The Westgate Mall Massacre: Reflections

26 Sep

The Westgate Mall Massacre: The Rage of Fanaticism


            The carefully planned attack by al-Shabaab on civilians in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall carried the pathology of rage and the logic of fanaticism to unspeakable extremes. Imagine deciding on the life or death of any person, but particularly a child, by whether or not they could name the mother of Mohammed or recite a verse from the Koran. Islamic fanaticism should be condemned with the moral fervor appropriate to such a violation of the most fundamental norms of respect for innocence and human dignity. To gun down at random whoever happened to be shopping at Westgate Mall on the fateful day of September 21st is to carry political violence beyond a point of no return.


            Of course, even fanatics have a certain logic of justification that makes their acts congruent with a warped morality. In this instance, the al-Shabab case rests on a vengeful response to the participation of the Kenyan army units in a multinational military operation of the African Union in neighboring Somalia. This AU operation, reinforced by U.S. drone attacks and special forces, has led to the severe weakening of al-Shabab’s political influence in Somalia, provoking an evident sense of desperation and acute resentment, as well as a tactic of making those that interfere in Somalia’s internal politics bear some adverse spillover effects. But if such an explanation is expected to excuse the demonic actions at Westgate, in any but equally depraved pockets of alienated consciousness, it is deeply mistaken. What may be most frightening, perhaps, in this whole set of circumstances is the degree to which Western counter-insurgency specialists have stepped forward to pronounce the Westgate Mall massacre a ‘success’ from terrorist or extremist perspectives, and likely to generate al-Shabab recruits among the large  Somalia minorities living in Nairobi and in some parts of the United States.  


            As is common with such anguishing events, there are some ironies present. The catastrophe occurred on the day set aside in Kenya as The International Day of Peace. Even stranger, Osama Bin Laden has been openly critical of the excessive harshness toward Muslims of the current al-Shabab emir, Ahmed Abdi Godane. Some commentators have speculated that this explains why there was such an effort to spare Muslims who were in the Westgate Mall at the time of the attack. In other earlier al-Shabab vicious attacks in Somalia and Uganda (2010), such distinctions were not made, with Muslims and non-Muslims alike being victims of attacks. 


            It was a disturbing synchronicity that on the following day outside an Anglican Church in Peshawar, Pakistan, two suicide bombers detonated explosives that killed more than 80 persons as they were leaving the church after religious services. An extremist organization in Pakistan, TTP Jundullah, shamelessly claimed responsibility, offering an unabashedly fanatic jusitification: “They are enemies of Islam. Therefore we target them. We will continue the attacks on non-Muslims in Pakistan.” Contained in such a statement is the absolutism of a jihadist mandate to eliminate infidels combined with an ultra nationalist insistence that non-Muslims and foreigners in Pakistan are sentenced to death, and should leave the country if they wish to survive. There is in the background a furious response of outsiders, whether from Kenya, Ethipia, and Uganda, or further afield, from the United States, as seeking to deny to Somalia the outcome of an internal struggle, and thus in effect encroaching upon the inalienable right of self-determination inhering in the people of Somalia. Even so, there in no way excuses such crimes against humanity, but given the kind of belief systems that occupy the minds of fanatics, we can expect more such appalling incidents.


            Fanaticism carried to these extremes poisons human relations, whether it rests its belief structure on secular foundations as was the case with the Nazis or rests its claims on a religious creed. It is no more helpful to blame religion, as such, for the Westgate Massacre than it would be to insist that godless secularism was responsible for the rise of Hitler or depredations of Stalinism. What we can say with confidence is that there is a genocidal danger associated with any belief system that claims truth solely for itself and treats those who do not accept the claim as utterly unworthy, if not outright evil. What happens when such a pattern is situated at the extremes of political consciousness is a disposition toward massacre and genocide, with terrorism being the fanatic’s form of ‘just war.’


