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Just as we should deplore the role of religious extremism in terrorist acts, we must reject extremist intolerance and antipathy towards sexual minorities, argues Audrey Mbugua. Rather than 'surrender your brain' to hate-mongering religious leaders and misplaced fear, Mbugua stresses, we must focus on promoting peace and understanding.

On 11 September 2001, America woke up to watch helplessly as 2,752 people lost their lives as a result of a series of coordinated suicide attacks by al-Qaeda. Nineteen al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial passenger jet airliners and intentionally crashed two of the airliners into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, killing everyone on board and many others working in the buildings. The hijackers crashed a third airliner into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, just outside Washington DC. The fourth plane crashed into a field in rural Pennsylvania, after some of its passengers and flight crew attempted to retake control of the plane, which the hijackers had redirected toward Washington DC. There were no survivors from any of the flights. The ensuing economic losses wreaked havoc for many in the airline and insurance industries. Jobs were lost across the globe but the resilience of man reversed much of the losses in years to come.

But, I shouldn’t take you readers thousands of miles away. In the 8 August 1998 US Embassy bombings, 212 Kenyans were killed in a bomb explosion at the United States embassy in Nairobi. Over 3,000 were wounded, with hundreds losing their eyesight and limbs. And, as we mourned the dead we sought answers as to why so many Kenyans would die because big brother America had some squabbles with a bunch of brainwashed Muslim radicals. And in our rage, we (like the Americans) lost sight of the root cause of such extremism entrenching more religious-based extremism against innocent civilians.

These and other unmentioned terrorist attacks across the globe are as a result of religious extremism. Religious extremism refers to the use of fear and violence to encourage obedience to religious doctrine or to assert opposition to a scientific truth or community. We mistake religious extremism for ideology but it is an insidious mental illness that feeds on an inexplicable compulsion to kill humanity. Arno Gruen said, 'The lack of identity associated with extremists is the result of self-destructive self-hatred that leads to feelings of revenge toward life itself, and a compulsion to kill one’s own humanness.'[1] So, let's stop sugar-coating religious-based hostility against minorities with sloppy labels as 'doing God’s work'. It is unacceptable in any civilised nation.

It never ceases to amaze me how we ignore the glaring atrocities committed against minorities by a large section of Christians and Muslims in Kenya. We have witnessed Christians stripping transsexual women in Nairobi and Mombasa and denying them access to medical services. Some Muslim extremists threatened to kill the homosexual community in Mombasa on prime-time news in May 2007! But no one dares to stand up and say no to these dreck. And what has religion given back to Kenyans? Misery, bitterness, overpopulation, hatred, suicides, fat cats, poverty, wasted time, wasted lives, unemployment and, of course, empty promises of eternal life. Dawkins (2001) summarised these well with:

'Parenthetically, religion is unusual among divisive labels in being spectacularly unnecessary. If religious beliefs had any evidence going for them, we might have to respect them in spite of their concomitant unpleasantness. But there is no such evidence. To label people as death-deserving enemies because of disagreements about real world politics is bad enough. To do the same for disagreements about a delusional world inhabited by archangels, demons and imaginary friends is ludicrously tragic.'[2]

Bashing lesbian, gay and transsexual Kenyans has become an easy score for preachers and priests. It's been used in congregations across the country. Sadly, Kenyans are a gullible people and their appetite for violence and miracles has turned them to easy prey for people wishing to make a quick buck. I mean, if not rebuking 'demons' these preachers would be working in holy gas stations (as Dawkins would call them), filling gullible Kenyans with hate against innocent transsexual Kenyans and other minorities.

The time has come when sensible Kenyans should stand up and say no to these cheap lines, a time to raise the stakes and demand our 'religious leaders' cease hate-mongering and instigating violence against innocent civilians. The freedom of conscience and religion cannot be limited so as to sooth the turgid egos of people who have a problem discerning fantasy from reality. And for those who have the habit of hearing voices in their heads lying to them that they are God’s vessels (remember Jonah and the whale) to violate the human rights of lesbian, gay and transsexual Kenyans, please seek help. Such distorted views of the world and the habit of hearing voices in one’s head are in most cases symptoms of schizophrenia. It is wrong to compel transsexual, lesbian and gay Kenyans to comply with laws and practices based on religious doctrine. Also, it is hypocritical for Christians to keep reminding us of the atrocities their brothers and sisters in Christ are facing in China, India and Pakistan then go ahead to violate the rights of sexual minorities in Kenya. No, we won’t respect that. Worship whatever you want but stop ruining the lives of fellow Kenyans.

