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On 29 November 2013, a group of Muslim youths took over Sakina Jamia mosque in Majengo, Mombasa from its Imam, the late Sheikh Mohamed Idris, forcing him, his personal aide and the national organizing secretary of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK), Sheikh Mohamed Khalifa out of the mosque. The three are said to have been shielded by “moderate” youths from being harmed by perceived “radicals”. This was part of a trend.

Between 2013 and 2014, several mosques in Kisauni and Majengo in Mombasa County, namely Umar Ibn al Khattab, Liwatoni, Mbaruk, Swafa’a, Mina and Rahma, had either been seized or were about to be seized by charged youths who further threated to extend their actions to the entire Mombasa County. The youths claimed that the clergy lacked the legitimacy to serve them because they had failed to address the myriad of problems affecting Muslims, including discrimination by the state’s predominantly Christian elites with whom the clerics cooperated.

Soon after, two main narratives emerged to explain these developments that were taking place against the backdrop of heightened al-Shabaab attacks and mobilization on Kenyan soil. One was that the youth were legitimate reformists who had had enough of their clergy’s hypocrisy while the other, which ultimately became mainstream, accused them of pursuing a hidden external “extremist” agenda to create a state of anarchy through violence.

However, to understand and make sense of this contention, it should be remembered that discord between “Muslim leaders” and their constituency was nothing new when the riots began. What was relatively new were al-Shabaab’s activities in Kenya. To gain constituents, al-Shabaab’s mobilization strategy is that of creating division in society while at the same time building social solidarity (Assabiyya) with the targeted group. It does this by using its intelligence network (Amniyat) and its social capital in the form of a rich mastery of the functioning of the target society.

Much like in mainstream political campaigns, these are shaped into various narratives that reflect the target group’s dynamics, characteristics, and concerns. The process is known as framing and involves construction of meaning. While diagnostic frames identify problems in the system and link them to a cause, prognostic frames propose solutions and strategies to solve the identified problems. In addition, motivational frames provide a rationale for action and together, these frames form collective action frames that promote and legitimize the activities and campaigns of a movement or organization. This does not occur in a mechanistic manner; instead, it involves constant negotiation and is mediated by social, political, cultural and historical factors within a given context. During this process, frame alignment and frame resonance can be achieved. Frame alignment is when the interests and beliefs of a movement converge with those of a target audience while frame resonance is when frames become plausible (acceptable) to the target audience; it enables their mobilization/participation. Therefore, the Mombasa riots have to be analysed in this context although it is crucial to first appreciate the state’s position in this conflict.

The contention between Muslim citizens and their state is almost as old as the Kenyan nation-state itself given the myriad of historical issues dating as far back as the reign of the sultanate of Zanzibar, to contemporary claims such as marginalization and demographic size. At the centre of these are Muslim leadership entities in their diverse capacities—whether religious, quasi-religious, civil society or elective-political—who have come to define their role as intermediaries and administrators of Muslim affairs. Excluding elective politics, the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM) was the pioneer in this attempt to administer and manage Muslim affairs. SUPKEM replaced its predecessor, the National Union of Kenyan Muslims (NUKEM) in 1973, the first Muslim organization formed in 1968 in the context of fears that independent Kenyan elites would opt for secularity and abolish customary religious laws.

SUPKEM was headed by two junior members of the then ruling party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU) against the backdrop of failed secession attempts by the Muslim majority at the coast and in the former Northern Frontier District. As a result, and due to rising political temperatures at the time, SUPKEM’s officials encouraged Muslims to be loyal to President Moi and his KANU party in return for support from the government as the legitimate representative of Kenyan Muslims. This led to the appointment of some Muslims to government.

Later, in the 1990s, with the opening of the democratic space and eventual banning of the Islamic Party of Kenya (IPK) by Moi, Muslim civil society organizations, many of which were newly formed by former democracy activists, remained as the only bridge between the state and Muslim citizens. They include the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK) and Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI). With relatively minimal returns, most of these organizations tend to address issues such as the underrepresentation of Muslims in government and public institutions, neglect of those parts of the country with a majority Muslim population, especially in terms of number of schools, employment and other opportunities. It is worth mentioning that these are the same issues that had led to the formation of the IPK.

Due to rising political temperatures at the time, SUPKEM’s officials encouraged Muslims to be loyal to President Moi and his KANU party in return for support from the government.

