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Why mosques at Kenya's Coast have turned into hotbeds of Islamic radicalism

By Stanley Mwahanga | November 18th 2014

On June 10 this year, Sheikh Mohamed Idris became the most prominent moderate cleric to be killed by suspected Muslim radicals.

Before his murder in Likoni, Idris was the chairman of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK) and former imam of Sakina Mosque for close to two decades. On November 27, 2013, he was violently ousted from Sakina Mosque by radical youths who began a violent campaign against all mosques and imams associated with CIPK.

The mosque he led now stands accused of hosting armed militants. Police also claim weapons have been found at the mosque's twin sister Musa Mosque, where the take-overs began before spreading to Sakina. Police averted a take-over of Umar Khattab and Liwatoni mosques in night-long vigils.

Officials and moderate imams blamed supporters of radical islamist Sheikh Sharif Abubakar alias Makaburi for the take-overs. Makaburi, who was killed by unknown men on April 1, denied a direct role but famously supported the youths' agenda when he said: "The youth are disgruntled and fed up with the leadership of people who are concerned only with their economic interests."

Although they appeared to be under the control of Makaburi, the youths were ideologically the orphans of Sheikh Aboud Rogo, the radical islamist and suspected Al-Shabaab mastermind who was killed in Mombasa by unknown men on August 27, 2012.

Rogo was a good orator who cut his teeth during the Islamic Party of Kenya (IPK) led uprising at the Coast in the 1990s. After a failed political career, Rogo, a product of various Islamic colleges, plunged into extremist politics and made Sakina Mosque his base alongside the older generation of radicals in the mould of Idris and other IPK leaders who would later morph to form CIPK in the early 2000s.

Sakina then established its credentials as the base of the IPK and the Muslim uprising as well as the spiritual headquarters of the then rising revivalist Islam, making it the target of several police crackdowns. Key players at Sakina at the time were former Muslim activist Sheikh Khalid Balala, now living a quiet life in Mombasa, Omar Mwinyi, the current MP for Changamwe and Sheikh Mohamed Khalifa now with CIPK.

Following a heavy Government crackdown, several Islamists were jailed or banished. The base of radical politics now inspired by Al-Qaeda moved to Musa with Rogo and his ilk taking greater control of the Islamist movement.

Unlike the new actors at Musa, the IPK activists were motivated by domestic or national goals against poverty and marginalisation, among others, and were able to forge links with Christians and secularists, especially with Ford-Kenya with whom IPK formed a pact and ties that survive in many ways to date.

The unrest and take-overs staged from Musa and Sakina mosques exposed the weakening roles of moderate imams and mainstream Muslim groups like the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (Supkem) and CIPK.

In an interview with The Standard early this year, Mohamed Hyder, a prominent scholar from Mombasa, attributed the atrophy of mainstream groups to self-inflicted failures. "These bodies need reorganisation and democratisation," he said of the mainstream Islamic organisations.

endemic poverty

Mandera Senator Billow Kerrow later said: "The revolt by the youth reflects disaffection with the status quo. Prof Hyder argued that the rapidly changing socio-economic and political environment in any society always weakens the influence of mainstream Islamic groups over ordinary faithful, especially the youth who seem to embrace militants in pursuit of "answers and redemption".

He argued that mainstream Muslim organisations could not claim to speak for Muslims if they were out of step with their aspirations or if they were themselves undemocratic.

He added that endemic poverty, illiteracy and lack of formal education in the midst of global influences tended to push faithful from mainstream groups towards extremists and extremism in the region.

And in interviews held following the wave of mosque take-overs, CIPK and Supkem, which wielded significant influence over the faithful in the 1990s through to 2005, conceded to have lost grip on the community in general and the war against radicalisation.

CIPK further concedes it lost the ideological war for the heart of many youths.

"Youths don't respect us and are calling us hypocrites. We fear for our lives," said the late Sheikh Mohamed Idris who lamented that CIPK's past achievements had been ignored by the new agitators

"We fought the rendition of Kenyans to Ethiopia and US because we had the support, but now youths are calling us hypocrites," Idris said as he expressed fear for his life.

CIPK and Supkem played a critical role in shaping the Muslim community's agenda and championed the fight for their rights, especially when threatened by the war on terrorism. In 2005, CIPK and Supkem adopted a common front to oppose the rendition of Kenyan Muslims suspected of terrorist-related activities to Ethiopia and the US, thereby earning mass support and respect among Muslim faithful, including the youth.

But Supkem agreed in the interview that tables had been turned on them, with Supkem's chairman for Mombasa Sheikh Muhdhar Khitamy conceding that rapid socio-economic and political changes had eroded the organisation's influence.

Khitamy said at the time: "There are people the youth are listening to, but we do not know who they are because the youth have been disillusioned by poverty and lack of opportunity".

Critics accuse Supkem and CIPK of lacking transparency and thereby becoming illegitimate, but Khitamy argues that youth rebellion is a problem all over Africa. He further alleges that Coastal youths are rebelling due to "historical injustices" and belief that mainstream organisations can neither resolve the issues nor offer them employment.

"They expect many things from us but we are not offering them. We have no jobs to give them and we are not solving their problems," says Khitamy who admits that some mainstream Muslim leaders have lost legitimacy because "they have changed the goal posts".

Muslim leaders are in agreement that poverty and redemptive messages by radical groups have tended to make Coastal youths vulnerable to radical ideas, adding that Government policies and global events also alienate them from the mainstream.

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