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Summary Article: Somalia and Refugees
from Immigration and Asylum from 1900 to Present

Somalia has become a nation of refugees. The late 1980s and early 1990s, in particular, which included the last years of the Siad Barre dictatorship and the civil war that followed his ouster, saw a flood of Somalis leave their homes for what was perceived as safer territory, sometimes within Somalia itself, sometimes in neighboring countries, primarily Kenya, Djibouti, and Ethiopia, and often thence to a multitude of countries in the West. Western cities such as Toronto and London witnessed the birth of communities of tens of thousands of Somali refugees within a few short years.

Somali guerrillas attack. Since the 1990s warring clans have kept Somalia in a state of civil war. (Corel)

More than a dozen years after the fall of the Barre government, Somalia has yet to put its political house in order. Several regions of the country, notably Somaliland and Puntland, have declared independence and established regional governments, but these remain unrecognized by the international community. Mogadishu, the capital city, remains a lawless and divided city, its various districts under the armed control of disputatious warlords.

Somalis are not as homogeneous a people as they have frequently been depicted. There are significant cultural and even language differences between the northern pastoralists, on the one hand, and the southerners, with their more mixed economy, on the other. There are also numerous divergent points in the histories accompanying the two traditions. Ironically, these differences have been better understood after Somalia’s civil breakdown than in the past. Indeed, the disintegration of established orders has provided the impetus and opportunity for a recreation of some of Somalia’s cultural myths.

Somalia’s refugees have come from all regions of the country—north, south, and the interior. They are drawn from the cities of Mogadishu and Hargeisa, from the towns as well as the countryside, and from all socioeconomic classes. They include urbanites of all professions, pastoralists and farmers, the privileged and the impoverished, the well educated and the uneducated.

Somalia’s woes can be traced, in large part, to clan politics. Although discussion of clan was officially banned by the Barre government, it was under his dictatorship that the seeds of the present anarchy were sown, through the persecution of certain groups and the favoring of others. There is widespread recognition that Somalia would not be in its present dire straits, nor Somalis themselves refugees, were it not for the exploitation of clan loyalties and awareness by those in authority. Clan affiliation in urban areas had been losing its potency until the beginning of the Barre-inspired hostilities, but almost all Somali refugees suffered to a lesser or greater degree purely because of the clan or subclan to which they belonged. Suffering meant imprisonment, maiming, or death; it meant rape or the humiliation of men by the forced witness of the rape of their women, a particularly horrific crime in the Somali social context.

A number of Somalia’s clan-families have traditionally been associated with the pastoral lifestyle that was the mainstay of the Somali economy and, most significantly, the society’s cultural and mythic core. Despite rapid urbanization and the existence of rich agricultural lands in the south of the country, the bulk of Somalia’s employment and foreign exchange was earned through the production of livestock: cattle, sheep, goats, and, most important, camels. The centrality of the camel—to the country’s rich poetic tradition, to the determination of a family’s wealth, and to the measure of a man’s worth—was such that camel-herding was widely considered to be the most noble of professions. The clan-families that engaged primarily in pastoralism, including the Isaaq, the Darood, the Dir, and the Hawiye, constituted a significant proportion of the population and considered themselves to be “noble.” They viewed themselves in marked contrast to the southern “Saab” clan-families, including the Digil and Raheenwein, or Reewin, which traditionally engaged in agriculture or some combination of agriculture and pastoralism, and which were seen to be racially mixed with the Bantu and other Africans who had formerly been slaves or “clients,” and have gradually intermarried. In addition to these clan-families, there are other minority populations, including the descendants of Arab immigrants, such as the Reer Hamar (the people of Hamar, a district of Mogadishu), who have peopled the urban areas of the Benaadir coast for a thousand years and who have played a significant role in the Islamization of Somalia, as will be seen below, but who have frequently been neglected in descriptions of the Somali body politic. The place of these minorities has come into sharper focus since the civil war, a large part of which centered on control over the rich farming lands between the Shebelle and Juba rivers, southern lands that were home to most of these minority Somalis.

