Two atrocities: how long can a piece of thread be?

By Harry Hagopian
October 25, 2013

Towards the end of last month, on a Sunday of all days too, I woke up to be confronted with deeply distressing images of the ongoing and violent standoff at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi (Kenya) and also of the horrid attack on All Saints’ Church in Peshawar (Pakistan).

The attack and hostage-taking in Nairobi seems to have been led by the Somali-based Al-Shabab movement that is ostensibly ‘retaliating’ against the Kenyan contribution to the African Union peace-keeping force in Somalia. What is equally noticeable about the Nairobi case is that those cold-blooded killers allegedly started asking customers in the various shops of the mall for the name of the mother of the Prophet Muhammad. Those who could answer the question were deemed Muslims and seemingly spared death at times whilst those who could not do so were executed summarily.

Incidentally, the name of the Prophet’s mother is Aminah (Bint Wahb) but I don’t think that even all Muslims would know this fact today - let alone non-Muslims who hardly recognise the names of their own faith stories either.

As for the north-western city of Peshawar in Pakistan, it was simply the worst and vilest set of suicide bombings by two terrorists against hundreds of Christians who were leaving Sunday mass. As Father Hejaz, the pastor of a neighbouring church said to a journalist, they were killed simply because they were Christians.

What is the causal link between those two dastardly incidents? The Nairobi attack seems, inter alia, to segregate Muslims from non-Muslims whilst Peshawar is simply targeting Christians. These two examples of a fast-growing extremism within quite a small body of Muslims is – no, it should be – unacceptable to non-Muslims and Muslims alike. However, we are witnessing an increasing number of such attacks in many parts of the world. Yet, this same world tends to get uncomfortable and tick the boxes by uttering a few mandatory – almost statutory – words of comfort, rue, sorrow, outrage or condolences, and then moving on. They move on until the next bloody attack occurs elsewhere!

I consider myself lucky enough to have grown up in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region and I have always prided myself for the neighbourly, tolerant and (let me use the jargon here) convivial relations that used to typify relations between members and communities of different faiths. Yet, things are changing briskly and I often sense that these days belong to another reality, another history, another space and another time.

But I remain wholeheartedly convinced that those extreme aberrations – frequent as they increasingly are – do not represent the majority body of Islam. Yet from Bako Haram to Al-Shabab, and from Al-Dawla to Al-Qaeda, such irreligious attacks are becoming more frequent. The answer is not necessarily for Christian hierarchs to spread panic among their flocks or else to prophesy doom and gloom and even condone discreet emigration. What they should do is to reassure their congregations and then argue that such crimes are [still] not the rule but [still] very much the exception.

However, my own patience is also beginning to wear thin - not from those killers since they would not care about any opinion dissimilar to theirs anyway – but from the majority of Muslim leaders who shy away from speaking out against such inexcusable atrocities. I know that there will be a chorus of Muslim personalities who would now cry out that I am being frightfully unfair and that they do speak out. But it does not frankly impress me that they stand up at interreligious conferences or multi-faith fora (or even international podiums) and condemn those heinous events.

Nor does it impress me when they do so on foreign media channels or in their own tight-knit and often insular circles. Their onus is to go out into those grassroots pockets within their own societies and challenge those radical and extreme factions with the true sense of Islam – an Islam that was revealed to the Prophet himself and not the various interpretations doled out over the centuries by those who politicise their religion by spurious ideologies that they also dare define as the true faith.

The Christian Bible talks in Matthew 5:38-42, and also elsewhere in the Gospels, about Jesus admonishing his followers to ‘turn the other cheek’. What many people miss out is that this does not mean – as assumed commonly – unqualified passivism, submissiveness or meekness but rather an expectation for equality for all. In this spirit, I suggest that Muslim leaders from Jordan to Saudi Arabia, and from Lagos to Islamabad, really wake up, sit up and speak out loudly.

But what if they do not do so? Well, the groundswell of anger will alas grow bigger and bigger and there will inevitably be wakeful moments with unfortunate but scarring kickbacks. After all, sadly, how long can a piece of thread be - really?

This article is also published on Huffington Post.


© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor ( Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian

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