Sounds suburban, doesn't it? Suburban America, straddling any freeway interchange on the western flanks of any metropolitan area in the Lower 48.
Except that this Westgate Mall isn't in suburban America, but Nairobi, Kenya. Half a world away from the chain stores, tiled walkways, and potted palm trees of our indoor shopping meccas. Yet, by most appearances, it looks every bit like an American mall, despite being located on one of the world's most impoverished continents. Nairobi's Westgate is considered the country's most luxurious shopping center, which to Americans may not mean much, since we normally don't expect "luxury" in countries like Kenya to match our definition of it. Looking at photos of the multi-storied, marble-floored, wrought-iron-railed, escalator-equipped, glass-atriumed Westgate, however, the place appears more chic than many of our own aging enclosed shopping centers here in the States.
Or rather, it did. Last Saturday morning, before the attack began. An attack by Al-Shabaab, a militant Islamic group based in Somalia, which killed at least 62 people in the mall, injured at least 170 others, and prompted a government assault today meant to rescue an undetermined number of hostages. Loud explosions were heard from inside the four-story shopping center today, with black plumes of smoke billowing from inside what had been a popular gathering place for both affluent Kenyans and the many expatriates from around the globe who live in Nairobi, Kenya's capital city. Kenya is one of Africa's most stable countries, and a headquarters for many Western relief agencies with humanitarian programs on the continent.
Indeed, from the photos released by the press of the siege, an international potpourri of skin tones can be seen in the evacuees.
It is this cross-cultural flavor attracted by a place like Westgate that apparently also attracted Al-Shabaab. This was an intentionally international strike. And it was also a religious one. Multiple witnesses report that as militants entered the mall, and began rounding up their victims, they were asking shoppers about their religion. Muslims were being allowed to leave immediately, while everybody else, who hadn't already been able to flee, was detained. Shoppers hiding within stores could hear other victims being asked if they were Muslim or not, because the Al-Shabaab killers obviously had no interest in harming adherents of their own faith. On the other hand, one victim, when asked the name of Muhammad's mother, was shot dead when he didn't know.
Knowing Westerners wouldn't really care as much about native Africans being killed while shopping, Al-Shabaab chose a merchandising venue they knew Westerners could relate to, and envision for themselves. And indeed, we can see ourselves shopping at Westgate, can't we? On a certain level, this is not so foreign an attack as its geography tells us it is.
So, at the risk of playing along in their evil little game: what about it?
Put yourself in your local mall, even if, thanks to e-commerce, you haven't had to be inside it in ages. Gunmen burst in, brandishing machine guns, and waving pistols about. They corral you with a bunch of shoppers at the Starbucks near the main doors, or a counter inside Macy's, and start asking people in your group questions about religion. If you're not dressed in a hijab, or a burqa, or a thobe, they bark trivia questions at you about Islam, to see how well you know their religion, which might provide proof that your life may at least be worth sparing.
You see in front of your face people being shot to death who obviously are not Muslim, or who have begun screaming something in Arabic out of pure fright, desperate to be allowed to run to safety.
This isn't a women-and-children-first scenario. This isn't old versus young, or the captain remaining on his ship. This is life or death based on whether or not you're Muslim.
If you are a Muslim, how do you react? Do you recoil at the senseless barbarism of it all? Reviled by the bloodshed inflicted purely on the basis of religion? Does one person have a right to murder somebody else just because they don't share the same faith? Do you vehemently demand a stop to the horror? Do you offer to stay and be shot so somebody else who's not a Muslim can flee to safety?
Or do you run away yourself?
And, if you flee, how do you defend yours as being a religion of peace?
If you are anything other than a Muslim, how do you react? Do you panic, faced with the instantaneous realization that whatever your faith may be, it hasn't prepared you for such a time as this? Does your brain scramble in a blurry muddle, trying to remember one of the phrases you've heard other Muslim terrorists utter as they slaughtered innocent people? Do you simply collapse in utter incredulity, begging for your life to be spared? Do you recklessly promise to convert to their religion, a religion that is forcing them to threaten you with murder?
Or do you, weak knees and all, with a dizzy sensation in your head, and your heart practically pounding out of your chest, declare yourself to be a child of God? A believer in Jesus Christ, the One true Son of God, Who has saved you from your sins and eternal damnation? Perspiration has broken out all over your body, from head to toe, and whether you're a man or a woman, your eyes are filling with tears as you confront the reality of what it means to literally stand for your faith, and trust Christ with your very soul. Or, maybe your eyes aren't filling with tears, and you're looking clearly and confidently at your tormentors, perhaps more with shock than stoic resolve, but still, unwavering.
This is no time to play heroics. But it is a time to show others Who loves you, Who made you, and for Whom you will not equivocate. Sure, your faith has not been perfect, but that hasn't been because God isn't perfect. As much as you don't want to die right now, right here, like this, death itself is not what you fear most.
You fear what will happen if you deny God. If you deny your faith in Him through His Son. Because you know He is true.
And it clicks. It clicks inside your heart, and your mind, and your soul, as surely and securely as it's ever clicked. Yes! I truly believe! Dear God, glorify Yourself even now, right this very second.
Whether that's the last click you hear or not.
For everybody else, on the other hand, ask yourself this: in what is your confidence? If you're a Muslim, how do you live with yourself, knowing that you were let off the hook - and let others die - because of religion?
If you're not willing to face death for what you believe, how can you live?