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January 21, 2019

Constructive engagement is crucial in war against terror

The past few months have seen a lot of anger among Kenyans arising from the anguish that has been inflicted on the country by various acts of terrorism starting with the September 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi to the March 2014 machinegun attack on a church in Likoni, Mombasa where toddler Ostrin Osinya was the victim whose injuries pricked the conscience of many and stirred-up emotions in equal measure.

 While terrorism is a crime that can be perpetrated by anyone with the appropriate evil mind, the current trends of this senseless and heinous crime are wrongly associated with Muslims. In this regard— and truth be told— when majority of Kenyans get angry with terrorism, they are, deep down in their hearts, angry with their Muslim brethren.

 It is important to point out that Muslims are a minority in Kenya, and when we say that majority of Kenyans are angry with Muslims because of being wrongfully associated with terrorism, we are essentially saying that the majority that is angry in Kenya is Christian. Consequently, the situation has been made to look like Christians are the victims of terrorism while Muslims are the perpetrators.

 But it is also important to point out that the Christian majority knows and acknowledges that the acts of terrorism blamed on Islam are perpetrated by a very small section of individuals who claim to be Muslims. The question, however, is— despite knowing and understanding that only a small clique of individuals motivated by “misplaced” and “deviant” ideology that is informed by global geopolitics, why would the Christian majority still appear to be angry with almost the entire Muslim community?

 The answer is simple. The anger of majority of Kenyans is directed at two categories of Muslims that form the whole as far as the issue of terrorism is concerned. The first category is the small section of Muslims believed to be comprised of violent extremists responsible for the actual acts of terrorism while the second category is the majority comprised of the mainstream Muslims who are blamed for doing nothing to stop their wayward brethren. Let us focus our attention on this second category—the mainstream.

 It is, indeed, unacceptable to condemn an entire community for the sins of a few members of the community— of all people, the Kenya Christian society should know this better than anyone else because the central theme of the New Testament is individual liability for any sin committed (every person carrying his own cross) as opposed to the theme of the Old Testament of collective liability where God would punish all the Israelites for the sins of one or a few. However, it is also important for mainstream Muslims to understand why majority of Kenyans are angry with almost the entire Muslim community. The reason lies in Edmund Burk’s famous quote — “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

 There is a genuine feeling among many Kenyans that terrorism is thriving because the mainstream Muslims are doing nothing to stop the thousands of Muslim youth from being radicalized and recruited into violent extremist and militant groups. On the other hand, mainstream Muslims feel that there is nothing they can do in excess of what is within their capacity to stop the radicalization of the youth. As much as mainstream Muslims have always come out strongly to condemn acts of terrorism whenever they occur, the Christians, however, feel that mainstream Muslim leadership can and should do much more than verbal condemnations.

 At the end of it all, the atmosphere is poisoned and the blame-game is raging on because of failure of communication, as neither the Christians nor mainstream Muslims seem to understand each other. So, how do we deal with this failure of communication so that the good efforts towards counter violent extremism are not undermined by the poisoned climate of mutual suspicion and anger? The answer is straight forward— Muslims and non-Muslims including leadership in government, through various respected forums and institutions, should engage each other more constructively so that the former can understand the source of the latter’s anger, and the latter to understand the limits within which the former can operate to stop radicalization of youth. In this way, all the stakeholders can come up with an all-inclusive strategy that would assist the government and policy makers to effectively respond to the security challenge posed by terrorism.

 But before such engagements commence, it is important for we Muslims of good conscience to put our house in order by, first and foremost, stopping to live in denial and accepting that there is a big problem within our Muslim community. This problem, which started a couple of years ago in the form of radical and extremist narrative being spread through institutions of worship and other community infrastructure, is what has snowballed into the ogre that is violent extremism and terrorism today. In essence, we Muslims, especially the leadership, must accept some moral responsibility for allowing a small clique of violent extremists to take over our institutions of worship and turning them into grounds for recruiting and breeding the youth into violent extremism.

 Once we admit our failures and challenges on the equal measure, we can then face the challenge at hand confidently by being at the forefront of finding solutions and implementing counter-violent extremism interventions. The just concluded Islamic conference in Nairobi where Muslim clerics, scholars and political leaders from around the world urged local religious leaders to reach out to the youth and deter them from falling into the trap of radicalization is one of the commendable efforts that moderate Muslims should support as part of their contribution in the fight against terrorism.

 At the first Annual Islamic Conference in Nairobi held at the end of April 2014 where thousands of Muslim faithful were in attendance, guest speakers were bold enough to point out that the core message of Islam had been corrupted by a few individuals posing as Sheikhs, Imams and Muslim scholars with the intent of turning the youth to violence.

 “Many in the world have misunderstood and abused the message of Prophet Muhammad. That is why we call on all local teachers to refresh the people’s understanding of the lifestyle and teachings of the Prophet,” said Sheikh Ahmed Hameed.

 London based Muslim scholar and Imam Wasim Kempson said Prophet Muhammad is “the most misunderstood individual” in modern times but this is not a reason to respond with violence and say “off with the heads” of those who insult the Prophet.

 “We are emotional beings, and someone who insults the Prophet is seen as someone who has insulted your mother. But we should practice restraint and avoid knee-jerk reactions. We should respond in a way that reflects and demonstrates the good nature of the Prophet,” said Imam Hameed.

 However, it is not enough for mainstream Muslims to just condemn violent extremism in media conferences. They should start partnering with other stakeholders, including government, to reach out to the youth who have fallen into the trap of radicalization. Apart from preaching the true message of Islam as a religion of peace, they should initiate and support programmes that address the push and pull factors that cause the youth to get recruited into violent extremist groups.

 While the Muslim leadership has a big role to play, it is equally important to point out the shortcomings the security machinery of great nation- Kenya. The government and the conduct of its security services should be streamlined so that they don’t appear to work at cross-purposes with the efforts of the Muslim leadership. Large scale security operations to nab suspected terrorists such as the ones recently conducted in Nairobi’s Eastleigh suburb smack of wholesale condemnation and profiling of Muslim communities as terrorist. In this regard, such outdated strategies to fight terrorism and extremism should be abandoned lest they infuriate and disenchant even the mainstream Muslims who are expected to take the lead in fighting violent extremism.

 It would, therefore, be highly advisable for the government security services to adopt new approaches of dealing with violent extremism and terrorism. This new strategy should be intelligence-driven as opposed to guesswork and use of brutal force. In this regard, this could be the time the government of Kenya did what other advanced countries have done to secure themselves against the threat of terrorism. The government should invest in good and effective intelligence and then reorganize all its security apparatus to ensure effective coordination and efficient and effective chain of command.

 Investing in good intelligence simply means that the fight against terrorism should be knowledge-based. Once the fight against terrorism becomes knowledge-driven, the reorganization of the various security apparatus can follow through an appropriate system of identifying and allocating both human and material resources. In essence, Kenya should work towards establishing a department of homeland security or something close to that.

 The concept of "Homeland Security" extends and recombines responsibilities of as many government agencies and entities responsible for security as possible. Although homeland security is overwhelmingly a government function, international best practices have shown that the incorporation of civilian entities accords it legitimacy and the goodwill of the people. This is where the expertise and experience of respected Muslim organizations become useful. Any attempt by government especially intelligence community to create “friendly” organizations to serve their interest will terribly backfire. In the battle of minds and hearts, respect and goodwill are key ingredients of engagement.


The writer is the deputy secretary general of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims.

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