As Kenya began three days of nationwide mourning Sunday, the international community's response to the Garissa University College massacre was lethargic at best.
African leaders such as Rwandan president Paul Kagame and former Nigerian president Olesegun Obasanjo were quick to condemn Thursday's massacre, while United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki moon issued a statement expressing “deeply-felt condolences to the families of the victims.” Pope Francis has slammed the incident as “senseless brutality,” India's prime minister Nerandera Modi has described the attack as “disturbing,” and Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro has labeled Al Shabaab as a destabilizing force in Africa. A U.S. Department of State spokesperson also issued a short comment, stating, “The United States stands with the people of Kenya, who will not be intimidated by such cowardly attacks.”
Beyond this handful of world leaders, (mostly from developing nations), many Western governments have been slow to respond to Kenya's worst massacre in over a decade. Contrast this lethargy with the “with us or against us” flurry over France's Charlie Hebdo shooting in January.
Within hours of the shooting, President Barack Obama had personally phoned his French counterpart Francois Hollande to express condolences, while in the coming days governments from countries ranging from the United Arab Emirates to Ukraine, Turkey to Mexico had condemned the attack. Meanwhile, cable news delivered near-constant coverage of the aftermath. To be sure, Garissa has been covered by all major international media outlets, yet it's a far cry from the fervorous pitch in the wake of Charlie Hebdo.
In the United States, Garissa may have been totally ignored by the mass media if it wasn't for one very important point – many of the victims are believed to have been Christians. Bill O'Reilly was quick to argue the attack was part of a global “war on Christianity” (presumably, a close cousin of O'Reilly's “war on Christmas”). O'Reilly and others appear to have willingly bought into Al Shabaab's efforts to perpetuate sectarian conflict, rather than admit the Garissa massacre is yet another tragedy spawned by the geopolitical tug-a-war involving Mogadishu's neighbors that has left Somalia a failed state. In Somalia itself, most of Al Shabaab's thousands of (almost exclusively Muslim) victims are simply ignored by the Western media. Elsewhere in the world, Muslims who are killed by Christians are likewise disregarded as unimportant. Take the simmering conflict in the Central African Republic, were both the predominantly Muslim militias of the former Seleka coalition, and their opponents, the predominantly Christian anti-Balaka have both committed widespread war crimes, according to a U.N. commission of inquiry. The commission found the anti-Balaka were responsible for ethnic cleansing of Muslim populations, in a civil war that has left at least 6000 people dead. How many of those dead Muslims prompted outrage on prime time cable news?
Sorrow shouldn't be a competition. But prioritizing tragedies shouldn’t be based on arbitrary characteristics like whether the victims are Europeans or the perpetrators Muslims. Otherwise, we're doing Al Shabaab a favor.