Killing in the name of religion invariably provides a special moral uplift that is not always available in its ‘secular’ variants, with a unique ability to cast an aura of nobility over even the most squalid and disgusting acts.
The last week has produced a real bumper crop of such acts by the disparate ‘Islamist’ groups in various parts of the world who believe that God has given them a license to murder anyone with impunity. On 21 September dozens of Shia mourners were blown to bits at a funeral in Sadr City, in a chain of three explosions that also killed the firefighters and ambulancemen who came to the scene – an episode that brings up the death toll in Iraq this year to more than 6,000.
That same day the horrendous terror-spectacle began in Nairobi, when al-Shabaab militants began rounding up shoppers and shooting those of them who weren’t able to recite certain Islamic prayers or didn’t know the names of Muhammed’s wives. The following day more than 80 Christians were murdered by a suicide bomber in Peshawar while coming out of Sunday mass.
And now members of the Congregation and People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad – better known as Boko Haram – in northeastern Nigeria have shot more than fifty students in their dormitory at an agricultural college in Yobe state.
The victims of these attacks were selected for various reasons. In Peshawar the Christians were killed because they were Christians. In Iraq it was because they were Shia. In Nigeria, they were students – a category that Boko Haram regards with particular loathing and contempt and has targeted before. In Nairobi, the 79 or so victims were shoppers or ‘Kenyan Kuffar’, as an al-Shabaab tweet put it.
Not that the holy men responsible for this outrage were too bothered about these niceties, and the ability to speak Arabic or know the names of Muhammed’s wives wasn’t necessarily enough to please these gun-toting scholars. According to eyewitnesses, two women were asked to quote some verses from the Koran to prove that they were Muslim.
Even though they did so correctly, the believers shot them anyway. When some of their terrified hostages asked why they’d done this, they were told ‘ they weren’t wearing the hijab.’
Such behavior is entirely par for the course for al-Shabaab. Over the last few years I have met a number of Somali refugees in Europe who fled their country because they were targeted by the group for their un-Islamic behavior. One man was threatened with death because he was selling cigarettes and selling cigarettes is ‘against Islam.’
Another was told he would be shot if he didn’t close the photography shop where he worked because taking photographs is also ‘against Islam.’ Yet another told me how his sister was shot dead because she was walking in the streets with her female friends, something that al-Shabaab equates with prostitution.
Women who get above themselves invariably invite the ire of these defenders of the true faith, and not only in Somalia. Last April Pakistani teacher Shahnaz Nazli was shot dead while leaving the primary school where she taught in Peshawar. And in June a female suicide bomber belonging to the jihadist group Lashkar e-Jhangvi killed 14 students from the all-female Sardar Bahuda Khan University on a bus in Quetta, followed immediately afterwards by another suicide bomb attack on the hospital where the survivors were sent, which killed 11 more women, including the nurses who were treating them.
Misogyny is only one component in a cult of violence, whose adherents are always willing to respond with a bomb, a bullet or a knife to the throat to anyone who doesn’t fit their definition of religious purity. Like the dozens of Iraqis who have been blown up this summer for sitting in cafes, or playing or watching football – another activity that Islam doesn’t approve of, say the holy warriors. Or the children who were mortared at a river because they were swimming and- you guessed it, swimming is ‘against Islam’.
All these crimes have been carried out by groups that subscribe in one form or another to the concept of jihad and want to ‘Islamise’ their societies according to their definition of what ‘Islam’ is. Such groups have their own localised contexts, causes and agendas. Many of them are fighting enemies who are not exactly setting a pristine example of human rights, human dignity or mercy. Iraq is ruled by a corrupt authoritarian and sectarian government whose security forces kill and torture with impunity.
The rise of Boko Haram has been fueled by acts of police and military brutality in northeastern Nigeria. Al-Shabaab is a consequence of a war-ravaged society that was tipped even deeper into the vortex when the Bush administration backed the 2006 Ethiopian invasion to topple the Union of Islamic Courts.
The Westgate attack was partly carried out by al-Shabaab in retaliation for the abuses carried out by the Kenyan security forces in Kismayo and the Somalia-Kenya border region – abuses that are well-documented and have prompted even the Somali government to call for Kenya to remove its troops.