However, these Muslim organizations are broadly perceived by their constituents as bipartisan, especially because of their relationship with the state and persistent internal wrangles. Some (and perhaps many) members of the clergy (Imams), who either head various mosques or are members of various Mosque Management Committees (MMCs) across the country, are also perceived as bipartisan by virtue of their association with these Muslim leadership entities. This concern and accusations of failure to deliver on their mandate is what was at the centre of the push to “overthrow” and “replace” certain clergy from their pulpits in Mombasa back in 2013 and 2014.

Regardless of the truth in these claims, this was also an opportunity for al-Shabaab to mobilize, judging from the timing and the content of the claims. Sheikh Aboud Rogo—considered an al-Shabaab protégé in Kenya—often spoke about the marginalized status of Kenyan Muslims whom he urged to refrain from engaging with the state. Aboud Rogo pointed to what he termed as failures of secularism and democracy, and claimed that some Muslim leaders had become hypocrites and puppets of the regime who were still clinging on to what he saw as an illegitimate political system. These leaders, he claimed were apostates because they continued to remain silent in the face of discrimination and victimization of Muslims and so they had a shortage of faith (iman) and needed to pronounce the Muslim profession of faith (kalimat) afresh. The ultimate solution according to Aboud Rogo was, therefore, violence in the name of “jihad”.

This is an illustration of how instrumentalization of grievances led some Kenyans to join al-Shabaab, a process that cannot be de-linked from its historical context, yet literature on al-Shabaab and other groups that militarize religion tends to ignore these dynamics. It is also highly likely that these factors will continue to have significance, and the risk of being instrumentalized by similar armed non-state actors will remain.

Today, although confrontations between the so-called “radicals” and “moderates” are no longer visible on the streets thanks to the War on Terror (WOT) that has been waged in a variety of ways, this should by no means be mistaken for successful conflict settlement. On the contrary, going by cases of abductions, disappearances and extra-legal killings, a perpetual state of fear seems to exist. The situation for Muslim leaders and activists today seems more terrifying than at the height of the democratic activism of the 1990s when state-perpetrated violence was the main threat. Without exonerating them of whatever wrongdoing they may be accused of, Muslim community leaders owe their communities—at least as long as they perceive themselves as leaders who have a crucial role to play in preventing the instrumentalization of community affairs.

In order for them to play this role, however, it is crucial that they are guaranteed a safe environment. With the increased involvement of East Africans in the activities of groups like al-Shabaab, the region—and Kenya in particular—has become a marketplace of various counter-terrorism (CT) activities. While it is beyond question that some of these measures have led to some success in terms of thwarting attacks, they have also come at a tremendous cost, polarising relationships between the state and its Muslim citizens, as well as amongst citizens.

The situation for Muslim leaders and activists today seems more terrifying than at the height of the democratic activism of the 1990s.

Al-Shabaab’s claim of fighting for Islam by attacking non-Muslim civilians, and the fact that known al-Shabaab bear Muslim names, has worsened the situation as resentment against Muslims rises with the perception that they are al-Shabaab sympathizers. Engaging in civil rights activism as a Muslim has therefore become an increasingly dangerous endeavour because one is likely to be labelled either as a suspected “terrorist” (an al-Shabaab sympathiser) or as an apostate (a Kenyan-state sympathiser). Muslim activists and leaders have therefore lost much of their agency yet it is this agency (and accountability) that is also crucial in the struggle against al-Shabaab and its narratives.

Following the recent kidnappings of two prominent Muslim scholars, Professors Abdulwahab Sheikh Abdiswamad and Hassan Nandwa, a number of Muslim leaders led by SUPKEM chairman Hassan Ole Naado and Abdullahi Abdi of the National Muslim Leaders Forum (NAMLEF), in cooperation with other civil society groups, came out to strongly condemn the abductions and called out what they termed a “War on terror”-turned-“War on Islam” and the treatment of Muslims as second-class citizens. The outcry resulted in the release of the two abductees. Therefore, if there is anything to be learned from this experience, it is that Muslim leadership, whether political or in civil society and as an intermediary between polity and the state, is crucial and can no longer be brushed aside, especially at a time when the militarization of religion seems to have become the norm.

The current status quo has become a catalyst for the mobilization to violence, which means that something has to change for the situation to improve. No one has the social capital to understand Muslim communities better than Muslims themselves and, therefore, constructive engagement should first mean breaking the hierarchy that separates Muslim elites from their constituents at the grassroots. A multitude of interventions can then follow, from issues of their legitimacy and capacity, to the grievances of the Muslim community and even the situation of women that was recently the subject of a hot debate. Most significantly, it should mean more than press briefings during times of crisis as was recently witnessed; after all, organizing and accountable leadership is one of the best and most cost-effective strategies to stop an al-Shabaab that thrives on local concerns and narratives.