While several Islamic groups have tried to take a stand in the lawless climate that has marked Somalia in the past 15 years, few have managed to gain a foothold in the country and only one major group -- the Union of Islamic Courts -- has garnered broad support from the country's mostly moderate Muslims.
reasons are varied. Somalis are religious people who live by a
rich tradition of Muslim principles and culture. The country is
technically a republic governed by a constitution based on Islamic
principles. But Somalis, according to Somali scholars, follow
a traditional Islam, not the version of more hard-line Islamists
espoused by the Taliban and some groups in the Middle East.
"Islam has always been the basis for Somali laws and constitutions," according to Abdurahman M. Abdullahi, a professor at Mogadishu University. "Somalis as Muslims would like to see these laws applied in all aspects of their life and people will support any such government."
However, according to Abdullahi, Somalis would not support an Islamic government that followed "the distorted image of Islam created these days" by implementing Islamic law in an inhumane or harsh way.
Most Somalis agree there should be an Islamic state, said Bashir Sudi, a Somali who grew up in the Somali capital of Mogadishu and now lives in the United States. But, he said, Somalis have waxed and waned over the past few decades: in times of prosperity embracing Western ideals, in times of trouble turning toward religion.
"There were periods of time in the early '60s and the early '70s where there was Westernization," he said. "Even though they were still Muslims, there was not that much of a religious outlook. In the last 10 years that has changed."
Only the UIC, a religious organization led by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a young Koranic theologian and legal scholar, managed for a brief period from June to December 2006 to have a major influence on the country and to gain widespread support from Somalis at home and abroad.
The group, seen as a threat to the U.N.-backed Somali government by the country's allies, was driven out of the capital in late December 2006 by Ethiopian troops backing President Abdullahi Yusuf, but not before making a name for itself among religious and secular Somalis.
Although they were accused by the United States and Ethiopia of having ties to al-Qaida and similarities to Afghanistan's Taliban regime, the UIC, according to most observers, established peace and security in a country overrun for 15 years by ruthless warlords.
"For the first time in a generation Somalis can walk around safely, even at night," journalist Martin Fletcher wrote in a December 2006 London Times article following a visit to Mogadishu, which was under the control of the UIC at the time. "Children play football in the streets. Squads of Somalis in fluorescent yellow jackets emblazoned "Employment for Peace" are removing mountains of garbage. ... The derelict port has been reopened."
According to many Somalis, the presence of the UIC brought the changes to the country, not just because of the group's religious ideals but because of their ability to provide security.
"The people of Somalia support whoever offers them hope, security and appeals to the culture and region," said Abdullahi. "This is what the Islamic courts have provided besides chasing out hated notorious warlords."
In addition to the UIC, the International Crisis Group identifies several other Islamist groups in Somalia -- groups either considered jihadist or extremist, or groups engaged in Islamic activism or reformism.
"The vast majority are non-violent and opposed to ideological extremism," the ICG wrote in a December 2005 report, "Somalia's Islamists." "The largest groups, notably Jama'at al-Tabligh and the Salafiyya Jadida, practice missionary activism aimed at steering lax Muslims back toward the true path of their faith."
Two other groups Majma' 'Ulimadda Islaamka ee Soomaaliya and Harakaat al-Islah are considered more politically active but also non-extremist.
Al-Itihaad al-Islaami is the most extremist of Somalia's Islamist organizations, but some sources say it may no longer exist.
Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. government blocked the assets of some 27 organizations believed to have terrorist ties to al-Qaida, according to the ICG. Tenth on the list was a little-known Somali organization, al-Itihaad al-Islaami.
Formed in the mid-1980s, the group's goal was to establish an Islamic state opposed to former President Said Barre's more secular regime. The group often clashed with government forces and later, according to some accounts, disbanded due to infighting.
Others say al-Itihaad still exists and now acts as the military wing of Harakaat al-Islah.
"[S]ources, including a March 2005 report by a United Nations Panel of Experts, describe the organization not only as intact, but also actively plotting chaos in Somalia, running at least 15 terrorist training camps and procuring arms,'" the ICG wrote in its report.
But, those inside Somalia deny al-Itihaad has connections to Islah, an organization they say is more service-based.
"The most prominent modern Islamic movement in Somalia is the Islah movement," according to Mogadishu University's Abdullahi. "This movement is non-violent and peaceful and was not part of the Islamic courts."
According to Abdullahi, Islah is active in social and civil programs such as education, health and conflict resolution, is non-violent and has its roots in moderate Islam.
"Islah [has] never posed any threat to the Somali government or any other government," Abdullahi said. "Its reformation policies prohibit using violent means and it operates within the boundaries of [the] law."
Jama'at al-Tabligh and a variety of different groups formed under what is known as the Sufi brotherhoods represent the other Islamic groups in Somalia that have support among the country's citizens. Neither is considered violent.
And though Somalia's mainly secular interim government returned to power in January, many believe the ideals pushed forward by organizations like the UIC, Islah and others should not be overlooked as a viable alternative in a country still threatened by instability.
"I think the Islamic courts as an organization ... is over," said Abdullahi. "However, the idea behind them, though weakened drastically, remains intact."