            We live at a time when such patterns of horrifying behavior seem mainly, although by no means exclusively, associated with Islamic extremism. Such pathologic behavior must be resisted and repudiated in every way possible, but without worsening the situation by blaming a specific religion or religion in general as responsible for recourse to fanaticism. The West needs only to recall the Inquisition, the Crusades, and many decades of barbaric religious wars to realize its own susceptibility to the siren calls of the fanatics, which seem almost irresistible in periods of societal crisis. The virus of fanaticism lies dormant in the body politic of every society and can find consoling support by twisting the meaning and practical relevance of religious scripture. Explaining the fanatic by deploring Islam and its adherents multiplies the challenges facing society rather than mitigates them by situating the source of the problem. Islamophobia as a response to 9/11 or to these awful incidents in Kenya and Pakistan pours vinegar on wounds experienced by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and yet it seems an inevitable reflex, which if carried to its own limit by opportunists leads to a mimicry of the originating fanaticism. In its moralizing rationalizations for violence against the innocent, the purported anti-fanatic operates in the same milieu of alienated consciousness as the fanatic. The one resembles the other in mentality and deed, although the fanatic is more likely to be sincere than the anti-fanatic who often acts out of ambition rather than belief.


            There is some reason to feel that fanaticism of this kind is largely a product of monotheistic religion and thought, specifically ideas of dualism separating good and evil, and the insistence that the human mind has access to ‘the truth’ that is applicable to social and political relations. In this regard, the philosophic and religious traditions of the East do not seem, at first glance, to nurture such fanatical mentalities as emerge in the West: there is a rejection of dualism and a general acceptance of the view that there are a variety of ways to find fulfillment and salvation, and no single truth that is universally applicable. Nevertheless, communal, religious, ethnic, class, and political tensions can and do generate habitual genocidal behavior. Tragically, the land of Gandhi is also the land of Gujurat, where genocidal surges of violence against Muslims have occurred repeatedly, with a major outbreak in 2002. Hindu nationalism in its extreme enactments is as capable of fanatic politics as are extremist exponents of political Islam. There are also distinctions to be drawn within the Hindu tradition between those who support and those who repudiate the Indian caste distinctions carried to their own inborn extremes in ideas and practices associated with ‘untouchability’ and ‘bride burning.’ Even Buddhism, the religion that is most admired for its valuing of compassion, can be lured into the situational camps of fanaticism as was clearly evident in the final stages of the holy war carried to genocidal extremes in Sri Lanka or in the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minorities in Myanmar, especially in Rakhine state.


            In other words, culture and political tensions can give rise to radical forms of denial of species identity as the essential imperative of people living together in peace and equity. There are three dimensions of these perfect moral storms that manifest themselves in various forms of fanaticism: (1) the fragmentations of identity so as to elevate the status of the fragment in such a way as to denigrate the whole, that is, the shared human identity is overridden by the alleged superiority of the fragmentary identity as Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Nazi, Communist, and so on; (2) the truth claims made on behalf of a particular belief system, whether religious or secular, which is posited in absolutist terms that leaves no political space for any celebration of diversity or even tolerance of the other; it is bio-politically acceptable to have faith in the ‘truth’ and correctness of a given path as a matter of personal choice so long as the same opportunities for faith are accorded to others; (3) the failure to be sensitive to the commonalities associated with the bio-political primacy of humanness; it is only a sense of shared humanity that can endow the people of the planet with the political will to respond effectively to such global challenges as climate change and weaponry of mass destruction upon which depends the collective survival and wellbeing of the species.





15 Responses to “The Westgate Mall Massacre: Reflections”

  1. monalisa September 26, 2013 at 10:24 pm #

    Dear Richard,

    while you outline some political facts you are still “swimming” within the Western mainstream media labels taken to mask real problems and so practical to feed religious Western feelings of its populations, as they have been used to it for a long time.

    For more than thousand years the Roman Catholic Church was political motivated. No doubt about that. Power, greed and predominance in order to secure its own priviledged status. In far too many states up to a certain point still today.
    Concerning a “priviledged status” nowadays and after the WWII some country/ies take/s the liberty to declare itself as above the international law and order and to dismiss the sovereignity of independent states especially when those states are poor and practically defenseless in comparison.

    Somalia has been a “playground for political games” for a longer time.
    Bribe was used and lead to parts of its sea waters dangerously poisoned as well as almost dead for fisheries and big foreign fisheries outside Somalias waterborder added too to this devasting process. Parts of their seashores are still poisoned and this will not go away within the next times.

