The carefully planned attack by al-Shabab on civilians in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall carried the pathology of rage and the logic of fanaticism to unspeakable extremes. Imagine deciding on the life or death of any person, but particularly a child, by whether or not they could name the mother of Muhammed or recite a verse from the Quran.
Islamic fanaticism should be condemned with the moral fervour appropriate to such a violation of the most fundamental norms of respect for innocence and human dignity. To gun down at random whoever happened to be shopping at Westgate Mall on the fateful day of September 21 risks carrying political violence and accompanying hatred beyond the point of no return.
The logic of fanaticism
Of course, fanatics have their own warped logic of justification that makes their acts congruent with a depraved morality. In this instance, the al-Shabab case is made superficially on a vengeful response to the participation of Kenyan army units in multinational military operations of the African Union in neighbouring Somalia.
This AU operation, reinforced by US drone attacks and special forces, has led to the severe weakening of al-Shabab’s political influence and presence in Somalia, provoking an evident sense of desperation and acute resentment, as well as a tactic of making those that interfere in Somalia’s internal politics bear adverse spill-over effects with the strategic intention of discouraging future interventions. But if such an explanation, even if persuasive given a certain understanding of the on-going struggle for the control of Somalia, is expected to excuse the demonic actions at Westgate, in any but equally deep pockets of alienated consciousness, it is profoundly mistaken.
What may be most frightening beyond the immediacy of such a shocking event in this whole woeful series of development is the degree to which Western counter-insurgency specialists have stepped forward to pronounce the Westgate Mall massacre a “success” from terrorist or extremist perspectives. In effect, they’re accepting the logic of fanaticism in the contemporary calculus of power. These experts claim that the tactical “victory” supposedly achieved at Westgate, is likely to generate al-Shabab recruits among the large Somali minorities living in Nairobi and even in some parts of the US, posing fresh threats of new attacks at the many vulnerable soft spots of modern society, and providing new justifications for the excesses of homeland security.
What we can say with confidence is that there is a genocidal danger associated with any belief system that claims a sacred truth solely for itself and treats those who do not accept the claim as utterly unworthy, if not outright evil.
As is common with such anguishing spectacles of sheer horror, there are perplexing ironies present. The catastrophe occurred on the day set aside in Kenya to observe The International Day of Peace. Even stranger, Osama bin Laden, a few years ago, had been openly critical of the excessive harshness towards Muslims of the current al-Shabab emir, Ahmed Abdi Godane. Some commentators have speculated that this rather peculiar rebuke explains why there was such an effort by the Westgate attackers to spare Muslims who were present in the Kenyan mall all at the time of the attack. In earlier al-Shabab attacks on civilians in Somalia and Uganda (2010), such distinctions were not made, with Muslims and non-Muslims alike being indiscriminately slaughtered.
Beyond Kenya and al-Shabab
It was a disturbing synchronicity that on the following day outside an Anglican Church in Peshawar, Pakistan, two suicide bombers detonated explosives that killed more than 80 people as they were leaving the church after religious services. An extremist Islamic organisation in Pakistan, TTP Jundullah, shamelessly claimed responsibility, offering an unabashedly fanatic explanation: “They are enemies of Islam. Therefore, we target them. We will continue the attacks on non-Muslims in Pakistan.”
Contained in such a statement is the absolutism of a jihadist mandate to eliminate infidels, especially those who practice other religions, combined with an ultra-nationalist insistence that non-Muslims and foreigners in Pakistan live at their peril. They have been, if effect, sentenced to death, and should leave the country if they wish to survive. Of course, this anti-Christian atrocity needs to be understood against a background of colonial and post-colonial intervention, covert and overt, in Pakistan. Christianity epitomises this pernicious presence of the West for these fanatic xenophobes.
There is in the background of the awful events in Kenya a furious response to the long term efforts of outsiders, whether from Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda, or further afield, from the United States, to shape and manage the outcome of an intense internal struggle for the control and future of Somalia. Such interventions, especially from the West, whatever the motivation, encroach upon the inalienable right of self-determination that inheres in the people of Somalia, whether for better or worse.
There is no doubt that all interferences with the dynamics of self-determination, even when labelled “humanitarian” are viewed as “crimes against humanity” by sectors of the territorial population. However, such existential perceptions of abuse by outsiders can never be accepted as a valid excuse for committing crimes against humanity. Given the belief systems that occupy the minds of fanatics of the al-Shabab variety, we can expect more such appalling incidents.
