Bad Things Happening in Timbuktu

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For some years now, Western Christians have been aware of the persecution facing other believers around the world, chiefly at Muslim hands (although Hindu fanatics have a similar track record). Western media regularly feature tiny items about anti-Christian violence, but without any real context: it often gets consigned to the general category of "bad things happening in Africa."

Suddenly, though, matters are deteriorating rapidly, in the scale of violence, and its organized nature, and persecution is expanding into quite unexpected areas. We are entering a new and significantly more dangerous world, with far-reaching implications for international security.

Since the 1990s, Nigeria has been the scene of some of the worst communal violence, with Muslims attacking churches and Christian areas, and Christians replying in kind. Just within the past year, though, anti-Christian violence has escalated into open terrorism, deploying tactics popularized by al Qaeda, including suicide bombings -- a real innovation.

Just last month, the Islamist group Boko Haram attacked several churches. On one day, three separate suicide car-bombers destroyed churches in northern Nigeria, killing at least twenty. This campaign marks an alarming move towards religious cleansing, the elimination of the Christian presence in the country's predominantly Muslim regions. Boko Haram represents the ugliest face of Islamist terror, in its absolute rejection of all things Western including most mainline science: they see all as haram, forbidden. The movement is reputedly affiliated with the Algerian-based Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM, which emerged from that country's civil wars during the 1990s.

In East Africa too, Islamist violence has suddenly reached a new plateau, and a whole new degree of organization. Over the past century, Christian numbers have surged in the region: Kenya is 80 percent Christian, Uganda 85 percent. Traditionally, relations with local Muslims were relaxed, but that was before the rise of fanatical Islamist groups like al-Shabaab ("Youth") in nearby Somalia, which lays claim to the local al Qaeda franchise. Al-Shabaab carried out bombings in Uganda in 2012, but within recent weeks, militants stormed two Kenyan churches during Sunday services, using automatic weapons and grenades. Fifteen were killed. As in Nigeria, we witness a historic shift in the character of violence, from mobs to militias.

U.S. and Kenyan authorities believe that much worse may be to come. Latest reports suggest the existence of all-female suicide bomber squads, who police would be less likely to stop and search. Reinforcing the al Qaeda link, the project is reportedly led by Samantha Lewthwaite, the (white British) widow of one of the bombers who undertook the 7-7 attacks in London in 2005, and who operates alongside al-Shabaab. East Africa's terrorist subcultures celebrate Lewthwaite as Dada Mzungu, "the White Sister."

In some ways, the new shift to terrorism actually reflects the success of Western efforts in severely limiting al Qaeda operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and increasing pressure in Yemen. It's difficult to organize terrorist outrages effectively when you know that a drone may be over your head at any moment. As a result, militants naturally shift their focus to bandit areas lacking any effective government, such as Somalia, or to countries with deeply rooted Muslim activist movements disaffected from their regimes. Boko Haram would exist in some form even if it had no wider terrorist connections whatever, as would al-Shabaab. Recently too, the successful campaign to overthrow Libya's Muammar Qaddafi has had the accidental by-product of dispersing militants and heavy weaponry through many corners of north and west Africa. AQIM and its affiliates now control huge swathes of northern Mali. (Mali, incidentally, covers an area almost twice as large as Texas).

Whatever its origins, the al Qaeda link provides multiple advantages. The connection offers inspiration, convincing local people that they are part of a struggle that is at once global and historic, and al Qaeda advisers provide tactics, techniques, and fieldcraft. Most worryingly, though, the new pattern of organization also suggests targets quite different from those in al Qaeda's earlier wars, as Christian victims are so massively easier to find in Kenya than in Pakistan or Yemen.

Anti-Christian attacks along Africa's faith frontiers pay many dividends. They mark the clearly Islamic nature of the struggle in a way that is far less convincing if you are merely attacking rival Muslims who you have labeled as not fervent enough in the faith. These outrages also galvanize local African Muslims who already suspect and fear Christian neighbors. When furious Christians undertake retaliation, countries slide to open inter-communal warfare, and even to complete state collapse such as occurred in Somalia. We can expect attacks on churches and other Christian facilities to become much more common.

Muslims perpetrates such atrocities, but other Muslims will comprise many of their victims. For centuries, Islam across Africa has been founded on Sufi brotherhoods that draw heavily on local spiritual traditions, with their veneration of holy leaders and saints, their tombs and healing shrines. You don't go far in West Africa, for example, without seeing images of the beloved Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, which are also a fixture of African communities in Europe and North America. Such easy-going tolerance is anathema to the extremists, who have long targeted Sufi shrines and worshipers in Pakistan and Iraq, and they are now applying the same murderous tactics in West Africa. Most recently, the AQIM-linked group Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) carried out monstrous acts of vandalism in Mali, destroying centuries-old Islamic shrines and tombs that they associate with the despised Sufi orders. Timbuktu's few Christians have already fled.

However appalling this war against Africa's history and culture is in its own right, it must be understood as part of the underlying religious campaign, to create a pure militant Islam totally dedicated to jihad against Christianity and the West. As with the church attacks, the goal is to polarize Africa into a continent unceasingly at war with itself.

When I was growing up, my parents used the name "Timbuktu" in the sense of a never-never land, somewhere over the rainbow, and what happened there could never affect us. That, of course, was before African migrants became so commonplace in the West, raising the possibility that ongoing conflicts in their homelands could spill over into the streets of Paris, Rome and New York.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.

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