Some Thoughts on Blasphemy and Anti-Blasphemy Violence – for Foreign Exchanges

At Derek Davison’s Foreign Exchanges, I wrote last week about “the politics of blasphemy” (that’s also the title of the piece. I found the topic extremely hard to write about with the delicacy it merits, given that I neither want to excuse violence against innocents nor do I want to play into Islamophobia. The piece takes recent violence in Nigeria as a point of departure but also touches on incidents from Mauritania, Sudan, and elsewhere.

The Age of Coups Continues

Earlier this month, incoming African Union Chairman Bingu wa Mutharik, president of Malawi, said that the organization must take measures to stop coups and wars. He already faces a challenge on that front: in Niger, a military body called the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy has taken power in a coup and arrested President Mamadou Tandja.

Democracy subverted? Not really – given that Tandja disregarded constitutional provisions in order to remain in power past his two-term limit, this coup represents a transition from one less-than-democratic scenario to another. So what does this mean?

Regional, continental, and international bodies are, of course, concerned not only for Niger’s stability but also for the stability of the entire region. With tense transitions underway in Guinea after a coup there in 2008, transitions recently completed in Mauritania after a coup there the same year, and a history of military interventions in West Africa, those concerns are warranted. Perhaps the leaders of neighboring countries hope the CSRD will follow through on its promise to restore democracy in Niger, but are they comfortable having the military as the referee of the democratic process? It has often taken substantial additional violence (as in Guinea) before military leaders relinquish their hold on power after a coup.

Viewed in the context of its neighborhood, the coup in Niger has some worrying implications. To simplify things a lot, crushing poverty and weak democratic institutions seem to concentrate power in the hands of those who control the state, and neither opposition parties nor regional pressure nor other actors (business persons, religious leaders, etc) seem to provide much of a counterweight to any given regime. Only the military has the power to challenge the regime. These conditions exist in a lot of Sahelian countries, meaning that while we should not expect coups in Niger’s neighbors, neither should we rule out the significant possibility of other coups taking place in the years to come. The age of coups is not past in West Africa.

Nor is it past in other parts of the world. The coup in Niger reminds us that militaries in many countries will not hesitate to intervene in politics – in fact, it seems to me that militaries are politicized in more countries than not. From Honduras to Pakistan, coups have been a part of the post Cold-War political landscape, and I see no real indications that coups will cease. Pronouncements of the definitive triumph of democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union continue to ring hollow.

The State of Somaliland

I’m not much of a humorist, but I’ll point out that the title of this post is a (weak, I admit) pun, for it refers both to the current state of affairs in the autonomous republic of Somaliland and to Somaliland’s quest for international recognition. Both stories have made headlines recently.


Berbera, Somaliland

Al Jazeera asks, as many others have, whether Somaliland is heading toward collapse. A crisis over presidential elections, originally scheduled for late September but now delayed indefinitely, has made observers in and outside the country uneasy since this summer. But now, Al Jazeera writes, “Recent violence, particularly in the capital Hargeysa, has shown that the crisis in Somaliland has changed from being political to one of security and stability.”

When Al Jazeera speaks of violence, they are referring partly to the explosion that killed a senior military official in the town of Las Anod earlier this month. It’s unclear who bears responsibility for the bombing, but theories are circulating, including one that pins responsibility on al Shabab. It’s also worth noting that this attack occurred in a context of tension between Somaliland and its neighbor, the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, over borders.

A massive flow of immigrants from Ethiopia into Somaliland constitutes another major source of pressure on the region.

Al Jazeera’s pessimism may be warranted, but there are other sides to the story. The dispute between President Dahir Riyale and opposition groups over elections, which turned ugly when Riyale postponed the elections, appeared to reach a breakthrough once parliament approved a new electoral commission in late October. The commission includes the president as well as opposition representatives. ReliefWeb went so far as to call this step a “beacon of hope.”

Finally, a measure of economic growth, at least compared to Somalia’s other regions, may act as a stabilizing force in Somaliland. Saudi Arabia’s recent resumption of livestock trade with Somalia may benefit the whole country, but so far its biggest impact appears to be in Somaliland, where sales have already increased tenfold. The boost for livestock traders is also a boost to Somaliland’s ports and other sectors of the economy. Meanwhile, the New York Times informs us that remittances from Somalis abroad are a crucial source of cash for many Somalis, but have a particular impact in Somaliland, where “the Somali diaspora has contributed money for education, health and other social programs.”

I’m not saying that Somaliland is a capitalist paradise and therefore freedom and democracy will sprout like wildflowers, but it does seem that the measure of political stability that exists is allowing the potential, at least, for economic growth. If those two factors work in tandem, that gives elites a huge incentive to work together to resolve the electoral crisis before it disrupts not only political stability, but economic interests as well.


