Muslim Leaders in Kenya Say Hatred Stirred by Christian Move to Block Laws

 
By Sudarsan Raghavan
     July 7 (Washington Post) -- NAIROBI -- For 13 years, Judge
Mudhar Ahmed has worked in relative obscurity, issuing Muslim
marriage certificates, divorcing Muslim couples and weighing in
on Muslim inheritance disputes. Now, he's facing an issue unlike
any he has seen. He has one word to describe it: "Islamophobia."
     Ahmed is the head of Nairobi's Kadhis Court, one of 17
judicial bodies that administer sharia, or Islamic law, to
Kenya's Muslim minority. The courts were enshrined in the
nation's constitution decades ago, but Christian leaders are
seeking to remove them from a proposed new constitution,
scheduled for a referendum Aug. 4. They argue that Kenya is a
secular state and that Muslims should not receive special
privileges.
     Muslim leaders say the maneuvers are part of an agenda to
deny their community rights and undermine their beliefs. "They
are creating hatred between Muslims and Christians," said Ahmed,
his soft voice hardening.
     The tussle portends a larger collision between Islam and
Christianity in Kenya, a vital U.S. ally in a region where
Washington is quietly fighting the growth of Islamic radicalism.
Many Kenyans are concerned that the tensions, if not contained,
could deepen political fissures and spawn the sort of communal
upheaval that left more than 1,000 people dead in 2008 after
elections.
     In this predominantly Christian nation, Christians are
worried about a Muslim community that is growing in numbers and
influence, and they have been vocally backed by U.S.-based
Christian groups. Muslims are wary of the rising power of
fundamentalist Christian organizations backed by American
Christians.
     The 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and
Tanzania frayed relations between Christians and Muslims. Those
links have further eroded in the decade since the Sept. 11
terrorist attacks, as concerns about Islamic radicalization and
terrorism grew in this East African country.
     Many Kenyans today fear that the civil war in neighboring
Somalia, where the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab militia is seeking
to overthrow the U.S.-backed government, could spread into Kenya.
A massive influx of Somali refugees, almost all Muslim, has
spawned xenophobia and extended misconceptions of Islam.
     "The kadhis courts issue is a red herring," said Rashid
Abdi, a Nairobi-based analyst with the International Crisis
Group. "They feed into historical prejudices on both sides and
misperceptions which has increased in the last 10 years."
     The kadhis courts have existed in Kenya for centuries. Under
Kenya's constitution, their jurisdiction is limited to matters
concerning personal law, such as marriages, divorces and
inheritances for Muslims, who form 10 percent of Kenya's
population. The courts do not hear criminal matters and have far
less power than Kenya's higher courts.
     For decades, the courts operated without controversy, under
the radar of most Kenyans.
     But after the Sept. 11 attacks, church leaders grew
concerned that the courts could breed extremism. In 2004, a group
of churches filed a court case to remove the kadhis courts from
the current constitution, but it languished for years in the
judicial system. Some Christian leaders worry that the courts
could be used to justify an expansion of sharia law in Kenya.
     The proposed constitution is part of an effort to create a
fairer balance of power among Kenya's ethnic groups. It was that
perceived imbalance that led to much of the 2008 violence. While
religion did not play a significant role in the violence, it is
now dominating the debate on the upcoming vote.
     The U.S. ambassador to Kenya has publicly urged Kenyans to
vote in favor of the proposed constitution, including the kadhis
courts, arguing that passage is key to keeping Kenya stable. But
on Web sites and in opinion pieces, conservative U.S. Christian
groups have denounced the proposed constitution. They are opposed
to the kadhis courts provision, and they see other aspects of the
constitution as being pro-abortion. Some have organized petition
drives against the courts.
     The American Center for Law and Justice, founded by
evangelical Pat Robertson, opened an office in Nairobi this year
to oppose the new constitution. On its Web site, the group says
that the "high number of Muslims in the slums and a significant
increase in the number of Somalis" have brought the kadhis courts
issue into "sharp focus."
     "There are those who believe there is an overall Islamic
agenda geared towards the Islamisation of the country," the group
says.
     Last month, Kenya's high court ruled that the kadhis courts
provision should be removed from the draft constitution. That
decision is being appealed. Some senior politicians have railed
against removing the courts from the draft constitution, partly
because Muslims have become a powerful voting bloc.
     On June 13, explosions ripped through a park in Nairobi
during a demonstration against the constitution, killing five
people and injuring dozens. No one asserted responsibility, but
the assault deepened the suspicion among Christian groups.
     "We want unity in Kenya, but not a unity that will
compromise us," said Bishop Joseph Methu, a senior evangelical
Christian leader. Christian leaders say they fear that if the
courts are enshrined in the constitution, "sooner or later, you
will find an enclave where they will say we are predominantly
Muslim and Islamic laws rule here," said Oliver Kisaka, deputy
general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Kenya.
"You have created space for the creation of a nation within a
nation."
     As evidence, the Christian leaders point to an incident in
April in which a group of Muslim clerics in the northeastern town
of Mandera, near the Somalia border, imposed a ban on public
broadcasts of films and soccer ahead of the World Cup.
     Muslim leaders say the kadhis courts protect their
community's rights and cultural values.
     "A good constitution is gauged by the extent to which it
protects minorities," said Abdalla Murshid, a Muslim lawyer and
community leader.
     Other Muslim leaders said the courts would stem Islamic
radicalism in Kenya. Judges, not mosque imams, would regulate the
uses of sharia law. Muslims would feel a deeper sense of national
identity.
     Kadhis courts are an entity that binds "Muslims to the
Kenyan state," said Hassan Ole Naado, head of the Kenyan Muslim
Youth Alliance. "It is for the best interests of Kenya to have
such courts."
     A recent public debate about the courts at a hotel in
Nairobi quickly degenerated into a Muslim-vs.-Christian fight.
     A Muslim woman named Fatima said that removing the courts
from the constitution would make it too easy for Christian
members of parliament to get rid of them altogether.
     "That's what we want," muttered a man in the audience.
     Then a Christian said: "Who are the Muslims? Are they Kenyan
or non-Kenyan? If they are Kenyan, they should be satisfied with
only one court."
     "The Christian clergy have a problem with Islam," said
Hussein Mahad, a sheik from the northeastern town of Garissa.
"But we are here to stay. We are not going anywhere."
     Afterward, he declared: "This is a Christian agenda to keep
Islam contained. They think we are all terrorists."

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