Are you a Muslim or Christian?

Islam permeates through every aspect of life in Somaliland. It is the first Muslim country I’ve been to where I’ve felt a real sense that the people believe deeply and that their belief is embedded so deeply that it seems unfathomable to entertain the idea of not being Muslim. There is the normal prayer five times a day towards Mecca. The prayer just after sunset means that businesses close shop for about an hour so the men can head to the mosque to pray. All women are covered in Somaliland. I thought at some point I’d come across at least a few that were not but it seems the dress is getting more conservative with time. The Saudi Arabian style with full head cover and only the eyes showing is apparently a newer fad to Somaliland that didn’t exist years ago. The treatment of women in the Muslim world is often a very hot topic in the west. I have to remind myself however, this is Somaliland. It is a free democracy. Women are equal to men in every way, meaning they can vote, drive cars, own businesses and choose what they wear. Somaliland is not an example of oppression.

It didn’t take long for Somalilanders to start asking me about my beliefs and from what I hear this is a common occurrence with all travelers to the state. Some went as far as directly asking what religion I am and even more specific, “Are you a Muslim or a Christian?” I never got the sense this question was strictly out of curiosity. It almost seems like a moment of judgment, and depending on my answer I may no longer be welcomed in Somaliland by that individual. Should I reply, “There is but one God, his name is Allah, and Muhammed is his messenger,” and hope they buy it? Should I lie and say I’m a devout Christian or worse, hint at the possibility that I don’t even share the common belief In God at all? I try very hard not to misrepresent myself, so some of the time I would simply reply, “No religion.” Other times I would pretend I didn’t understand the question as to not indict myself. I can sit here and talk about how friendly Somalilanders are and how welcomed I felt throughout my stay in the country, and I would be telling the absolute truth. I’d be lying, however; if I said that I wasn’t uneasy at times facing the reality that I was severely out of my comfort and in a world that I could only observe and not truly understand.

To Somalilanders, it seems, Islam is it. There is no choice. There is no other option. Not because they are forced to but because it is what they know. To be a Somalilander is to be a Muslim. The idea of Christianity makes sense in a historical context but I gather that any belief system outside of the two seems to put them at a loss for words. All of these things considered, I’m not an expert just after one week in the country. I welcome some of my Somaliland readers to correct me or enlighten me further. As an outside observer I can only experience so much and take my initial impressions and put them into words.

At the request of many Somalilanders, I’m just simply sharing my experience.