Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Kenya’s Muslims are not a homogeneous group, as they comprise converts from different ethnic groupings (going back many centuries), Arabs and people of mixed Arab-African descent, Somalis and some other nomadic groups, and more recent migrants from South Asia. Most Muslims live in the Coastal province, where their sense of common identity is strongest. Unemployment and landlessness are exceptionally high in the province – one estimate put the number of squatters there as more than a million, the majority of the population. Well-publicized land purchases by outsiders, notably whites, Asians and cabinet ministers, particularly in tourist areas, have added to local grievances.
In the run-up to the 1992 elections a group of businessmen and intellectuals in Mombasa founded the Islamic Party of Kenya (IPK), which the government refused to register. The arrest on several occasions of a radical Muslim preacher, Sheikh Khalid Balala, increased sympathy and support for the IPK. The government responded by setting up a rival Muslim organization, and by trying to highlight differences between Muslims of Arab and of African descent. Levels of rhetoric in government-IPK conflict were high, with death threats issued by both sides. Nevertheless, the Moi government could generally depend on backing from the Muslim community.
Following the August 1998 terrorist bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi, Kenyan Muslims faced widespread stereotyping as ‘terrorists’, and the government closed six Muslim organizations. In 2000 a land dispute in a Nairobi neighbourhood sparked violence between Christians and Muslims, and led rioters to burn down two churches and a mosque; Christian and Muslim leaders subsequently blamed police inaction for allowing the violence to escalate. After the attacks on the United States of 11 September 2001, the Kenyan government launched new security initiatives aimed at Muslims, many of them of Arab and Asian descent. In the heavily Muslim city of Mombasa, a new directive of the immigration office required that applicants seeking birth certificates or passports submit their grandparents’ identity papers. Similar restrictions were launched in the wake of a November 2002 attack on Israeli citizens in Mombasa. In 2004 the Law Society of Kenya warned that anti-terror initiatives implemented at the urging of the US and UK were rendering Kenya’s Muslims second-class citizens.
In the constitutional review process from 2000-2005, Islamic leaders sought to expand the role of local Sharia codes, applied by kadhis courts, from matters of inheritance, marriage and divorce, to some areas of national jurisdiction, including civil and commercial disputes. One quarter of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission consisted of Muslim representatives. The effort encountered organized resistance from Christian leaders, who felt that Islam should not be afforded special rights in the Constitution. Some leaders also raised the spectre of Kenya becoming like Nigeria or Sudan, specifically raising fears that Sharia could be applied in the predominantly Muslim northern, north-eastern and coastal provinces to abuse Christians. The Commission’s final draft maintained the language on the kadhis courts found in the 1963 Constitution. In November 2005, a majority of Kenya’s Muslims joined the majority of other Kenyans in rejecting the draft Constitution that had been approved by Parliament.
Although Kenya maintains a reputation for tolerance of its Islamic minority, in recent years that has given way to an increasing tendency to stereotype Muslims as ‘terrorists’ and security threats.. Incidents involving Muslim extremists, whether Kenyan or foreign, as well as the Saudi export of Wahabbism to some adherents along the Kenyan coast, have exacerbated the problem. However, a heavy-handed security response has often been counter-productive, with allegations of arbitrary, unlawful detention and torture.
The issues rose to the surface in 2007/2008, partly because of the deepening crisis in neighbouring Somalia and the ousting of the Islamic Courts Union. The Kibaki government was widely believed to have ‘rendered’ suspected Islamic extremists back to Kenya. Amid considerable confusion, it was claimed that some of those handed over were of Kenyan nationality and therefore should have been tried under Kenyan law.
The Somalia-based terror group al-Shabaab has continued to carry out attacks within Kenya that target non-Muslims. This has led the Muslim community facing increased discrimination, particularly in terms of anti-terrorism measures. Various human rights and Muslim organizations have claimed that certain Muslim communities are the victims of arbitrary arrest, detention, and extrajudicial killings. Though the government denied the accusations, in 2015 a government report was leaked that expressed concern that anti-terrorism measures were disproportionately targeting ethnic Somalis and Muslims. Kenya’s increasing treatment of its Muslim population as a security threat has resulted in regular crackdowns on ethnic Somalis in particular, including residents of the Eastleigh neighbourhood in Nairobi, and is also a major driver of the government’s recent push to forcibly repatriate thousands of Somali refugees residing in Dabaab camp to Somalia.
In April 2015, the government cancelled the licenses of two well-known human rights groups, MUHURI and Haki Africa due to alleged links to terrorism. However, other human rights organizations claimed they were unfairly shut down due to their criticism of the government, which highlighted its discrimination of Muslims. When the loss of licenses did not stop the organizations from continuing their work, the government then froze their bank accounts. By November 2015, the Mombasa High Court ruled that the government had to both remove the organizations from the lists of organizations that sponsor terrorism and unfreeze their bank accounts.
Updated January 2018
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