On Tuesday, Kenya ended three days of official mourning for the 148 people, mainly Christian students, killed last week at a university by the militant Islamist group Al Shabab. This nation of 45 million, like others that have experienced large terrorist attacks, is quickly beefing up security and taking other steps.
But in one particular response, Kenyans offered a lesson in how not to play into a common terrorist tactic.
In targeting Christians at Garissa University College – while leaving Muslim students alone – the militants may have hoped to incite Kenya’s majority Christians to rise up against the Muslim minority. Yet from the start of the attack, the opposite happened.
As Al Shabab gunmen roamed the university campus in the early morning of April 2 – just before Good Friday – many Muslim students hid Christians in a mosque or helped them escape. By Friday morning, Islamic and Christian leaders gathered together and spoke out.
“Killing innocent people for no apparent reason is the biggest mischief on any human being, regardless of ethnic and religious background,” said Abdullahi Salat, head of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims.
In Nairobi, Cardinal John Njue of the Roman Catholic Church asked all Kenyans “to bear with one another, irrespective of our religion and positions in the society.” An Anglican leader, Bishop Julius Kalu, asked the country to resist the attempt to divide the country into religious factions. Many churches used Easter Sunday to take a stand for peace.
In an editorial, the Daily Nation newspaper called for unity of all faiths to “work together to eradicate the evil” and to remain united in prayer for the victims. President Uhuru Kenyatta asked that public anger not lead to “the victimization of anyone,” an indirect reference to minority Muslims and ethnic Somalis. A Twitter campaign helped to identify the victims and remember each one as an individual, not as a statistic or member of a group.
The reaction in Kenya was echoed in other countries. In response to recent attacks on Christians by terrorists, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, called on Christians to use nonviolent means of resistance, such as “love and goodness and generosity.” Pope Francis said Christians “do not need to employ violence; they speak and act with the power of truth, beauty, and love.”
Along with street marches by Muslims and Christians in recent days, Kenya may be a model, not only in its ecumenical spirit but in perceiving the false message of groups like Al Shabab.
Kenya is in need of many reforms to counter terrorism – such as improving its military and curbing corruption. But in resisting the tactics of religious division, it shows exemplary success.