Mental illness, Islam or revenge?: Understanding terrorism from the Navy Yard to Pakistan to Kenya

Mental illness, Islam or revenge?: Understanding terrorism from the Navy Yard to Pakistan to Kenya

by Akbar Ahmed & Harrison Akins


September 2013 has been a cruel month. Three terrible acts of mass violence that have randomly taken innocent lives on three continents: 12 people shot at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., over 75 killed and a further 120 injured by two suicide bombers at a church in Peshawar, Pakistan, and more than 60 killed thus far at a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya.

There must be nothing but utter condemnation for these and other similar acts across the world. There is no justification for such wanton bloodshed.

Because of such endemic violence, there is a necessity, however, to analyze the situations in order to understand them and hopefully find solutions. The violence must be stopped.

While all three are shocking acts of murder, they nonetheless can be put in different categories. Aaron Alexis who perpetrated the mass killing at Washington’s Navy Yard is part of the now familiar pattern of lone gunmen striking at American society with sickening frequency. There was no rational, political, social, or religious arguments behind what Alexis did.  His actions, though thoroughly condemned, were explained away as the wayward and solitary acts of a mentally disturbed individual. America made the right noises–the president said the right words–and then went about its business.

The American media, after sniffing about for any Muslim connection and discovering none, did not use the word “terror” to describe the incident at the Navy Yard. Terrorism has unfortunately become a shorthand for “a violent act committed by a Muslim.” We see no “terror experts” pouring through the verses and holy books of Alexis’s former religion, Christianity, or his new religion, Buddhism, to find any reasons for his murderous act, as is the case whenever a Muslim commits any such violent crime. They rather pointed to his history of mental illness and paranoia, such as reports of hearing voices and claiming people followed him with a microwave machine.

What happened in Nairobi and Peshawar was quite different. In Peshawar, the Taliban group responsible for the attack declared that they had committed the suicide bombing of All Saints Church in revenge for American drone strikes in the Tribal Areas. A Taliban statement read, “Until and unless drone strikes are stopped, we will continue to strike wherever we will find an opportunity against non-Muslims.”  In Kenya, al Shabab announced its assault on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi as revenge for the 2011 Kenyan military invasion to oust al Shabab from control of southern Somalia, where Kenyan troops are still stationed. An al Shabab spokesman stated, “Either leave our country or live with constant attacks.”

It is clear that the actions of the Taliban and al Shabab, both emerging from tribal societies (the Pashtun and Somali, respectively) with defined codes of honor, is not motivated by religion but a mutation of tribal behavior which emphasizes revenge. All their violent actions, despite the ominous warnings of the “terror experts” who point to verses of the Quran, are in fact antithetical to both their tribal and Islamic traditions.

Islam categorically rejects this kind of violence, calling upon Muslims to practice compassion above all. Abu Bakr, the first caliph after the prophet, laid down the rules of war which were to be practiced by all Muslims, among them the forbidding of killing innocent people. The prophet was, likewise, explicit about the prohibition of violence against Christians. In a letter to St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, he wrote, “No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses…The Muslims are to fight for them…Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants.” The violence in places like Peshawar and Nairobi has nothing to do with religion, but rather the broken relationship between central governments and tribal peripheries.

Since the dismantling of the administrative structure in the tribal areas and the invasions of the Pakistani military beginning in 2004 to catch militants fleeing across the border from the American invasion of Afghanistan, the relationship between the center and periphery has been marked by increasingly horrific and frequent acts of violence. The introduction of American drones in the region the same year only served to exacerbate the pace of the conflict. The Taliban groups which have emerged from the tribal areas, deadliest among them the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, have resorted to use of the deadly suicide bombers in revenge attacks for the purpose of causing pain to the soft underbelly of the nation at large—targeting innocent people, minority groups, and others such as the Shia and Ahmadis. Likewise, al Shabab which emerged from the chaos of the devastating Somali Civil War in the 1990s following the fall of Siad Barre’s government increasingly targeted innocent people through the use of suicide bombing for the purposes of revenge, including a 2010 bombing which killed 74 people in Kampala, Uganda in revenge for the Ugandan military invasion of Somalia.

The traditional use of revenge in tribal societies, largely existing outside the structures of the state, is a measured response meant to correct a perceived injustice. It is, as the Bible states, “an eye for an eye” with strict rules for what is and is not permissible. Often times, tribal elders and religious leaders are able to mediate conflict without resorting to the use of violence.  After being battered by military invasions, drone strikes, and suicide bombers for almost a decade, these traditional avenues of justice are gone. We see the men of violence lashing out in unchecked revenge and central governments responding with brutality in kind. It is this quickening cycle of violence between center and periphery which must be halted before peace can be found.

Until those in charge of law and order understand what is going on, we will unfortunately see similar acts in the future. The current strategy to contain the violence isn’t working. There are ways to deal with men of violence and they have to be located urgently.  It is no longer a matter of salvaging our generation; the very future of our children and grandchildren and how they live their lives is at stake.

Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC and the former Pakistani Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Harrison Akins is the Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University’s School of International Service and served as the senior researcher for Ambassador Ahmed’s latest book The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (Brookings 2013).

Originally published on The Washington Post On Faith Blog and reprinted in TAM with permission of authors.


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