Let’s face it, religious conflict is already here

Saturday September 8 2012



Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga has something of a penchant for cryptic statements. He recently referred, for example, to a “hidden hand” being at play in the protests in Mombasa. This hidden hand apparently aimed to create inter-religious conflict in Kenya.

It is not clear what he is referring to. But, despite the bad blood between him and the National Intelligence and Security Service, we can probably assume that he has access to information the rest of us do not.

What is clear is that the hidden hand is not creating inter-religious conflict — but rather fanning the flames. Let us call a spade a spade.
Inter-religious conflict is already with us — and has been for some time.

Both mainstream and more fringe Christian organisations are angry.

In late June, the African Inland Church was attacked in Garissa, resulting in 17 deaths. This past month, the Seventh Day Adventists, together with the Jesus Celebration Centre, the Neno Evangelism Centre and the Pentecostal Assemblies of God were all attacked in Mombasa.

The National Council of Churches of Kenya claims a further seven Christian institutions have been attacked over the past year — and is demanding compensation for the state’s failure to prevent the attacks.


Mainstream Islamic organisations seem to be sensitive to their fellow believers’ concerns. They came out quickly to condemn both the Garissa and Mombasa attacks.

They also, in speaking to their own faithful, clarified that such behaviour cannot be condoned under Islam.

But that has not been enough. We have come far from the days of the Inter-Religious Forum — when mainstream Christian, Hindu and Muslim leaders had a unified voice on the fate of the country.

Christian leaders walked out of a dialogue called by Muslim leaders over the Mombasa attacks. Civil society leaders have, for the past week, been trying to create a new dialogue, not with any great success yet.

So what happened to us?

Probably failures on all sides, which have yet to be acknowledged and thus overcome. But such failures as there are do need to be acknowledged if we are not all, wittingly or unwittingly, to rupture even further our sense of ourselves as a collective. Which means some brutal honesty.

Within the Christian community, it may be wise to look back at the bitter battles fought over the new Constitution.

It is not surprising that most Christian organisations resisted provisions relating to equality rights (on the grounds of gender identity and sexual orientation) and reproductive and sexual rights (choice with respect to termination of pregnancy). What was surprising, however, was their resistance to the continued existence of the Kadhis’ courts.

The Kadhis’ courts, dealing with family and personal law, affect Muslim women above all. But the Christian organisations were not talking about Muslim women’s equality rights.

They were talking about religious equality rights —failing to acknowledge that our legal system is grounded in Judeo-Christian jurisprudence.

That resistance, no doubt, left a bad taste in many people’s mouths — particularly within the Muslim community, for whom the Kadhis’ courts resulted from not just the historical treaty with the Zanzibari Sultanate, but also symbolised belonging and identity.

Which is why the compromise regarding women’s equality rights was, ultimately reached — enabling Muslim women to both “opt into” and “opt out of” the Kadhis’ courts' jurisdiction.

Within the Muslim community, it may be wise to admit to and condemn the hardening tendencies, both politically and theologically, among their own faithful.

It is not that these hardening tendencies do not also need to be admitted to and condemned within the Christian community — they do.

The diffusion and import of American evangelicalism within Kenya is also dangerous — not just for its stance on (again) choice, gender identity and sexual orientation but also for its interpretation of Kenyan and world politics along the lines of so-called rapture theory.

The current affairs programming on imported American evangelical broadcasts is alarming — according to it, the “rapture” is not just to be waited for, but actively brought on in terms of how we conduct foreign policy, particularly towards the Muslim world.

But back to the Muslim community. The diffusion and import of Salafism — and, in particular, Wahhabism — is equally dangerous. Although in its origins apolitical, it is evident that, transplanted here (and to the broader Horn), its intents are as highly political as they now are elsewhere.

However small the numbers are, we would be foolish to deny that we do now have Kenyan jihadis. And those who support them or protect them — whether out of shared belief, family ties, community insularity or (justified) anger at the state.

Belief is one thing—and everybody is free to believe what they wish to believe. Everybody is also free to act on those beliefs—but only to the extent that they do not force those beliefs on anybody else. Or to harm or injure anybody else.

So yes, I’m worried when I hear Christian radio shows debating whether it is acceptable for Christians to be friends with non-Christians. Or when a young Muslim woman is attacked outside of a mosque in downtown Nairobi because she is supposedly dressed inappropriately.

I’m worried when Muslim men are being disappeared or killed instead of brought before the law if they have a case to answer. Just as I’m worried when Christian churches are being attacked.

Inter-religious conflict is already with us. And we all need to stop it.

L. Muthoni Wanyeki is doing her graduate studies at L’Institut d’etudes politiques (Sciences Po) in Paris, France