Somalia: From Communism to Talibanism


By Dr. Mahamud M. Yahya


“There is no chauvinism in Islam.”- Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradhawi


            I.          Introduction


I wish to dedicate the following article to the memory of Mr. Mohamed Hassan Aden, an ordinary Somali citizen who was unjustly murdered in Baidoa, Somalia, about two months ago. Why? Because in one afternoon while standing near a mosque in that city, an ignorant soldier belonging to the extremist vigilante, known as Al-Shabab, ordered him to enter the mosque and pray. When Mohamed failed to carry out his order immediately, the soldier opened fire on him and killed him on the spot. What a savage, unlawful crime! (May Mohamed’s soul rest in eternal peace.)


This month marks the 49th anniversary of Somalia’s hard won independence but, unfortunately, there is nothing worth celebrating for this historic occasion. This is so because the 27th of the current month also marks 18 and a half years of an exceptionally ruinous, and seemingly never ending, civil war in Somalia. In my considered opinion, and in the view of many experts on Somali affairs, it was the tyrannical communist regime of Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre that was the real culprit for the onslaught of this very tragic event and the total destruction of the Somali state together with all its governmental institutions. Despite some of the contributions his dictatorial and very oppressive regime had made – foremost among them being the introduction of a written Somali language for the first time in our history – the fact remains that when Siad Barre came into power through an illegitimate military coup d’etat in Oct. 1969, the Somali Republic had a democratic, stable and functioning government. By the time his regime disgracefully collapsed in January 1991 – after 21 years of absolute rule - the nation-state was completely shattered and the country was engulfed in a very destructive civil strife. But nevertheless the unscrupulous, unpatriotic and very selfish warlords who followed him equally share the blame with him.


The biggest mistake, or rather crime, which that despotic regime had committed was to have tried to run a mainly nomadic society that is still passing at the pre-industrial stage through the newest politico-economic system of the world, or what they used to call “Haniwadaagga Cilimiga ku Dhisan” (or Scientific Socialism), i.e., communism.[1] (Perhaps a more moderate, non-atheist, Arab-style socialism would have been more suitable for the country.) Now after the demise of Siad Barre’s very totalitarian regime, and the start of the very catastrophic civil war, Somalia has made a 180-degree shift. Why? Because an equally autocratic regime, an extremist religious outfit, wants to impose a Wahhabi-inspired, Taliban-style government on Somalia – something that is totally alien to Somalis, their culture, history and their moderate version of Islamic religion. As such, we would be repeating the dire consequences of the previous authoritarian, communist regime, if we are not very careful and don’t resist it by all means possible. This so because, as the saying goes, whoever does not learn from the terrible lessons of history will be condemned to repeat them.   

        II.            Siad Barre’s Dictatorial Regime


Like today’s very radical religious movement in Somalia, Siad Barre’s despotic regime was initially very popular. During the first four or five years of its existence, his government made some significant achievements in terms of the socio-economic development of the country. However, it soon revealed its true military, dictatorial nature and started oppressing its critics, particularly Muslim clerics and scholars. In 1975 about 10 sheikhs/clerics (mostly young men) were executed simply because they said the new family law (which decreed the equality of boys and girls in sharing their parents’ inheritances), and which the socialist regime had earlier promulgated, was not in conformity with the teachings of the noble Islamic religion. (Many others were also imprisoned for years simply because they dared to teach Somalis in their own language about Islam in the main mosques of their communities). Starting from that very tragic, unjust episode, Siad Barre’s totalitarian rule – with its inhumane draconian measures – lost the support and confidence of the overwhelming majority of the Somali people. Consequently, the hated regime attempted to restore some of the lost popularity by rushing to the disastrous 1977-78 war with neighboring Ethiopia, which ended in a humiliating defeat for the Siad Barre’s administration and the decimation of approximately one-third of Somalia’s army, according to some credible reports (after the arrival of a huge number of soldiers and armaments that came pouring from the ex-USSR all the way to Cuba in order to rescue the equally brutal but more strategically important communist regime in Ethiopia, the Dergue).[2] From that moment onwards, his reviled regime began spiraling into a bottomless abyss. The rest is history, as they say.


To illustrate that oppressive regime’s fight against Islam, I still vividly remember a long, angry speech which Gen. Siad Barre had delivered in the mid-1970s at the Somali capital, Mogadishu’s, old sports stadium. While making publicity for the new secular inheritance law, and vilifying the Somali clerics, he said: “They talk about a half, a fourth, a sixth and an eighth proportion. Waxaas waxba kama jiraan, waana khuraafaad. (This is null and void and it is utter nonsense.)”  By this flippant remark he was referring to Allah’s decree, as clearly mentioned in the noble Qur’an, as to how inheritance is supposed to be shared by male and female siblings and even their parents.


