ANALYSIS: Is it time to reexamine the use of Khawarij to describe al-Shabaab? On 4 April 2023, the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) approved the name and mandate of the National Center for Combating Extremist Ideology (WAANO), also known as Tubsan. With the establishment of this new centre, the following analysis explores whether this is the right time to reexamine the official use of ‘Khawarij’ or ‘Kharijite’ to describe Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, also known as ‘al-Shabaab’.
Mogadishu, SOMALIA. Analysis by Phillip:
On 6 November 2022, the FGS instructed media outlets and journalists to replace the term ‘al-Shabaab’ with ‘Khawarij’. Deputy Information Minister Abdirahman Yusuf Adala attempted to justify the move by saying that Islamic scholars advised it.
“We are Muslim people… After these men [al-Shabaab] claimed to be Muslims and tried to use Islam wrongly, the Somali scholars reached a decision and concluded that the culture of these men is the culture of Khawarij, and therefore they are recognized as Khawarij.”
Historic origins of the term
The term refers to those who abandoned the cause of Caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib during the First Fitna (civil war). This group opposed Ali’s acceptance of negotiations to end the conflict with his rival Mu’awiya, the first Caliph of the Umayyad Caliphate, at the Battle of Siffin in 658 CE.
While the authorities initially tolerated them, tensions rapidly escalated as the ‘Khawarij’ demanded to continue the war with Mu’awiya and declared non-Khawariji Muslims ‘infidels’. These tensions erupted into open conflict and resulted in the assassination of the Caliph Ali in 661 CE. From these origins, the ‘Khawarij’ became associated with holding a strict, uncompromising, but simplistic interpretation of Islam, accompanied by a willingness to engage in violence against both non-Muslims and Muslims.
However, the term itself has always had political overtones. The Rashidun and Umayyad caliphates, as well as other authorities, used it to reject the demands of the “Khawarij” and associate any demand for political or social reform as being rebellion or an attempt to promote a schism (fitna) within the Islamic community.
Modern application of the term
Most recently, the term came back into widespread use as a reference to the so-called Islamic State in 2014 after the group captured the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and declared the (re)establishment of a Caliphate. One of the first Islamic leaders to use the term was Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, who used it to describe both the Islamic State and its jihadi rival al-Qaeda. King Abdullah II of Jordan used it frequently in speeches and interviews following the burning to death of Jordanian Air Force pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh by the Islamic State in January 2015 in Raqqa, Syria.
Even al-Qaeda frequently employed the term to describe its Islamic State rival. For example, Jama’at Nusrat ul-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the Sahel region, used the term in its propaganda to refer to the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). In the Somali context, Bilal Khuraysat (aka Abu Khadijah al-Urduni), an al-Qaeda ideologue in Syria, used the term to justify al-Shabaab’s conflict with the ‘Somali Province’ of the Islamic State group (IS-Somalia).
Instead of actually combatting the ideology of al-Shabaab, the term ‘Khawarij’ acts as a short-hand way of describing the group as being violent and holding to a simplistic and unyielding interpretation of Islamic law. Therefore, should it be used? If not, are there any alternatives?
The use of other Arabic terms, such as terror (arhab), terrorist (irhabi), and terrorism (irhab), is problematic because al-Shabaab and other jihadist groups positively appropriate them. Still, using these terms would allow for the more explicit condemnation of al-Shabaab without attempting to recycle a historical reference that bears little relevance to its worldview and actions.
Using other terms would also address the problem that the use of ‘Khawarij’ poses for the media. At the time of the Federal Government’s directive, journalists raised concerns that using the term would put them at greater risk in an already extremely dangerous environment. Somalia ranked 141 out of 180 as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists on the Reporters Without Borders 2022 Press Freedom Index.
The new National Center for Combating Extremist Ideology has an opportunity to work with the FGS to abandon the historic, largely obsolete, and inappropriate use of ‘Khawarij’ and help it to use more precise and explicit terms, regardless of how al-Shabaab or the Islamic State may attempt to co-opt them. Using other terms that are more appropriate and historically accurate will also help Tubsan and other actors to effectively develop and implement counter-messaging campaigns without engaging in an unnecessary theological debate.