The hellish events in Nairobi’s Westgate Premier Shopping Mall continue to unfold under the digital gaze of the world’s media. However, some of the most poignant and gripping elements of the story are as old as the region’s battles of conquest and conversion.
Soon after the story broke, I noted the following detail in The Washington Post, part of a story that did little to explore the religious elements of the terrorist attacks. That quote:
One injured victim said the attackers had ordered Muslims to leave the premises, in an apparent attempt to target non-Muslims. The victim, an American, told this to a friend, who recounted it to a Washington Post reporter. Other witnesses gave similar accounts to other news organizations.
The al-Shabab militia gunmen ordered Muslims to leave, unharmed. But how did they know who was a Muslim and who was not?
The implication was that — in some cases — the terrorists were challenging some of the hostages and victims in person-to-person confrontations. Thus, I wrote:
It’s very early for specific details, and I get that. The most common statement in these reports is that the gunners simply shouted instructions for non-Muslims to flee and refused to shoot those who immediately responded. However, do not be surprised if, as the terrorists hunted from store to store, the story is more complex than that. In Syria, rebels have been offering Christians the choice to convert to Islam, on the spot, and avoid death.
Anyone who has followed the history of religious persecution in the Middle East, with dominant religious groups crushing religious minorities, could have seen the forced-conversion theme coming.
Surely veteran reporters — after watching recent events in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere — knew to ask those who fled the scene about this fact of death and eternal life?
Meanwhile, here is another related story: Rest assured that if members of ancient liturgical churches died in this massacre, after being urged to convert by the mujahideen, there will be people who will make the case for these victims to be hailed as martyrs. The new martyred saints if Kenya? It could happen.
So what has happened in subsequent coverage?
Obviously, the details continue to point to conflict that is political and religious, at the same time. In a new Washington Post report, readers have learned:
On Monday morning, explosions and gunshots were heard from the besieged mall and there were reports of clashes unfolding inside the building. Meanwhile, a spokesman for Al Shabab reportedly threatened to kill hostages if Kenyan security forces, who are being advised by western and Israeli experts, stormed the mall.
“Israelis and Kenyan forces have tried to enter Westgate by force but they could not,” Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage said in an audio statement posted online, according to Reuters. “The mujahideen will kill the hostages if the enemies use force.”
Sixty-three people remain missing, according to the Kenyan Red Cross, but it is unclear if they are being held hostage or if they are hiding from the attackers.
What is happening to the hostages during this extended time of captivity? The story contains this sadly predictable detail about the trials faced by some who escaped, after confrontations with gunmen:
One British man said his wife and children were hiding behind a meat counter in a store with other women and children. The gunmen sprayed bullets at them, killing a woman and a teenage girl, and wounding his wife, said the man, who asked that neither his nor his spouse’s name be used because they feared retribution. His wife lay in a hospital bed and declined to speak.
The gunmen, the man said, released the children who were still alive and informed his injured wife that she, too, could leave if she converted to Islam, making her recite the Shahada, Islam’s basic profession of belief. Then the gunmen handed chocolates to the children as they left the mall, the man said.
The Shahada is the first of the five pillar beliefs of Islam and involves this simple confession of faith: “There is no god but God and Muhammad is the prophet of God.” It is, of course, a rejection both of pagan gods and of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
Will similar details emerge from this latest dramatic episode in a brutal month for the persecuted church in the “10/40 window“? If journalists probe the details, I expect that the answer will — tragically — be “yes.”