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The mufti and the general: lessons from Somalia

About the author
Ram Manikkalingam is an advisor to the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and a visiting professor at the University of Amsterdam. He is a member of two New York-based organisations, the International Advisory Groups of the Security Council Report and the East West Management Institute; and in Sri Lanka, of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust

I recently visited Somalia to attend a meeting of religious figures, clan elders and women leaders.Ram Manikkalingam is an advisor to the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and a visiting professor at the University of Amsterdam. He is a member of two New York-based organisations, the International Advisory Group of the Security Council Report and the East West Management Institute; and in Sri Lanka, of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trustworks

Also by Ram Manikkalingam in openDemocracy:

"Al-Qaida: from centre to periphery" (9 October 2007) - with Pablo Policzer


Somalia is not a very stable place. But like all unstable countries, there are pockets of relative stability. While this is true of most countries that have an internal armed conflict, Somalia has the additional problem of having no state, though it does have an (Ethiopian-backed) government, and a number of militias, ranging from clan-based and Islamist-led to business-run. The meeting I attended could be compared to any such gathering of activists in the world concerned about their own country, in that the discussion was about how to reconcile conflicting groups. The question posed in this particular, Somali case was how to move from a situation of "semi-organised chaos" to "organised chaos" and then stability. As the only outsider present, I was asked to speak about "western and other methods of resolving conflict".

The Somalis were keen to learn from me about the rest of the world. But, as usually happens in these situations, you quickly find that the world you bring with you and the one you encounter are are not that different; and that the one who arrives (and who is supposed to teach) learns as much, or even more, than the ones already there (and who are supposed to learn).

The meeting consisted of three parts. The first, led by a sheikh from a local mosque, was on the Qur'an and conflict-resolution. The second, led by a clan elder, was on traditional Somali methods of resolving conflict. The third, led by me, was the one on western and other methods of conflict-resolution. After my session we went to have a Somali lunch of rice and goat-meat. As I was tucking into my food, one of the participants - a mufti from a large town - inquired politely (through my interpreter) whether he could ask me a small question.

In the moment I invited him to, he blurted out: "Professor Ram, how can we solve this problem between Islam and the west?"

This was not an easy question to answer over lunch. True, it had featured tangentially over the previous two days' discussions, though we had focused our thoughts on the more immediately pressing issue of the civil war in Somalia. With my mouth full of tender goat-meat, I struggled to think about how I could even begin to answer his question. In the end, the taste-buds defeated the brain. The only option was to return the inquiry: "Mufti, what do you think the problem is between Islam and the west?"Also in openDemocracy on dialogue across cultures and ideologies:

Gabrielle Rifkind, "Intimate enemies: the inner dynamics of peace" (27 February 2002)

Jeroen Gunning, "Hamas: talk to them" (18 April 2008)

Scilla Elworthy, "Tackling terror by winning hearts and minds" (20 July 2005)

Mats Engström, "Europe and terrorism: the wrong path" (7 November 2007)


It was clear the Mufti had given much thought to this issue, because he responded immediately and at length. This is what he said:

"In Islam there are things we must do as a Muslim and things we must not do. For example, the Qur'an says that we must pray a particular number of times a day, and that we must contribute a certain part of our income as charity. Similarly, we must not eat certain food and we must not blaspheme. As a devout Muslim, I follow these religious injunctions. At the same time there is another category of things that we may or may not do. Here Islam does not stipulate what we must do, but permits us as devout Muslims to make a choice, one way or another. But the extremists do not accept this category. What they are doing is to seek to reduce this category, so that everything comes under their control. They try to reduce the choice available to Muslims, by saying that we are required to do something or not do something, when Islam, itself, has made no such demand of us."

Even if we disagree with these extremists, we can still argue with them. They can live their lives and we can live ours. But the problem really begins when some people use guns to tell us what to do and how to practice our religion. Not only do they argue that Islam requires us to do certain things, when it does not, or that it requires us not to do certain things, that we believe it permits us to do, they also threaten us with violence, if we do not follow their injunctions. This is the problem we have in the Muslim world."

"What is the problem with the west?", I asked at this point. He had an answer to that too:

"The west says that it cannot integrate Muslims into its societies because it is Christian and we are Muslim. So it discriminates against us. When we respond that we thought you are tolerant of all faiths, and that your state is not linked to any one religion, it quickly changes its position. It says, ‘we are not Christian, we are secular. We have no place for religion and the problem with you is not that you are Muslim, but that you are religious. So we cannot integrate you into our societies.' The west is not sure if it is Christian or it is secular. But, either way, it is sure that it does not like Muslims."

Distinguish, don't conflate

I was impressed with the mufti. He had summarised a quite complex debate into a very succinct articulation of the tension between Islam and the west. But there was still one question nagging me about his answer. How different is violent extremism from extremism without violence. Don't the two go hand in hand? Isn't political extremism the first step to violent extremism? And to fight violent extremism, shouldn't one also fight political extremism? The mufti's toleration of Muslim political extremism, even when he disagreed with it, sounded misplaced to me, given his resistance to violent extremism.

