When security forces in Eritrea last week opened fire on schoolchildren protesting the closure of their Islamic school, reportedly killing 28 people and injuring 100 others, they did nothing but feed and legitimise Al Shabab’s jihadi grievance narrative. In fact, such actions provide fertile ground for Al Shabab to recruit and bring Muslims around to their cause.
Protests had begun a day earlier following the arrest of the honorary president of the Islamic school for defying the government’s directive to halt religious education in Islamic schools and ban girls from wearing headscarves.
Students and the local community saw this as an attempt by the government to deny them their fundamental basic freedom to worship in peace and to dictate behaviour to a school that has been allowed to exist peacefully for more than half a century.
What ensued last week can only be described as a massacre of schoolchildren. And yet, the global battle against extremism is fundamentally a battle of ideas. Within that battle of ideas, all who oppose Islamism must not stoop to the level of extremists to advance their cause.
In fact, the task for those who wish to take on, dismantle and disrupt Al Shabab’s ideas is made significantly harder if Muslims in Eritrea are won over with a grievance narrative that is validated by those who should uphold sound values.
Indeed, acts of violence play into the hands of Al Shabab and unless urgently addressed, might spiral into more violence and provide fertile ground for Al Shabab to recruit more young Muslims.
Like other jihadi groups, Al Shabab has three key messages. They portray themselves as defenders of the Islamic Ummah, or community, which, according to them, has suffered excruciating pain and misery at the hands of godless authorities. The group finds creative ways to glamorise its cause as a righteous struggle against the tyranny of their enemies.
They claim that violence is not only a way of revenge but also a way of “teaching the enemy a lesson” in line with the supposed legacy of first-generation Muslims.
This is underpinned by the argument that Muslims aren’t free to practise their faith in east Africa and that they essentially have to choose between their faith and living in secular states.
Like many jihadi groups across the world, they espouse a black-and-white, literalist view of the world, one that dictates that you are either “with us or against us”.
They use this world view to justify their call for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate that would enforce Islamic law on its citizens.
This is precisely why those of us who wish to challenge these ideas must be empowered, not set back by actions that feed into their narrative.
Security forces should be upholding the rule of law, not resorting to the same violence they so readily denounce.
In short, we cannot defeat tyranny with tyranny. If Al Shabab and other such groups espouse a narrative characterised by tyranny, our response must be characterised by freedom.
If this battle if framed any other way, it will do nothing but legitimise the action of extremists and feed into their argument that non-believers wish to see an end to Islam. This appeal will, in turn, be heard by Muslims who are vulnerable to radicalisation attempts.
Take life inside ISIL’s failed caliphate, where “new age” tyrannical rule stifles ideas, expression and creativity. All those who oppose their narrative cannot – and should not – respond in kind, should they?
In order to demolish groups like Al Shabab, we have to not only counter their ideas but also offer an alternative, superior way of life. We cannot allow our alternative to Islamism to be characterised by tyranny.
This op-ed was originally published in the National.