Jihad in the Arabian Sea

Jihad in the Arabian Sea

by Camille Pecastaing

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Camille Pecastaing looks at the twenty-first-century challenges facing the region around the Bab el Mandeb-the tiny strait that separates the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean-from civil war, piracy, radical Islamism, terrorism and the real risk of environmental and economic failure on both sides of the strait. The author takes us with him into Somalia and Yemen, Eritrea…  See more details below


Camille Pecastaing looks at the twenty-first-century challenges facing the region around the Bab el Mandeb-the tiny strait that separates the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean-from civil war, piracy, radical Islamism, terrorism and the real risk of environmental and economic failure on both sides of the strait. The author takes us with him into Somalia and Yemen, Eritrea and Djibouti, with excursions into Ethiopia and the Sudan, as he reveals how the economic and environmental crisis currently in gestation could lead to more social dislocation and violence in this strategically important region.

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Hoover Institution Press
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Jihad in the Arabian Sea

By Camille Pecastaing

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-1376-2


The Gates of Tears: Two World Orders

The Bab el-Mandeb, the strait that separates the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean, has conjoined Africa and Asia for centuries. It likely was the first route taken by Homo sapiens on their journey out of Africa, and the traffic between the Horn and Arabia has continued apace to this day. Men, goods, and ideas have gone back and forth, giving the Arabian Sea a degree of integration and similarity that is obfuscated by the arbitrary taxonomy of modern geography: Africa vs. Asia; the Horn of Africa vs. Arabia vs. South Asia. Only some 3,300 kilometers (about 1,800 nautical miles) separate Mumbai from Djibouti, the extreme range of a series of seaports and islands that dot the Arabian Sea: Massawa, Djibouti, Aden, Berbera, Mogadishu, Socotra, Muscat, Hormuz, Gwadar, Karachi, Mumbai.

The harsh, unforgiving environment is another factor of uniformity, as is the seasonal rhythm of the monsoon winds, which influences cattle migrations, harvests and, back in the era of sailboats, the coming and going of merchants. And there is khat, a shrub grown on the plateaus of Ethiopia and Yemen whose leaves are chewed ubiquitously by the locals for its euphoric properties and for suppressing appetite in times of famine. Given its central location in the Eurasian trade route for at least the past 2,500 years, the region has been continuously exposed to the flux of historical change, to new ideas and technology passing through. Yet, the ancient states that once existed — the Sabean kingdom, Aksum — passed and were not replaced. Major civilizations are born on the beds of large rivers, but the lands that skirt the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea have run dry, an arid belt stretching from the Nile to the Indus.

The environment has continuously degraded over the millennia, partly as a result of local climate change, partly due to human activity. The wooded hills have given way to rocky crags, the meadows turned into dust bowls. Both shores of the Bab el-Mandeb are among the hottest places on earth. Water is mostly found in the aquifer that is slowly being depleted; the rivers of the rainy season do not reach the sea. For most of the past 1,000 years, the lack of natural resources has allowed only light population density, minimal capitalization, and sporadic political centralization. Nomadic tribalism and sparse settlements have been a dominant form of social organization, with the occasional rise of a monarchic dynasty that never quite had it to evolve into more permanent forms of statehood.

These constraints were never lifted in the postcolonial era. Britain, France, and Italy ruled over the region lethargically and departed between the 1940s and the 1970s, leaving nominally independent states that proved to be of limited sustainability. Djibouti came to live off strategic rent paid by the United States and France. Somalia failed as a state in 1991, and has since eluded attempts to form a centralized polity. Yemen has been in a marginally better situation, using limited oil reserves to maintain a degree of political cohesion, which after thirty years of one-man rule has been worn down by both political and economic forces.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the challenges for the countries on the littoral of the Arabian Sea are civil war(s), piracy, radical Islamism, transnational terrorism, and a real risk of environmental and economic failure on both sides of the strait. Yet, its strategic importance as a conduit for maritime trade between Asia and the Mediterranean world is as great as it was when Egyptian pharaohs built a canal between the Nile and the Red Sea. Then, just as today, the lands around the Bab el-Mandeb were as difficult to pacify as the Red Sea was treacherous to navigate. The historical documents found in the Cairo Geniza show that in AD tenth century, vessels leaving Egypt sailed in a convoy along the route to India in order to deter a profusion of local pirates.

Islam came early to the region, during the life of the Prophet Muhammad, carried by small groups of refugees when the young Muslim community was still persecuted in Mecca. In the following centuries, Islam settled throughout the Indian Ocean amid the numerous merchant communities that thrived under the aegis of Pax Islamica. Arab Muslim traders would dominate that commerce for a thousand years, their dhows sailing from the mouth of the Red Sea down the African coast to Malindi, in Kenya; across the Arabian Sea to Mumbai and Goa, in India; through the Strait of Malacca all the way to Canton, in South China. Their activities were regulated by the commercial law of the Sunni Shafi'i school of jurisprudence, which as a result became dominant in the Indian Ocean. Sufi orders expanded to form long-distance networks, providing travelers with trusted local agents and housing facilities. Zheng He, the legendary Chinese navigator of the fifteenth century, was a Muslim.

