The Kenyan government having pressed the self-destruct button, appears set on accelerating the process of religious radicalisation in the country with its continual security gaffe, which can only ferment sentiments that breed terror. The deportation attempt of the Jamaican preacher, Sheikh Abdullah al-Faisal, is the latest one. The preacher, who is on the international terror watch list, has unleashed a torrent of acrimony, religious hatred and death among Kenyans.
On 16 January 2010, a demonstration by Muslims to show solidarity with the preacher who was to be deported from the country for his supposed terrorist links degenerated into riotous chaos. The immigration officials failed to discover the preacher before he got into the country. The state then proceeded to make a mess of the deportation process once it was alerted of his presence in the country. The event exposed deep-rooted problems in Kenyan societal relations and underscored an ineffectual security apparatus and the creeping repression in the country.
In hindsight, the Muslim community's decision to hold a protest rally in support of a preacher convicted of inciting racial hatred was unmistakably self-defeating. It was inevitable that all parties would be involved in all sorts of mischief. Playing right into the hands of a police force that has lately been trigger-happy and impatient with any form of assembly, the rally was bound to end as all rallies have lately in Kenya - violently. Thus the Muslims practically invited the police to desecrate their place of worship by beginning the march from Jamia mosque.
The move also served to alienate them from other Kenyans who are already wary of the constant Al-Shabaab threats from across the border in Somaliland. The US war on terror and the dedicated, but indiscriminate government support has not left the country unscathed. There is increasing resentment among other Kenyans against Muslims. The ongoing debates on the draft constitution have basically revived old religious hostilities over issues, which should never have been contentious such as the continued recognition of Kadhi's courts. Thus the protest march was highly unlikely to have popular support.
The government in turn played into the hands of the demonstrators knowing very well that they were unlikely to heed the police's so called proscription of the assembly. However, these protests were different. In addition to the usual police response in the face of demonstration, the security agents took a breather to allow other members of the public to battle the Muslims on their behalf. The government line after the riots which ended late in the night, was that intelligence had indicated that Al-Shabaab sympathisers had infiltrated the protests hence their violent response. How this vindicates the police sanctioning the public to take over their enforcement responsibility in the face of such a serious threat is unfathomable.
To compound the situation, the state subsequently conducted raids and arbitrarily arrested Muslims in major towns across the country claiming that they were weeding out illegal migrants sympathetic to the Al-Shabaab cause. The arrested included relatives of prominent Kenyan Somali leaders and a clutch of TFG Somali MPs and army generals. In the ensuing protest albeit muted, a section of the civil society termed the government action as a strategy to instil fear among the Somalis and Muslims and manipulate the general public. Profiling a community in this manner clearly alienates the Muslim communities. There is potential for more violence after Muslim youth in Mombasa signalled their intention to hold more protests in the future, and the police have promised to ruthlessly block any such attempts. Just the kind of scenario Al-Shabaab recruitment agents thrives in.
The famed Kenyan tolerance was shattered by images of the late 2007/early 2008 violence. In spite of that, violent sectarianism is not a familiar concept in the country. The al-Faisal incident has brought home the fact that Kenyans harbour religious sentiments, which could easily pit Christians and Muslims against each other. The protests revealed deep-seated resentment by non-Muslim Kenyans against their Muslims brethren contributed in part by the state tendency to shift blame to Al-Shabaab for internal security problems it is unable to manage. The Muslims, whatever their ill-advised motive for holding the protests, should have known that Kenyans would have no patience for a protest which to them was equal to a celebration of terror.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Kenyans were complicit in the repressive state actions as they handed the police the perfect excuse to carry out the raids against Somalis by attacking the protesting Muslims. By carrying arms to a ‘peaceful' protest, the incident will also give the government grounds in future to disallow demonstrations and more ammunition to justify taking away Kenyans' fundamental liberties, an undertaking that has been going on for some time.
The greater the internal strife in the country, the greater the external threat the country seems to face. Or so the leaders would make Kenyans believe. Instead, invoking Al-Shabaab to justify police brutality and the Somali raids points to the potential inability of the state security infrastructure to deal with the real threat when it transpires.
After two deaths, scores injured, violent interfaith confrontations and the trampling of Muslims and Kenyans human rights, the radical Muslim cleric Abdullah al-Faisal has finally been deported to his native Jamaica.
Written by: Deborah Osir, Researcher, Environmental Security Programme, ISS Nairobi