Somalia’s is an oral culture, and not until 1972, with the choice and development of an official orthography, did Somalis begin to keep records in that language. Despite the increase in rural literacy programs that were a part of the early years of the Barre regime, many Somali refugees are illiterate. This does not mean, however, that they are without literature. Rather, they have an intensely rich culture, informed at every socioeconomic level with the telling of stories and of poetry. Poetry is not seen as an effete activity of elites, but rather the stuff of every day, a powerful way to tell and retell important events. It is from this powerful poetic and storytelling impetus that the power of the oral Somali creation myth stems. This myth has had immense implications for Somali identity: Northern and central Somalis do not see themselves as African, but rather of Arab heritage, a mythic connection that is strongest among the four northern pastoral clan-families.

The vaunted ability of Somalis to trace their family back patrilineally twenty or thirty generations by memory is very much in evidence, and this genealogy (abtirsiinyo) places Somalis vis-à-vis one another. Somalis traditionally use three names: an original first name is added to the names of their father and grandfather, but these are actually added to the names of preceding patrilineal ancestors. It is a precise method that allows Somalis to locate members of their extended families, which in turn indicates the level of loyalty and responsibility each has for the other, an ability that has proven as important in the refugee straits of the diaspora as it was in times of drought or competition for scarce pastoral resources. It has also meant that the ability to trace one’s ancestry back to the Arabs, however mythical the connection may be, has conferred a “nobility” on the claimant, in his eyes and in the eyes of his compatriots. The connection reinforces the self-perception of the four pastoral tribes as “noble,” justifying their scorn for the southerners, particularly as these are intermarried with Africans, whose hair and facial features are described as recognizably different from those of other Somalis. Ironically, the Benaadir coastal peoples, including those descendants of Arabs (such as the Reer Hamar) whose settlement and accumulation of Islamic culture were extremely significant in the Islamization of Somalia, have frequently been ignored in descriptions of Somalia’s population. Therefore, any reevaluation of Islam in Somali history and society has potentially significant consequences for Somalis’ understanding of their historical identity.

Diaspora Somalis have raised the profile of Islam in the Western cities in which they reside. Somali refugees retain strong transnational connections to communities in other countries and to the homeland. People, money, and ideas are in constant exchange. A significant portion of homeland Somalis’ income comes in the form of remittances from family overseas. Homeland Somalis’ ideas about the role and practice of Islam, as well, have been strongly influenced by diaspora communities.

Virtually all Somalis are Muslims and identify themselves strongly as such. Islam has been present in Somalia from the first century after the Hijra (the migration of the Prophet Mohammad, founder of Islam, and his followers to East Africa, and then to Medina), but its spread from the coastal towns into the interior is even today shrouded in conjecture and debate, where historical fact appears to collide with northern Somali clan mythology. Two of the northern pastoral clan-families, the Darood and the Isaaq, lay claim to an Arab progenitor, and not just any Arab, but one of Muhammad’s early followers. According to clan mythology, Shaykh Adburahman Ibn Ismail Jabarti, who fled his homeland following a personal argument with his uncle, married the daughter of a local chief (the date of his arrival is argued to be between 75 and 400 years after the Hijra). This union is said have given rise to one of Somalia’s larger clan-families, the Darood. Almost the identical story is told of Shaykh Ishaqibn Ahmad al-’Alawi, the supposed progenitor of the Isaaq clan-family, who is estimated to have arrived in northern Somalia in the twelfth or thirteenth century. Islam was then believed to have spread southward as the clans began to migrate to the south, spreading gradually into the interior over a period of centuries.

The Islamization of the Somali interior was a long process that involved the overlay of Islam upon traditional customs and beliefs, as elsewhere in Africa. Rural Somalis have relied more on traditional Somali customs (xeer or heer) than the shari’a (the fundamentalist system of Islamic laws) in regulating their lives. In the eighteenth century, when most Somalis would have described themselves as Muslims, their religious observances combined the traditions of ancestor worship and magic with the five pillars of the faith. Itinerant shaykhs traversed internal Somalia, popularizing Islam with a combination of knowledge of Muslim law, traditional knowledge, and magic, resulting in a series of veneration cults of many of these men after their deaths. Annual pilgrimages to their tombs (siyaaro; Arabic, ziyara), stories concerning their ability to perceive and even control supernatural forces, and elegiac poems were central to this veneration. Somali Islam has been closely associated with Sufism, and indeed, over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Sufi tariqas (brotherhoods) became extremely influential. That influence was especially strong during the colonial period and through the early part of the twentieth century.

