Kenya. Who would have thought that one of Africa’s brightest would be in the news for other than economic prowess and technological advancements? And yet it happened. On Saturday, September 21, members of the Somali extremist Islamist movement Al-Shabab attacked Nairobi’s popular WestGate mall, killing an estimated 62 people and injuring up to 150 others. The victims and injured comprised of both Kenyans and non-Kenyans, with some as young as 2 years. One of Ghana’s own – renowned poet and former statesman Kofi Awoonor – was caught in the crossfire as well. The fact that this happened is heartbreaking and still unthinkable; no amount of empathy could make it possible to understand the why behind such an unacceptable act.
That said, anyone who limits this unfortunate incident to an act in the name of religion is sorely missing the point in this recent attack as well as past terrorist acts by known Islamist groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Qaeda.
Africa’s Security Plan?
As someone who believes in national sovereignty and especially of the need for Africans to take charge of our own affairs I protested vehemently about the US’ proposition to set up its Africa Command Center on West African soil some years back. Why? Despite the fact that one of the reasons given for setting up base on the continent was the perceived increase in terrorist activity in the sub-region, I – like many others – considered it a guise for gaining access to other resources (oil) and information. I still think the US and other world powers use instruments like aid, military support, economic partnership and so on as a guise for ensuring that the world runs the way they want it to – American foreign policy history confirms this. However, I also realize the relevance of the security argument, particularly in the context of Africa.
During a Ghana Decides G+ Hangout with CPP presidential candidate Abu Sakara, I asked how he would address the issue of security and the threat of Boko Haram in the West African region if he were to become president. His response focused mainly on diplomatic efforts and strengthening border controls; I was a bit dissatisfied. Really, what would an African state do if an attack of large measure were to happen? Would we solely rely on our diplomatic ties with neighboring countries to address the issue? Would we act singularly and swiftly, annihilating the perpetrators without regard for treaties and agreements with their home countries? Would we call on the security/terrorism experts – the West? – What exactly would we do?
It is yet to be seen exactly what Kenya will do following this attack by Al-Shabab, however the Kenyan government has already indicated that it will not be withdrawing its troops from Somalia anytime soon, stating “unfinished business“. Whatever a government would decide to do would depend partly on the information available and perceptions on the severity of the situation. If the discourse following the Kenya massacre is any indication, we Africans are a long way from securing the right information about extremist groups and terrorism. Many people simplify a very complex situation into one of religion. Christians vs. Muslims, East vs. West, democracy vs. Shaaria. Therein lies the real danger. You cannot address a problem, if you don’t know what exactly the problem is. If you think the various attacks by Al-Shabab, Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda and so on are merely a matter of faith, you are sorely misinterpreting the situation.
The Undertones of Islamist Terrorism
In 2008, Gallup did a survey of a billion Muslims to determine their impressions about Islam and issues like terrorism. The results of that survey indicate that the majority of Muslims are as against terrorism as any member of any other faith. The people who perpetrate these acts of terrorism in the name of Islam make up less than 1% of the entire Muslim population of 1.7 billion. What’s interesting however is not the acquiescence – or lack of – of the very Muslims in whose name these acts of terror are being committed Nope. The most interesting thing is that many of these acts of terror committed in the name of Islam… are actually not being done in the name of Islam.
According to the Gallup report, terrorists cower under the umbrella of Islam in order to address political, economic, social grievances. Why do they use the umbrella of Islam? Well, because there is already a perceived tension between Islam and the West. It is easier to destabilize an already unstable entity, than to try to find a way of destroying a united front. They capitalize on those vulnerabilities, misconceptions, misunderstandings in order to achieve their aims. Additionally, the structure of Islam unites all Muslims – regardless of country, economic level, background, race – and as a result, they have a larger pool of people upon which to draw from. Does this mean Islam itself promotes terrorism? No.
So what are some of the other elements which truly motivate terrorist acts? Economics is at the heart of it all. A key commonality of many of the terrorist hotspots is poverty, which links to unemployment, feeling disenfranchised etc. The leadership of groups like Al-Qaeda draw on poor, vulnerable individuals for whom there might not to be much of a difference between life and death. The ticket they offer? An honorable death. If you are living a life which seems to be worse than a dog’s life and you have one chance to grant some solace or respite to your family members, while being “assured” of peace/paradise in the after life, would you take it? That is essentially the question that many of these suicide bombers are faced with, and many – after being seriously brainwashed, I should add – go the way of the “martyr”. This is not to excuse any of these suicide bombers or terrorist accomplices. No reason is good enough to go and blow up a crowd of people. The point I’m trying to make is, it is not wholly a question of following one’s faith – or in this case, Islam, the Qu’ran, etc. While things play out as though the suicide bombers are Muslim fanatics looking to undertake holy war (popularly referred to as jihad), the base is economic.