Muslim dominance of the maritime commerce in the Indian Ocean continued until the seventeenth century. Following Vasco da Gama's first trip to India, in 1498, the Portuguese had forced themselves onto that ecosystem but without changing much of its fundamental characteristics. The Portuguese were pirates and petty traders in a world of pirates and petty traders. Western supremacy came later, with the Dutch and the British trading companies. Commercial dominance led to political dominance, and the 1757 Battle of Plassey delivered Bengal to Robert Clive of the East India Company. Muslim power was waning throughout the Indian Ocean. The Mughal Empire, the world's richest Muslim polity of the early modern period, a torchbearer for Islam's secular power, was losing ground in the Indian peninsula to British interests. Soon it was the turn of the Muslim sultanates of the Southeast Asian archipelago (in today's Indonesia and Malaysia) to pass under the protection of the Dutch and the British companies. The littoral sultanates of the Arabian Peninsula (modern-day Yemen, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates) would make similar arrangements with Britain in the early nineteenth century. The coast of Muslim Africa was next.

The African continent produced ardent defenders of Muslim sovereignty against European imperial expansion. In 1830, a French expeditionary corps was sent on a whim to invade Algiers. And there stood Abd al-Kadir, the Algerian Sufi shaykh who held the lines against the French Army — not so long before, Napoleon's Great Army — for seventeen years. The French would have to commit a vast contingent and ravage the country to get him to surrender. They would go on in their African ventures to build a canal between Suez on the Red Sea and Port Said on the Mediterranean, which in a roundabout way delivered Egypt and Sudan to the British. And there stood Muhammad Ahmad, the Sudanese shaykh of the Samaniyah Sufi order and self-proclaimed Mahdi ("messiah") who, in 1881, rose in rebellion against Anglo-Egyptian rule. Muhammad Ahmad's followers — the Ansars — famously massacred a British contingent led by Maj. Gen. Charles Gordon at the 1885 Battle of Khartoum, setting back the British claim over Sudan for thirteen more years. While Abd al-Kadir was religiously moderate — and would spend the rest of his days authoring poetry and religious exegesis — Muhammad Ahmad's call was already fundamentalist. The ferocity and determination of the Mahdi's Ansars, attributed to their religious fanaticism, would become the stuff of British colonial lore.

Abd al-Kadir and Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad were both Sufi shaykhs. Sufism is a syncretistic form of Islam, which reconciles a classical, monotheist Sunni theology with mystical, folkish practices, in particular the veneration of holy men. The Samaniyah order of Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad combined its Sufi orientation with elements of militant fundamentalism emerging in Arabia and south Asia from the mid-eighteenth century. This fundamentalist surge, propelled by global modernizing forces and Western encroachment in Muslim lands, has given the world new terms, or new meanings to old terms. Salafism refers to the legal doctrine that underpins the fundamentalist revival. Its principle is to eschew centuries of Islamic jurisprudence and refer back to the fundaments, the texts and records of the time of the Prophet. In practice, salafism proposed to withdraw legislative and judiciary authority from the Muslim empires and transfer them to a scholarly elite qualified to issue legal decisions: the mujtahids, the scholars who issue fatwas. The salafi preachers had a political agenda: in the name of tradition, they were proposing a politico-legal revolution.

Wahhabism, named after the Arabian scholar Muhammad ibn abd al-Wahhab, is the variance of salafism that emerged in Najd, a particularly arid region in the center of the Arabian Peninsula. Wahhabism was carried on the battlefields by several generations of the family of al-Saud, a local chieftain. In the early twentieth century, a scion of the Najdi clan finally implanted the faith at the core of a state-building project, in a kingdom that would bear his name. The proximity of Arabia brought the fundamentalist strain to Yemen, where it is already apparent in the career of Muhammad al-Shawkani. Al-Shawkani, a scholar who lived from 1760 to 1834, was a full generation younger than abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792). A revered cleric who would rise to be the highest religious authority in the Zaydi (Shia) imamate of north Yemen, al-Shawkani enlisted the salafi method, despite its roots in Sunnism, in support of the local dynasty, the al-Qasimi. A prolific writer, the author of Quranic exegesis and many legal decisions, he exemplifies the intellectual and legal rejuvenation salafism represented in those years.

Yet, neither salafism (reviving Islam) nor modernism (copying the West) could save the great Muslim empires, maladapted to the changing times. Following the ill-fated "Indian Mutiny" of 1857, the Moghul realm became the British Raj. In the crucial decades that followed, the Hindus and Muslims of India took different journeys to modernity, and the Muslims fell behind. For the large Hindu majority, politically subjected but numerically dominant, the British Raj was the opportunity to make new claims to power in the name of Western-like nationalism and of a democracy based on numbers. For the Muslims, for centuries a ruling minority in the realm, there was nowhere to go but down and many adopted nostalgic, reactionary attitudes that prevented them from formulating a coherent response to the changing circumstances. In 1947, the subcontinent was partitioned, leaving two regions in Punjab and Bengal for Muslims to live in an insular Muslim state that had no historical precedent. The new state of Pakistan would struggle for decades after that to define the kind of society it was — giving the salafis a shot at defining those terms and Islamizing the state.

