Notes From the Margins…

Westgate: God’s Trashy Gangsters

  • September 30, 2013
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Killing in the name of religion invariably provides an aura of moral grandeur on even the most squalid and disgusting acts, at least in the minds of their perpetrators and supporters.

The last week has produced a real bumper crop of such acts by ‘Islamist’ groups in various parts of the world.   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 at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, when al-Shabaab militants rounded up shoppers and shot those 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 despises and has targeted before.  In Nairobi, the 79 or so victims were shoppers or ‘Kenyan Kuffar’, as an al-Shabaab tweet described them.

Not that the holy warriors 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  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 the women ‘ weren’t wearing the hijab.’

Such behavior is 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 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 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, according to 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 jihadist groups that 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 product of a war-ravaged society that was tipped even back into the vortex when the Bush administration backed the 2006 Ethiopian invasion that toppled the Union of Islamic Courts.

The Westgate attack was partly carried out 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.

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.  All of them have done this in the name of religion, or rather those components of it that suit their purposes.

Few of these ‘jihadists’ who want to bring about a new caliphate have even the vaguest notion of what the caliphate was.   If these holy gunslingers are aware of the cultural and intellectual grandeur of Cordoba, Baghdad or Damascus, during the golden age of Islam, 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 violence used to propogate them –  as something intrinsically Islamic, while secularists have argued that such crimes are a product of religion per se.   But religion is only one of various justifications for mass killing, and Islam, like all religions, contains ideas and messages of peace, mercy and tolerance as well as war and 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 religion  is about fighting and killing or nothing at all.

At the same time 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.   Instead of shooting him,  the object of this accusation gave the boy a mars bar and said plaintively “we are not monsters.”

This ‘mujahid’ is right about that.   He and his comrades are not monsters: they are murderers, who belong to the same moral universe as the great mass murderers of history.

Al-Shabaab might celebrate the ‘sang froid’ of the Westgate mujahideen on twitter, but such men are no more admirable than a concentration camp guard, a Khymer Rouge cadre 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 in 1965 .

This is the tradition that the Westgate gangsters belong to.    They are murderous butchers who shame humanity, and bringing God into it will never make them any different.

Featured Image: Anne Knight.  Wikimedia Commons.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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