Fanaticism carried to these extremes poisons human relations, whether it rests its belief structure on secular foundations as was the case with the Nazis, or rests its claims on a religious creed. It is no more helpful to blame religion, as such, for the Westgate massacre than it would be to insist that godless secularism was responsible for the rise of Hitler or depredations of Stalinism. What we can say with confidence is that there is a genocidal danger associated with any belief system that claims a sacred truth solely for itself and treats those who do not accept the claim as utterly unworthy, if not outright evil.
What happens when such a pattern is situated at the extremes of political consciousness is a disposition toward massacre and genocide, with terrorism being the fanatic’s form of “just war”. This fatal transcending of particularities of race, religion, class, gender, and ethnicity occurs whenever a faith is given in the form of a revelation to some, but not all. The moral and political importance of the human as a shared identity is to guard against falling into the moral abyss of the good self and evil other.
Nevertheless, communal, religious, ethnic, class, and political tensions can and do generate habitual genocidal behaviour, which also can well up from the depths of the collective unconscious of an embittered community.
We live at a time when such patterns of horrifying behaviour seem mainly, although by no means exclusively, associated with Islamic extremism. Such pathologic behaviour must be resisted and repudiated in every way possible, but without worsening the situation by blaming a specific religion or religion in general as responsible for recourse to fanaticism. The West needs only to recall the Inquisition, the Crusades, and many decades of barbaric religious wars to realise its own susceptibility to the siren calls of the fanatics, which seem almost irresistible in periods of societal crisis. The virus of fanaticism lies dormant in the body politic of every society and can find consoling support by twisting the meaning and practical relevance of religious scripture.
Blaming religion and Islam
Explaining the fanatic by deploring Islam and its adherents multiplies the challenges facing society rather than mitigates them by situating the source of the problem in Islam as a whole. Islamophobia as a response to 9/11 or to such awful incidents in Kenya and Pakistan pours vinegar on wounds experienced by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and yet it seems an inevitable reflex, which if carried to its own limit by opportunists and purists leads to a mimicry of the originating fanaticism. In its moralising rationalisations for violence against the innocent, the purported anti-fanatic operates in the same milieu of alienated consciousness as the fanatic. The one resembles the other in mentality and deed, although the fanatic is more likely to be sincere than the anti-fanatic who often acts out of ambition created by the situation rather than belief.
There is some reason to feel that fanaticism of this kind is largely a product of monotheistic religion and thought, specifically ideas of dualism separating good and evil, and the insistence that the human mind has access to “the truth” via the revelations of a single God that is applicable to all social and political relations. In this regard, the philosophic and religious traditions of the East do not seem, at first glance, to nurture such fanatical mentalities as emerge in the West: there is a rejection of dualism and a general acceptance of the view that there are a variety of ways to find fulfilment and salvation, and no single truth that is universally applicable.
Nevertheless, communal, religious, ethnic, class, and political tensions can and do generate habitual genocidal behaviour, which also can well up from the depths of the collective unconscious of an embittered community. Tragically, the land of Gandhi is also the land of Gujurat, where genocidal surges of violence against Muslims have occurred repeatedly, with a major lethal outbreak in 2002. Hindu nationalism in its extreme enactments is as capable of fanatic politics as are extremist exponents of political Islam.
There are also distinctions to be drawn within the Hindu tradition between those who support and those who repudiate the Indian caste distinctions carried to their own inborn extremes in ideas and practices associated with being “untouchable” and “bride burning”.
No religion is immune
Even Buddhism, the religion that is most admired around the world for the valuing of compassion, can be lured into the situational camps of fanaticism as was clearly evident in the final stages of the holy war against the Tamils carried to genocidal extremes in Sri Lanka a few years ago, or in the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minorities in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar.
In other words, culture and political tensions can give rise to radical forms of denial of species or human identity as the essential imperative of people living together in peace and equity.
There is no need to be a secular humanist to acknowledge the human family as encompassing the whole species. The inclusive side of all religions do open this moral and political space, although it is contested from within these traditions by those who champion exclusivist views. To affirm the human is fully compatible with loving God, gods, country, and family, and indeed it may be the only way to achieve a sustainable love.
As humans, we must shake the curse of fanaticism or we are doomed.
Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.