Following the assassination of President Ali Shermarke and the military coup in 1969, Siad Barre’s government initially allied itself with Soviet-style scientific socialism, which necessarily indicated an uncomfortable position on the role of Islam in Somali society. Though he recognized Islam as central to Somalia’s identity, Barre nonetheless quickly found himself at odds with it. The tariqas were tolerated, since they were seen as politically neutral, but as the dictatorship became inhospitable to opposition of any kind, sanctions on religious expression were introduced and later extended. In 1975, Barre introduced a series of legal reforms, including changes to the inheritance laws, putting women on an equal footing with men. Ten imams, having expressed opposition to the changes on Islamic grounds during the Friday noon prayers, were arrested and executed. Later, Islamic groups were expressly banned, and members of these were persecuted, arrested, tortured and killed, or driven into exile.

There began to grow, in the 1970s in the urban centers of Somalia, the nub of what are today sizable Somali Islamist movements, both within the country and in the diaspora. This was in keeping with the international climate and the “Islamic revival” that was swelling as the Arabs reexamined their identities in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War with Israel, but it was more than an African reflection of that phenomenon.

Somalis had been euphoric at independence in 1960 to see the reunion of the two former colonial possessions, British Somaliland and Italian Somalia, but they soon faced a crisis of identity, which was caused by a number of factors. Somali politics fell into a morass as the 1960s progressed and the promise of independence appeared not to fulfill itself. Following the assassination of Shermarke and the coup, Barre fanned the flames of national fervor and irredentism by promising the reclamation of the Ogaden (that part of eastern Ethiopia inhabited by ethnic Somalis and given to Ethiopia as part of a series of deals between the Ottoman Empire and the colonial powers of northeastern Africa during pre-independence negotiations). Eventually, and only after much death and devastation, he could not deliver, but Somalia was swamped by a crisis of resources in 1974 as thousands of Somali refugees poured destitute into the country from the Ogaden. To make matters worse, Barre’s allegiance switched to the United States and the West after the Soviet Union backed Ethiopia in Somalia’s irredentist war, although he never formally repudiated socialism, fueling a frustration among Somalis with their government’s apparent ideological confusion.

Some Somalis responded to what they saw as a growing national identity crisis by rejecting what seemed to them to be imported ideologies and frameworks. Their aim was to find a developmental path that would work for Somalia by virtue of being truly Somali. Some of this sentiment found expression in Islamist movements that grew out of groups that had existed during the 1960s. But they found a new impetus and raison d’être with the political climate of the 1970s. Over time, the movements crystallized into groups with somewhat differing orientations, split, and in some cases reunited. They were infused by scholarship at Egyptian, Sudanese, and Saudi universities, and they became, over the course of the 1980s, influential in the urban areas and in the diaspora, where Somali refugees attempted to ground their identity amid a cacophony of competing religions and attitudes.

The Islamists are arrayed in two main groups. The first of these, Jama’at al-Islah (Society of Reform), identifies with the al-Ikwhan al-Muslimun, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and is generally described as the less strict of the two. In Somalia, it sees its main work as the provision of social services—the reestablishment of hospitals and clinics, food, housing, and education—to Somalis as it gradually reeducates them. In the diaspora, members of al-Islah generally use terms such as “aiding the integration of our community,” that is, into the host community, saying that compromise on strict Islamic doctrine is allowable insofar as Muslim values are not damaged in the process. What this means in practice is obviously subject to much debate.

The second group is called al-Ittihad al-Islami (Islamic Union). It is a union of two earlier groups, Jama’at Ahl al-Islam (Society of the People of Islam), or Ahli, which had been started by Shaykh Mohamed Moallin, subsequently jailed for fifteen years by Barre; and the Salafiyya, begun in 1978 by a group of graduates from Saudi universities. The latter is generally described, both by its members and by members of al-Islah, as stricter and more doctrinaire. Sometimes called Wahhabi or Salafi, adherents of al-Ittihad maintain that Islam was purest in its application during the life of the Prophet Muhammad and the 220 years following the Hijra, and they consequently attempt to follow teachings and hadiths (practices of the Prophet Mohammed) as rendered during that time.