There are numerous reasons why religious extremism is unacceptable. First, it denies people the right to life. For example, transsexual people in Kenya cannot access gender-reassignment therapy in our public hospitals because of religious extremism. Psychiatric co-morbidities such as depression kick in, as well as self-surgeries and genital mutilations. The end result is death. In fact, 50 per cent of all transsexual people who don’t receive medical attention die by the age of 30 years, usually as a result of suicide.

Secondly, religious extremism traps minorities in perpetual poverty and misery. There is nothing as frustrating as having qualifications for a job but then because you are a transsexual person you don’t get employed. Added to this, you are homeless because your parents and relatives have kicked you out of their house (because your gender transition is against their religious beliefs) and with no food and shelter you have to do sex work to survive. Yes, lots of transsexual people in Kenya have to survive by offering sex services so as to get as little as Ksh 100 per action. After making such peanuts getting raped in the streets, you get infected with HIV because you never sought post-exposure prophylaxis because you were scared the police and examining doctor would ridicule you. Life is extremely hard for transsexual people in Kenya and not because we have committed any crimes, but because people around us judge us negatively on top of focusing on non-issues. What link is there between what I have between my legs, my gender identity and how productive I am? And what link is there between what I have between my legs, my gender identity and your priest?

In view of the negative effects of religious extremism there is an urgent need to overhaul our way of thinking and act beyond our superficial view of the world. Why should you surrender your brain to someone just because he told you he is the path to Jesus or God? Please ask him whether there is an alternative path, one that doesn’t involve denying transsexual people access to medical services or beating up gays and raping lesbians in the street. Carl Sagan has stated it succinctly:

'If we can't think for ourselves, if we're unwilling to question authority, then we're just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit.'[3]

We need peace-building in our lives. This approach, which is aimed at addressing the underlying conditions which foster extremism, requires activities at two levels. At the macro-social level it requires work toward: a reduction of inequity and oppression; the protection of human rights; the weakening of extremist ideologies; a reduction of militarism, racism and sexism; systems that promote political empowerment, inter-group tolerance, cooperation, and non-violent conflict resolution; democratisation and participatory governance; and the strengthening of civil society. At the micro-social level it requires: a reduction of stereotypes and enemy images; the promotion of empathy, caring and intercultural understanding; and the provision of economic and social support for young people.[4]

The greatest obstacle to this is not how powerful your god is but choosing to be a slave to some religious beliefs and being a puppet for your local pastor, or whoever lies to you that life would be better if some people were denied access to medical services. We all want to develop ourselves for the few years we will be alive and pro-transgender and inter-sex development have to move beyond our government’s lip service to governance and resource allocation, the centrality of which is human rights and should have a trickle-down effect on a transsexual and inter-sex individual in a village in Nyeri or Bondo, in the end bringing about substantive development in our lives. And for the international community, we request that you shift your approach to gender development from an exclusive attention on women and their specific needs to a more broader paradigm that caters for the unique needs of transgender and inter-sex people and the hostile environment they live in as a result of their gender trajectories. The East Africa Sexual and Health Rights Initiative through the UHAI fund has set the pace. We need to see replicas of this in other donor agencies.


* Audrey Mbugua is a member of Transgender Education and Advocacy, a Kenyan organisation formed to address social injustices committed against the country's transgender community.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[1] Gruen, Arno. An unrecognized pathology: The mask of humaneness. Journal of Psychohistory. Vol 30(3) Win 2003, 266-272. Assn for Psychohistory, US.
[2] Dawkins, R. 2001. Time to stand up,
[3] Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World
[4] Wessells, Michael (2002). Terrorism, apocalyptic ideology, and young martyrs: Why peacebuilding matters.