But none of this can justify the trail of blood, violence and atrocity that these holy warriors have left across the world in the last few weeks – and years, which has repeatedly violated the most elementary principles of humanity, mercy and restraint. All of them have done this in the name of their religion, or rather those components of it that suit their purposes, in order to propagate a reactionary, authoritarian, and primitive version of Islam as an instrument of social and political control and quasi-military mobilisation.
Few of these ‘jihadists’ who want to bring about a new ‘caliphate’ have even the vaguest notion of what the caliphate was, and their willingness to kill anyone who disagrees with them make it unlikely, if not impossible, that they could ever achieve the pan-Islamic unity they supposedly aspire towards.
If these holy gunslingers are aware of the cultural and intellectual grandeur of Cordoba, Baghdad or Damascus, when the Islamic world was at the height of its power and influence, they give no indication of it. The name ‘Boko Haram’ is Hausa for ‘Western Education Forbidden’, but you could easily leave out the ‘Western’ part of that sentence. In 2009 Muhammed Yusuf, then leader of the group, told the BBC that education ‘spoils the belief in one God’ and dismissed the notion that the earth was round as ‘ contrary to the teachings of Islam.’
Islamophobes would like to present such troglodyte ideas – and the crimes of those who believe in them – as a natural and inevitable product of Islamic culture and religion. Some secularists have argued that such crimes are a product of religion per se. But even the most cursory look at human history suggests that religion is only one of various justifications for mass killing. And Islam, like all religions, contains ideas and messages of peace and tolerance as well as violence.
In a recent interview with Robert Fisk, Sheikh Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, the Grand Mufti of Syria forgave those who shot dead his son at Aleppo University last year. Hassoun told Fisk ‘ I am ready to go anywhere in the world to say that war is not a sacred deed…And those who have fought under the name of Jesus, Mohamed or Moses are lying. Prophets come to give life, not death.’
At a peace rally last week at Edwardes College in Peshawar, Christians and Muslims paid tribute to the medical students killed in last week’s church bombing, and one of the lecturers read an address from the College Principal, Canon Dr. Titus Presler, which contained the following message:
Salaam alekum – Peace be with you. That is the customary greeting among people throughout Pakistan. The peace we wish upon one another is the peace of God, and the greeting recognizes that God is the God of peace, not discord; peace, not conflict; peace, not violence. So in saying “Salaam alekum” to one another we are lifting up for each other God’s eternal invitation to lives, relationships and communities of peace.
The Westgate mujahideen and those who think like them cannot even begin to wrap their minds round this concept. For them talk of ‘communities of peace’ is just too wussy, and the traditions of tolerance and coexistence in Islam are irrelevant, since religion is about fighting and killing or it is about nothing at all.
Nevertheless they want the world to admire them as much as they clearly admire themselves. In one of the more bizarre moments of the Westgate siege, a four-year-old boy said to one of the ‘mujahideen’ ‘ you are a very bad man’ – a fairly accurate judgement, one feels. Amazingly, the object of this accusation gave the boy a mars bar and said plaintively ‘ we are not monsters.’
This ‘mujahid’ might see himself as a holy warrior, fighting in the path of God, but he is right about one thing. He and his comrades are not monsters; they are murderers, who have joined the ranks of the great mass murderers of history, in selecting generic groups of people who can be murdered with impunity, be they Christians, Shia ‘heretics’, Jews or ‘Kuffar infidels.’
Al-Shabaab might tweet happily about the ‘sang froid’ of the mujahideen wandering around Westgate, but that is really nothing to admire. Because the perpetrators of this disgusting spectacle have allowed themselves to become brutes and butchers, as devoid of mercy and humanity as a concentration camp guard, a Khymer Rouge zealot shooting ‘bourgeois’ teachers for wearing glasses, an Anders Breivik shooting teenagers and laughing about it, or the Indonesian death squad members who were inspired by gangster films to murder Communist party members during the great killing of 1965 .
This is the tradition that the Westgate religious gangsters belong to. In doing so, they have shamed their religion and disgraced the name of humanity once again with another act of cruelty.
And no matter what they might think, bringing God into it really doesn’t make it any better.