Islam reached the shores of Kenya more than a thousand years ago. Arab traders founded a string of towns along the coast from Somalia to Mozambique. Eventually, the meeting of Arab and African groups gave life to Swahili culture. Islam was adopted by many along the coast but it never penetrated the interior. Even today, just a few miles inland, the majority of people still follow traditional religions. With the arrival of people from the highlands, Muslim have become a minority in the region.
Historically, Kenya Muslim have enjoyed good relationship with other people of other faiths. Yet, in the 1990s, radicalism found its way in and brought many Muslim closer to fundamentalism. Even though these groups have constantly been minorities, they have had a strong impact on society. The bombing of the USA embassy in Nairobi (1998) and a series of attacks against Christian churches throughout that decade were clear signs that militant Islam had found a foothold in the country.
Since Kenya invaded Somalia late last year, more militant attacks followed. The government decided to invade Somalia in a concerted effort to eradicate Al Shabaab, a terror group which controls part of that country, responsible for the abduction of tourists in Kenya and which launched military attacks in Kenya. Kenyan soldiers are slowly moving towards Kisimayo, one of the major ports of Somalia and the main source of revenues for Al Shabaab. The invasion is part of an international effort to fight terrorism.
The reaction at home has been of overwhelming support. Yet, Muslim clerics have been preaching against the central government claiming that “the Kenyan army is fighting our brothers in Somalia”. Al Shabaab is also present in Kenya, where Muslim youth are recruited to fight in Somalia and beyond. At the same time, some coastal residents have been asking for the autonomy of the region. Claiming that ‘Pwani si Kenya’ (the coast is not Kenya), they ask for greater freedom from the central government perceived, rightly, as distant. Even though the group is loud, it does not represent the majority, and they simply wish a larger say in political and economic choices at the coast.
At the end of August, a controversial cleric – Aboud Rogo – was killed in Mombasa, sparkling riots and violent attacks against the police and Christian churches. Rogo was born in Siyu Island, near Lamu – a hotbed for would be terror fighters. In the 1990s during the clamour for the registration of Islamic Party of Kenya, Rogo served as a youth activist and participated in the street demonstrations. He was also suspected of playing a peripheral logistical role in the bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi. In 2002, Rogo was arrested in connection with Kikambala hotel bombing.
Aboud Rogo used his madrassa to recruit Kenyan youths to Somalia. Last year the Council of Imams and Preachers identified his mosque, Masjid Musa in Majengo, as among three recruiting youth to join the Al Shabaab. At the same time, Rogo intensified his indoctrination of Muslim youths with a weekly lecture at his Masjid Musa in Mombasa. The lectures portrayed the Somalia war as the ultimate jihad where anyone who died would be a martyr.
He was placed on a US sanctions list last July for “engaging in acts that directly or indirectly threaten the peace, security or stability of Somalia”. The UN Security Council imposed a travel ban and assets freeze on him at the same time and accused him of being the “main ideological leader” of Kenya’s al-Hijra group, also known as the Muslim Youth Centre, which is viewed as a close ally of al-Shabaab.
Rogo’s assassination is just the last of a string of political killings, and it happened in a delicate moment in the life of the country. Kenya is facing terror threats, but it is also preparing for a controversial general election with the fear that ethnic violence might be unleashed again, as it happened in 2007-8. The last thing Kenya needs now is a fall into a whirlwind of ethnic and pseudo-religious war. If in 2008 a few weeks of madness erased ten years of economic and social advances, a new spat of violence could very well break the country into fiefdoms, hampering national growth for a long time to come. So far Christians have reacted well to violence against them. In the past month, all faithful are checked before attending church services. No one complains and orderly accepts the invasion of privacy. However, the continue pressure against them could resort in an open confrontation with Muslim faithful. A scenario no one wants to become true.
Mepukori ole Karam