    How do you think small, poor countries can defend themsevles against almighty state/s ?
    Which possibilities do they have ?
    The “religious label” easily given by Western political propaganda misses really the point.
    Yet it has been somehow “adopted” by almost defenceless states (in comparison).

    To me these actions are a late outcry to our global community for help.

    How can International law and order again be installed ?
    How can our global community have an UNO really working for all states – rich or poor, with defence military and without such a body – on our globe ?
    The UNO was founded (despite some noble idea) by winning powers after WWII and served mostly their political agenda up til today.

    And concerning Hitler and Stalin: please take the political history into account.
    Without the WWI economic desasters and instability neither Hitler nor Stalin (Russia fell extremely short at this time and the gap of inequality within its society was far to great before WWI) would have succeeded.

    Look at the outcry of poor countries – which possibilities do they have to do some defence and how can they defend themselves ?

    Most of the times “masked religious issue” is based on political agendas.

    Who will put on trial those criminals who are acting above Internation Law, who give the orders for some “chess games on foreign soils” dismissing Kant’s “Golden Rule” (as already been written in a post concerning your last essay) ?

    As you already pointed out, despite extremely grave global problems

    – climate change as well as the more and more known Fukushima nuclear release which should be tackled and taken much more seriously as this concerns our globe and us all –

    some Western state/s together with some Arabic states’ political aspiration don’t fulfill their responsibilities towards their citizen.
    Their political agendas have war based on greed, power and even monetary purpose in the forefront.
    And being strict: those political “actions” carried out nowadays are another sort of “extremism” – no doubt about that.
    And this concerns foremost /as it is too pure murder/ the actions of the global-player states and not only the poor, defenseless ones.

    I personally hate extremism of any sort whether it political or religious, any crime against humanity should be punished as it is: pure murder is pure murder, pure torture is pure tortue – no excuse.

    Dear Richard, in my opinion you put too much attention to religion and too less on political motivations in this essay.
    Sorry – that’s what I see, however, maybe it’s just me to see it in your essay.

    Take care of yourself,


    • Kata Fisher September 27, 2013 at 9:50 am #


      I believe that religious issues are the cause of conflicts that politics are at dead-end with.

      Religious leaders have responsibility and accountability to step up to their responsibility and assist the governments with these terrible and unsolvable conflicts.

      Religious fanaticism is unbearable for humanity.

      This is what I perceive.

  2. walker b percy September 27, 2013 at 7:59 pm #

    Thanks for your attempt to find a kernel of meaning in this latest nightmare. I have also been thinking about dualism. I wonder whether human society has always spontaneously self-organized in oppositional frameworks that eventually lead to explosive conflict. One example of this may be the current polarization in American politics, where Republican and Democratic position have coalesced in response to one another in an exquisitely balanced feedback spiral. Civilization always builds toward great conflicts; perhaps the same tension between competing views that supports progress and growth also leads inevitably to conflict and destruction, causing periodic “resets”. Perhaps we must need to become more sanguine about the inevitability of war so we can get it over with and move on to the next cycle. The daily escalation of horror we are now witnessing is excruciating. Maybe we should anticipate and embrace what is next, so that we can finally get past it.

    • Richard Falk September 27, 2013 at 9:36 pm #

      Walker: These deeper rhythms of history, what the French historian Braudel, referred to
      as the longe duree, are relevant to understanding this period of intensified violence; there are some contradictory trends such as the apparent decline in large-scale inter-governmental war. Gramsci’s often quoted remark about morbid events taking place in historical transitions from one period to another also seems to cast some light on
      dark events such as the Westgate massacre. Greetings. Richard

  3. September 27, 2013 at 8:07 pm #

    Thanks for the sharing these wise thoughts about the tragedy.

