Nairobi, Kenya - Somali clerics who are worried that their country could become a launching pad for global jihad are stepping up efforts around the globe to stop young men from joining a feared al-Qaida-linked group.
The clerics are spreading their message in Somalia and to diaspora communities of Somalis in Kenya, Europe and the United States. And they're using the same text the militants cite to back up their argument: the Quran.
"As Islamic scholars, we should warn people, especially the youth, against al-Shabab's destructive ideology," said Sheik Abdi Mahad, a cleric who preaches in Somali mosques in Kenya's capital, Nairobi. "What we are telling our people is al-Shabab is wrong and its members are extremists who don't represent the peaceful nature of the Islamic religion."
Clerics are airing anti-Shabab lectures on the Somali government's radio station in Mogadishu. They're also holding meetings for those who oppose the militant group, although such gatherings can only be held in areas outside al-Shabab's control. The militants' reach extends across much of Mogadishu, and Somalia's central and southern regions.
Al-Shabab seeks to topple Somalia's weak, U.N.-backed administration and install a harsh brand of Islam.
U.S. officials say veteran insurgents of the Afghan and Pakistan conflict have joined al-Shabab, infusing the group with bomb-making expertise and global links. The group metes out harsh punishments, not unlike the Taliban when it controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s.
Western intelligence officials say the group is also recruiting foreign fighters from the Somali diaspora in the United States and Europe. That global attention has prompted moderate clerics to take action.
Still, opposition to the militants is so dangerous that the clerics would not talk about their campaign on the record for fear of retaliation. But clerics in other countries where the message is being spread say they are actively trying to discourage young Somalis from joining the group.
In Minneapolis, home to the largest Somali community in the U.S., clerics at the Quba Mosque held weeklong lectures shaming al-Shabab in May, said Sheik Osman Ahmed Sheik, the mosque's assistant director. Sheik, whose mosque accommodates 300 worshippers, said the lecture sessions were held in the evening to draw as many as possible.
"Now parents are more enlightened about al-Shabab's danger to their children," he said. "They now know that they are people out there who want to brainwash their children."
Mohamed Idris, a Saudi-based Somali cleric, was among several scholars who took part in a series of recent lectures in Sweden. Some were posted on Somali websites and broadcast on satellite TV.
"Our message was directed to anyone who misinterprets the Islamic religion," he said. "We have urged the youth to focus on education and their life in their adopted countries and not get involved in the violence in Somalia."
In April, Idris was part of a dozen clerics who met in the Somali city of Garowe, the capital of the semiautonomous region of Puntland. The group issued a statement in which they said militant activity in Somalia is not jihad.
The statement urged the warring parties in Somalia "to stop the bloodletting, because in the Holy Quran Allah has banned Muslims from killing each other. The Muslim's blood is sacred."
In a clear reference to al-Shabab, it also called on Somalis to refrain from calling one another "apostates," a term that means one is no longer a Muslim. Al-Shabab fighters have often targeted Somalis who have joined the U.N.-backed "apostate government" or anyone accused of working for foreign intelligence agencies.
"The best way to deal with the extremists is dialogue," said Abdel Moati Bayoumi, an Islamic scholar at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the pre-eminent theological institute of Sunni Islam, the mainstream sect to which nearly all Somalis belong.
"What produces extremism in the Muslim world is because of people's minimal knowledge about Islam. The more the people become enlightened about Islamic teachings, the more they will steer clear of violence and killing of innocent people," he said.
Bayoumi said debunking extremist ideologies worked in Egypt, and it can succeed in Somalia too.
"We have talked to the extremists inside mosques and prisons and succeeded in convincing them to return from their ideologies," he said. "Islam calls for moderation. And if the Prophet Mohammed was asked to select between two things he always went for the moderate one."