A story this week out of Kenya about compassion, conviction and courage is the perfect antidote to a poisonous year around the world.
On Monday, the al-Shabab terrorist group attacked and forced a bus to stop in Mandera, Kenya. The terrorists boarded the bus and ordered the Muslim and Christian passengers to separate. Their intent was to murder the Christians. Al-Shabab had done this before, when it killed 148 in Garissa, Kenya, in April after asking their religion. Many of those victims were Christians.
It also did it in November 2014, when it killed 28 non-Muslim passengers on a bus traveling to Nairobi.
But this time was different.
From a Newsweek account:
“ ‘We even gave some non-Muslims our religious attire to wear in the bus so that they would not be identified easily. We stuck together tightly,’ Abdi Mohamud Abdi, a Muslim passenger, told Reuters. ‘The militants threatened to shoot us but we still refused and protected our brothers and sisters. Finally they gave up and left but warned that they would be back.’
“The local governor, Ali Roba, confirmed the account in an interview with Daily Nation, a Kenyan publication. ‘They refused to separate from non-Muslims and told the attack[ers] to kill all passengers or leave,’ Roba said. There were 62 passengers on board, according to the paper.”
Muslims do stand up against terrorism.
In these intolerant times, the actions of some Muslims in the face of al-Shabab’s vicious religious hatred is inspiring. But bravery in Kenya is more than an example of followers of Islam defending people who hold different religious beliefs.
A larger lesson needs learning in this fractured world, including here at home. It involves trying to understand the human condition of others. Put yourself in their position, walk in their shoes, bear what they are bearing.
Muslims on that bus in Mandera felt what the Christian passengers must have been feeling, their fear and pain. Those who put their own lives on the line were driven by empathy.
It seems in short supply today.
This lack of empathy plays out in ways sometimes more obvious to some than others.
I have in mind our symbols of American values: public school names, street names, memorials and the figures we have chosen to commemorate and what they tell us about our racial divisions, as explored by Derek H. Alderman of East Carolina University in his 2002 paper “School Names as Cultural Arenas.” Well, “we” is too broad a term. Narrow that down to the Americans who identify with and wish to be associated with those being honored.
What, you may ask, do Muslims standing against terrorism in Kenya have to do with the American attachment to naming public places after the likes of Harry C. “Curley” Byrd, Woodrow Wilson, Harry F. Byrd Sr. (no kin to “Curley”), J.E.B. Stuart and Robert E. Lee?
“Curley” Byrd, Wilson and Harry Byrd didn’t clamor for these honors. Many of their naming ceremonies took place long after they were dead and gone.
The inscriptions were written because contemporary U.S. leaders believed those men were icons who deserved to be memorialized.
And, to be sure, “Curley” Byrd — the late University of Maryland football player, coach, professor and president after whom the school’s football stadium was named (the university board finally voted this month to change it) — did much to develop the school during his tenure.
Woodrow Wilson — Princeton president, 28th U.S. president, New Jersey governor, Nobel Peace Prize winner — left a lasting legacy when he died in 1924.
Harry Byrd — Virginia senator and governor — was memorialized with school namings for having served the nation.
But for a moment, try to empathize with those of us who saw and were disadvantaged by another side of those heroes.
Those holding them up to be honored knew that:
“Curley” Byrd opposed admitting black students to Maryland until a court order forced their acceptance.
Wilson was a white supremacist who imposed more segregation on blacks in the District during his presidency and admitted no blacks to Princeton when he was the school’s president.
Harry Byrd fought to preserve segregation to the point of shutting down public schools that attempted to integrate after the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Those with power to name knew that these men — along with others who led the war to preserve slavery or who viewed black people as unworthy of sharing schools, water fountains, bathrooms and dining establishments, or of holding the same jobs as whites — treated black people unfairly. Yet those with the power to name didn’t, and still don’t, see or respect the other side of our history.
With their lack of empathy, they cling to the symbols and heritages of a racially divided America, revealing their indifference to the feelings of people not like themselves — a condition mercifully not found in the Muslims on that bus in Kenya.
A bright spot in a darkening world.
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