On the international front, Somaliland has shown, as one writer observers, remarkable persistence in its efforts to attract recognition from other countries. Much seems to hinge on the African Union’s backing, which may come at some point but not, it appears, any time soon.

However, this month’s visit of a Pakistani delegation to Somaliland may open a new door.

Mr. Abdirasak, Somaliland’s newly appointed representative to Pakistan told local media that the two sides have discussed the opening of a Somaliland representation office in Pakistan, to stregthen bilateral relationship and requested Pakistan to throw its weight behind Somaliland’s bid for international recognition.

Somaliland also appealed to Pakistan to help them gain membership in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which is the second largest inter-governmental organization after the United Nations with 57 member states spread over four continents.

Local media also reported that Pakistan would assist Somaliland to combat piracy in the region and train it’s small fleet of coastguards.

It is the first visit of such by Pakistani officials to Somaliland since restoring its nationhood in 1991. Many Somalilanders see the arrival of the Pakistani delegation as a firm step forward in a new relationship between the two nations that will open new doors for Somaliland in the Asian region.

Membership in the OIC sounds like a big deal to me. I wonder if they’ll get it. In the meantime, it looks like more persistence on Somaliland’s part will be needed – and, I imagine, the successful conclusion of the now much-anticipated elections – before a serious change in their international relations occurs.

Somalia and Afghanistan

Comparing Somalia and Afghanistan is commonplace. The BBC does it. The EU does it. Hell, I’ve done it.

What the comparison signifies depends on where the comparer sits. That came out starkly this week in two very different pieces – one by Richard Bennet, an American researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, and one by Hassan Naado, CEO of the Kenya Muslim Youth Alliance. A piece by Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute is similar to Bennet’s, but shorter.

Islamabad, Pakistan

Islamabad, Pakistan

Bennet and Naado’s perspectives differ in obvious ways. For Bennet and Kagan, Somalia is not the ultimate topic of discussion; the debate over escalation in Afghanistan is. Still, when they invoke Somalia as a rhetorical device, arguing that Somalia’s chaos proves the US must not limit its operations in Afghanistan, it’s worth noting how they pull Somalia out of its historical context. For Bennet, “the United States began its engagement in Somalia” with the UNOSOM mission in the early 1990s. (What about American military and financial support for Siad Barre during the Cold War?)

At least Bennet mentions the US-supported Ethiopian occupation of Somalia from December 2006 to January 2009. For Kagan, Bill Clinton’s withdrawal from Somalia is directly responsible for the emergence of al Shabab. Without history, it’s easy to avoid the messiest aspects of the situation in Somalia. For example, it’s easier to argue that military force can reshape politics in Afghanistan when you gloss over the failure of the Ethiopian occupation to do the same in Somalia.

The idea of a Somalia without much history facilitates the comparison with Afghanistan. So does the idea of a Somalia without geography. But Bennet and Kagan forget that every Afghanistan must have its Pakistan – a metaphor Naado evokes vividly.

For Naado, the story of Afghanistan and Pakistan is different than the one Bennet and Kagan tell. Naado points to US support for Muslim fighters during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as a primary cause in entangling Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as in making Afghanistan the battlefield it is today. Moreover, Naado argues that the presence, not the absence, of foreign forces makes Afghanistan “a most dangerous country” and that the long history of American military involvement in the region has destabilized Pakistan.

Armed with this perspective, Naado brings the comparison full circle: let not Kenya, he pleads, play Pakistan to Somalia’s Afghanistan. Naado worries that if reports of young Kenyan men being recruited to fight for Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government are true, Kenya may face, down the road, a returning army of fighters that it cannot control.

Nairobi, Kenya

Nairobi, Kenya

Like Bennet, Naado blurs history; in his case, he conflates the mujahideen with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Still, despite hasty and ahistorical comparisons on both sides, these different views are worth examining, especially for one feature they share – the lack of a serious proposal for solving the conflict in Somalia.

Naado is more concerned to argue for Kenyan neutrality than for a certain outcome across the border, so perhaps his unspoken suggestion is that everyone should wait and see what happens. Bennet and Kagan, quick to say that limited counterterrorism efforts in Somalia have failed, nonetheless also seem to want to wait and see. As Bennet puts it, “We currently live with the chaos in Somalia.”

I’ve written about Afghanistan elsewhere; my anti-escalation views are no secret. The point here, however, as it relates to the Horn of Africa, is that the US will not – I suspect, cannot – determine political outcomes in Somalia through force of will or arms. If we cannot, if there is no solution, no way to “get Somalia right,” no magic policy or special personality that could suddenly solve the crisis, then that says something significant about US power, not just in Africa but also, if we continue to accept the comparison, in South Asia. Perhaps, then, it’s worth treading carefully as we try to control various Afghanistans, to make sure we don’t leave a trail of Pakistans behind us.