This past summer I was in Kenya, partially for pleasure and partially for research. I stayed close to the Westgate Mall, site of the horrific terrorist attack in September, and visited it several times during my stay in Nairobi. As part of my trying to meet with Muslim communities, I also went to the Eastleigh area of Nairobi, known for its large Somali population. it is also known as “Little Mogadishu.” It is from this community of Kenya, if not this neighborhood, from which the Westgate attackers hailed.
In this simple description, comes an error of category. The attackers were of the Somali community. While factually true, the descriptor tells nothing about the attackers. There is nothing in their Somaliness that makes them inherently attackers. By the same token, their is nothing in their Muslimness that makes them especially violent. One of the many heroes of that day was a Muslim man, and his heroism is not projected onto a group of people. To do so would render the word “hero” meaningless, just as projecting the word “terrorist” onto a group of people makes the word meaningless as a category.
Yet, the securitzation of Muslims globally has a deeply unsettling aspect to it that actually serves to create a narrative of the world against Muslims. In many instances, the Global War on Terror (GWOT, which is not longer the current name, but the name that still has the most resonance), is used as an excuse to target minorities, often Muslims, as a threat to the state. In Nairobi, the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM) brought together young Muslim men, from various walks of life, regions, and tribes to meet with me. The sense of dispossession was palpable, and was not tied to economic status. More so than tribal marginalization, the men felt their Muslim identity singled them out, and that their other minority identifications, such as tribe, further marginalized them.
At the same time, I met a group called Nabad-Doon Youth in the Eastleigh neighborhood, who realize that despite the area being an economic hub, there are real social issue affecting youth. They introduced me to the music of Waayaha Cusub, a group that speaks out against the violence and recruitment of Al-Shabaab. While talking to the folks to Nabad-Doon, they shared that Somali-American youth, who were being sent back “home,” and then on to Eastleigh in Nairobi for security reasons, were getting involved in “gangs.”
I believe, as do others, that terrorist recruitment and gang recruitment operate on similar principles, often based on a sense of belonging, proxy family, and expressions of masculinity. And so, to see something as inherently Somali or inherently Muslim, because the perpetrators are Somali and Muslim, results in bad policy decisions that alienates groups of people. In addition, our foreign policy is often transformed by local interests to serve their local concerns, and those local politics can reflect badly on American interests. Finally, we ignore transnational flows, and weak domestic programs for marginalized communities and how that affects foreign policy.
Counter-recruitment strategies are an important part of our policy decisions, they cannot be done in an abstract way, as though only a religious argument, and a correct religious argument, will solve everything. While groups like al-Shabaab are using religious language, they are not coming from within the tradition, but are simply using traditional sources. They are embedded in local grievances, that are rightly or wrongly being attributed to the US. The way to target those grievances is by working with local partners, who understand what is actually at stake for the community, and creating achievable development goals that remove some of these grievances. To argue for the importance of human life becomes easier when people can see human life is being cared for. Local partners, while embroiled in local politics, are also good guides for understanding potential pitfalls and how our aims are being misconstrued on the ground. Our overseas agencies do a good job, but cannot always be consistent in their approaches, often because of our domestic politics.
We also need to understand why youth from the Somali communities in Minnesota and Maine each react differently to the American experience. Having met with the imam of one of the largest masjids in Minneapolis, it is not from lack of trying on the part of the community to create innovative programs. Our domestic policies with respect to minority communities, which are often writ large in our foreign policy, also need to be addressed. Our self-conception as a nation has real impact on foreign policy. If we can seriously address domestic policy around helping all Americans, we create less hypocritical and more intelligent foreign policy regarding minorities in other countries.
As long as we make category errors around questions of religion and ethnicity, we cannot actually make intelligent policy.