It was widely reported in the last couple of days that a group of Kenyan Muslims stood against Jihadi terrorists at the risk of their lives on a bus in Northern Kenya. The bus was travelling from Nairobi to Mandera with 60 passengers when militants believed to be affiliated with the Somalian group Al-Shabab stopped the bus by shoooting through the windsheild. Before the militants boarded the bus some of the Muslim passengers gave Christians riding on the bus headscarves to try and conceal their identity as non-Muslims. They may have been recalling a similiar attack last year in the same region where terrorists killed 28 non-Muslims on a bus.
One of the terrorists boarded the bus and demanded that the Muslims and non-Muslims seperate. One Christian passenger tried to run and was shot in the back, according to eyewitnesses. The Muslim passengers refused to seperate from the Christian passengers and one man reportedly declared, “Kill us all or leave them alone”. Another man deceived the militants by claiming a police escort was not far behind the bus, and the Jihadis, apparently faced with a more complex situation than they had anticipated, left.
This heroic and beautiful story is being widely shared, and rightly so. It comes as a timely reminder of the divisions within Islam and should act as a curative against generalisations rooted in fear and anger over Jihadi terrorism. There are two mistakes I think we could make in hearing this story. The first is use it as proof that Islam is entirely a “religion of peace” and the supposed widespread problems in contemporary Islamic fundamentalism are a fiction in the minds of paranoid westerners. That is not the case. There are serious problems in today’s Islamic fundamentalist world, not the least of which are widespread violence towards women and homosexuals, rampant anti-semitism, and hatred of “infidels”, all of which are well demonstrated by polls and studies. These are dangerous sicknesses and to call them by any other name or pretend they don’t exist is unjust and deceptive. It would be nice not to get involved, to say that non-Muslims should not study or speak about these things, but the Muslim community is a large and inportant part of the global village and we are all now far too interconnected to turn our eyes away. We need to get used to being in eachother’s business, because that’s the way of the future as the human family gets every closer and closer. For a good discussion of this perspective from an insider, see this video by Toronto based Sunni Muslim activist Raheel Raza.
The second mistake would be to think that these Muslims were not inspired by Islam but were acting against it, some kind of “rebels against Islam”. That is also clearly not the case. Islam also has lofty ethical teachings and traditions that respect the humanity of all beings. Islamic spiritual practices and meditation on God inspire wisdom, love and courage in untold numbers of Muslims every day. If we see the al-Shabab attackers as Muslims, we must also remember and emphasize that the bus passengers who resisted were also Muslims.
I would argue that one of the greatest mistakes we can make in our era is to paint all Muslims with the same brush. It is surely at least as great a mistake as whitewashing the problems in Islamic fundamentalist culture and politics, and probably in the end a bigger one. It is imperative that any critique we engage in of Muslim culture should be informed, empathic and loving critique. We must reach out and befriend those Muslims who live the teachings of love, peace and tolerance which are also part of Islamic tradition (see here for one example). Now more than ever we must be their friends, allies and, if needed, protectors.