LEWISTON – No sign identifies the little grocery store and drab restaurant at the corner of Lisbon and Chestnut streets as the Barwaqo Halal Market. Yet all of the estimated 4,000 Somali immigrants who have settled in this unlikely town know that here they can wire money to Mogadishu, buy Africa telephone cards, buy food and clothing reminiscent of the homeland they fled, and catch the latest Somali-language BBC report delivered via the Internet.

Here, and among smaller Somali communities in Boston, Manchester, N.H., and Portland, there is cautious optimism about the recent takeover of Somalia’s traditional capital, Mogadishu, by Islamist fundamentalists. While many Westerners have developed an autonomic paranoia regarding Islamic movements, Somalis – virtually all of whom are Muslims – hope this news signals an end to 15 years of anarchy and bloodshed under the rule of rival clan warlords.

They’re not altogether sure, however, what has displaced it.

“The people right now need peace, but nobody knows if this will be good or not,” Barwaqo diner Mohammed Hassan, who left Somalia in the early ‘90s, told me when I visited in late June. “If we get a good peace, then I would want to go to see that.”

“If it doesn’t end the violence, then it doesn’t mean anything,” said Hussein Ahmed, who works the Barwaqo counter. “That’s the major concern – will it be real peace?”

Since Somalia’s government collapsed in 1991, the region has been ruled by tribal warlords, who erected barricades and checkpoints where armed men demanded punitive tariffs for passage. Civilians were regularly beaten, robbed, raped and killed.

A movement called the Council of Islamic Courts seized control of Mogadishu on June 5, drove out the warlords and declared Islamic shari’a law. A hard-liner, Hassan Dahir Aweys, emerged as its leader. Meanwhile, the barricades and checkpoints have come down; for the first time in years, Mogadishu’s streets are peaceful.

The Bush administration – which had covertly supported the warlords to serve as a bulkhead against the establishment of terrorist groups in Somalia – was caught by surprise by the swift takeover.

So were the Somali people – but most welcomed it, said Abdi Sheikh, representative of Catholic Charities Maine Refugee & Immigration Services in Lewiston and owner of Barwaqo Halal. Catholic Charities resettles refugees by contract with the U.S. government under an accord with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. After Minnesota, Maine has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of resettled Somali refugees, an estimated 6,000.

“Fifteen years of killing, torture and warlords ruling by the gun with no regard for anyone’s life, just looking after their own. People were very tired of this and wanted a change,” Sheikh told me. “Everything else has been tried except the Islamic way of ruling. A lot of people want to explore if this is going to work.”

Most Somalis will welcome traditional Islamic law, which prohibits Muslims killing or hurting innocent people – as the warlords did regularly, Sheikh said. Neither would Somalis be inclined to support terrorists, he said.

The United States and the United Nations, however, say Aweys has ties to terrorist groups including al-Qaeda. The United States threw its support behind a weak and unpopular 2-year-old secular government headed by Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed.

The Somalis I met in New England told me the new U.S. position, like the old one, is a loser with their people – Ahmed, a clan warlord himself, is regarded by many as a tool of Ethiopia, seen by Somalis as a meddling, hostile neighbor.

Somalia re-emphasizes a persistent flaw of U.S. foreign policy toward the underdeveloped world: Our government too rarely considers the genuine needs of the people. Instead, content to address our own strategic and business concerns, we’ve propped up dictators, puppet regimes or nominal democracies – or bloodthirsty warlords – without pressuring these proxies to address their people’s concerns. In so many cases – including Vietnam, Iran and now Iraq – these arrangements have exploded in our faces, typically undone by populist or nationalist movements.

The Islamists prevailed in Somalia because they addressed the people’s desire for the peace the U.S.-backed warlords denied.

Yet the Somalis who spoke with me insisted Americans should not be alarmed by the news from Mogadishu. They said the Somali people – who practice Sufi Islam, a more moderate version than that found in much of the Arab Muslim world – won’t tolerate rule by outside extremists. The nation won’t become another Afghanistan, they said.

“If they are fundamentalists, they will not get the support of the population,” said Alawi Elmi, president of Somali Community Development of Maine, with whom I spoke in Portland. “The majority of Somalis are moderate Islamists, not hard-liners.”

“You’d never see a Somali blow himself up,” Abdi Sheikh said.


Robert Steinback is a former columnist for The Miami Herald, now on a one-year sabbatical. Readers may send him e-mail at Robertrobertsteinback.com.

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