In Chapter 4,  Al-Nisa’ or The Women,  the holy Qur’an unequivocally says: “Allah (thus) directs you as regards your children’s (inheritance): to the male, a portion equal to that of two females; if only daughters, two or more, their share is two-thirds of the inheritance; if only one, her share is a half. For parents, a sixth share of the inheritance to each, if the deceased  left children; if no children, and the parents are the (only) heirs, the mother has a third; if the deceased left brothers (or sisters) the mother has a sixth (the distribution in all cases is) after the payment of legacies and debts.”[3] The verses that follow stipulate that you get half the inheritance of your wife if she had no children and one-fourth or a quarter if she had children. Again, in what you leave, your parents’ share is one-fourth if you leave no children; otherwise, they get an eighth, after payment of legacies and debts.  


III.             Current Extremist Outfits


As alluded to earlier, Somalia has made a complete U-turn and now a very radical, religious vigilante – that is listed by the West as a terrorist organization with links with Al-Qaeda network – and known as Al-Shabab (the Youth in Arabic; some people call them Al-Shayadin or the Satans) – now plans to take over power in Somalia by force and establish a barbaric Taliban-like rule in our unlucky country.[4] These extremist religious militants, whose members are mostly made up, according to some reports, of impressionable young men in their 20s, with very poor education even regarding the tolerant and peaceful Islamic religion under whose name they are massacring Muslim Somalis, have committed a lot of heinous crimes and grossly abused the basic freedoms of our people. If they don’t regard their acts as criminal ones, why do they cover up their faces and wear masks when they are outside their secret abodes?


A few months ago, a branch of that group in Kismayo port city stoned to death a 13-year-old girl, Miss Dhuhulow, for adultery even though her parents said she was a gang-rape victim. She herself reported this criminal incident to the officials concerned within Al-Shabab. But instead of investigating the matter adequately and brining the three men who gang raped this innocent girl to book, Al-Shabab violent militia condemned the poor girl to death for adultery, because, according to them, she herself had confessed to have had “sexual intercourse” with the above-cited men. What an incredible travesty of justice! This is not, however, surprising because, according to people who had the bad luck of living in areas controlled by Al-Shabab, they normally execute such severe corporal punishments on people who belong to minority clans in Somalia – people who have no armed tribesmen who could defend them or people who run away from Mogadishu’s appalling security conditions, like Miss Dhuhulow, and have settled in safer regions/districts of lawless Somalia as internally displaced persons (IDPs).   


Furthermore, the extremists were reported to have severely flogged some girls in another area in southern Somalia because the girls’ ankles were not covered enough!  On another occasion, they forbade citizens in an area that they occupy from celebrating the anniversary of the birth of our beloved Prophet, Muhammad (peace be upon him) because, according to their very rigid and misguided interpretation, this is against Islam. But what is wrong with showing our affection and gratitude to our noble Prophet? In many countries of this world – some of whom their Muslim population does not constitute the majority – the Prophet’s birthday is celebrated as a public holiday. Al-Shabab have also destroyed and desecrated the tombs/shrines of some revered famous Somali clerics/imams (because, according to their rigid philosophy, visiting these tombs was tantamount to worshipping somebody other than Allah). Don’t they have more important or badly needed tasks to fulfill? And do they yet constitute a real Islamic State, elected by the Somali citizens through what is known in Islam as “mubaya’a” (or the consent of the people)? No at all. 


A few days ago, Al-Shabab committed another heinous crime by amputating an arm and a leg of each of four young men as a punishment for mainly stealing mobile (cell) phones, among other things.[5] These four young men, whose precious limbs were unnecessarily chopped off, will have to remain disabled, and totally dependent on handouts from their families and relatives for the rest of their lives. Why didn’t Al-Shabab sentence them to a less cruel and more humane punishment like imprisonment? I had lived in Saudi Arabia for 22 years and I had never seen or heard about the amputation of the limbs of a single person for theft during that long period. Are we better than the Saudis, whose country is the birth place of the sacred Islamic religion? To the best of my knowledge, no such severe and cruel corporal punishment is presently carried out, officially by the state, in any of the other Arab or Muslim countries.  


In other parts of southern Somalia, where Al-Shabab dominate, they have unjustly ordained for not permitting men and women to ride the same bus together. But what is wrong with properly dressed men and women sharing the same means of transport? And what has this extremist outfit done to solve the severe shortage of affordable public transportation in a very poor and least developed country, like Somalia, which has been undergoing a very ruinous “uncivil” war in almost the past two decades? Obviously nothing; and no other positive contribution to the political, economic and social development of our unlucky country is expected from them.


Moreover, Al-Shabab has forbidden the unfortunate Somali young men who live in Ghedo region from playing football or watching it on television. Why? Because it distracts them from “ibada” or devoting all their time to the worship of God! Al-Shabab has even prohibited people from listening to music or watching films in the privacy of their homes, because for them this was un-Islamic. What an atrocious circumscription or limitation of personal freedoms! The very violent Al-Shabab also engage in suicide bombings and the planting of lethal artisan bombs on roadsides with the help of hundreds of foreign jihadists – something that is totally strange to Somali culture and our people’s peace loving version of Islam. 


