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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Terrorism might just be the next best thing for Africa

Kenya has got itself into an impossible position with Sheikh Abdullah al-Faisal, the Jamaican Islamic preacher it deported last week, but is now back in the country — because no country (including Tanzania, from whence he came) will take him.

Short of putting him on a charter flight to Jamaica, Faisal looks doomed to live many weeks at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. His problems (he actually looks like a reggae musician), seem to stem from the suspicion that he might be a religious extremist.

That, in turn, seemed to have been fuelled by the Christmas incident in which the young Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, an alleged Al Qaeda operative, botched an attempt to destroy a plane carrying 290 people flying from Amsterdam to Detroit.

Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate explosives sewn into his underpants, probably due to lack of oxygen for combustion, as the plane approached the airport in Detroit. This episode has earned him the epithet the "underwear bomber". It would seem, after that, suspicion heightened over every radical Islamic preacher.

The acts of people like Abdulmutallab often tar many innocent Muslims, and in some parts of the world, especially the West, "Muslim" has become synonymous with "terrorist." Every other day, you read of stories of areas where Christians are protesting because a Muslim has moved into the neighbourhood.

But looking at suicide bombers acting in the name of radical religion from Africa, one sees more interesting things. It is heartening, in a strange way, to see an African willing to kill others for something other than his tribe, political affiliation, or personal profit.

Abdulmutallab’s action should resonate in Kenya, where following the disputed December 2007 elections, thousands of people were slaughtered and displaced because of their ethnic origin or the political party they supported. Or, better still, Rwanda where in 1994, nearly one million were killed mostly because they were Tutsi, or were Hutu who had become "traitors" against their kind by refusing to support the extremists. In addition, beyond killing for religion, Abdulmutallab was also willing to die for it by being a suicide bomber. This idea of a most extreme personal sacrifice is not new in Africa, but it is not common either. However, again, it is rare to see people in most African countries going to this extent. Apart from soldiers, who earn a salary for it, we don’t usually put our necks on the line for our countries.

All this is good, for several reasons. First, religion is actually a big idea. If more of us begin to kill only for big ideas, and not small ones like tribe and who you voted for at elections, we shall see a sharp decline in violence in Africa.

This is because not many new big ideas come along every day. It is possible to go for 10 years without an idea worth killing for coming along. Secondly, it is actually possible for a movement of people willing to die for the wider interests of their country to emerge from that of those willing to die for their religion. From Abdulmutallab’s act of terrorism might grow the first true seeds of modern patriotism in Africa.

Finally, before the Jihadists came along, there wasn’t much of a dialogue between Christians and Muslims in Africa, in part because in the countries where Muslims are a minority, they had endured a history of discrimination during European colonialism. This oppression was continued by independence governments. This left some bitterness.

Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York in which the world was swept by near-hysteria, Islam made its biggest effort to explain that terrorism was not in the Qur’an. Fearful Christians, eager for reassurance, were much more willing to listen than they had been in the past.

While the Muslims were energised to defend the honour of their religion against attempts to besmirch all of them, they found they needed to do something with their new energies and organisation. One result in countries like Uganda and Kenya is that they used it to elect more Muslims to Parliament.

Many governments in Christian-dominated countries also sought to do something they had not been serious about — Muslim representation in public life. Muslim moderates, particularly, have flourished. And so you have your ultimate irony.

Entirely by accident, radical Islam-inspired terrorism might turn out to be the best thing to happen to both Islam and the politics of many countries in Africa: It has improved inter-faith dialogue, reduced marginalisation of Muslims, given them a little more voice, and, by forcing countries to rally around something other than their tribes, could do African nationalism endless good.

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