After hearing a Democracy Now story last year linking suicide bombings in Pakistan to poverty and hopelessness, I posed what seemed an obvious question. "If poverty causes extremism, why are there no suicide bombers from among Pakistan's poorest of the poor? Where are the Christian Suicide Bombers?"
A similar question came to mind today after hearing this NPR story about the pirates of Somalia. Poverty and lawlessness, claimed the author, are the main reasons for the piracy. The question that came to my mind probably never even crossed the mind of the author, "If Somalia were a traditionally Christian country, like Uganda or Ethiopia, would international piracy even be an issue?"
From year one of the Muslim Hijri calendar, which began when Muhammad traveled as a Muhajir, or migrant from Mecca to Medina in about 623 AD, two Arabic words became an important part of the lexicon of the language. These are Ghazawat, the raids of the Prophet, and Anfal, the spoils of war. Muhammad had only been in Medina a few months when he realized an easy and effective way to meet the economic and financial needs of his growing community was to attack trade caravans passing through the area. Rather than combine the desert expertise of Medina's Arabs with the agricultural and industrial success of the Jewish tribes who had lived there for centuries to develop caravans of his own, Muhammad found it easier to simply condemn the Jews for not accepting him as a Prophet and attack the caravans of others. Literally hundreds of pages of the earliest biographies of the Prophet are devoted to accounts of these raids, and most of the second part of the Quran, those suras authored in Medina, are related to the same subject.
The death of Muhammad ten years later did not signal the end of the Ghazawat, but only their beginning. In swift order his warriors swept north, south, east, and west, continuing the raids (which had by now developed into full-scale attack and conquer) and reaping the benefits. Christian societies (Egypt and the Copts) were given the choice of conversion or subjugation. Societies containing "pagan idolaters" - the Zorastrians of Persia and the Buddhists of Afghanistan - simply saw their religious traditions wiped out. Those who were strong enough to resist Arabization as well as Islamization - Turkey, Iran, etc - were able to maintain their traditional languages. Weaker societies - Egypt and the countries of North Africa - saw their traditional languages obliterated and replaced by Arabic.
The Muslim pirates of Somalia are simply carrying on a time-honored tradition hallowed by the example of their Prophet. In their mind, they really deserve the wealth of the people they plunder.
Do poverty and lawlessness, as suggested by the NPR reporter, play a role? Of course. Are the "Christian" countries I mentioned, Uganda or Ethiopia or others in the region, glowing examples of Christ-like character and behavior? Not by a long shot. But at the same time I think it is a mistake not to acknowledge the fact that it is the life of Muhammad, not Jesus, that provides a model for attacking the wealth of others and appropriating it as something that you deserve. And that, not only poverty and lawlessness, is at the heart of Somali piracy.