These questions were left unresolved in my mind until, at another seminar I attended, I met a general from a southeast Asian country with a severe terrorist problem. I asked the general a question about engaging extremists. He responded:

"We make a distinction between extremists and terrorists. We like extremists, because extremists are fifty-fifty: half may go the violent side, but the other half will not. And it is these extremists, the second half, who have an impact on those resorting to violence - not moderate or secular Muslims like me. To convince those killing and bombing to stop, we need the help of the extremists. So we must not alienate them. Rather, we must work with them to tell those using violent and terrorist methods: your views are alright, provided you express them within the democratic political system, without resorting to violence. And you must convince those who share your views and are using violence to do the same."

His basic point - counterintuitive in terms of the "standard" anti-terrorism approach - is that extremists are or can become allies, and not necessarily enemies, in the fight against terrorism.

In reflecting on the general's point, I thought about the parallels between the "war on terror" and that other high-profile war it has to a degree eclipsed: the "war on drugs". In many ways the two "wars" are similar: each is led by the United States; each has been going on for a long time; each has consumed huge resources of cash, lives and state policy; each has put a lot of people in prison; each is by nature indefinite in duration; each offers no clear evidence of progress towards any sort of "victory".

There is a further similarity in the way these wars are justified by their advocates. Those fighting terrorism argue that political extremism must be fought because it leads to terrorism; those fighting the war on drugs argue that "soft drugs" like marijuana must be eradicated, because smoking marijuana leads to the use of harder drugs like heroin. But only a tiny minority of those who have smoked marijuana end up becoming heroin addicts. To expend resources on fighting marijuana (which in any case has a smaller social cost) does not help with fighting heroin use. A conflation of the two can prove counterproductive.

The limits to tolerance

The implication of the foregoing is threefold:

* political extremism, while clearly a major challenge, does not invariably lead to violence and terrorism

* tolerating those with extremist views need not imply tolerating those who use violence and terror to propagate them

* those with extremist views are more likely than those at a remove from the conflict to understand the motivations of those who resort to violence and terrorism; thus, they can be a source of support in the struggle to move towards more stable and less violent societies.

However, tolerating or engaging extremists in a dialogue must not be confused with accepting their views as reasonable. This stems from the idea that engaging with someone (whether or not they are extremists) implies conceding that their views are acceptable, and then politically negotiating about how to accommodate their claims. I do not think this is always the case.

For example, the general's focus in the dialogue was to stop extremists from using violence to secure their goals. While he disagreed with their goals, his point to them was that they should use democratic political means. In effect he was saying: here are extremist, even intolerant people, who use violence to get their way; my job as a general is to get them to stop using violence, then hope that the (democratic) political system can find a way to accommodate them and politically blunt their extremism.

But this leaves open an important additional point about specific practices in communities that violate what might be considered as basic democratic and liberal values, including a commitment to equal rights. These practices can range from murder and paedophilia to discrimination on the basis of gender or caste. What happens when political actors (even if unarmed) seek to use the political system to advance these kinds of aims? What are the limits to tolerating extremists?

There is no single or simple answer, but there are elements that compose a pattern:

* there is such a limit, especially when the extremists' aims include intolerance and an explicit rejection of others' civic equality - whether based on race, gender, caste or class

* extremists, especially those who are intolerant of others, have no general right to be tolerated based on reciprocity, since they themselves do not tolerate others

* if tolerating extremists leads to the weakening of a democratic constitutional order, then extra care must be taken before the step is taken - though the default judgment should be to have confidence that a stable democratic structure (where it exists) will not be so weakened

* there should be a working principle that extremists (even intolerant ones) should be tolerated - on the assumption that they too may give voice to concerns that are in fact reasonable and should be addressed.

The broad expectation and hope raised by such an approach is that over time intolerant (even if non-violent) extremists themselves will change their positions as they participate in a democratic political process and see that they are treated fairly as equals, even if not all their demands are accepted. This is a familiar process in Europe's recent parliamentary history, where (for example) parties associated with the extreme right or left have tended to undergo internal transformation and become parts of the centre-right or centre-left tradition.

The human in the inhuman

The larger point is that to confuse tolerating extremists and/or engaging them in dialogue with accepting their views as reasonable is misconceived, for it stems from the idea that "engaging" must somehow entail "conceding". But it is indeed possible to enter into conversation with people without accepting that their views are in any way acceptable. The best institutional example of this approach is the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) - which actively engages with states that legally sanction torture and extremist, non-state armed groups.

The ICRC's logic is that it must face its interlocutors with its own open adherence to international humanitarian law (including the laws of war) - thus exposing directly the violations and evasions of these states and non-state actors to itself. The force of the ICRC's moral argument is that since the "other" is human, it must stop committing inhuman acts (not the reverse - that since it is committing these inhuman acts, it cannot be human). The wager involved in that the extremist or intolerant person or group is not inhuman and completely closed to arguments about decent behaviour towards others.

The point, as I understood it, from both the mufti and the general is that you must engage with extremists, but you need not concede to them, politically.


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