On 26th January 2009, the Quilliam Foundation hosted its third roundtable on Britain’s Somali community.
Colin Freeman (Chief Foreign Correspondent, Daily Telegraph).
One of the problems with this entire issue is that it has become so hazardous for foreigners to go to Somalia that there is relatively little information on the place. It is a completely anarchic environment in Somalia, in which any group that can bring law and order would be able to thrive. Here within the Somali diaspora in Britain, some grow up in rough inner city neighbourhoods in which there seems to be just as much of a sense of amorality as in Mogadishu. The moral certainties that extremist currents like Al-Shabab offer may therefore be a tempting thing to get involved with.
Mohamed Abdullahi (Director of the UK Somali Community Initiative and vice-Chairman of the newly-launched London Somali Youth Forum).
The UK’s Somali community faces many problems: education, crime, unemployment, homelessness, integration, lack of a united voice, media representation. British Somalis are undoubtedly affected by current circumstances in Somalia. The tangible steps made by the Islamic Courts Union towards reinstating law and order in Somalia won them the support of Somalis both at home and abroad. The majority of Somalis, therefore, find the occupation by Ethiopian troops humiliating and may be prone to support al-Shabab. This is as nationalists rather than as Muslims. The impact of al-Shabab on the UK may be a negative one, as they aim to recruit from western countries. There are no figures for this, nor do isolated cases reflect the wider Somali community as a whole. Young people must be the prime focus. Their search for allegiance and common purpose has been fulfilled for some through the spreading gang culture in London. Instead this youth should be provided with activity centres, work-based training and apprenticeships. The government needs to listen to the community rather than to one or two unrepresentative organizations. All community organizations need to work together, cooperating with the government, in order to build our community. The media emphasises the negative elements in the community rather than the good that is within the culture and the people.
Fahad Mohamed (Managing Director of the Somali Family Support Group in Finchley).
I speak not as a representative of my organization, but in a personal capacity. Extremism comes in many forms: guns, knives, terrorism. Moreover, it affects all communities equally rather than being exceptional to Somalis. We need to invest power and skills to mothers in order to develop their capacity. We need to undermine the stereotyping of the British community. When someone kills someone they are ‘Somali’, but when they are just out in the street they are black. Somalis are firstly Muslims and secondly Somalis. E.g. Gaza affects Somalis the same as it does the Pakistani community.
The problems of the Somali community are like any other minority community, but the spotlight is on them, encouraged by the media. British Somalis have had problems of housing, immigration, unemployment since the 1970s/80s. Only since Somalis have been tagged with the word terrorist, have they had any government attention. What is needed is not a debate, but a dialogue about what shared commonalities exist.
Terrorism does not represent any religion.
(Answers were given by both speakers and Mohamed Mohamud from Waltham Forest Council, in his personal capacity.)
The invasion of Afghanistan was a flashpoint that motivated young British Muslims, particularly Pakistanis, to go and fight in Afghanistan. Is there a similar appetite amongst young Somalis today to go and fight for that cause?
We can’t deny that there are going to be segments of society that are disenfranchised and feel that they need to be in Al-Shabab or Al Qaeda. But in my work, I personally haven’t come across anyone who has. As long as there are Muslims being killed there will always be a danger of thinking ‘when is radicalization going to happen?’ A person who doesn’t understand a situation can be twisted by the wrong person, but if they do understand then they can change things for the better.
Are there radical leaders in the Somali community trying to exploit the situation?
Not obviously, but things are going on underground. The UK government needs to work harder with the wider community to get in there. They need to go to universities and mosques, both those that are ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Somalis are Muslim and black. They are different from Pakistani/Bangladeshi communities, and therefore must be treated differently. Young people, who understand these new challenges, need to be recruited to help work with the Somali community. If we don’t work harder we will be in great danger.
Have you heard of anybody actually being approached in order to be enticed into an extremist agenda?
I haven’t heard of this personally but there are rumours. As a community, Somalis are trying to understand what people are thinking. British Somalis like to sit and debate with people with hard-line ideas, but the government is not helping us to facilitate this.
