On September 21, 2013, Kenya experienced one of the worst terrorist attacks in the history of the country. Armed men stormed into Westgate, one of Nairobi's nicer shopping malls, killing over 60 people and injuring many more. While many facts about the attack are still unclear, one fact seems beyond doubt: The Somalia-based Islamist terrorist group Al-Shabaab has claimed to be responsible.
The news of this horrific event made the headlines all over the world. And of course, Al-Shabaab was mentioned and explained, over and over again. Once again, Muslims were associated with terrorism. Once again, Somalis were associated with radical Islam and brutal violence.
But something was different this time: From among the various eyewitness reports, the story of a young man emerged, an "ordinary citizen", who had been one of the first responders after the attack started, and who had rescued dozens of people trapped inside the mall. This man, the "hero" of Westgate, is Abdul Haji. He is a Muslim. And he is Somali.
Ethnic Somalis are among the 10 largest people groups in Kenya, with a population of over 2 million. While many live a traditional lifestyle in the rural areas of northeastern Kenya, there are also many modern, upper-class, and influential Somalis in Kenya. One of them is Mohamed Yusuf Haji, a politician and former Minister of Defense of Kenya. Abdul Haji is his son.
When the terrorist attack started on September 21, Abdul's brother was inside the Westgate mall. Abdul, who is a licensed gun owner, rushed over immediately to rescue his brother. When he arrived at Westgate, he teamed up with some other civilians and some plainclothes police officers to provide cover for Red Cross workers helping injured people. For several hours, Abdul and the others worked their way through the mall, trying to get people out of the building. Among others, they rescued an American mother with her three children, as well as an Indian woman. That scene was captured by an AP photographer and became one of the iconic images of the attack.
So besides the all-too-familiar image of Somali Al-Shabaab terrorists murdering innocent people, there is now another image: That of a young, modern Somali Muslim, fighting heavily armed terrorists with a pistol, rescuing American Christians and Indian Hindus.
It is one of the images the world desperately needs to see. Just like the one of a blood donation center set up at one of the mosques in Eastleigh, Nairobi's Somali neighborhood with many Somalis donating blood for the victims of the Westgate terror attack. Or the image of Somali volunteers coming to the mall together with other Kenyans and foreigners to provide food for victims and police officers. Or the one of the inter-faith prayer meeting held in Nairobi on October 1, 2013, where Muslim, Christian and Hindu leaders came together to condemn the terrorist attack and to pray for peace in Kenya.
Together, these images might prevent the devastating attack at Westgate from causing further division and hatred. They might instead turn the tragedy into a source of unity for the people of Kenya.