by Alex Thurston
In 2003, many Muslims in Kenya protested against the proposed Suppression of Terrorism bill, which they feared might engender discrimination against their community. The bill, defeated then and in 2006, recently reappeared in altered form as the Terrorism Prevention Bill 2012. This time, some Muslim leaders are opposing the bill while others support its passage. Their arguments give insight into how one of Africa’s most important Muslim minority communities is grappling with issues connected to terrorism by Muslims.
Terrorism is a serious concern in Kenya. Kenya had already suffered terrorist attacks before 2003, notably with the bombing of a US embassy in 1998. But recent terrorist incidents seem to have swayed some Kenyan Muslims’ thinking on the anti-terror law. Kenya borders Somalia, and Kenyan troops have been fighting the southern Somali rebel movement al Shabab since October of last year. In retaliation, al Shabab and its supporters have targeted nightclubs and other buildings inside Kenya. On June 25, the latest in a string of grenade attacks occurred in the coastal city of Mombasa, where many of Kenya’s Muslims live.
Defeating the anti-terror bill in 2003 and 2006 was indicative of larger trends within Kenya’s Muslim community. Writing in 2009, Kenyan scholar Dr. Hassan Ndzovu detailed the history of how Kenya’s Muslims organized over time (.pdf) to make their political impact felt. He wrote, “Muslim political unity is being more clearly articulated now than any time since the [early 1990s]; however, race and ethnicity continue to be divisive factors.” The divisions he references are, in simplified form, between Kenyan Muslims of Asian and Arab descent on the one hand, and Swahili and other African Muslims on the other. Colonial and postcolonial governments have sometimes exploited these divisions, particularly non-Arabs’ resentment at their exclusion from some Arab and Asian Muslim organizations.
Regarding opposition to the 2003 terror law, Ndzovu writes that Muslims came to perceive it as anti-Muslim, as a potential pretext for police harassment of Muslims wearing certain types of dress, and as the result of unwanted American influence in the context of the “global war on terror.” (It is important to note, as Ndzovu does, that many non-Muslim Kenyans also opposed the bill, as did some international rights groups – see Amnesty International’s report here.) Although Ndzovu does not explicitly state this, my reading of his commentary on the Muslim protests against the bill is that Muslims’ political pressure on the government, including their threats “not to support the government in the 2007 elections if the bill was not withdrawn,” proved effective in blocking the bill’s passage at that time. A high degree of Muslim unity seems to have been a critical factor in making this pressure felt.
Fast forward to the present and we have Muslim leaders making arguments for and against the new law. An MP from the northeastern part of the country, Aden Dualle, opposes it with arguments that echo those of 2003 (from the Nairobi Star):
Dualle said there was a plot by the government to portray members of the Muslim community as terrorists…that it was unfortunate that the community was being fought by the same government that should be protecting them. “We also know of a scheme to profile all the Somali Muslim business people as terrorists”…He said the Somali community had been subjected to a lot of suffering since Kenya took its troops to fight in Somalia adding that that should not be the case since “they had no business with what was happening in Somalia.” The Dujis MP said the scheme to have the anti-terrorism bill introduced in Parliament was being pushed by some Western countries “for their own selfish gains.”
Meanwhile, the Association of Muslim Organizations in Kenya (AMOK) supports passage. At a press conference, Director-General Fazul Mahamed and other members of AMOK explained their support in terms of current security concerns (as quoted in the Nairobi Star):
[The Director-General] said the country was in dire need of answers following grenade attacks, warnings by foreign governments including the US government over alleged attacks and seizure of chemicals suspected to be used in making of explosives.
They said the current bill will be beneficial to Muslims including the rights of people arrested on suspicion of being terrorists or accomplices and compensation of victims of terror activities. “The current bill safeguards the security of our nation against any form of terror attacks and it will prevent any recruitment of our youths across the borders to join terror groups,” said Fazul
He said a few years ago Kenyans used to consider terrorism and terror attacks as an international problem, but it has now manifested itself and become a Kenyan local problem.
AMOK turns the logic of the law’s critics around: the bill will not target Muslims but protect them, and represents not outsiders’ agendas but a response to local problems.
The debate over whether anti-terrorism laws are critical to national security, or harmful to human rights, has occurred in many countries, including the U.S. In Kenya, it’s significant that this debate is taking place not only at the national level but within the Muslim community as well. It was difficult to find detailed information about AMOK or to get a sense of how many constituents it represents. Its leader seems to be quite young. Perhaps AMOK is an outlier within the Kenyan Muslim community. Perhaps other Muslims will reject AMOK as “pro-government.” Yet its statements reflect changing views on the nature and relevance of terrorism within at least some small parts of the Kenyan Muslim community. If AMOK does represent a significant constituency, the political unity that helped Kenya’s Muslims block previous versions of the anti-terrorism law may not hold, which could allow the bill to pass this time.
Alex Thurston is a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at Northwestern University. For 2011-2012, he is conducting dissertation fieldwork in Northern Nigeria. Alex has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, and The Guardian. He blogs at http://sahelblog.wordpress.com, and is a regular contributor to The Revealer.
With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.