The only redeeming feature of the self-appointed religious vigilante, Al-Shabab, is that they have established a semblance of peace and order in the areas that they occupy – but at a very high cost to the local communities in terms of respect and personal freedoms. They also banned the consumption and trade in the mild narcotic, Qat, which has been causing a great deal of socio-economic problems in Somalia over the years. Again, as their actions are based on religious creed and not on the Somalis’ divisive and very destructive doctrine, i.e., tribalism, Al-Shabab could, theoretically, help in eradicating this cancerous disease and restoring the unity and strong sense of nationalism of all Somalis. However, in the opinion of some observers of Somalia’s political scene, these self-appointed Islamist hardliners are basically clan militias who are operating under the guise of the noble Islamic religion; and as we have witnessed in Somalia’s recent history, tribal fanaticism combined with religious extremism work in concert to create a very lethal cocktail. But what is the real objective of Al-Shabab, Hizbul-Islam (The Party of Islam) and other armed religious militants in Somalia? The answer is simple: they are looking for power and wealth. Explaining the motives of similar extremist outfits all over the world, the American expert on terrorism, Ms. Jessica Stern, put it succinctly this way: “The terrorist begins to mimic his perception of the oppressor: he turns to violence. His goal is to win at any cost … Terrorism becomes a career as much as a passion. What starts as moral fervor becomes a sophisticated organization. Grievance can end up as greed – for money, political power, or attention.”[6]




In the past 40 years after their independence, the Somali people have experienced two ruling systems that are alien to the moderate version of their Islamic faith, their traditions and their way of life: Firstly, the communist ideology of Siad Barre’s tyrannical regime; and secondly, that of the ultra-radical Islamist outfit, Al-Shabab. (Incidentally, Afghanistan, another failed state which later became a safe haven for Taliban and Al-Qaeda terrorist networks, had also passed through these two stages.) The former, i.e., Siad Barre’s regime, at least had a clear vision for the socio-economic development of the country, no mater how disagreeable with it we might have been. But the latter, i.e., Al-Shabab, has no vision, whatsoever, with regard to the good, democratic political governance and meaningful economic development of poor Somalia.


What have Al-Shabab so far done concerning the offering of good education and health services in the regions that they occupy without any national or international legitimacy? Absolutely none. Have they created any lawful job opportunities to the Somali people, the overwhelming majority of whom now live in abject poverty, or rehabilitated the country’s terribly dilapidated infrastructures? Not at all. Again, how would they obtain the huge funds necessary for running and reconstructing a totally failed state like Somalia? And what would be their strategy for dealing in a friendly, positive and mutually beneficial manner with the outside world, particularly Somalia’s neighbors, a good number of whom are headed by non-Muslim leaders, and with the Western/Christian world at large? Nobody knows. But their serious diplomatic blunders and their foolish provocations were what led to Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2006. With their recent blatant threats to both our neighbors, Ethiopia and Kenya, the extremist Al-Shabab and Hizbul-Islam could be repeating the same mistake soon.


Al-Shabab are only good at carrying out horrendous corporal punishments or stonings (i.e., hudud in Arabic), and they are doing this in 21st century, mind you – they have nothing else to offer. As such, they will meet the same miserable and very disgraceful fate that their predecessor, namely, Siad Barre’s despotic regime, had finally met almost 19 years ago. And Somalia will not be out of the woods, and will not stand on its own feet, so long as Al-Shabab and its likes are around.  



Mahamud M. Yahya, PhD


[1]  See I. M. Lews, Understanding Somalia: Guide to Culture, History and Social Institutions (Haan Associates, London, UK, 1993), chapter 14.  See also Jama Mohamed Ghalib’s book: The Cost of Dictatorship: The Somali Experience (Lilian Barber Press, 1993).


[2]  Rick Razoff, “Cold War Origins of the Somalia Crisis”, posted on Hiiraan Online on May 6, 2009.


[3]  The holy  Qur’an, chapter 4, verses: 4:10-12  (as  translated by  the renowned Indian Muslim scholar, Mr. Abdullah Yusuf).





[4]  Rod  Norland, “Somalia: Africa’s Taliban”,  Newsweek, July 31, 2006,  p.38.  See also Hussein Salad, “The Killing Machine Al-shabaab”  and Idris Ahmed Osman,  “Shariah Law: the Sole Panacea to All Our Problems”,  to be accessed by googling under the titles of these articles or the full names of their authors.


[5]  Voice of America (VOA) radio, Somali Service, June 25, 2009, at 16 hrs. GMT.


[6]  Stern, Jessica, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill  (HarperCollins Publishers, 2003), p. 28







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