Like all of us around the world, this weekend began with news of a horrific terrorist attack in Nairobi. The attack on West Gate Mall has already claimed at least 68 lives and injured 175 people. Although, some hostages remain, most have been freed. Videos (here and here) and images of the attacks (here, here, and here) are quite graphic and surreal. Messages of condolences to Kenya from people around the world have been pouring in, both individually and from national governments. I, too, send my condolences to all of those who have lost loved ones and hope that all of those still in the Mall make it out with their lives.
Many are asking ourselves why Al Shabaab decided to commit such an attack. It is incredibly daring and could potentially alienate them and galvanize international support for Kenya’s military campaign against them. Although the group has claimed that the attack was in response to Kenya’s military involvement in Somalia, one argument is that the group’s influence in the Horn of Africa is waning and that this attack is a reflection of their weakness rather than their strength. This is a very plausible reason for the attack, but is no absolution. I agree with the argument’s author that Kenya and Kenyans must not respond with hatred, against Muslims, and Kenya’s ethnic Somalis. Calm is needed.
The focus on this post, however, is not on the why of the attack, but rather on the issue of singling out non-Muslims. An eye witness reports that the gunmen (and woman?) asked all Muslims to leave to safety. And when a man approached one of the gunmen, the man was asked for the name of Prophet Muhammad‘s mother, as a religious shibboleth. He failed to respond correctly and was duly shot dead. When I read this, I immediately began scanning the confines of my memory for the correct answer to this question. Wondering of course, if I would have been able to pass this test. My quick reaction was Maria. But of course, that’s the name of one of the Prophet’s wives. So that’s the wrong answer. Then I thought, perhaps Sarah. But that was Abraham‘s wife. So wrong again. And dead again, I suppose.
I was obviously disappointed in myself for not knowing this very simple question. After all, I was educated by the Jesuits in college and took enough theology courses to certainly be able to answer this very simple question. I was ashamed of myself. And I wondered if Muslims are more likely to answer the question: what is the name of the mother of Jesus? Is Christianity more ubiquitous because it is the most dominant religion among the world’s most resourceful nations? Or am I just ignorant of Islam? Perhaps, a bit of both.
And because of that, I have now vowed to learn more not only about Islam, but also about other religious faiths. I need to revisit my old theological texts, buy and read the Qu’ran. Read the Bible, while am at it. Tanzania has a great mix of religions, including the most prominent two: Islam and Christianity. And although we have not counted people based on their religious faiths since 1967 we are certainly quite conscious and celebrate our religious diversity. In No Longer Child’s Play, close to year ago, I wrote that “[c]ondemnation of each other’s religious actions are born out of ignorance of each other’s religions.” VijanaFM‘s readers will recall that I wrote that piece in the wake of the incident in Dar es Salaam‘s Mbagala neighborhood where a Christian boy, after being dared by his Muslim friend, urinated on the Qu’ran. Our ignorance of each other’s religious faiths still stands today as it did then.
And the fact that the Nairobi terrorist attack has affected so many people around the world, whose victims include President Uhuru Kenyatta‘s nephew and niece-to-be; Ghana’s and indeed Africa’s intellectual titan, Professor Kofi Awoonor is not only testament to the beautiful diversity of East Africa’s largest city, but also a reflection of our shared diversity in an ever increasing globalized world. We cannot deny that we are increasingly sharing this planet with people that do not necessarily share our shades of skin color or with those that hold the same religious beliefs. But in order for us to co-exist peacefully, we must all continue to engage in understanding each other or at the very least, tolerating each other.
Religion is not meant to be murderous. Islam is not meant to be murderous. Muslims also share everyone else’s dismay at this horrific attack. Muslim leaders in Kenya have already issued a joint statement condemning the attacks. I stand with them, along with other Muslims in Kenya and around the world, and all peace-loving peoples of the world in calling for calm and collected reflection on this heinous crime. As a way forward, I kindly ask that we teach our children to learn more about each other; to celebrate and not denigrate each others’ differences. By focusing our energies on our children we ensure that future generations do not engage each other with such ignorant hatred. And although this attack was horrific in so many ways, one personal positive outcome is that I am now invigorated to learn more about Islam. More about Christianity. More about religion in general. And of course, I now know the name of the Prophet‘s mother. It’s Aminah.