DUSA MARREB, Somalia — From men of peace, the Sufi clerics suddenly became men of war.
Their shrines were being destroyed. Their imams were being murdered. Their tolerant beliefs were under withering attack.
So the moderate Sufi scholars recently did what so many other men have chosen to do in anarchic Somalia: they picked up guns and entered the killing business, in this case to fight back against the Shabab, one of the most fearsome extremist Muslim groups in Africa.
“Clan wars, political wars, we were always careful to stay out of those,” said Sheik Omar Mohamed Farah, a Sufi leader. “But this time, it was religious.”
In the past few months, a new axis of conflict has opened up in Somalia, an essentially governmentless nation ripped apart by rival clans since 1991. Now, in a definitive shift, fighters from different clans are forming alliances and battling one another along religious lines, with deeply devout men on both sides charging into firefights with checkered head scarves, assault rifles and dusty Korans.
It is an Islamist versus Islamist war, and the Sufi scholars are part of a broader moderate Islamist movement that Western nations are counting on to repel Somalia’s increasingly powerful extremists. Whether Somalia becomes a terrorist incubator and a genuine regional threat — which is already beginning to happen, with hundreds of heavily armed foreign jihadists flocking here to fight for the Shabab — or whether this country finally steadies itself and ends the years of hunger, misery and bloodshed may hinge on who wins these battles in the next few months.
“We’re on terra incognito,” said Rashid Abdi, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit group that tries to prevent deadly conflicts. “Before, everything was clan. Now we are beginning to see the contours of an ideological, sectarian war in Somalia for the first time, and that scares me.”
For two years, Islamist insurgents waged a fierce war against Somalia’s transitional government and the thousands of Ethiopian troops protecting it. In January, the insurgents seemed to get what they wanted: the Ethiopians pulled out; an unpopular president walked away; and moderate Islamists took the helm of the internationally recognized transitional government of Somalia, raising hopes for peace.
But since then, the verdict on the moderates has been mixed. In the past two weeks, the Shabab have routed government forces in Mogadishu, the capital. The tiny bit of the city the government controls is shrinking, block by block, and Ethiopian troops have once again crossed the border and are standing by. As many as 150 people have been killed, and the relentless mortar fire has spawned streams of shellshocked civilians trudging into the arid countryside, where they face the worst drought in a decade.
If Mogadishu falls, Somalia will be dragged deeper into the violent morass that the United Nations, the United States and other Western countries have tried hard to stanch, and the country will fragment even further into warring factions, with radical Islamists probably on top.
But out here, on the wind-whipped plains of Somalia’s central region, it is a different story. The moderates are holding their own, and the newly minted Sufi militia is about the only local group to go toe-to-toe with the Shabab and win.
The several-hundred-square-mile patch of central Somalia that the Sufis control is not nearly as strategic as Mogadishu. But the Sufis have achieved what the transitional government has not: grass-roots support, which explains how they were able to move so quickly from a bunch of men who had never squeezed a trigger before — a rarity in Somalia — into a cohesive fighting force backed by local clans.
Many Somalis say that the Sufi version of Islam, which stresses tolerance, mysticism and a personal relationship with God, is more congruent with their traditions than the Wahhabi Islam espoused by the Shabab, which calls for strict separation of the sexes and harsh punishments like amputations and stonings.
“We see the Sufis as part of us,” said Elmi Hersi Arab, an elder in the battered central Somalia town of Dusa Marreb. “They grew up here.”
The Sufis also tapped into an anti-Shabab backlash. The Shabab, who recruit from all clans, and, according to American officials, are linked to Al Qaeda, controlled Dusa Marreb for the better part of last year. Residents described that period as a reign of terror, with the Shabab assassinating more than a dozen village elders and even beheading two women selling tea.
“We respected the Shabab for helping drive out the Ethiopians,” said one woman in Dusa Marreb who asked not to be identified for safety reasons. “But when the Ethiopians left and the Shabab kept the war going, that to us didn’t make sense.”
The Sufis, a loosely organized, religious brotherhood, also drawing from many different clans, had studiously avoided getting gummed up in Somalia’s back-and-forth clan battles, often no more than thin cover for power struggles between businessmen and warlords. But in November, Sheik Omar said, the Shabab shot dead several Sufi students. The next month, the Shabab tore apart Sufi shrines.
A spike of panic shot through the Sufi schools, where young men like Siyad Mohammed Ali were studying Islamic philosophy. “We had never told the Shabab how to worship,” he said. “But now we were under attack.”
Men like Mr. Siyad became the backbone of the new Sufi militia, which got a crate of AK-47s from one set of clan elders or a sputtering armored truck from another. In December, the Sufis, whose organization is called Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama, which roughly translates as the followers of the Prophet Muhammad, drove the Shabab out of Dusa Marreb. Since then, the Sufis have defended their territory several times against Shabab incursions.
Hassan Sheik Mohamud, the dean of a college in Mogadishu, said the rise of the Sufis was “absolutely, totally new historically.”
“They had a reputation for being peaceful,” he said.
The Sufis are loosely allied to the transitional government, which has promised to rule Somalia with some form of Islamic law. The president, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, is a bit of an enigma, coming from a long line of Sufi clerics, yet rising to power in 2006 as part of an Islamist alliance with a decidedly Wahhabi bent. He has said that he wants women to play an important role in government, but several prominent Somali women said that during a recent meeting, he would not look them in the eye.
Many Somalis say that Sheik Sharif is making the same mistake his predecessors made, spending more time riding around foreign capitals in a Mercedes than working Mogadishu’s streets to cultivate local allies.
Out here, the Sufis are moving ahead with their own small administration, meeting with United Nations officials and running patrols. At night, in a circle under a tree, they rest their AK-47s on their Korans, drop their foreheads to the earth and pray.
“We have jihad, too,” said Sheik Omar, a tall man with a long beard and warm eyes. “But it’s inner jihad, a struggle to be pure.”