Debating Somali identity in a British tribunal: The case of the BBC Somali service

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Some scholarly works and policy writings have conflated the old notion of cultural identity with the more recent politization of ethnicity. One of the best cases where cultural traditions have been confounded with political dispositions is Somalia. The country that was once considered Africa's nation-state par excellence is now dubbed a society deeply divided along clan lines. Genealogy is said to determine any Somali's political orientation. Political ethnicity appears triumphant in Somalia, as a coalition of warlords and donors have agreed to restructure the country into a federation of clans. This essay challenges this stream of thought and practice by arguing that blood alone has not been the only factor defining Somali identity. Instead, language, religion, custom, genealogy, and mode of livelihood mutually constitute identity. The article reports on a British court case that considered the nature of Somali identity. Advocates of political ethnicity argued that a Somali's political outlook is determined at birth by his or her genealogy. Conversely, those influenced by a social constructionist view disputed the claim that one's genealogical pedigree preordains one's political outlook. The latter warns about the dangers of blood-based politics, as in Rwanda.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)40-73
Number of pages34
JournalArab World Geographer
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2006


  • Colonial anthropology
  • Critical social sciences
  • Ethnic politics
  • Genealogy
  • Political identity
  • Somali identity
  • Somalia


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