Although al-Ittihad also works to provide social services in Somalia, and its members are not in agreement about how to maneuver within a tribally divided anarchy, it reportedly issued a political manifesto in 1992 listing a series of eight objectives. These objectives include: the establishment of an Islamic state; the rejection of jahili (“ignorant” or un-Islamic) policies; the attainment of Islamic justice; the establishment of peace in society; a well-planned economy; propagation of Islam; war against bida’ (innovations); and once this is all in place, the establishment of a strong army. It also rejects alliances with non-Islamic political parties. Following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, al-Ittihad has been suspected of having connections with al-Qaeda, but this has been difficult to substantiate. There appears to be little espousal among Somalis of ideological Islamism, and the support that diaspora and homeland Somalis have shown for these groups has been primarily pragmatic.

Following the civil war, for instance, Islamist groups established shari’a courts in certain areas of the country, and these enjoyed some support, particularly from the business community, which was grateful for the increased order and stability. The months since September 11, however, have seen a sharp diminishment in this backing, which has translated into less money available to pay the militias that reinforce Islamist control, and therefore a diminishment in Islamist control.

Somalis in diaspora became more religious, and also differently religious, in a movement that was led largely by Somali women as they sought to define their own identity and to protect their children from a barrage of foreign influences. They redefined their practice of Islam. Many women took the hijab for the first time, wearing scarves as religious objects rather than for beauty. People began to pray more regularly and to read the Qur’an for guidance and inspiration, discussing heatedly what they read there and how it could help them navigate their way in these muddling, alienating places. In the process, diaspora Somali women have increasingly questioned the importance of female circumcision to Somali culture, a questioning that is, in turn, reverberating in the homeland.

The role of women in Somali society has been changing since the civil war. Forced by circumstance to support their families and even to become heads of single-parent households, women are playing a redefined social role, both in the diaspora and at home. In Somalia itself, women have been credited with rebuilding, or beginning to rebuild, shattered communities. They have been starting and running micro-businesses—selling food, clothing, beeswax products, incense, and beauty products, but not just these, and generally but not always from their homes. These micro-businesses have fed their families, have helped to rebuild a viable community economy, and have provided seed-money for small schools and medical clinics. Political power begins with economic power; Somalia’s social structures have been irrevocably altered.

Somalia is still wrestling with the bitter legacy of its civil war. As they move on, Somalis must recreate a workable system of governance, one that protects against the pitfalls of the past. It is clear that, whatever form it takes, Somalis’ diaspora experience will play a significant role in that process.

See also: Civil Wars and Migration; Colonial Immigration; Diaspora; Gender and Migration; Internally Displaced Persons; Muslim Immigration; Refugees; Remittances; Transnationalism

References and further reading:
  • Abdullahi, Diriye Abdullahi. 2001. Culture and Customs of Somalia. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
  • Ahmed, Ali Jimale. 1995. The Invention of Somalia. Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press.
  • Ahmed, Ali Jimale. 1996. Daybreak Is Near: Literature, Clans and the Nation-State in Somalia. Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press.
  • Ahmed, Ali Jimale. 2002. Fear Is a Cow. Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press.
  • Aman. 1994. Aman: The Story of a Somali Girl. Toronto: Knopf Canada.
  • Berns, McGown Rima. 1999. Muslims in the Diaspora: The Somali Communities of London and Toronto. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Besteman, Catherine, and Cassanelli, Lee, eds. 1996. The Struggle for Land in Southern Somalia: The War behind the War. Boulder: Westview.
  • Cassanelli, Lee. 1982. The Shaping of Somali Society: Reconstructing the History of a Pastoral People. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Drysdale, John. 1994. Whatever Happened to Somalia? London: Haan Associates.
  • Farah, Nuruddin. 2000. Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora. London: Cassell.
  • Gassem, Miriam Arif. 1994. Hostages. Nairobi: Central Graphics Services.
  • Kapteijns, Lidwien. 1999. Women’s Voices in a Man’s World: Women and the Pastoral Tradition in Northern Somali Orature. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Lewis, Ioan M. 1994. Blood and Bone: The Call of Kinship in Somali Society. Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press.
  • Sheik-Abdi, Abdi. 1993. Divine Madness: Mohammed Abdulle Hassan (1856–1920). London: Zed.
  • Simons, Anna. 1995. Networks of Dissolution. Boulder: Westview.
  • Rima Berns McGown
    Copyright © 2005 by Matthew J. Gibney and Randall Hansen

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