Last month, an imam at a Mombasa mosque was forced to step down by young al-Shabab sympathisers, and just last week a Muslim cleric, Sheikh Salim Bakari Mwarangi, was gunned down by two men on a motorbike. His murder has underlined a dichotomy within Kenya’s Muslim community.
There are those, especially among the youth, who directly or indirectly support the Somali-based armed group al-Shabab; while others actively work to eradicate extremism within their religious and social milieu. In the latter group there are individuals who oppose al-Shabab and its ilk, but are also openly critical of the Kenyan government and what they view as its discrimination against Muslims. Both the pro-Shabab and anti-Shabab groups include clerics and Islamic scholars as well as ordinary citizens.
For many Kenyans, Westgate was a pivotal incident, in much the same way as 9/11 was for Americans. The escalation of fear and outrage hardened anti-Muslim and anti-Somali perceptions among many Kenyans
Kenya’s coastal tourist region, which is home to many Muslims, has recently been targeted by a spate of bomb attacks linked to al-Shabab; and Mwarangi’s death is the latest of several murders of Muslim clerics on both sides of the divide. In April, Imam Abubakar Shariff (aka Makaburi), known for his scathing views on the government’s approach to Muslims and regarded as pro-Shabab, was killed by unknown assailants.
Then in June, another imam, Sheik Mohammed Idris, was shot after receiving death threats from extremist youths because he urged police to arrest them after they disrupted prayers at his mosque. Both Mwarangi and Idris are described by associates as peace activists but were deemed traitors by the youths.
Threat inside Kenya
That al-Shabab is currently a threat inside Kenya is patently true. Insiders confirm that indigenous Kenyans constitute the largest non-Somali contingent within the organisation; and al-Shabab’s present emasculation within Somalia may be a factor behind its recent upsurge of activity on Kenyan soil. The economic, political, and social marginalisation of Kenyan Muslims and Muslim areas in Kenya has provoked widespread resentment and frustration within that community; some of their grievances are detailed in the forthcoming Sharawe Report . Such grievances provide a fertile incubator for radical militancy, especially among unemployed and disaffected youth.
A 2011 UN Monitoring Group report detailed how the Muslim Youth Centre (MYC), which began as a community organisation and rights forum to articulate the social, economic and religious peripheralisation of the youth of Majengo in the slum of Pumwani on the outskirts of Nairobi, evolved into an al-Shabab recruitment agency.
It’s quite a stretch from optimistically operating Majengo’s first library, nursery school and orphan feeding scheme to recruiting and financing terrorists. But despair and frustration in the face of perceived discrimination and disinterest can harden idealism and radicalise activists, especially when combined with literal interpretations of religious texts that promise alluring rewards in the afterlife.
That some politicians, securocrats and the media have tended to conflate al-Shabab with entire communities (all Muslims and/or all Somalis) has also exacerbated the situation and further alienated many Kenyan Muslims. It is extremely dangerous for politicians to manipulate fears over terrorism to demonise opponents, particularly when there are increasing incidents of xenophobia within a society. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s fingering of his political opponents for the June 2014 Poromoko massacre is a case in point, especially since al-Shabab had claimed responsibility.
Moreover, heavy-handed police tactics such as mass-roundups of young men at mosques, have only served to reinforce perceptions of prejudice against Muslims by the anti-terrorism police. Counterterrorism operations such as Usalama Watch, launched by the security forces in April 2014, appeared to indiscriminately target Kenya’s Somali population, regardless of age or affiliation, with reports of human rights violations being documented by Amnesty International, among others.
Yet until October 2011, when the Kenyan Defence Force launched Operation “Linda Nchi” (Swahili for “Protect the Nation”) into Somalia following several cross-border kidnappings that the government attributed to al-Shabab, the latter had not carried out any large scale attacks in Kenya, with its leadership probably calculating that this was not in their best interests.
After Linda Nchi was launched and with the subsequent absorption of the Kenyan troops into the multi-country African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), al-Shabab has staged various attacks in Kenya, most notably the prolonged attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall in September 2013.
For many Kenyans, Westgate was a pivotal incident, in much the same way as 9/11 was for Americans. The escalation of fear and outrage hardened anti-Muslim and anti-Somali perceptions among many Kenyans; while Kenyan Muslims increasingly felt they were under siege and being unfairly tarred with the taint of radicalism. Both sets of attitudes have continued to feed on each other in a vicious and unending cycle.
Anneli Botha of the Institute for Security Studies, who interviewed dozens of Kenyan militant youths, notes that “when asked to clarify [what] finally pushed them over the edge, the majority… referred to injustices at the hands of Kenyan security forces, specifically referring to ‘collective punishment’.”
She argues that tactics such as mass arrests, racial profiling and extrajudicial killings have radicalised dozens, if not hundreds, of individuals to ensure a new wave of radicalism and collective resolve among groups such as al-Shabab.
Policy makers in Kenya need to take note and act fast. A recent report by the International Crisis Group urges that the recommendations of the Sharawe Report be implemented and warns that Kenyan leaders must stop scoring political points by manipulating tensions between Kenyans of different ethnicities and faiths. Unless Kenyans from the across the spectrum come together with a common vision to address the underlying causes of the divisions between Muslims and other communities, as well as within the Kenyan Muslim community itself, those divisions will continue to be exploited by radicals.
Young Kenyan Muslims must be given alternatives beyond the Hobson’s choice they currently perceive: A life of relative deprivation under a state that they feel is both disinterested in them and actively discriminates against them; or a false dream of eternal glory purveyed via a perverted religiosity that exploits their alienation.
Ayesha Kajee is a human rights activist and political analyst with a special focus on African governance and development. She tracks elections and democratic consolidation in the region.