For ardent Somaliland watchers this has been a curious week, one in which the reopening and then closing of the Roman Catholic church in Hargeisa has proved as instructive and it has been somewhat farcical. Some observers have expressed mild surprise that a Christian place of worship existed at all, whilst others had hoped that the re-opening was a nascent sign of a spirit of broader tolerance. Events appeared to happen with remarkable speed, and in the scheme of things are largely inconsequential, but is this really the case? For some the surprise and outrage that followed on from media coverage of a church reopening was little more than a storm in a teacup, for others this incident elucidates something of where Somaliland is at. Whilst it is true that within a few days attention will have moved on elsewhere, in truth this episode does appear to have some lessons to teach.
When it comes to matters of religious belief it is worth noting that Somaliland is a remarkably homogeneous society. Traditionally the Sunni Islam as practiced in the Horn of Africa has been viewed as moderate in nature, with elements of Sufism being common right across the Horn and the Greater Horn. In recent years, change has been afoot, largely due to offshoots of ultraconservative Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Gulf beginning to penetrate Somali society via foreign funded madrassas. By stealth and with the aid of Arab largess ultraconservative Islam has inveigled its way into the mainstream of Somali society and is increasingly making its voice heard. To complicate matters further religious extremism has also emerged in the form of Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, commonly known as Al-Shabaab, a movement who for all the outrages that it perpetrates, manages to attract support, some admittedly tacit, from more of a cross section of Somali society than many Somalis would care to admit.
So does it really matter that a church has closed within days of the public being made aware of its reopening? For the vast majority of Somalis the answer is a resounding ‘Yes’. For many the mere presence of a non- Islamic place of worship is an affront, for such a place may result in attempts to proselytise. Other believers are more sanguine, and not so dogmatic in their approach, they argue that they cannot expect religious toleration oversees, and then deny it to others at home. Some believe that this debate about religious pluralism tells us far more about Somaliland’s quest to forge its own identity than it does about religion per se. Many, but by know means all, in the Diaspora are keen to emphasise the importance of modernity in all things. Yet there are others who feel unnerved by the prospect of change, especially when it appears to impinge on something so fundamental and timeless as religion.
Somaliland needs to be mindful of the fact that reactionary moves may play well at home, but internationally are liable to be viewed as retrograde steps. Certainly events this week have raised more than a few eyebrows, and caused some to wonder how tolerant a society Somaliland is prepared to be. These questions and the resulting angst are bound to result in questions being ask about just how resilient Somaliland’s democracy is, and whether Somaliland is truly committed to an open and free press. For others there is the wider issue of recognition itself, and whether Somaliland is fully ready to embark upon such a journey. Students of Gestalt Psychology will have their own views on this topic.
Recent events with regards to the church closure, had a sad and predictable air about them. Whilst some uncharitable souls will endeavour to use this episode to make mischief and political capital, it is important to keep it in perspective and strive to appreciate and understand the bigger picture. Equally Somaliland would do well to appreciate the fact that in diplomacy and international relations perception and misconception invariably play a role. So much progress has been made to date, that it would be most unfortunate if a concatenation of events caused recognition to be blown off course.