Between Cross and Crescent: Black Star Fades to Night

An Italian police officer shows the photo Hussain Osman

An Italian police officer shows the photo of Hussain Osman, a 27-year-old Briton of Ethiopian descent who is also known as Hamdi Issac. Osman, who is a suspect in the failed July 21 London bombings, was extradited from Italy last month. (Photo: Andreas Solaro / AFP-Getty Images)

It is perhaps an interesting coincidence that the London bombings last July occurred at a time of unprecedented global attention on Africa’s “plight,” in particular its chronic socioeconomic plight. That is because it happened barely a few months after Jonathan Dimbleby’s hard-hitting documentary linking terrorism to poverty and social justice and, from that premise, concluding that Africa might well become the next major recruiting ground for international terrorists and a central battlefield in the so-called war on terror.

Indeed the Group of 8 Summit, the central theme of which had been wide-ranging debt reduction for underdeveloped countries, mainly those in Sub-Saharan Africa, had to end on a somewhat anticlimactic note in the wake of the bombings, leading inevitably to the inextricable linking of poverty/social justice to terrorism, even if from a reverse perspective in the plane. What is more, a few weeks later it came to light that the perpetrators of the second set of bombings were all young men of African descent with significant ongoing ties to the continent, thus retrieving the debate from the metaphorical and plunging it right into a literal-minded frame of reference.

It will appear, then, that the thee East Africans and, somewhat more unexpectedly, the Ghanaian currently in the custody of the antiterrorism branch of Scotland Yard assisting the latter with its investigations are early symptoms of the syndrome postulated by Dimbleby’s diagnostic hypothesis. One, they are from Africa; and two, by their own account, they were motivated by the West’s, particularly America’s, reprehensible foreign policy stances on a wide range of issues in the Middle East, and elsewhere in the Islamic world. The conventional wisdom is in agreement. Poverty serves as a breeding influence on prospective terror, and American “foreign policy” in the Middle East causes “consternation and outrage” among Muslims everywhere and, indeed, among oppressed masses of all faiths and races in every corner of the globe, who then are compelled to act. Given, consequently, that Africa perceives itself as epitomizing the worst aspects of the unjust world order, given the level of “desperation” caused by material deprivation on the continent, given that significant sections of Africa’s population profess the Islamic faith, and given also that its progressive elites are wont to view Arab-African engagement as a common and unexceptional front in a universal struggle against Western, especially American, hegemony, it must follow manifestly that the missionaries of terror will find in broad swathes of the continent’s social geography massive convert pools extremely receptive to their gospel, depending on where you stand in the war on terror divide, of hate or resistance.

Two issues arise. Firstly, it must be examined whether the two concepts advanced to explain the causes of terrorism are logical. Because if they are, then, the further step towards justification is but a minor one; and justification is the threshold necessary to trigger the next issue of whether Africa must inevitably go the path of the Muslim Middle East in supplying both grievances to assist with mobilization, and the manpower and materiel to actuate terror. In looking for a parallel to illuminate the thesis whether Islamic terror is explainable by a simple recourse to objective facts of international social justice issues, we need look no further than Africa itself.

Consider Emeka; he is nominally of the Christian faith, as are hundreds of millions of Black Africans throughout the Continent. He has been consistently outraged by the persistent massacre of millions of Christian Southern Sudanese Africans at the hands of Arab “colonialists.” He has reason to be suspicious of Arab motives in Africa because of the Trans-Saharan slave trade. He watches horrid images of the situation in Darfur on television. He has heard firsthand accounts of the brutalities meted out to Ghanaian and Nigerian migrants in Arab jails and deportation centers, in Libya, Morocco and, to a lesser extent, Tunisia. One may even go a step further and say that he suspects there is a concerted Arabist policy to denigrate “blackness” wherever and whenever the two races come into contact. He remembers Col. Muammar al-Gaddafi, who today preaches Arab-African unity, as the same gentleman financially responsible for “Field Marshall” Idi Amin’s catastrophic invasion of Tanzania. And when the latter was defeated at the hands of Julius Nyerere’s crack troops, it was al-Gaddafi, he remembers, who offered Amin sanctuary until it could be arranged for Saudi Arabia to take ultimate responsibility for the tyrant’s safety and prevent his repatriation back to Uganda to stand trial for the murder of hundreds of thousands of Ugandan Christians (indeed, a stipend of over three thousand dollars a month in today’s money was part of the former despot’s “retirement package”). He is concerned that, as was the case with Darfur, the Arab League will not even countenance censoring Mauritania for its disgraceful policy of open discrimination against its Black citizenry to favor the Arab population. Do you think if Emeka were to strap explosives on his body, impelled by these distorted and self-inspired universal anti-Arab themes, and march to the Saudi Arabian embassy in say South Korea for the sole purpose of committing mass murder, an appeal to international social justice rationales will suffice to explain his action? Or will you agree with me that only two explanations will be offered for his actions in Seoul by Africans both at home and in the Diaspora: temporary psychosis or extreme ideological neurosis?

