An African Vortex: Islamism in Sub-Saharan Africa

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Though emerging from colonialism in 1963, radical Islam’s advance on Kenya was slowed by the muscular leadership of Jomo Kenyatta (1963-1978) and Daniel Arap Moi (1978-2002).  As inNigeria, however, such strict rule created a climate in which the Islamist order came to be seen by some as a desirable alternative.  With political liberalization arising in the context of the transition to democracy in 1992 and the first civilian transfer of power in 2002, Islamists were given great freedom to implement their program.

As elsewhere in Africa, foreign states have been active in promoting various forms of Islamism in Kenya.  Tehran has been a leader in the Islamist drive.  Hardly covert in its push to export the revolution to Kenya, the Iranian Embassy in Nairobi – through publications, lectures, mass media and by sending young Kenyans to Iran for study – stresses, in the words of scholars Charlotte and Frederick Quinn, “the Iranian desire to restore Islam to its former glory, while attacking ‘satanic forces’ of imperialism and Zionism.”[43]  Libya has also figured prominently in Kenyan Islamism.  By the early 1980s, Tripoli was sending Islamic teachers to Kenya and bringing Kenyan students to Libya for study.  So strong was Qaddafi’s support for unrest in Kenya that in 1987 Moi ordered the Libyan embassy closed and its staff expelled from the country.[44]  And not surprisingly, the hand of Riyadh is evident – WAMY, al-Haramain, and the MWL having been particularly active in Kenya.

The efforts of its foreign sponsors have undoubtedly increased the prominence of Islamism in the country over the last few years.  Unlike the loose movements of Nigeria, however, Kenyan Islamism has arranged itself into more structured organizations with immediate political objectives.  The Council of Imams and Preachers in Kenya (CIPK) can be thought to be the face of Kenyan Islamism, while the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM) is another large group steering the Islamist movement.  By portraying themselves as a counterweights to a government that is secular, pro-Western and hence hostile to Kenyan Muslims, these groups are beginning to seize control of Islam in Kenya.

Among their Islamist activities, CIPK and SUPKEM have opposed the government’s efforts to curtail terrorist activity within its borders, establishing themselves as vocal critics of measures such as the Anti-Terrorism Bill.  They have condemned the investigation of madrassas suspected of harboring terrorists – CIPK’s secretary general contending that the move was “influenced by the American government in its bid to suppress Islam.”[45]  And they have criticized the government’s closing of Al-Haramain and Al-Muntada for suspicion of supporting terrorism, and have petitioned for their reopening.[46]

Kenyan Islamists have found their most effective tool, however, to be the demand that Kadhi courts (Islamic courts) are enshrined in the national constitution currently being constructed, which would thus allow segments of Kenyan society to be governed by shari’a.  Opposition to this measure has become the most divisive issue in Kenyan politics. As described by the General Secretary for the National Council of Churches of Kenya, such proposals “are discriminative in nature as they seek to elevate Islamic religious courts.”[47]

CIPK’s chairman, Yemeni-born Sheikh Ali Shee (trained at Sudan’s Universityof Omdurman), has threatened secession by Muslims in the North Eastern and Coast provinces if Kadhi courts are neglected.  Even moderate opposition to the expansion of the courts is portrayed by Islamists as an attempt to suppress Islam.  The possibility that the issue be subject to a referendum, for example, was rejected by SUPKEM’s secretary general, who threatened that Muslims will fight for Kadhi courts “even if it means going through fire or blood shed.”[48]

Such threats should not be considered idle, as political Islam inKenyaappears only one degree removed from violence. Kenya’s porous borders, proximity to the lawless and war-torn regions ofSudanandSomalia, and increasingly radical Muslim population have made it inviting to Islamic militants.  The 1998 bombing of the American Embassy inNairobiand the 2002 attacks on Israeli targets in Mombassa demonstrate howKenyahas been used as a soft target by terrorists, due to the large Western presence in the country.

David McCormack
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