Ever since the government decided to adopt a new approach in the war against terrorism by incorporating views of civilian stakeholders, I have been invited to forums to discuss the spread of violent extremist narrative through which young people, especially Muslim youth, are recruited to join terror groups. The most recent of such invitations was to the the 2nd Annual Law Conference at Strathmore University, Nairobi.
My motivation to openly discuss violent religious extremism stems from the old saying “a problem shared is a problem halved”. Sharing a threatening situation with people in similar emotional states buffers individuals from experiencing the heightened levels of stress that typically accompanies that threat.
I hope that Kenyans can find common ground given that the current threat of terrorism affects Muslim and non-Muslim alike — in the latest killings in Mandera, Neima Mohammed, the Muslim landlady of the compound where 14 quarry workers were killed by suspected al Shabaab gunmen, suffered the same fate as the innocent souls she was trying to shelter.
In my presentation at the Strathmore conference, I challenged the Muslim community to take a more proactive approach towards countering violent extremism because terrorism knows no race, ethnicity, religion or gender.
I emphasised the need for the Muslim scholarship to come out more forcefully to challenge the misleading interpretations of Islamic teachings that are often fed on gullible and vulnerable youth who end up being recruited to fight as foot soldiers for various global terror networks.
I also cautioned against the existence of violent extremism in other religions. I cited acts of terrorism motivated by religious extremism among Christians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists where Muslims were on the receiving end.
For example, the recent attack on the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma where an extremist Buddhist monk incited and led faithful to burn down a mosque and kill an entire village of Muslim women, children and the elderly by burning them alive should be condemned in equal measure.
I also cited the case of Shoko Asahara, the founder of the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo religious group who was convicted of masterminding the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway and for which he was sentenced to death.
Shoko Asahara’s religious group believed in apocalyptic Christianity based on the Biblical teachings of the book of Revelations 16:16. Asahara declared himself “Christ” and identified with the “Lamb of God”— his purported mission being to take upon himself the sins of the world. Like the extremists we see today perpetrating violence in the name of Islam, Shoko Asahara accused Jews, Freemasons, the Dutch and the British Royal Family of endless conspiracies to corrupt the world. He therefore called upon his followers to attack them, especially Jews, everywhere they found them.
These examples are intended to assist the modern world to place terrorism in its proper perspective — treat it as any other organized crime and not as part of any religious creed.
All of us agree that all religions, despite differences in articles of faith, promote peaceful coexistence and abhor the senseless slaughter of innocent beings. We also agree that there is no deity who can give one section of his creation the authority to torment and terrorise another section of his very own creation. In this regard, I reiterated that Islam is a religion of peace and that the violence purportedly perpetrated in its name by some people who claim to be Muslim should be treated as any other criminal activity.
I concluded my presentation by appealing to Muslims to remember the teachings of the Holy Quran which says; “Let there be no compulsion in religion. Surely, the right way has become distinct from error; so whosoever refuses to be led by those who transgress, and believes in Allah, has surely grasped a strong handle which knows no breaking. And Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.” (Quran Ch.2: 256).
The essence of this Quranic verse is to caution Muslims, and humanity at large, against allowing themselves to be misled into doing evil. Those who buy into violent extremist narrative that propagates hatred against others and consider themselves holier-than-thou are certainly the target of this verse. In reiterating the importance of this verse, I also cited the great historian De Lacy O’Leary who wrote: “History makes it clear, however, that the legend of fanatical Muslims, sweeping through the world and forcing Islam at the point of sword upon conquered races is one of the most fantastically absurd myths that historians have ever repeated.”
To this end, it is important to remember that Muslims ruled Spain for roughly 800 years under the Ottoman Empire. During this time, and up until they were finally forced out, non-Muslims there flourished and were never forced to convert.
Additionally, Christian and Jewish minorities have survived in the Muslim lands of the Middle East for centuries. Countries such as Egypt, Morocco, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iran and Jordan all have significant Christian and/or Jewish populations— this should come as no surprise to a Muslim because his faith prohibits him from forcing others to accept his point of view.
The writer is the Deputy Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM).