Wednesday, August 12, 2015

An Islamic State?

Living here has really forced me to examine a lot of what I think and know and most certainly stretched my mind. The past few days I've been able to have some very interesting, somewhat disturbing and eye opening conversations. As I've mentioned before this is probably the most homogenous and isolated place I've ever lived. And perhaps more broadly speaking arguably one of the most homogenous and isolated places on earth. What is fascinating is that many Africa scholars argue that one of the reasons for the conflict and slow development on the continent is due to the long lasting effects of colonization and how it ripped apart traditional structures, and drew up arbitrary country boundaries that do not take into account the mix of cultures and languages across the continent. Uganda is a good example of this, with roughly 42 languages. While I agree in part with this argumentation, it is also more complex. Somalia is religiously, ethnically, and linguistically homogenous yet has been fraught with conflict for most of its history.

I just finished reading the book Guns, Germs, and Steel, an excellent read that seeks to argue how environmental factors are what caused different societies to develop differently and ultimately aid in allowing certain societies to conquer others. The book made me think about Somalia and its unique tribal system. In my limited understanding tribes were historically your "people" who looked after you and provided some loose sense of governance. This system perhaps worked because of the harsh geography and limited resources that make up the Somali territories. However, tribalism is still active today even though as an outsider I don't see any obvious cultural or other differences between the tribes. When I was in the field last and we mysteriously found a nail in one of our tires, one of my colleagues (who is from the the east of Somaliland) immediately felt the nail was intentional (certainly quite likely). However, another of my colleagues (from the west and near the village where we were) was more skeptical and felt it could have been accidental (also probable).

All of this is connected to recent conversations I've had with locals, Somali diaspora and foreigners about forming a Somali government based on Islam (in other words an Islamic state). As an American my immediate reaction was shock when one of my colleagues (born and raised here) who I deemed open-minded expressed support for this form of governance. While in practice I think religion has become too intertwined with politics in the US, I firmly support the notion of separation of church and state. We had a lively discussion around the idea of a successful Islamic State where I argued that in my opinion there haven't been any successful examples of this form of governance. However, it seems there is widespread support for this idea at least among (male) native Somalilanders. A female Somali diaspora friend of mine stated that of course the idea is supported by men because it does not affect them in any way.

There seems to be widespread consensus that ISIS is wrong, but there is also this underlying sentiment of people wanting to preserve their culture (which is being lost) and avoiding western influence. I get this. But I also find the idea of a government based on a religion (which like Christianity has many different interpretations and seems to be evolving over time) unsettling. In my mind it only creates the opportunity for religion (which can be a beautiful thing) to be exploited for power. More importantly, Somaliland is already extremely isolated and with an extremely low literacy rate so I asked the question: is it worth further isolation (even if it means avoiding western influence)?

If I think about my own identity and how it's evolved as I've traveled and seen more, although it's often left me feeling a bit stuck between worlds and not fully understood, I also think it's shaped me mostly for the better. While I often get jokingly accused of not being American, being influenced and shaped by the many places I've lived and people I've met in my view has only strengthened some of the positive American traits I have and hopefully made me a more informed citizen. I suppose I am more American than people give credit to me in that I have a strong belief in diversity and how it can strengthen a place and in the separation of church and state. I acknowledge that religious beliefs influence how a person votes and lives their life (which is not negative in my opinion), but I would never want a government to tell me how to believe. I hope Somaliland one day soon gets international recognition and that they figure out a way to govern themselves that allows their dying culture to flourish without causing isolation and violence. What this will look like, I don't know.  

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