The need to work with families- supporting mothers in supporting their sons- is particularly interesting. Would you have anything specific in mind about what is missing in the support that is available to families?
The community in Somalia is male-dominated. When families leave Somalia, wives have lost their husbands in war or have been separated from them. Their children are able to assimilate very quickly in these new environments, but because mothers are mainly at home they don’t know what is going on. Mothers need to know which the good schools are, who is teaching their kids which religion etc. Mothers also need to be empowered in order to gain employment. Too many Somalis are stuck in the benefit trap and women need to be able to supplement this with an income. Mothers can push their children in the right direction to be good citizens.
There are various government support systems already in place. Are there difficulties for these communities in accessing existing support networks?
Need to foster cultural understanding amongst the people who provide these services, so that service providers know how to interact with the Somali community. However, the Somali community also has a role to play. We should not just blame mainstream society, but reflect upon ourselves. It is a give and take that requires a dialogue.
We need to understand the Somali diaspora: Somalis were living in a country that has been at war since 1978, where fellow Somalis were killing each other. They then endured life as a refugee before, if they were lucky enough, they arrived in Europe, the U.S. or Canada. In the UK there are no support mechanisms or culturally appropriate counselling; they get given a property in a deprived area and are only spoken to when things have got out of hand. Somali youths are forced into gang-ship, radicalized, go to prison. These are the issues that Somalis are facing. Moreover, foreign policy issues that affect British Somalis are not being resolved. The UK needs to understand what the underlying causes are.
How does the Somali community inside the UK influence- and in turn how is it influenced by- the communities still inside Somalia?
There are a lot of British Somalis living in Somalia, but radical groups in Somalia would not want to recruit people from abroad. They have plenty of young people inside Somalia who already know the language and would be happy to have a job. Somalis living in Britain want to know why their government is giving money to the Somali police and Ethiopian troops who are torturing people in their homeland.
Are there UK Somalis that identify themselves with Al-Shabab?
Not that I am aware of, although it is difficult to tell. This is why we need to know more. The ‘Islamic cause’ in Somalia is not just one group- there are 8 or 9 groups with different agendas. Al-Shabab only has about 5% support. Events in Somalia have been radicalizing members of the British community who are not just Somalis. I met a person in Yemen from Aylesbury with an Indian heritage who had been arrested there for gun-running to Somalia. Other regional areas are part of the process and the people involved are not just ethnic Somalis. However, the numbers in what I have just described are very small, whereas those leaving Somalia are much higher.
Can the government do more?
Sometimes the government doesn’t want to help in the way we think that they should. We have put an idea forward that the government has ignored; we need to approach the young people who are already trying to solve the problem, and try to give them a hand. We need to work together.
African Muslims are not represented in the UK. MCB, for example, represents South Asians. There are different cultures with various religious interpretations. Until the government takes that approach instead of a blanket approach, we cannot move forward.
Identifying one monolithic British Muslim community reinforces the Al Qaeda narrative. What, then, are the core differences in cultural practices and religious interpretations that differentiate Somalis from South Asians?
One difference is that Somalis don’t practice forced marriage. These aren’t big differences, only small things. Somalis are primarily Sunni Shafis, although we also have a small number of Qadariyya, Hamadiyya and Shi’ites too. In Somali Tradition, practical Islam is less important than clan allegiance. One will go and fight for his/her clan but it is very unlikely that one will truly fight for Islam. If they do, it is because a fellow clan is leading the group. These are complex issues within ourselves. Some Somalis are supporting extreme groups because they bring peace after over 18 years of chaos and lawlessness, and because Americans have been funding the war lords in Somalia and the neigbouring countries who are anti-Somali nation due to the unresolved land issues of Northern Kenya and Ogaden conflict in Ethiopia.
Is extremism amongst Somalis in the UK dominated more by nationalism or religion?
Totally depends on who you are talking to. Less by nationalism and more by religion. If it was nationalism, there wouldn’t have been war going on for so many years. More extremism will be at home where people have less understanding. Every instance needs to be looked at, rather than blanketing the whole community.