor Richard Bulliet says a CIA desk officer related to him at a conference in Washington a decade ago. Despite that clear revelation in the rank and file of the intelligence community, the United States has spent the 2000s doing everything possible to disable the Islamists in Somalia–even if it meant propping up brutal warlords with no real vision for a Somali state.
Bulliet recalled the incident last night during the event “The Obama Administration and the Middle East”, co-sponsored by the Arab Student Association, Columbia University Amnesty International and several other groups. Panelists–even as they expressed their happiness at Obama’s election–gave a sobering analysis of the limited prospects for fast, fundamental change in American policies in the Middle East. (Other panelists included Columbia profs Gil Anidjar and Peter Awn, CUNY professor Amir al-Islam and ACLU attorney Hina Shamsi.)
I found discussion of the case of Somalia particularly revealing of the illogic of the American policy not just in the Middle East, but throughout the Muslim world as well. U.S. policy has singularly failed Somalia–though further from the center of the world’s attention than Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ironically, as Ethiopian troops withdrew from Somalia this week after a two-year presence in Mogadishu, it seemed likely that the only groups left to fill the power vacuum would be the Islamists that the U.S. has been fighting in a proxy war for years. In Mother Jones last week, Pulitzer Center fellow David Case wrote thoughtfully about the failed U.S. policy in Somalia, arguing that it has actually pushed the country toward extremism. (Other media reports support this–and show that the Islamic militias active now may be bona fide extremists, unlike the Union of Islamic Courts, which brought the longest spell of stability that Somalia experienced in many years.) The humanitarian situation in Somalia is now widely regarded as the worst in Africa.
As Case puts it, it’s got to leave a lot of Somalis wondering what the heck the United States is thinking. He writes:
‘Somalis struggle to understand why the United States prefers this chaos to Islamic-backed order, especially when ongoing violence so clearly runs counter to America’s own interests. “We don’t see this as a government,” said a senior Somali journalist. “We see it as America’s revenge for Black Hawk Down.”‘
The real problem probably lies in the refusal of U.S. policy-makers to even consider a possibility that Bulliet raised: “There is nothing intrinsically wrong about people in other countries deciding they want their political programs based on religious beliefs,” he said.
To back up his words about a relationship of mutual respect with the Muslim world, Obama should recalibrate American policy to acknowledge this fact–from Somalia to Sudan to Palestine to Iran. Otherwise, Somali-Canadian singer K’naan‘s lament for Somalia may continue to ring true for years to come:
What you know about the pirates terrorize the ocean?
To never know a single day without a big commotion
It can’t be healthy just to live with such a steep emotion
And when I try to sleep, I see coffins closin’