WHAT'S LURKING ONLINE?

Closing places of worship to limit virus risk creates new risk of radicalisation

In the confines of our homes, religion is becoming a rarity.

In Summary

• During the Covid–19 pandemic, religious people are searching the internet for religious knowledge, insights  and ideologies.

• But what religious content lies out there? Are extremists taking advantage of online worshiping to radicalise? 

Muslims pray at Jamia Mosque in Nairobi.
NO SOCIAL DISTANCING: Muslims pray at Jamia Mosque in Nairobi.
Image: FILE

It’s about seven weeks since the first coronavirus case was announced in Kenya.

Since then, the infections have been on the rise, standing at 384 as of Wednesday. Mombasa and Nairobi counties have the highest cases at 106 and 242, respectively.

Fortunately, recoveries have also been increasing, with almost 30 per cent of those infected being discharged. Deaths remain minimal, at only 15 on Wednesday.

To flatten the curve, the government has put in place stringent measures to reduce gatherings and ensure social distancing. One of the measures was to close down places of worship, including mosques and churches, across the country.

While the majority of the religious leaders have supported and fully abided by the government’s decision to close down places of worship, there are also those who vehemently opposed the move.

Social media is rife with videos of religious leaders arrested for defying the order. In their defence, the clerics argue that if a person is to catch the disease, whether at home or in public, it will happen. One cannot stop that which is ordained. They, therefore, see no need for closing down. If anything, they say, this is the time when the flock needs the shepherd more to guide them in prayers and bring hope.

In places such as Mombasa, the closure of places of worship brought tension, with some hardcore religious leaders blaming the authorities for the move. When the government cracked the whip and said no to religious gatherings, they were angered and condemned the move.

Their reactions stirred religious tensions among some community members who agreed with their line of thinking. While the tension was effectively managed by public awareness of the disease, with the month of Ramadhan now with us, some Muslim leaders are again calling on the authorities to reconsider the directive and allow some room for faithful to meet for prayers.

As more and more are now being asked to go online for prayers, we must ask ourselves what they might encounter out there. For years now, we have come to learn how radicalisation was done through the internet. Whether it was September 11 or the Christchurch attacks, online content was used at some point.

Presently, during the Covid–19 pandemic, religious people are scouting the internet for religious knowledge and ideologies. But what religious content lies out there? Are extremists taking advantage of online worshiping to radicalise? We must ensure the young people are not exposed to the wrong teachings.

In the confines of our homes, religion is becoming a rarity. In all faiths, mainstream and cults, religion is a social practise that brings together many to worship. When the social aspect is removed, religion is not the same.

Even in the wake of  Covid-19, religion is practised less in the homes and many are using the time they would have used to worship to do other things around the house. Unlike pre-coronavirus days when Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays were worship days in Kenya, all days are now the same. The influence of religious leaders, including madrassa and Sunday school teachers, has been reduced to nothing over this period.

This week, President Uhuru Kenyatta extended the curfew across the country and the cessation of movement into and out of Kwale, Kilifi, Mombasa and Nairobi counties. This means that places of worship will remain closed. As communities, we must find ways of mitigating any negative effects that may be brought about by the restrictions on religious activities.

Article 32 (2) of the Constitution provides that “Every person has the right, either individually or in community with others, in public or in private, to manifest any religion or belief through worship, practise, teaching or observance, including observance of a day of worship.”

While we understand that the Covid-19 situation has led to the limitation of the freedom to worship, we must remember that freedom has not been taken away completely.