The rare but commendable and heroic show of brotherhood by Kenyan Muslims who came forth to shield and protect their Christian fellow citizens from militant extremists on December 21, 2015, speaks volumes of hope in the fight against terrorism in Kenya. On this memorable day, a group of Muslims traveling on a bus ambushed by Islamist gunmen—believed to belong to the Somali-based Al-Shabaab—protected Christian passengers by refusing to be split into groups of Muslims and non-Muslims, according to eyewitnesses who spoke to the Kenyan media. The Muslims told the militants “to kill all passengers or leave,” said Mandera governor Ali Roba.1Cyrus Ombati, “Interior CS Joseph Nkaissery Commends Muslims Who Shielded Christians in Bus Attack in Mandera,” Standard, Dec. 22, 2015, http://www.standardmedia.co.ke/article/2000185956, accessed February 17, 2016; Ismail Noor, “Muslims Shield Christians from Al Shabaab Terrorists in Mandera,” Star, December 21, 2015, http://www.the-star.co.ke/news/2015/12/21/muslims-shield-christians-from-al-shabaab-terrorists-in-mandera_c1264589, accessed February 17, 2016. At least two people died in the attack, which happened near the northeastern village of El Wak on the Kenya–Somali border, the same area in which Al-Shabaab gunmen had stormed a Nairobi-bound bus in November 2014 and killed twenty-eight non-Muslims after separating the passengers into groups—but most were saved.
Kenya has experienced a series of terror attacks since 2011, when the government deployed its Kenya Defense Forces in Somalia in Operation Linda Nchi (Swahili for “Protect the Nation”). Most of these attacks have taken place in the northeastern and coastal parts of Kenya where coincidentally we have the largest number of resident Muslims. In all cases, especially in Northern Kenya and the infamous Westgate Mall attack, the militants allegedly separated Muslims from Christians and ruthlessly murdered the Christians for allegedly failing the “faith test.” This included an April 2015 attack on Garissa University for which Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility. The death toll of 147 in that incident was the highest since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy, in which more than 200 people lost their lives.
Although Kenya is a secular state, it can be regarded as a predominantly Christian nation, with 82.5 percent of the citizens Christians, while the population of Muslims stands at 11.1 percent. Although no pronounced differences generally appear between Kenyan Christians and Muslims in their day-to-day interactions, the continued targeted attacks on Christians by the militants who claim to belong to the Muslim faith is slowly putting the groups’ peaceful coexistence to a tough test. The main national Christian organization, the National Council of Churches in Kenya, has, for instance, come out strongly in the past to condemn what it sees as “the persecution of Christians” and has observed that these conflicts are stretching the patience of most Christians to the limit. Mainstream Muslims have, however, strongly condemned Al-Shabaab’s heinous acts through the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, arguing that its actions go against the very spirit of Islam and maintaining that it represents just a few extremists who are out to achieve their selfish means by using the name of Islam.
But what is worth noting is the demonstration by the selfless, patriotic, and heroic act of the Muslim bus passengers, who chose to face the enemy and shame its cheap propagandist plan to drive an artificial wedge between Christians and Muslims, that the war on terror and violent extremism can be won through solidarity and unity of purpose. When the Muslim bus passengers dared Al-Shabaab either to shoot all of them or leave them alone, the militants walked away in defeat, despite having succeeded in killing two people.
The message is clear: if we can all rise above our sectarian divisions based on religion, race, and even ethnicity, we can win the war on terror together. Our solidarity defies the terrorists’ efforts to portray the majority Christian government as marginalizing and persecuting Muslims, while making Christians believe that Muslims are the enemy. All should, therefore, come forth and emulate the example of these noble Muslim faithful. That the government and the mainstream media have not widely publicized this remarkable breakthrough in the Kenyan war on terror is sad. Although the cabinet secretary in charge of interior security did praise the Muslims, the government should have done more to honor them and spread word of their heroic act, to silence extremists on both sides of the religious “divide.”
Kenya could learn a lesson from France’s treatment of the twenty-five-year-old Mali immigrant, Lassana Bathily, a Muslim who saved shoppers’ lives during a jihadist attack in Paris in 2014, in which seventeen people lost their lives. Mr. Bathily was celebrated and honored by President François Hollande, culminating with his being granted French citizenship. Such high level recognition should have gone to those who, during the December incident in Kenya, bravely rose above extremism and intolerance and stood up to defend the core values of national unity and peace. They are our heroes, and, like Mr. Bathily, they should have been celebrated.
The Kenyan media should have featured them on talk shows on national television and radio stations to spread the message of hope, unity, and optimism. Such programs would have helped dismantle the wedge the terrorists want to drive between Christians and Muslims and expose their attempts as mere propaganda intended to create unnecessary tension.
The scant coverage in the mainstream media of the bus passengers’ courageous defeat of the militants leads one to question what the media in Kenya consider newsworthy. When a terror attack takes place, they report it using sensational headlines and images that generate wide publicity, even fear. But the same interest and vigor are not shown in cases of solidarity and heroism that cross religious lines. Indeed, so far the media seem to underreport any positive efforts to bridge the divide between Christians and Muslims in Kenya. The Seventh Day Adventist church, for instance, has for years engaged in conferences, public gatherings, and other such activities aimed at bringing Christians and Muslims together, especially in the coastal region. But most of these initiatives have received only passing coverage, causing most of the public to buy into the idea that enmity between Christians and Muslims really does prevail.
The media in Kenya need to take their public interest role seriously and stop behaving as fear mongers or as cheerleaders for militants’ heinous acts. Instead, they should cheer on and celebrate the acts more worthy of attention—like those of the Muslims on that ambushed bus—to help bring the Al-Shabaab menace in Kenya to an end.
- 1Cyrus Ombati, “Interior CS Joseph Nkaissery Commends Muslims Who Shielded Christians in Bus Attack in Mandera,” Standard, Dec. 22, 2015, http://www.standardmedia.co.ke/article/2000185956, accessed February 17, 2016; Ismail Noor, “Muslims Shield Christians from Al Shabaab Terrorists in Mandera,” Star, December 21, 2015, http://www.the-star.co.ke/news/2015/12/21/muslims-shield-christians-from-al-shabaab-terrorists-in-mandera_c1264589, accessed February 17, 2016.