- Faculty & Staff
The Religious Origins of the Nairobi Violence
I have been to Westgate Mall in Nairobi, the scene of the horrific hostage scenario perpetrated last week by the Somali Islamist organization al-Shabab that killed up to 150. In fact, I ran afoul of the security guards at the mall. I was simply trying to take pictures; something I’ve done in malls all over the world, as profiled in Helene Klodawsky’s documentary film Malls R Us, and in my book Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces.
So while we can hope that the security breach that let this tragic incident occur will be solved, in the long term the solution to terrorist acts like the Westgate slaughter cannot rest in cameras, police, metal detectors, or a security state. The long-term solution has to wrestle with the religious origins of the Nairobi violence.
Malls are not only soft-targets for terrorists. They are competing sacred places: cathedrals of commerce, temples of trade, labyrinths of consumer desire. Until we understand this competition—and find ways to turn it into cooperation, we will not be able to address it.
Around the globe, malls are perceived as outposts of Western, and especially American, empire (churches used to serve this function, and in some places still do—the nearly simultaneous terrorist attack on a church in Peshawar, Pakistan that killed 85 illumines the point). “Westgate” is metaphor as well as location; malls are gates to the West. Like military targets, they trigger resentment. As University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape has demonstrated, terrorism is almost always “about the occupation, stupid.”
Now, ending the global spread of shopping malls is not likely to happen—although protestors in Istanbul’s Gezi Park do seem to have won at least a small victory in that regard. But the spread of social enterprises along with the glitz and glamour and greed of mall developers would go far to defuse the temptation for locals to see malls only as targets for terror.
As is well known, spiritually-grounded social enterprises mobilize the social capital of religious agents to solve social problems in sustainable ways. There’s no reason a place like Westgate mall couldn’t sponsor dozens, if not hundreds, of spiritually-engaged micro-enterprises that might do a great deal of good for Kenya, and in many places. Corporations are beginning to recognize this possibility. Even a global giant like Coca-Cola has recently, to its credit, embraced social enterprise as a way to alleviate water shortages and to employ the world’s poor.
Al-Shabab in Arabic means “youth.” Young people have an acute sense of power flows. They see where capital of all kinds concentrates, and they hitch their fragile hopes to some power flow that promises them a better future—even if that future involves, in the short-term, the sacrifice of their body. Terrorists mimic what militaries teach youth: to kill and die for a cause.
The difference, of course, is that militaries are to operate under internationally-agreed upon conventions, legitimated through sovereign nations and the rule of law, while terrorists target the innocent. But no amount of security will prevent demagogues from mobilizing elements of religious traditions on behalf of violence. That can only come from within the traditions themselves.
And that means religious education is the surest cure for terrorism like the Nairobi and Peshawar killings. There need be no competition between malls and Mecca, or between Muslims and Christians; they can coexist, and even cooperate.
Education with roots in interreligious dialogue and understanding is still in its infancy around the globe—having existed in disciplined and organized form for barely a century (compared to the millennia-long histories of religions).
But when scientific education into religions advances—like that promoted by scholars in religious studies programs around the globe, organized in NGOs like the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Religions for Peace, and in discrete movements such Christian Peace Churches and the global Hizmet (service) movement associated with M. Fethullah Gulen, we can expect the violent consequences of religious ignorance to end.
The events that scarred Nairobi's lush Westgate mall had religious causes. The solutions that will bring to Nairobi, and the rest of the world, to enduring peace and greater justice must also have religious rationales. Turning Westgate mall--when it reopens, into a center for spiritually-engaged social enterprise, along with its role in sating high-end consumer desires, would be a step in that direction.