Friday, October 28, 2011


Siad Barre and Muammar Qadaffi

I’m not completely new to Africa.  I’ve spent a couple weeks living in a tent in Rumbek, another few weeks (mostly) on the toilet in N’djamena, two or three weeks dying for a beer in Khartoum, a few weeks feeling the closest we Americans can get to post-colonial guilt in Monrovia and enough time in Kenya to understand that the presence of a United Nations headquarters in Nairobi probably brings more money into the country than tourism does.  I’m not an absolute newbie to this part of the world, but I’m far from an expert.

While working in the Caucasus I took pride in being able to hold a credible conversation with my friends Azret and Maga about the security situation in Kabardino-Balkaria, a place many westerners are only vaguely aware of.  I was proud that my Russian was decent enough to maintain informal contact with my counterparts in the local security services.  When I was assigned a post with Somalia responsibilities I knew I was going to be playing catch up.  My Somali is non-existent and my Swahili is solely derived from The Lion King.  I did (cursorily) keep up with news in the region, but that wasn’t going to cut it.  I dove into Horn of Africa literature, starting with a crash course on the tribes and ethnicities in the region. 

Tribal and ethnic tension is a well-documented cause of bloodshed all over the continent, not just in the Horn.  It’s also easy to understand; you hear linguistic differences, a lot of ethnic variances are visible and the cultural distinctions between tribes (even those in close proximity) can be stark.  These differences don’t excuse tribal and ethnic tension, but it does help to explain it.  While Somalia does have a small disadvantaged Bantu-Swahili minority, it is still one of the most homogenous places in Africa.  It is not ethnic or tribal tension that is the crux in Somalia, it is clan.  Blood, honor and justice – encompassed in the Somali word heer, a concept that it is hard for us westerners to wrap our heads around.

The four major (or “noble”) clans in Somalia are the Darod, Dir, Hawiye and Rahanweyn. For outsiders the differences between these clans are seemingly inconsequential; they share a common Samaal heritage and all speak various dialects of the same Cushitic language. 

Long ago, in the desert, nomads in clan societies bound themselves together by family ties, through old lineages that gave them protection and assistance across great distances.  Outside the clan lineage lay danger and chaos, every man for himself.  In a clan society, every kind of human relationship turns on your honor within the clan; outside it there is nothing – you are excluded from any kind of meaningful existence.  Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Nomad, p 152  
From a strictly anthropological perspective it is fascinating that this nomadic system survived into modernity.  But, the idea of clan is not just some charming throwback to a long forgotten era – in Somalia it is life and, very often, death:

A queue of civilians was huddled at a roadblock before a gang of rebels.  As each person was waved through, another came forward and began uttering a litany of names.  My guide with the flaming red hair said the people were reciting their clan family trees.  The genealogies tumbled back generation after generation to a founding ancestor.  It was like a DNA helix, or a fingerprint, or an encyclopedia of peace treaties and blood debts left to fester down the torrid centuries.  I was thinking how poetic this idea was when bang!, a gunman shot one of the civilians, who fell with blood gushing from his head and was pushed aside on a heap of corpses.

“Wrong clan,” said my flaming-haired friend.  “He should have borrowed the ancestors of a friend.” Aiden Harley, The Zanzibar Chest, p. 184.

In addition to precise rules of blood compensation (in the event of a man’s murder his clan is owed one hundred camels, a woman’s life is only worth fifty camels*), the clan system also accounts for a lot of good old-fashioned nepotism – business, military and government positions are all dished out via the clan.  Old Somalia hands and many Somalis themselves are thankful for the clan system.  In the absence of a functioning government, heer is at least some kind of authority.  And this is the paradox; while clan does represent an authority of a kind, it is also stops Somalia from developing the sense of community needed to achieve true nationhood. 

In the 1970s and 80s General Siad Barre bent Somalia to his will, (partly) by trying his best stamp out the clans.  A common question Somalis ask when meeting one another is “What is your clan?”  Comically, while Barre was in power this question became “What is your ex-clan?”  Barre could be descried in a lot of ways that are not complimentary, but you can’t say the man wasn’t canny.  He understood that clan encourages a separateness that is antithetical to forging a true nation-state.  Ousted from power in 1991, one of Barre’s last public statements was:

When I came to Mogadishu there was one road, built by the Italians.  If you try to force me to stand down, I will leave the city as I found it.

He left it worse.  Today Somalia is a strong contender for the most dysfunctional “state” on the planet and, while Al-Shabaab is grabbing all of the headlines, it is the concept of the clan that that keeps the country this way.

“We need another Barre.” My Somali neighbor in Nairobi frequently laments.  It’s a common refrain: the idea that it takes a despot to govern places with strong tribal and clan roots.


The first thing I read in the Economist every week is the obituary.  My wife frowns on this somewhat macabre habit.  I can’t help it; the obituary is often the most interesting section of the magazine.  Last week’s was Muammar Qaddafi’s.  In the wake of the dictator’s death a lot of people are worried about what role Islamists will play in post-Qaddafi Libya.  But, reading the story of how Qaddafi clenched Libya’s tribal and clan based society in his fist, I found myself asking a different question: do the Libyas, Somalias, Afghanistans and DRCs of the world need Qaddafis and Barres?    