Will the above narrative alter irretrievably, even so slightly, if I were to tell you the story of Aku, a female African convert to Buddhism, currently resident in Mauritius? In her case, the offending geopolitical issue is China’s repressive policies in Tibet, to wit the former’s unrelenting drive to force into extinction the latter’s ancient Lamaist faith and traditions. Do you doubt for one moment that if Aku was to saddle herself with Semtex and head for the Chinese embassy in London to engender mass fatalities, her sympathizers will be unsuccessful in laying bare her motives using the heart-rending plight of the Tibetans as a descriptive enhancer?

Why then are we constantly being barraged with advice to perceive the event, say, of the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania as immediately accessible to evaluation in the context of the Middle East? Is every atrocity anywhere by anybody, connected even in the most superficial manner to Islam, truly explainable merely by reference to events in the Middle East? The truth, if we are bold enough to admit it, is that Islamic terror, by Africans or by anybody else, has nothing whatsoever to do with international social justice writ large against the background of American foreign policy in the Middle East. It is more likely the result of a specific ideological drive by Arab ideologues to fill the geopolitical void in the post-cold war vacuum.

Now the second concept: poverty. This contention is so ludicrous one wonders how patently intelligent men and women can ever bring themselves even to contemplate it. It is widely known where the prime source of international terrorist funds originates: The Arabian Gulf, one of the richest regions of the world. Far from being undereducated and underprivileged it is the cream of society in the relatively poorer parts of the Middle East such as Syria and Iran who design and implement these terrorist activities (as is the case in Southeast Asia as well where you have relatively well-off Malaysians traveling miles away to kill and maim in impoverished Indonesia), so whence this notion of poverty as the prime, or even a major, catalyst of terrorism?

It is beyond question that poverty indeed has been instrumental in fuelling conflict and violence in Africa, from Sierra Leone to the Congo. And also, that issues of social justice and bad governance had critical roles to play too. Other tragic events such as the genocide in Rwanda or the Biafra war in Nigeria, however, fits less snugly into this paradigmatic viewpoint. But that is entirely beside the point. Terrorism is exactly what war and overt conflict is not. Let us take the A.N.C. struggle against apartheid, a perfect archetype of a social justice revolt if ever there was such a thing, for instance. Why was it clearly not terrorism, in the mold of what the traditional concept has come to mean? Answer: it was infinitely localized. The A.N.C. did not go about pursuing random targets abroad with no clear or concise objective of how the targeting of those entities could further the immediate end of overthrowing apartheid and its barbaric ethos. The same goes for even the most dubious “struggles” in Africa: the “Christian” butchers under the command of Joseph Kony in northern Uganda, the crazed loonies of the R.U.F. in the Mano basin, and Unita of yesteryear, brutal as their modus operandi are, do not generalize the objects of their fear and hatred beyond their immediate political environment.

The argument, hence, is that the present variant of terrorism with which the world is confronted is wholly alien to the African situation, historically and contemporarily, and will suffer to find grassroots, popular-level support in much of the continent as it supposedly has elsewhere. While incidents traceable to Africa may well increase, they will be reflective of scattered recruitment successes by foreign extremists relying exclusively on ideological tools. Politics, religion or economics will have almost nothing to with the phenomenon, if it does indeed become a trend, except where they are usurped by ideology to sanitize the conscientization process of sub-motivated recruits, or as part of “PR” campaigns in a gullible world media. In particular, they will not be the end result of western hegemony or chronic mass poverty attributable to the former.

So what ought us, as Africans and Africanists, to do? Because the issue is ideological we should be extremely cautious not to take sides. The battle between Arabist/Khalifist Islam, on one side, and neo-conservatism/fundamentalist Christianity and secular capitalism arrayed on the other, bears all the hallmarks of the cold war era. Like all ideological battles, it is transient and epochal and it will serve our interest in no way to behave as we did during the Soviet-West confrontation when we allowed ourselves to be misused as cheap pawns in a struggle in which we had no stake whatsoever. The war on terror is a global effort only because of the random nature of its short-term effects. In the long run, and particularly in Africa, we are concerned only that the protagonists keep it away from our shores — for we are not, sadly, short on home grown spectacles.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Bright B. Simons.