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Excessive government force and state assassinations in the name of counterterrorism have split the Muslim community in Kenya into moderates and radicals with differing interpretations of Jihad. Extremists attract especially impoverished youths who hold resentment towards the government as their communities continue to be marginalized and deprived

The 2 February 2014 raid on Masjid Musa Mosque (now renamed Masjid Shuhada - or the Mosque of Martyrs) in Mombasa to counter an alleged terrorist recruitment exercise has elicited divergent arguments from sections of the Kenyan populace. On the one hand, are those who defend the actions of the police saying they were justified in pre-empting a potential security threat while on the other, are those who accuse the Kenyan police of disgracing the sanctity of the Muslim place of worship and of continuously targeting Muslim faithfuls in their anti-terror campaigns. The whole issue has rekindled the debate about Kenya’s approach to the war against terror and violent extremism at the Kenyan Coast. It has also brought into question the nexus between religion and violence in Kenya. If – as is frequently stated – no religion supports violence as its mission, what then is the role and function of religion in violent extremism in Kenya, given that sections of Muslims at the Kenyan coast have backed calls for armed violence with Islamic teachings? At a basic level, do the circumstances at the Kenyan Coast necessitate calls for military jihad, as some would argue? The aim of this article is to examine the co-relation between religion and violence at the Kenyan Coast and within the context of increasing radicalization and violent extremism.

The Coastal region of Kenya is inhabited pre-dominantly by a Muslim population and has, for some time, been at the centre of separatist claims and allegations of neglect by the central government. The situation is compounded by the country’s role in the global war on terror. Muslims, especially from Kenya’s Coast, accuse the government of heavy-handed counterterrorism strategies, aiding and abetting renditions and state-sponsored assassinations of perceived radical preachers, among others. Following Kenya’s intervention in Somalia’s Juba region, the Coastal region of Kenya turned into one of the key targets for recruitment by the Somali-based al-Shabaab terror group. The subsequent police crackdown on alleged Muslim radicals, in turn, created religious tensions and ideological differences between Muslims in the region with some embracing extremist Islamic teachings while others like the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (Supkem) condemning the use of mosques for what it called “utter illegality, criminality and un-Islamic actions.” Central to the ideological differences within the Muslim fraternity is the competing interpretations of Jihad between the so called moderates and radical religious groups. What then is Jihad and to what extent do conditions at the Kenyan Coast support calls for physical Jihad?

Jihad is a term that is often used interchangeably with “holy war.” It is an Islamic concept that literally means: to strive in the way of God. There are two versions of jihad: the greater Jihad (the inner spiritual struggle against one’s ego, selfishness, greed and evil) and the lesser Jihad (the physical outer struggle in self defense when a country in which Muslims reside is unjustly attacked or illegally occupied)[1].There is certainly the problem of interpretation but whereas both forms of jihad are permissible as per the Islamic teachings, the Quran places more emphasis on the inner spiritual struggle/strive of the soul to do good. In the recent past, however, there has been an apparent reversal in prioritization of the physical outer struggle in self defence over the inner spiritual struggle especially in the context of the global war on terror.

The physical jihad is outlined in sections of the Quran such as;

2:190 Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress. Indeed. Allah does not like transgressors.

2:191 And kill them wherever you overtake them and expel them from wherever they have expelled you, and fitnah is worse than killing. And do not fight them at al-Masjid al- Haram until they fight you there. But if they fight you, then kill them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers.

2:192 And if they cease, then indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.

2:193 Fight them until there is no [more"> fitnah and [until"> worship is [acknowledged to be"> for Allah. But if they cease, then there is to be no aggression except against the oppressors.

It is, however, important to note that there are differing interpretations of the above verses and an emphasis that Quranic verses should be read together for proper meaning to be derived. Scholars argue that preconditions for physical Jihad are high such that an armed struggle can be sought only after all peaceful means of solving the problem have been exhausted [2]. It also has to be an act of self-defence, of the highly oppressed (including non-Muslims) and is worth only if the probability of success is high.

Furthermore, it is the responsibility of leaders (not individuals and organizations) with a religious mandate from the people to declare the physical jihad. Similarly, self-exposure to risk that could result in greater evil is equally prohibited but should the preconditions for jihad be fulfilled, attack against civilians, non-combatants, prisoners of war and the injured are prohibited. Muslim scholars maintain that the conditions for Jihad in Islam are compatible with international law on armed conflict. Radical Islamists, however, use the term jihad to generally mean defensive or retaliatory warfare against actors that they perceive to have harmed Muslims.

Overall, the legitimacy for “physical Jihad” as called for by some religious leaders at the Kenyan coast is contentious. It is worth noting that scholars also underline that an armed struggle was only ordained after 13 years of Muhammad’s prophet-hood (May Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) and refer to the peace treaty of Hudaybiyya between Mecca and Medina as evidence that peace should always precede armed conflict based on the number of converts to Islam after the treaty.

In line with this, one can observe that, the Coastal region is underpinned by structural problems of marginalization which may have fostered resentment toward the central government. This problem of marginalization, however, is more national than regional and does not seem to mirror the conditions necessary for the declaration of Jihad. Nonetheless, for impoverished youths, the radical religious teaching provides them with affective gratifications and hope of changing their circumstances. The Kenyan government’s aggressive response to the situation has also not helped matters. Nor has the support base of the overall global war on terror which is already questionable from a basic human rights perspective. Government’s attempt at violent suppression also seems to lead to further violent resistance.

A solution to ideological wars stepped in structural conditions of poverty and deprivation lies in political processes and dialogue rather than on heavy-handedness. Kenya needs to take local, national lenses to look at the situation in the Coastal region rather than counter-terrorism lenses as well as proceed carefully in responding to increasing radicalization with the need to find viable, inclusive and fair economic and political processes. It is also important for respectable religious leaders to take the initiative to promote dialogue around the core values and commitments of Islam as a religion including on the concept of Jihad.

Hawa Noor Mohammed is a researcher based in Nairobi, Kenya.



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