A young, rail-thin, and gaunt Somali woman, cradling her starving child in her arms, looks straight into the camera. Her eyes are dead; she has seen too much suffering. "Where are the Muslim countries?" she asks. "We are dying."
The image is haunting, and her words keep coming back, though they were broadcast on the BBC a few weeks ago now. Her plea is real. The richest Muslims in the world live just across the waters in the Gulf states, where billions of dollars are spent on indoor skiing facilities, artificial islands to host luxury hotels and water parks, and frolicking in yachts and faux European villas. There is never a dearth of funds for magnificent mosques, but when it comes to alleviating the mass starvation of a people, Muslims are coming up short.
The only head of state or government to have visited Somalia since the famine began is Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As if to emphasize the need to show support, he brought along his wife and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. Erdogan also demonstrated that instability is no excuse for not aiding Somalis; he presided over the reopening of Turkey's Mogadishu embassy after two decades of its being shuttered. Other Muslim leaders, however, are conspicuous by their absence, ignoring the Quranic command to show charity and compassion to the poor and needy.
Erdogan has also put his money where his mouth is. In contrast with Saudi Arabia ($50 million), Kuwait ($41.4 million), and the United Arab Emirates ($40 million through a recent telethon), Turkey has raised $300 million and secured an additional $350 million in pledges from countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Even traditionally generous countries like the United States have been lukewarm in their assistance (about $130 million). This money, and more, needs to be sent without delay, as the United Nations requires $1 billion for the most immediate needs. With seasonal rains approaching, more funds will be needed as aid groups struggle to fight disease in addition to starvation.
Although this Somali woman may ask where the Muslims are, we can ask where the world is. Are we deaf to this mother's cry and blind to her dying child? Despite a steady stream of international media reports reflecting the direness of the situation -- the U.N. estimates that some 750,000 Somalis will face death in the coming months -- the world's response has been woefully inadequate. In the United States, media attention has waned substantially.
The paltry response and lack of interest can partially be explained by Somalia's negative image in the United States and around the world, including in some Muslim countries, as a terrorist- and pirate-infested, anarchic "failed state." Although Somalia has problems with terrorism and piracy, the overall perception is false -- it is ahistorical, apolitical, and acultural. We must not allow it to contribute to the destruction of a people.
The truth is that Somalia is not a "failed state" because in order to be "failed" it must first exist, and a state, as it is popularly conceived, has never existed in Somalia. The world's failure to understand the real sources of power and influence in the country has only contributed to its ongoing misery. In more than 1,000 years of history, the traditionally nomadic and independent Somalis, split into opposing clans and subclans that trace their descent to a common ancestor, have never fully submitted to the writ of central rule for any substantial length of time.
The millions of Somalis who have been absorbed into surrounding countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia due to European colonial policies have similarly proved difficult for their central governments to administer and integrate. Complaining of marginalization and seeking autonomy, Somalis have fought extended insurgent wars in both these countries and today face famine.
And yet Somalia is not a nation of anarchy. Somalis have a sophisticated locally administered system of tribal law called xeer that resembles democracy, in which elders (every adult male, though those with age, charisma, and valor are more influential and respected) collectively decide issues of clan concern according to ancient traditions. Their code of behavior emphasizes honor, hospitality, and revenge.
Although tribes and tribal law may seem quaint and even primitive, tribes are a reality in the Muslim world as are proud nations and provinces named after them -- Saudi Arabia is named after the Al Saud, Afghanistan after the Afghans, Baluchistan after the Baluchis, and Waziristan after the Wazir. Tribes tend to disdain hierarchy, which is why they are so persistent in resisting central rule. They are perhaps the most egalitarian people in the Muslim world today. Somalis, named after their mythological ancestor Samale, are one of the most tribal peoples on Earth. It is precisely for this reason that it has been so difficult to institute top-down rule in the country, as Somalia functions from the bottom up.
This system has remained in place for the last millennium in spite of the vagaries of European imperialism, a nascent but flawed democracy in the 1960s, and Mohamed Siad Barre's military dictatorship. Siad Barre, like others before him, attempted to curb tribal law in favor of a central state, but it imploded due to tribal resistance and the collapse of law and order. Yet tribal law proved resilient, and elders took advantage of the 1991 fall of Siad Barre's government to build a "bottom-up" state in the northern Somaliland region. Today, the area is a comparative oasis of calm, and despite its being more arid and inhospitable, famine conditions are not nearly as severe as they are in the south.
