By Okey Ndibe
It’s time all decent Muslims woke up and realized that their faith is under an enormous siege. Extremist groups like al Qaeda, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab, which wear the veneer of the Islamist faith, are doing grave harm to the otherwise noble name of Islam. These groups threaten to stamp the impression in the global consciousness of Islam as a faith wedded to impulsive violence, to shocking acts of irrationality and savagery.
Two weeks ago, in the wake of al-Shabaab’s gruesome attack on innocents at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka wrote “Humanity and Against.” Those who didn’t read that piece should hasten to search for it. It is an impassioned plea for a return to decency and commonsense, a cry from the deep heart of a humanist appalled at the ascendancy of callousness in the world, and an eloquent exhortation to Muslims and the rest of us to stand up for humane, civilized values.
Soyinka’s entreaty is timely. Wherever you look, there’s the impression that horror stalks our world, often besieging the most vulnerable segments of the human population – children, women, and the elderly. It’s about time, Soyinka’s statement urges, that a broad coalition of humanists stood up against the twisted machinations of zealots who believe that the mindless slaughter of fellow humans is part and parcel of some admirable divine enterprise.
Soyinka is a longstanding advocate of sectarian accommodation, a foe of the many strategies, subtle and egregious, that religious bigots employ to debase adherents of other faiths – or, worse, non-believers. He is a warrior against all sectarian fundamentalists, Christian and Muslim alike, who promote or create a climate of fear, and prey on followers of other faith-paths.
The Westgate assault, which happened on September 21, brought home in a salient way the dangers we all face from rabid fundamentalists. The al- Shabaab slaughterers set out to target only non-Muslims. Some survivors testified that the shooters administered quick, standing tests of faith to their would-be victims. Those whose answers established their Islamic identity were spared; those who failed—thereby revealing themselves to be infidels—were instantly executed.
Soyinka isn’t alone in his sense of outrage. Shortly after a friend’s text message brought me the devastating news that Kofi Awoonor, the inimitable Ghanaian poet, was a casualty at Westgate, I telephoned the Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Like Soyinka, Ngugi bears on his body and psyche the scars of violence, inflicted by governments as well as freelance players. Years ago, he was cast into detention by the Kenyan government for using the tool of dramatic theatre to highlight injustices in the Kenyan post-colony.
For more than twenty years, Daniel arap Moi’s regime in Kenya forced Ngugi to live an exile’s rootless, peripatetic existence. When he and his wife were finally able to re-enter Kenya, they were viciously assaulted by faceless assailants. He is, by terrible experience and learning, an expert in the burgeoning industry of violence. As he spoke to me about the Westgate catastrophe, his voice shook with indignation. “It used to be the convention that women, children, and the elderly were not attacked in any sort of war,” Ngugi said. “But today, these most vulnerable groups are killed mindlessly.”
For a few days, the architects of the bloody Westgate siege commandeered frenzied media attention. Al-Shabaab, a hitherto little known Somali group, seemed to bask in its macabre, blood-earned notoriety. Perhaps, Boko Haram, which operates in the Nigerian sector, felt shooed aside, cheated out of the limelight. So, on September 28, the Nigerian sect made a horrid bid to reclaim some of the spotlight from their Somali brethren.
They struck in the dead of night at a college of agriculture in Yobe State, their guns pouring venom indiscriminately at hapless, sleeping students. They left a grim harvest of at least 40 dead students – by some accounts, as many as 70 victims. Most of the victims were, like their attackers, Muslims. Perhaps Boko Haram wanted to underscore their central creed, namely, that Western education is everywhere the enemy. Their victims’ sin, it appeared, was to allow themselves to be contaminated by Western-inflected agricultural studies.
The argument isn’t – cannot be – whether groups like al-Shabaab and Boko Haram have legitimate grievances. Even if the causes they espouse were noble and meritorious, the violence they deploy is absolutely inexcusable. If al-Shabaab wants Kenyan troops out of Somali soil, that’s not an unreasonable demand. But to invade a mall and proceed to shoot at unarmed men, women, and children is to engage in callous mass-murder, pure and simple. No lofty idea is advanced by such grave, inhuman acts.
The same goes for Boko Haram. Nigeria is in the grips of corruption – no question. Admitted, most of the top perpetrators of this corruptive culture are products of Western education. But that hardly proves a putative connection between Western education and the virus of corruption. Heck, corruption is also rife in many officially Islamic states, including Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Libya (under Muamar Gaddafi), and Indonesia. And, for good measure, some of the world’s least corrupt countries are to be found in Europe, the very vortexes of what we call Western education.
It’s simplistic – even patently false – to blame Western education and its attendant values for the rampancy of corruption in Nigeria. If anything, the real cause is the absence of an idea of Nigeria as a meaningful entity with an ethical core. There’s a warped cultural orientation that views Nigeria as a strange confection, a space that has inspired no sense of citizenship – and a collectivity with little or no claims to “citizens’” patriotic feeling. For many so-called Nigerians, Nigeria remains a no-man’s land, a land subject to and deserving of parasitic exploitation.
That’s why Nigeria has been bent out of shape by “leaders” bereft of ideas save for that of self-enrichment and self-aggrandizement. By the way, Boko Haram’s ability to terrorize innocent people is both a cause as well as effect of a Nigeria that is, as yet, an empty idea. In a real country, fewer people would be drawn to membership of dreaded, dreadful groups like Boko Haram. Fewer citizens would keep silent as extremist groups kill and maim others in the name of God.
If Nigeria is to have any prospects, then it is time – in the spirit of Soyinka’s challenge – that prominent Muslims stood up to be counted on the side of humanity. Major Islamic leaders, beginning with the Sultan of Sokoto, and including emirs across the country, ought to raise their voices and proclaim that it is anathema to slaughter people, whether Christians, Muslims, or animists, in the name of Allah.
All Islamic clerics should realize that each innocent life lost to violence by sectarian extremists translates, ultimately, to a collective blot on the faith they profess. It’s time they voiced their outrage, deploring anybody or group that soaks their revered faith in the blood of innocents. Such prominent Muslims as Muhammadu Buhari, Abubakar Atiku, Ibrahim Babangida, Abubakar Umar, Nasir el Rufai, Nuhu Ribadu, Bola Tinubu, Abubakar Baraje, Rauf Aregbesola, and Musa Kwankwaso have a duty to speak with courage.
They ought to rise in unambiguous condemnation of a group that presumes to be fighting for the enthronement of a corruption-free, God-centered ideal – its central strategy lying in acts of carnage. These major voices should be heard saying, loud and clear, that there’s no corruption worse than to take innocent lives; the depravity of the act compounded by the invocation of God’s name.