Don’t Look Away From Garissa

I don’t have an answer to the question, “How should I talk to my students about Garissa?” But I have some real fears about the dangers of not contextualizing this incident.

On April 2, 2015, an estimated four or five gunmen representing the militant group al-Shabaab waged a prolonged attack on Garissa University College in Garissa, Kenya. The gunmen killed 148 people, mostly students, but police and soldiers died as well. Survivors evacuated the campus and have been sleeping wherever they can find shelter and safety—although, by all reports, safety is hard to come by. Over the last few days, students and faculty have begun the arduous process of locating friends and relatives and trying to piece together what comes next. 

The suffering and fear the Garissa students experienced and are experiencing is—and should be—the focus of this news story. As far too many educators in the United States know, the loss of life associated with an attack on a school carries a particularly gut-wrenching type of trauma. But after the facts have been established, it is natural for those observing via news outlets to begin searching for meaning. And in the way that we all privately do when we hear horrific news, it’s also natural that we eventually expand the scope of our radars to include our own lives. How will this incident affect us? Affect our students? What guidance will they need as they search for meaning? 

It’s a lot for young people to contend with. First of all, this happened on a campus. The victims are young. And 148 is an astonishing death toll. Then, there is the religious extremism. By all accounts, al-Shabaab is an Islamic fundamentalist group that has proudly claimed responsibility. The gunmen deliberately targeted non-Muslim students.

It’s pretty easy to pick out the “bad guys” in this story. But what are we really teaching—or learning—when that’s the extent of the meaning we draw from it? And what faulty conclusions could it lead us and our students to if we aren’t careful in our examination? Conclusions about Muslims? About religion at large? About Kenya as a country? About Somalia, the home of al-Shabaab?

Facing History and Ourselves uses a slogan that immediately came to my mind when I was thinking about the kinds of messages students need to hear in the aftermath of incidents like Garissa: People make choices. Choices make history. Garissa didn’t happen because of Islam. The manifestation of Islam (or any religion) in the world is the actions of people—millions of people who would never dream of harming another human being and a miniscule minority who would and do. And the type of extremism witnessed at Garissa is hardly unique to Islam. Sadly, the list of examples of one group attempting to exterminate another is long enough to warrant its own month, Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month. Which is this month.

I don’t have an answer to the question, “How should I talk to my students about Garissa?” But I have some real fears about the dangers of not contextualizing this incident. Because harboring false and damning beliefs about an entire group of people is a small-scale version of the thinking that motivated this attack—and once those beliefs take root, how large will they grow?

We may not personally want to understand why members of al-Shabaab carried out this horrible attack. But there are scholars who have spent their careers trying to pry away the layers of propaganda and essentialism that obscure the motives for violent extremism. They encourage deep, deliberate study of religious and cultural diversity. They beg us to move beyond the good-guy/bad-guy narrative and to recognize that, without exposure to multiple perspectives, people can be convinced of bizarre and terrible things. The voices of these scholars are more audible during April due to genocide awareness and prevention campaigns. We owe it to our students and to the students in Garissa to listen. Because, although we may be observing Garissa from afar, the conversations this incident will spark in our classrooms give us opportunities: the opportunity to unpack the nature of extremism from an academic perspective and the opportunity to foster empathy and critical thinking so extremism will have a harder time finding a home in our students. 

van der Valk is the managing editor for Teaching Tolerance.

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