The Arab Spring dispelled many long held (and racist) notions about what type of government people in the Middle East and Africa are “ready” for.  The Libyan revolution’s place within the wider Arab Spring is debatable; the challenges the country faces in overcoming clan and tribal tensions are not.  Qaddafi is dead.  But, the Libyan equivalent of heer is alive and well.  For the Libyan Transitional National Council now is the really hard part.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


A lot of liberals are fucking cowards.  I take no (or at least not much) pleasure in this proclamation.  But, these are my people, so I have the right to say this.  Sometimes I complain about Russians.  I feel I have earned a little leeway in discussing a culture I’ve become so close to.  I’m careful though, I know that I am still, and always will be, an outsider in Slavic affairs.  With liberals though the gloves are off.  These are my people and I know the word “fucking” probably offends the delicate sensibilities of a great many of them.  Good.  American liberals could do with getting a bit more pissed off now and then. 

I have a recurring argument about “diversity” and it’s always with liberals, folks of various backgrounds, ethnicities and educational levels, but always liberals.  It tends to start something like this: 

“Where are you from?” 

“I’m Sudanese,” said with a distinct American accent.  

“Did you study in the United States?”

“Actually, I was born in the United States, but my parents are from Khartoum and we would go back for visits all the time.”  

“Where’d you go to high school?”

“Silver Springs, Maryland.” 



“So you’re American.”

“Well…  I have an American passport.”

“Did you find it in a bus station?  Steal it?  Is it your passport?” 

“It’s my passport.” 

“So ethnically you’re Sudanese, but your nationality is American.”

“I’m Sudanese.”

I’ve had conversations of this type more times than I care to recount.  Often, with second-generation immigrants, but sometimes it’s a proxy argument with native-born (mostly white) Americans who feel they’re defending “diversity” – but, always with people who consider themselves liberals.  At its root, the argument is about citizenship versus ethnicity, but that’s not all it’s about.  It’s also about what citizenship means.  In multi-cultural societies there is a constant tension between ethnicity, religion and citizenship.  Our identities are wrapped up in all three.             

I happened to be in Kyiv during the tail end of the “Orange Revolution” in 2004.  The “Orange Revolution” was about a lot of things: the influence the Russian Federation should have in the former Soviet States (the so called, “near abroad”), the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and questions of ethnicity & citizenship.  Was Ukrainian a nationality or just an ethnicity?  The answer is it’s both, but that answer wasn’t (and still isn’t) so clear for a lot of Russians and Ukrainians.  Many Russians and Ukrainians think of themselves as “ethnic cousins” of a sort, and still the tension persists.  One thing the “Orange Revolution” helped convince me of is that nationality matters.  It’s more than just a passport.  It’s part of our identities. 

We black Americans have had our own struggles with what citizenship means.  The comedian Chris Rock said that black Americans view the United States like a rich uncle who paid for our college education, but sexually abused us.  Maybe.  But, I never felt my ethnicity or religion (or lack thereof) excused me from the responsibilities of citizenship.  And that’s exactly what the conversation with our Sudanese friend above is about.  By not acknowledging her citizenship she was excusing herself from the responsibilities associated with it.  And that, to me, is an awful act of cowardice.  Citizenship means different things to different people, but it shouldn’t.  For everyone it should involve responsibility and participation. 

When I have the proxy argument with native-born American liberals who feel they’re defending “diversity” it’s something different.  No less awful, just different.  These people aren’t just saying that members of certain religious and ethnic minorities shouldn’t have to meet the same obligations of citizenship as the majority; they’re also implying that members of certain religious and ethnic minorities are incapable of meeting these obligations.  It’s the quiet insinuation that (for instance) there’s something about Islam that makes it incompatible with being a patriotic American citizen, so American Muslims should be held to a different standard of citizenship.  We shouldn’t expect Muslim Americans to serve in the military or run for office or be too involved in our public discourse.  In the name of diversity we should accept the fact that Muslim Americans are just too different for these levels of responsibility and participation.  It’s the worst type of ethnocentrism, that of diminished expectations and it’s sugar coated so that we hardly notice it.        

Defending his appointment of a Muslim American judge, Governor Chris Christie, didn’t feel the need to mention any special considerations for citizenship as it relates to Islam.  What he said was the following:

“I nominated Sohail Muhammed because he’s a good lawyer and an outstanding human being.  The guy’s an American citizen, who has been an admitted lawyer to practice in the state of New Jersey swearing an oath to uphold the laws of New Jersey, the constitution of the state of New Jersey and the constitution of the United States of America.”           

I imagine it’s not easy being a patriotic American Muslim.  But, hey, it’s no picnic being a patriotic American atheist either.  We are the most universally and publicly detested group of people in the country.  One good thing about being universally detested is that you get used to having your views questioned.  It doesn’t offend me.  Quite the opposite, I relish the opportunity to get on my soapbox about being a Godless commie.  Atheists are rationale.  We like debate.

Why is the discussion (or rather the challenging) of my atheist values fair game, but the discussion of Muslim or Christian values somehow sacrosanct?  When your religious views inform your political positions, guess what?  They become fair game in public discourse.  Why are we liberals so cowardly about holding legitimate debate about ethnicity, religion (especially regarding Islam) and citizenship?  The Republican Governor of New Jersey clearly isn’t.    

During the dust-up over Dutch cartoons back in 2005, the much-reviled Ayaan Hirsi Ali said,

“I do not seek to offend religious sentiment, but I will not submit to tyranny.  Demanding that people who do not accept Muhammad’s teachings should refrain from drawing him,” or, I would add, discussing how his teachings mesh with the American concept of citizenship, “is not a request for respect, but a demand for submission.”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a lot of things, but a fucking coward is not one of them.