Overlapping with tribal law -- and sometimes opposed to it -- is Islamic law, which has been historically administered in coastal sultanates like Mogadishu but seldom in the interior. The exceptions are times of great crisis and social breakdown, in which religious leaders can consolidate and extend their authority over a large area. This has only happened a few times in history, and it is occurring today with the rule of al-Shabab, a religious group that was radicalized in the chaos following the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion and occupation in 2006 and 2007 -- a war conducted in pursuit of just three al Qaeda suspects. In contrast with the area's traditional mystical Sufi Islam and the sophisticated Somali sultans of the past, al-Shabab seems to be implementing the most violent and cruel aspects of its understanding of Islam. Far from uniting the Somali people, the group has now itself become a catalyst for further death and destruction.
Today, Somalia faces an existential crisis. The staggering levels of starvation, destruction, and dislocation have led to social disintegration of immense scale. The glue that held society together -- tribal law and the elders -- has been challenged as never before. The country is being further marginalized by both the Western-backed central government, which has more commonly relied on infamous "warlords" from the Said Barre era, and religious groups like al-Shabab, which condemn tribal law as anti-Islamic. Of the two groups, al-Shabab has proved more adept at negotiating with and gaining the support of elders, but this support can be very shallow. Indeed, al-Shabab has arrested or killed elders who opposed it.
Somalia's human tragedy is exacerbated by its status as a battleground in the war on terror. With the United States constructing what the Washington Post called a "constellation" of drone bases in the region, the conflict will likely escalate. The United States already funds and equips an imported force from other African countries under the banner of the African Union to fight al-Shabab, often through private contractors. Somalia's war-on-terror status complicates famine relief for the plethora of aid agencies working in the country, which are concerned they will run afoul of U.S. anti-terrorism laws by feeding people.
Al-Shabab is of course not blameless. Just as in Pakistan following the earthquake and last year's floods, where some Taliban figures condemned Western aid as an anti-Islamic plot, certain al-Shabab leaders have announced their opposition to and suspicion of such aid. Yet similar opposition in Pakistan did not prevent a massive American and international effort that saved hundreds of thousands of Pakistani lives. The same thing must be done in Somalia.
To deal with such an enormous social crisis, bold action and leadership are needed. The Muslim world must alter its views of Somalia and mount a colossal aid effort, heeding Erdogan's call.
Likewise, the American and international effort must dramatically increase. The United States should announce a moratorium on fighting until the famine is resolved. It needs to include a cessation of drone strikes -- the United States launched a series of such attacks on Somali targets on Sept. 25 -- as well as attacks by the U.S.-backed Somali government and African Union troops. This will build trust among all factions that have a common cause to stave off mass death. It will mean working with both al-Shabab administrators and traditional tribal elders. The Western urge to work exclusively through the central government should be put aside, as more effective authority lies elsewhere, as it always has. If anti-terrorism laws legally restrict U.S. access to any influential party, then non-American aid agencies, the United Nations, the Somali government, the Turks, or the Saudis can work with them instead.
U.S. President Barack Obama should host a fundraiser in the White House with top business and foreign leaders, and he and the first lady should travel to Somalia or at least visit the refugees in Kenya to see the situation for themselves. It is strange that Obama has traveled to Ireland and paid tribute to his distant Irish ancestors but has not returned to the land of his father that is suffering so much.
Somalia's problems are daunting, and they challenge all of the global community. But Muslim countries and international actors -- working closely with Somalis across the spectrum of society -- need to plot a new political course for the nation, which can only happen if there's an unbiased understanding of Somalia and the way this society functions. They can draw on the work and expertise of exasperated scholars who have spent their lifetimes studying Somalia and see the same wrong decisions being made time and time again. (Noted British anthropologist I.M. Lewis, for example, has slammed the West for imposing a top-down government on the independent Somalis instead of "building up a hierarchy of increasingly more inclusive local groups" -- an ill-fated choice he calls "Alice in Wonderland.")
The humanitarian crisis in Somalia is a special test for the Muslim world. While we have heard much talk about the need to come to the aid of the suffering global community of Muslims, or ummah, through jihad, they need to rediscover the more powerful notions of Islamic compassion and mercy. Especially given the tragic compassion fatigue in non-Muslim countries like the United States as far as Somalia is concerned, the Islamic world simply cannot allow this slow-motion death of an entire people to continue. Can Muslim leaders sleep peacefully at night with the words of the Somali woman ringing in their ears?
Akbar Ahmed is an Adjunct Scholar and on the Board of Advisors at ISPU.
This article was published by Foreign Policy on September 26, 2011.