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Header image The Religion Factor

Situating freedom of religion or belief ideals in local social transformational projects in Kenya

Date:12 May 2023
Author:Fathima Azmiya
FORB projects empower youth through interfaith dialogues in remote communities to build peaceful and cohesive communities in the Tana River County, Kenya.
FORB projects empower youth through interfaith dialogues in remote communities to build peaceful and cohesive communities in the Tana River County, Kenya.

How do we view and understand freedom of religion or belief (FORB) initiatives in the developing global South? How do we situate FORB within local development initiatives focusing on religion, security, and social transformation? The role of religion is complex, and understanding the nuanced role of religion in conflict, violence, and (post-conflict) social transformation processes requires empirical evidence to situate local developmental projects in their respective countries. The postdoctoral research I conduct is for the Joint Initiative for Strategic Religion Action (JISRA) project "Reimagining Religion, Security, and Social Transformation," which aims to provide input for policy and practitioners’ efforts to more comprehensively address the complex, nuanced role of religion in local development.

 Why Kenya?

Kenya has a progressive and democratic constitution that stipulates freedom of religion or belief. Kenyan laws and policies prohibit religious discrimination and protect religious freedom, including the freedom to practice any religion or belief through worship, teaching, or observance. Nevertheless, misuse of religious freedoms by different individuals, groups, or institutions is evident, along with religious discrimination, religious extremism, and religiously framed terrorism.

 Christianity is the majority religion among Kenyans. The 2019 census stated that over 85 percent of the population is Christian, among which 33.4 percent are Protestants, 20.6 percent are Catholics, 20.4 percent are evangelicals, and seven percent are from African Instituted Churches. Muslims are the largest minority, with nearly 11 percent of the population. The country also has less than 2 percent of the population, including Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, and those adhering to different traditional religious beliefs. Colonial missionaries played a pivotal role in the spread of Christianity in Kenya. Local conversations about Islam spread via trade merchants on the Swahili coast. Local and indigenous worldviews are diverse and specific to each ethnic group and culture. Where some communities rely on spiritual realms such as soothsayers, shamans, ancestral spirits, or witch doctors. Indigenous traditional beliefs often persisted even after conversions to Christianity or Islam.

Religious mistrust, discrimination and violence

Kenya remains high in religious tolerance compared to many other countries in the region. However, incidents of religious marginalization, polarization, and extremism do mark the Kenyan landscape. In the 1960s, post-independence era, the growing Christian influence in public life and politics, especially in Muslim-dominated areas such as the coastal and north-eastern parts of Kenya, led to varied forms of protest and disillusionment among specific communities. The trend of disillusionment is seen even today. Some predominately Muslim ethnic groups, including Kenyan Somalis, reported difficulties obtaining government identification cards. These communities stated that government officials scrutinized Muslims more often, requesting supporting documents not required by law, and implemented vetting processes in a biased manner. Identification cards were halted by the government in this region due to concern that al-Shabaab (a Somali-based Islamist terrorist movement called Harakat Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen) terrorists from Somalia could pose as Kenyan nationals to deceptively obtain government-issued identification cards.

 Most Muslims who criticize specific forms of discrimination by the Kenyan state against Muslims do not promote or condone violence. Nevertheless, transnational terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab and their local affiliates in Kenya such as Al-Hijra, Al-Huhajiroun, and Jaysh Al-Ayman have capitalized on Muslim grievances to strengthen their organizational agendas of youth radicalization and recruitment to carry out extremist acts mainly in Kenya and the East African region. Large-scale Al-Shabaab attacks against public targets have led to massive deaths, such as the terrorist attacks at the Westgate shopping mall in 2013, the Garissa University attack in 2015, and the DUSITD2 complex attack in 2019, among many others. Counterterrorism strategies in Kenya have concentrated mainly on the Global War on Terror agenda backed by the United States and the West. These strategies have further marginalized and stigmatized pockets of Muslim communities, resulting in the construction of Muslims as suspect communities in the war on terror.

 Implications of hard terrorism approaches have been critiqued by human rights groups, prominent Muslim leaders, and religious organizations, who have stated that the government’s antiterrorism activities disproportionately affected Muslims, especially ethnic Somalis, and particularly in areas along the border with Somalia, in Muslim concentrated Eastleigh, and in the coastal region of Kenya. Even the governmental Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), established to provide civilian oversight of the work of police, has received numerous complaints regarding intimidation, arbitrary arrest, and extortion by police.

 Religious coexistence is apparent and is the cornerstone of Kenyan multi-religious endeavours

Increased exchanges and interactions among followers of different faiths in so many different parts of the country are also visible. Interfaith interactions by religious leaders representing different religious groups, including the Anglican, Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Muslim, and Hindu communities, have increased to facilitate a peaceful election in 2022. Religious leaders played an increased role in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, where interfaith groups such as the Inter-Religious Council of Kenya (IRCK) assisted in mitigating conflicting issues between the government and the religious institutions during the closures of spaces of worship while mitigating the COVID-19 protocols.

 JISRA projects in Kenya envision peaceful coexistence via the lens of freedom of religion or belief interventions. The project is intended to enhance religious tolerance within the community through three pathways: intra-religious, inter-religious, and extra-religious. The project aims to improve peaceful interaction between religious communities through contextualization, promoting religion-sensitive FoRB policies, enhancing understanding of both state and non-state actors on gender equity, inclusion, and incorporating local stakeholders to address these key issues of freedom of religion and belief. Interventions also focus on community dialogues and capacity building to facilitate collaborations between law enforcement agencies and communities to respond to religious discrimination, marginalization, radicalization, and violent extremism in the country.

 Beneficiaries of local partners in Kenya supported through a consortium led by the Dutch NGO Mensen Met Een Missie have shown us that tolerance of the other can be cultivated through positive engagement, reflection, and accommodations of the other, even in the most marked societies grappling with religious marginalization, hateful and violent extremism, or terrorism.

The FORB-oriented projects are hailed positively for preventing religious discrimination and safeguarding minority beliefs. However, the projects are not without criticism, as local project partners and communities are encapsulated in their own worldviews. Hence, in this research, I intend to probe local narratives that interrogate these worldviews influenced by religious neo-colonial perspectives, views on conspiracy theories associated with donor agendas, and contextual realities faced on FORB projects in the local communities.

About the author

Fathima Azmiya

Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Groningen

Lecturer, Department of Social Sciences at the Technical University of Mombasa,Kenya