Westgate and Kenyan preacher's fiery sermons

Preacher Arkanuddin Yasin uses pan-Islamic political organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir to denounce Kenyan government.

    Westgate and Kenyan preacher's fiery sermons
    Worshipers mill around Jamia Mosque after Friday prayers [Yasin Kakande/Al Jazeera]

    Nairobi, Kenya - When Friday prayers end at Nairobi's Jamia mosque, the largest mosque in Kenya, worshippers stream outside to hear another sermon by Arkanuddin Yasin, a preacher with the pan-Islamic political organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT).

    Yasin, 38, who converted to Islam 10 years ago, criticises Kenya's government as corrupt and calls the United States an enemy of Muslims, denouncing the country's "war on terror" as a war on Islam.

    He accuses Kenyan authorities of supporting recent attacks in the country as a means of tarnishing Islam, and demands the release of three Kenyan Muslims detained in Uganda as suspects in the 2010 bombings that killed dozens of World Cup revellers in Kampala, the Ugandan capital.

    Yasin also suggests that a recent string of assassinations of Muslim clerics in Mombasa - including the June slaying of Sheikh Mohammed Idris - is an act of intimidation to force Muslims into silence.

    "To keep silent is to hand over victory… and we are not going to do this," he says.

    Even in Kenya, a country where heated political addresses are common, Yasin's sermons are highly controversial. He has dubbed his weekly sermon the "Jaber Safwa", after the mountain on which the Prophet Mohammed urged the people of Mecca to accept Islam. HT activists in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, believe Yasin's sermons could have the same impact, reaching out across the world.

    Yasin began preaching in 2013 after gunmen attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, killing at least 67 people. Since then, Kenya has been rocked by a series of grenade attacks targeting bus stations and shopping centres. Fighters with the Somali armed group al-Shabab have claimed responsibility for the spate of violence, calling it retaliation for Kenya's military intervention in Somalia in 2011.

    In the most recent attacks, gunmen stormed the coastal town of Mpeketoni this summer, killing dozens of people. In response, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta shifted the blame from al-Shabab to disgruntled local political groups.

    HT, which officially denounces violence and urges a peaceful transition from democracies to an Islamic state, said the positive response to Yasin's brief post-Westgate sermon underscored the need for Muslims to have a voice in times of crisis. Yasin has since delivered an address every Friday outside the Jamia mosque, with each sermon recorded and uploaded onto social media.

    "After that first sermon, people were waiting for us to be arrested or even killed," Yasin told Al Jazeera. "When nothing happened to us, others branded us spies, and when we were consistent with our preaching and demands, the Muslims started trusting us as their voice."

    Single caliphate

    Founded in 1953 by Palestinian judge Sheikh Mohammed Taqiuddin al-Nabhani, HT's goal is to unify all Muslim countries into a single caliphate governed by Islamic law under the guidance of a supreme leader. The group is banned in much of the Arab world because it is viewed as a tool to radicalise the masses and rally them against their secular leaders.

    In Kenya, HT gained a foothold in the early 1990s after Kenyan students interacted with the group's members in London, spokesperson Shaban Mwalimu told Al Jazeera. Today there is an estimated 1,000 HT activists in Kenya, and the group has hosted a number of international conferences, local workshops and school outreach programmes.

    HT's goal in Kenya is not to topple Kenyatta's government, Mwalimu said, but to restore the country's Islamic identity. But Mwalimu said the group is seeking to take power in muslim majority countries in the Middle East.

    Lucy Ndungu, Director of Registrar of political parties in Kenya, was contacted for a response but she had not responded by the time of publishing. 

    Zipporah Mboroki, a spokesperson for Kenya's police force, told Al Jazeera that it was up to Muslim community leaders to accept or reject the beliefs of HT.

    After that first sermon, people were waiting for us to be arrested or even killed. When nothing happened to us, others branded us spies, and when we were consistent with our preaching and demands, the Muslims started trusting us as their voice.

    - Hizb ut-Tahrir 's Arkanuddin Yasin

    "For us in Kenya, we have a freedom of religion, and everyone is allowed to choose which religion he or she professes," Mboroki said. "It's [up to] a Muslim sheikh to decide if this party's preachings are acceptable or not… However, if there is evidence that this party is inciting violence, then it would be dealt with [through] other laws."

    Professor Edward Kisiangani, a lecturer of political science at Kenyatta University and a political analyst in Kenya, said that the constitution guaranteed people's rights to assemble and the government does not crack down on people gathering to speak peacefully.

    In Kenya no one is associating Islam with terrorism and I am sure the Kenyan intelligence system, through its instruments, are closely monitoring this group's activities and they have not had any problem with them so far," he said. "I also personally support the right of people to assemble and demonstrate and would not want to see anyone interfering with this right for any people on the basis of religion."

    Eric Walberg, a Canadian a scholar of Islamic civilisation and author of a book entitled From Postmodernism to Post secularism: Re-emerging Islamic Civilization said HT does not pose a serious threat like ISIL and al-Qaeda.

    HT became more prominent after the collapse of the Soviet Union, where it became a "rallying cry for Muslims" in Central Asia, he said.

    "There is nostalgia for the Soviet Union, especially among Muslims who grew up there, as there was genuine equality among the various ethnicities and economic development which benefited the broad masses, in a kind of stern secular caliphate. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many of these Muslims joined Hizb ut-Tahrir," Walberg told Al Jazeera.

    "The fact that many of its supporters come from the ex-Soviet Union (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan) shows that members are hoping to revive the spirit of solidarity of the flawed utopian Soviet Union in an Islamic context. But nostalgia alone is not a political platform."

    Non-Muslims targeted

    HT, which is popular in Kenya's coastal region, also seeks to reach non-Muslims, aiming to debunk the perceived association between Islam and armed groups and instead present Islam as a religion of peace. Mwalimu says the group does not receive funding from any country, but relies on donations from its members.

    Long-time member Mohammed Ali, who joined the party in 1995, said over the last two decades, he won several people over to HT's philosophy through interactions in mosques, workshops and schools. Ali told Al Jazeera the group has faced significant challenges in recent years, including the 2012 Prevention of Terrorism Act, which restricted HT's ability to spread its message. The law seeks to punish members of what it calls terrorist organisations, their financiers and sympathisers.

    "We have had many doors closed on us, even that of the Jamia mosque," Ali said. "Imams are worried of allowing us to speak inside their mosques, and many people are afraid to sit and listen in our open gatherings, fearing that they might be watched."

    The administration of Jamia mosque declined to comment on its response to HT's activities outside the mosque. Some residents, however, say they are unhappy with the bold and open preaching by HT at their primary mosque.

    A local street vendor, who identified himself only as Mohammed, blamed HT for feeding the intelligence community with false ideas about the broader Muslim community in Kenya, which is a majority Christian country.

    "Their preaching is attended by more intelligence personnel than Muslims, and the purpose of their attendance is simply to collect information and also note who is attending," Mohammed told Al Jazeera.

    "This information is passed on to the policymakers as Muslims being defiant, and this would determine more strict government policies against the Muslims," he added. "The best thing is to avoid attending this preaching and go home."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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