There’s also the political element. While we think we live in relatively safe times – this is not World War I or II, nor do we seem to be close to World War III with nuclear threats – the reality is that there is an ongoing warfare, we just have better PR machinery which hides it from the average citizen. Boko Haram has economic undertones – Northern Nigeria has some of the highest levels of poverty – but it is also essentially political and probably goes as far back to the country’s Biafara days when the tensions between Nigeria’s different ethnic groups were at a boiling point. Boko Haram seeks to institute Shaaria – or Islamic law – wherever they can. It’s an issue of governance, and as such of politics and people. How do Islamist groups magnify an issue which probably only appeals to a small population? How do they gain the attention of local politicians and the international community? Unfortunately the chosen route has been bloody to say the least – kill people, target Christians, foreigners. Again, most of the core objectives of these groups have political, socio-economic undertones. But because of the declared war on terror – and by extension, the perceived war on Islam – extremists know what will get global attention and go right for that.
The other element which sometimes goes unnoticed is the social element. In the last decade we’ve seen a growing number of Islamist-related terrorist acts and where it was concentrated in specific regions, it’s now spreading. Why? Personally I think it boils down to the issue of belonging, of feeling a sense of dignity. Since 9/11 and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars under the guise of a global war on terror, Muslims have been targeted or have felt targeted. And not just in countries where an overt war has been launched – no, even in relatively peaceful communities and in countries like the US. There’s a mistrust of Muslims around the world which has in turn generated a reciprocal mistrust among Muslims. So what happens? Muslims draw closer to one another. When you feel like your very way of life is being attacked or persecuted, what do you do? You draw closer to what you consider to be familiar. It’s human nature, something intrinsic. The unknown always seems more foreboding than the known. Unfortunately, one result is that some people take things a tad too far, by falling prey or adopting fanatical notions and ideas, which really have nothing to do with the essence of Islam.
Now as I said before, the structure of Islam is such that a Muslim is not solely a Ghanaian Muslim or an Iranian Muslim, a Sunni or a Shia. No, a Muslim is a Muslim and hence a global citizen of Islam. This linkage between Muslims everywhere is emphasized in our manner of praying, in the month of Ramadan annually, in the Hajj pilgrimage. Muslims are socialized to realize they are part of something greater than themselves, part of a larger community. Hence, for many extremist groups, an attack against Muslims anywhere, or against another extremist group could constitute an attack against Islam as a whole – everywhere and anywhere. This contributes to the fast growth or splintering of Islamist groups all over the world. Without acknowledging the social setups and structures of the umbrella behind which these factions act, any attempt at curtailing their horrendous acts will prove futile. You extinguish one here, only for three more to grow there.
There is never any justification for violence and each time I read about Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda or any other so-called Islamist group committing such gross injustice, my heart breaks. Why? Because this is not the Islam that I and the majority of Muslims know. True Islam is a religion of peace, not of violence. True jihad is an internal struggle – between one’s self and one’s ego and the excesses of life. A true Muslim surrenders to that which is greater than him/herself, that which endures – love, compassion, unity, peace, tolerance. Not to the whimsical pursuits of man – money, power, politics, fame.
The attack on Kenya is a wakeup call for us Africans. Yes we have poverty, disease, climate change and other important concerns. But security is an equally important concern. In order to foster sustainable economic development we need to address each of these issues in tandem with one another. When dealing with poverty issues, don’t simply look to enrich the “nation”, when in actual fact that money stays within elite quarters. Why? The poor will eventually get frustrated and rise up. Survival is in our genetic code as humans and pushed to the edge, people do sometimes go into auto-mode, which might not necessarily resonate with our more humane tendencies. More importantly, when addressing the terror threats on the continent, it is important we take a holistic approach to it. Recognize that there is usually more than one undertone to any security situation, take the time to find that out and address accordingly.
For the average African – don’t fall prey to the whims of the terrorists by allowing fear to dictate your actions with other people. Always take a moment to understand, then show compassion to your fellow man/woman. Verbally attacking and insulting one group of people based on their faith and your perceptions of what they stand for will lead to a never ending whirlpool of reciprocated injustices.
What happened in Kenya could have happened anywhere, to any one of us. We like to think we are safe, when we are actually just in Grace. There’s never a good reason for violence. Violence is the way of the coward, and so is inciting violence. For those hurling insults, verbal attacks – would you join the terrorists with your words? We think terrorists are some nameless entity or face. But guess what? They come from amongst us; they start small with verbal attacks and graduate to grenades.
Grieve, yes. What happened is heartbreaking. But be watchful of your thoughts, words, actions. Make sure you are not sowing the seeds for the next attack. May we have the courage to choose the higher road. To not fall victim to the lure of violence, of what we perceive to be easy.
Stay strong Kenya. RIP to the fallen 60+ in the mall attack and strength to the affected families. May we honor the deceased with the solemnity that the passing of a LIFE deserves. Peace.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.