The Ottoman Empire, once the main power in Europe and the seat of the Muslim caliphate, was by the 1920s reduced to an Anatolian runt, fiercely Turkish and secular. And so, in the latter half of the twentieth century, through decades of heartbreak and soul-searching, salafism crystallized as a retrogressive, proselytizing undercurrent based on modern imaginings of religious and political practices as they may have existed in seventh-century Arabia. Da'awa is the form of proselytism by which salafism is diffused, a grassroots program centered on social work and on teaching the proper rituals for an Islamic life. In the turbulent 1960s, salafism fused with distinctly modern, revolutionary doctrines of armed struggle. Nationalism, nihilism, Marxism-Leninism, even anarchism were cleansed of their atheist core and recycled into a modern call to jihad. Jihadism became "global" when it adopted, in the 1990s, a transnational strategic orientation, a determination to bring armed struggle to the heart of Western nations.

Salafism, and Wahhabism in particular, vigorously rejected Sufism as a form of idolatry. But in Africa, fundamentalism and Sufism managed to coexist: in Sudan, in Somalia, and also in central Libya, which in the mid-nineteenth century passed under the influence of the austere Sanussiyya Sufi order. Then, just as today, fundamentalism was an instrument of political mobilization that transcended tribalism and the multitude of interpersonal bonds between local shaykhs (religious and tribal leaders) and their local clients. Sufism, on the other hand, bound an army of followers to a charismatic leader with supernatural powers, a man granted divine blessing to bring about radical and miraculous social change. Fundamentalism gave feelings of righteousness; Sufism of chosenness. The flirtation of the two, while doctrinally paradoxical, was in Africa a powerful force that could be harnessed for political and military purposes.


In the Land of the Mad Mullah: Somalia

European powers fell upon Africa in the nineteenth century. In the midst of the social dislocation of these times, in the space between the Arabia of Muhammad ibn abd al-Wahhab (the founder of Wahhabism) and the Sudan of Muhammad Ahmad (the Mahdi), on the Somali coast rose another nationalist hero with religious colors. Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hasan of the Darood clan was heir to both a warrior and a Sufi tradition, but he first embraced a religious and literary vocation. A poet and a scholar, he traveled for years in neighboring African countries to study Islamic theology. It was during a pilgrimage to Mecca in the early 1890s that he embraced the Salihiyya Sufi order, an upstart movement that had managed to combine the mysticism characteristic of Sufism with fundamentalist strains acquired in the proximity of the up-and-coming Wahhabi current.

Returning to preach in his native land of Somalia in 1895, Mohammed Abdullah Hasan found a noxious political context. Endemic rivalries between Somali clans had led local sultans to accept the protection of European powers. Small sultanates in northern Somalia (the future Somaliland) had passed under British influence; Italians were present in both Eritrea and in the Horn, and they were pushing down the coast toward Kenya and looking inland at Ethiopia; the French had a base in the Gulf of Tadjoura, as protectors of the two local tribes, one of which was Somali. Inland, the Ogaden, a vast plateau and grazing area for Somali pastoralists, was progressively absorbed by the expanding Christian kingdom of Ethiopia, with British acquiescence. Missionaries roamed the land where Islam, more of a cultural than a political presence, seemed ill-equipped to resist Christianization.

Mohammed Abdullah Hasan would confront the Christian powers militarily, rallying followers to a cause that was about the Muslim faith and about Somali honor and about his own personal mystique — a cause too imbued with magic perhaps to be nationalism, but something close to it. His fast-expanding groups of followers were called "Dervishes" by the British, a term used pejoratively to underscore their religious commitment. With weapons purchased from smugglers from the coast, the Dervish Army was to fight Britain, Ethiopia, and Italy for two decades. A Dervish State, built around the expanding Salihiyya order, would run parts of Somalia with rising and ebbing fortunes. It would endure until the end of World War I, when epidemics and the Royal Air Force decimated its ranks and its population centers. As for Mohammed Abdullah Hasan, the wanted man whom the British called the Mad Mullah, he would himself fall victim to the great influenza epidemic of 1920.

The demise of the Dervish State kicked off forty years of European rule. The Somali coast had been carved out among Britain, France, and Italy, none of which had much in terms of developmental projects for the region. Colonization was dormant, disturbed only when those foreign nations found themselves on opposite sides of the Second World War. Italy quickly lost its East African colonies to Britain, which at war's end was faced with the responsibility to craft the future of the region. For Somalia, independence would come in 1960, engineered under the auspices of the United Nations. The new Somali Republic was meant to be a centralized state, with its capital in the port city of Mogadishu, unifying the former British and Italian colonies. French Djibouti, however, was left to go its own way after a rigged vote. Britain had also allowed chunks of traditionally Somali land to pass to Kenya (a British colony) and Ethiopia (a British ally in World War II, which was also allowed to annex Eritrea). The loss of the Ogaden, an ethnically Somali heartland, now an Ethiopian province thrust like a wedge into western Somalia, marred the birth of the new state.


Excerpted from Jihad in the Arabian Sea by Camille Pecastaing. Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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