Christmas is just days away. For most families, holiday travel can be stressful, but it’s rarely life-threatening. In some parts of the world however, getting home for Christmas is more complicated than a TSA patdown followed by a cramped plane ride. In Kenya, an east African country besieged by terrorist group Al Shabaab, travel near the country’s border with Somalia can be a death sentence for Christians and Muslims alike.
This week, a bus heading to the Kenyan city of Mandera near the Ethiopian and Somali borders was raided by Al Shabaab fundamentalists. As is typical of this particular Islamic terror group, which has been affiliated with Al Qaeda since 2012, they asked the Muslims on the bus to separate themselves from the Christians, with the intent of murdering the latter group during the busiest travel time of the year. In this particular instance, the Muslim passengers aboard the bus refused to cooperate.
As CNN reported, the bus contained more than 100 passengers, and the heroic Muslim women on board gave the Christians their hijabs to fool the terrorists while helping besieged individuals hide. This was done in addition to a flat out refusal among the Muslims to identify themselves, thus pointing out the Christians and leaving them for dead. The fact that the Muslims aboard said kill us all or kill no one, led the terrorists, whose broad goal is to create a fundamentalist Islamic state in Somalia, to leave the bus all together.
Al Shabaab, though fractured, is an Al Qaeda affiliate, and they often go out of their way to kill non-Muslims, especially in the Christian-majority country of Kenya. They were originally founded as early as 2004 a part of a nationalistic struggle against Somalia’s government, but have morphed over time into more of a religious fundamentalist group, especially as the Somali and Kenyan militaries have reduced them in size and scope.
While this particular terrorist organization’s recent mode of operation has been to single out Christians, especially amid criticism that they were targeting Muslims, many of its members are presently moving toward a more fundamentalist model. Although Al Shabaab is technically Al Qaeda’s east African affiliate, there have been recent defections to the more militant ISIS, the brutal organization that has found itself in western crosshairs for its wholly destructive behavior.
Just two months ago, CNN reported that a major spiritual leader within Al Shabaab, Abdul Qadir Mumin, who used to live in the United Kingdom, pledged allegiance to ISIS. His new loyalty reflects similar jihadi defections in Somalia, and is a boon to ISIS, which has most notably ravaged Syria and taken responsibility for the terror attacks in Paris. This move toward higher levels of religious radicalization increasingly puts east African Muslims in an at-risk situation that could, if unchecked, rise to the level that has created the refugee situation in Syria.
Although the Al Shabaab terrorists who raided the Kenyan bus this week spared the Muslim heroes who protected their Christian countrymen, not all terrorist organizations, especially ISIS, behave that way. Factionalization even within Al Shabaab has led to disparate behavior, including the targeting of Sufi Muslims, a group that radical Sunni Muslims see as insufficiently Islamic. It’s largely this Sunni ideology, particularly the militant Wahhabi offshoot, that drives ISIS and its increasingly violent behavior.
This speaks to why it’s important to remember, as we sit down celebrate Christmas, that victims of terrorism are not exclusively Christian, nor are all Muslims terrorists. As another new year dawns, we will undoubtedly continue our national debate over whether the United States should accept Syrian refugees. There are legitimate national security arguments to be made about potential dangers, particularly in the wake of the terror attack in San Bernardino. A trap that Americans cannot let ourselves fall into however, is one of dehumanization.
Born of fear and an instinct toward cathartic collectivism, humans have a tendency to engage in dangerous scapegoating when we feel threatened. People are right to loathe the kind of radical Islam that drives ISIS, but it doesn’t excuse the recent uptick in crimes against peaceful Muslims that have occurred in the United States since the attack in Paris. This is why it’s crucial to understand that radical Islamic terror comes in different forms, and to do our best as Americans to extend grace to all victims of terror, many of whom are Muslims that have engaged in heroic feats to stop attacks.
An important read toward this end comes from Jonathan Brown, a former U.S. Air Force staff sergeant and Arabic linguist, who recently traveled to Germany in an effort to help displaced Syrians who have fled to Europe. (Disclosure: Jonathan is a friend and I helped publish his refugee stories.) Jonathan’s first-hand accounts go a long way toward humanizing these victims of terror who have been deemed terrorists themselves. He paints a picture of largely secular young professionals whose lives have been torn apart by ISIS. Men and women forcibly separated from their families, unable to provide for themselves or their dependents as Islamic fundamentalists who consider them insufficiently Muslim destroy their homeland.
This snippet from Brown speaks to what life has devolved into in Syria:
“(Solomon) was quick to curse Syrian President Al-Assad’s heavy-handed tactics to me, but saved special derision for these fundamentalists. It was probably that attitude that first put him on their radar. One day, as he was leaving his home for work, two Daesh (ISIS) members stopped him and told him that smoking was a sin. He ignored them and kept walking, but quickly found himself on the ground, face in the concrete, being pummeled and stomped in the back.
This was the second time he’d been beaten by people like them, the wounds from his previous lashing still tender. His prior offense: Trimming his beard.
But this time, the damage was more severe than a few flesh wounds. Two years prior, Solomon had undergone surgery to repair the discs in his lumbar spine. He showed me the scar from his surgery, and I cringed at the thought of each blow wrecking the repair, literally step by step. Now, he lives with radiating pain in his extremities, and he has lost all sensation in his left leg except for occasional excruciating burning. So I was astonished to learn that when he was finally forced to flee Syria, he did so on foot.
Without time to make arrangements for his young family – two little girls and an adorable infant son – his wife told him, ‘Just go, before they come back and kill you. You can make some more money and send for us.’ So he went. Leaving his family in the care of his parents, he stole out under cover of night. With him he carried nearly his entire life savings, around $10,000, a portion of it sewed into the lining of his underwear.”
Brown went on to chronicle similar stories of young men and women alike who were forced out of their homeland by fundamentalists, looking for any possible path toward providing for their families in the wake of this disruption, but meeting largely with bureaucracy that makes it all but impossible to find work. The reason Brown’s first-hand accounts are important is the same reason you should know of men likeAhmed Merabet and Adel Termos; just two of many Muslim heroes, many of whom remain unknown, who have sacrificed their lives in an effort to combat the terror ravaging their communities.
While it’s true that we cannot blind ourselves to the dangers Islamic fundamentalism poses both at home and abroad, we should open our hearts this Christmas to victims who may not share our culture, but are humans nonetheless worthy of our love. We can engage in reasonable debates over the proper governmental response to refugees, terrorism, border security, and the like yet while doing so, refuse to engage in the ugly practices of dehumanization and scapegoating. Spreading love and refusing to succumb to fear would be a welcome way to start anew in 2016.