This eleven page story from the New York Times describes how Omar Hammami from Daphne, Alabama, has become a key figure in one of the world’s most ruthless Islamist insurgencies. That guerrilla army, known as the Shabab, is fighting to overthrow the fragile American-backed Somali government. The rebels are known for beheading political enemies, chopping off the hands of thieves and stoning women accused of adultery. With help from Al Qaeda, they have managed to turn Somalia into an ever more popular destination for jihadis from around the world.
So how does one go from being a smart, popular, and talented young person with a bright and promising future into an active jihadist half way across the world? Omar explains:
“They can’t blame it on poverty or any of that stuff,” he continued. “They will have to realize that it’s an ideology and it’s a way of life that makes people change. They will also have to realize that their political agendas need to be fixed.”
Dena, Omar’s older sister, offers this conflicted reply.
“I think it’s admirable to stand up for what you believe in, but it gets hairy when you affect the lives of others,” she wrote.
Hairy. That’s an interesting way to describe killing, maiming, beheading, and stoning others.
Hammami responded that he understood how strange it might seem to “fight for beliefs,” especially as he had once been a liberal (under the influence, he wrote, of the teacher he still referred to as “Mrs. Hirsch”). But he had come to the realization that “we don’t live in a utopian society.”
So what needs to change? Well a good starting point according to Omar is a recognition that, “Human rights,” he said in an audio recording released by the Shabab last July, is “the Western form of democracy which cannot be reconciled with Islam.”
And it is religious belief that is the more important of the two, according to far too many people. And therein lies a good part of the explanation. I think it is that kind of assumption – a willingness to reduce the secular rights and freedoms of people to be subordinate to some other ideology, some other belief set – that clears a path for the transition from responsible citizen to murderous terrorist, a perspective that is essential to have in order to allow people to continue to think well of themselves while they carry out everything from small acts of righteousness like voting to reduce civil rights of others to horrendous acts of brutality on behalf of some ‘higher cause’ against other people. I am disgusted that the salve offered by religious belief about so much unnecessary suffering is so easily excused by assuming belief that all of us are merely preset pieces within God’s preordained plan. “You take solace in knowing that it’s in God’s hands,” said Shafik, Omar’s islamic father sunken in his armchair, as Debra, Omar’s southern baptist mother nodded. “And there is nothing you could have done to change it.”
I think that’s a cop out. I think we need to educate people to better understand and appreciate that what makes individual freedom possible is our collective and primary allegiance to and respect for secular enlightened values of equality, dignity, and fairness. There are far too many of us who think allegiance to the state and the religious majority it supposedly represents is where our allegiance properly belongs, but this misdirection and misunderstanding is as much to blame for creating more Omars as is the religion of islam. As the push in Western democracies continues to promote government support for christian values, the greater is the danger we face that we will lose our freedoms. We need to wake up, get off the fence, and push back any encroachment by anyone who campaigns or acts against the primacy of secular values.