    • Richard Falk September 28, 2013 at 12:20 am #

      Thanks, Heidi. Hope you are fine. I know you must be aggrieved
      by the developments in Egypt. Richard

  4. jg September 28, 2013 at 12:46 am #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    I just noted your article. Fanaticism, yes, terrifying and cruel.
    I saw something, earlier, but do not have the link right now. It’s hard to imagine this tragedy could be worse. The article stated that there has been horrendous mutilations.
    I can say no more.
    I was sickened. As I write this, I think of your last post. It is abhorrent what is done by fanatics, extremists and others, to destroy, retaliate or conquer.

    I wrote a post after your last essay on Psalm 21 and the Book of Esther. It was very late and I only one reply at the time.

    I erased everything, because I was up tool long, and couldn’t save my comment to read in the morning. I thought it might be too long or, unclear. Some days later, I saw many replies I wanted to read.

    I wanted to send my comment, but felt it was too personal and was not clear on how to say things best for the situation.

    I had recounted the Book of Esther, and it took me a long time, as I kept trying to be brief. I reached a point, realizing that the more important aspect of the story was all the innocent people, who were massacred in retaliation and fear, after Hamon was hanged, instead of Mordecai, and I was at it so long, I couldn’t continue.

    The Esther (Hadassah) story, must have left a lot out; at least, we cannot know, there is room for much speculation, reading between the lines. I do not take it just as it is given in the Bible. I read it several times several years ago. It made a strong impression on me, for very personal reasons. Each time I looked at it, several “new” revelations appeared to me like, when I read “The Little Prince”, or “Alice In Wonderland.”

    As I erased, in my loopy mind, I had a strange, vague flash of awareness.

    In a different time and place, something of the nature of this story seemed to bear on a life “event” of mine. It passed quickly. I went to sleep.

    It is the reversal of circumstances, how this can happen and consequences that passed through my mind.

    The tragedy in Nairobi is utterly miserable, all the shootings and massacres of war and fanaticism.

    Thank you for kindly sharing with us. Peace be with you.

    • Richard Falk September 28, 2013 at 1:48 am #

      Thanks, jg, for this very suggestive and helpful set of responses. I particularly appreciated what you wrote about the Book of Esther, how to read and understand it in a
      more illuminated and textured way than my treatment that admittedly did not go beneath the surface of the text. Best wishes, Richard Falk

      • Fred Skolnik September 30, 2013 at 7:52 am #

        Not clear why you deleted my comment. I repeat it for your enlightenment: The word God is not mentioned a single time in the Book of Ruth, let alone his wrath. The Book of Ruth is an entirely secular document whose historicity and provenance are still being debated by scholars. You are clutching at straws in your eagerness to denigrate the Jews. When your entire premise is false, you might try apologizing.

      • Richard Falk September 30, 2013 at 8:02 am #

        I delete comments with insulting and demeaning language. You have no respect for those
        who view the realities of the Israel/Palestine conflict from a radically different perspective than yours, and to denigrate me as hostile to Jews and Israel is an insult
        that I will not tolerate on this blog.

        I delete comments with insulting language that demeans me or others. You have no respect
        for those who look at the same realities as you do with a very different understanding. You denigrate me and others by claiming that we are somehow anti-Jewish or hateful toward Israel. I resent such allegations, and will not tolerate them on this blog.

      • Richard Falk September 30, 2013 at 8:08 am #

        That the Book of Esther in the Bible is ‘an entirely secular document’ I find an incredible statement and (mis)understanding. I read this text not as a scholar, but as someone interested in the vision projected by the Bible to current readers. There is no
        need to have recourse to a historicist assessment of context, although I do not doubt that
        it may throw light on how the text was written and what it was intended to convey at the time. If you would show more respect for others, especially those with whom you disagree, perhaps a useful dialogue could ensue, but only then.

      • Fred Skolnik September 30, 2013 at 7:53 am #

        I mean Esther.

      • Fred Skolnik September 30, 2013 at 8:45 am #

        Why incredible? The book contains none of the elements of a Jewish religious text: no God, no prayer or thanksgiving, no mention of dietary and marital restrictions. It is clearly a text produced in nonreligious circles and that is how it has always been viewed by scholars.


  1. Richard Falk: The Westgate Mall Massacre & the Rage of Fanaticism - Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics - September 27, 2013

    […] By Richard Falk By arrangement with Richard Falk […]

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