In Kenya's Muslim port: A tale of two mosques

One mosque got stormed early this month by Kenyan police and is associated with jihad and radicals. The other is not – but that may be changing. 

Joseph Okanga/Reuters
A police officer removes a flag hanged by Muslim youths at Musa Mosque in the coastal town of Mombasa February 2, 2014.

Kenya’s new "war on terror,” inaugurated after radical jihadis attacked a swanky Nairobi shopping mall last fall, has rocked the nation, the Muslim community, and the nation's security forces.

Since then a major police and military focus has been on the coastal city of Mombasa, and on its gritty working-class district called Majengo that features open-air welders and tin-roofed auto shops. 

Majengo has two main mosques. One, Musa Mosque, a towering green structure, acts as a haven for disenfranchised and unemployed youth, and is seen as sympathetic to clerics with links to the radical Al-Shabab sect from Somalia that claimed responsibility for the Westgate Mall massacre. Musa was the scene of police attacks and youth rioting earlier this month.

The district's other mosque, Sakina, is moderate. It is led by supporters of mainstream Kenyan Muslim groups like the Council of Imams and Preachers in Kenya (CIPK) that acts as a bridge between Muslims and the government. At Friday prayers, its imams do not preach a radical approach. 

Yet last year a group of activist youth from Musa were able to oust the leaders of Sakina, including many with ties to the CIPK. They did so on the grounds that Sakina's leaders were old-guard elitists that ignored the injustices meted out to Muslims in Kenya.

Today analysts here argue that the debates and conflicts inside Sakina mosque, not Musa, are the real battleground in the Kenyan Muslim community, and represent a possible trend toward radicalism. 

Anwar, in his late 20s, sells car parts in Majengo and attends Friday prayers at Sakina. “Sakina was all [the CIPK],” he says. “But these young people have taken over, and they want jihad. Some people have even left the mosque because these youth are bullying and harassing them.”

Anwar says that while the new radicals tried to sway him and his friends with DVDs from Iraq and other jihadist fronts, the approach backfired as too crude. However, while he and others here see the radicals as extremists, and the police as abusive, that doesn't translate into respect for mainstream leaders. “We don’t agree with any of them,” he says.

Orthodox Islam in the form of Wahhabi ideas has crept into Kenya via Saudi philanthropy projects. While the Wahhabi sect doesn't necessarily promote violence, it offers a radical approach that has created violent spin-offs. The centuries-old trade between East Africa and the Middle East has also enhanced the Gulf States in the minds of young, globally-conscious Kenyans.

Add in the anger of Muslim youth who grew up without job opportunities during Kenya's war on Islamic extremists, a war that has included alleged torture, disappearances, and assassinations of Muslims, and the situation looks volatile. Muslim civil rights leader Al Amin Kimathi, contacted in Mombasa, says extreme ideologies can take hold, for example among Muslim youth who are willing to fight in Somalia, not for pay but driven by religious ideas and emotion. 

“There are very well founded grievances against the system, so these are minds that are looking for alternatives to peg their hopes on,” Mr. Kimathi says. "They’ve already lost confidence for the status quo, for democracy, and so what comes to play is adopting more extremism.”  

The new struggle within Kenya’s Muslim leadership is a slow burning one. But it is serious enough that Anwar wouldn’t give his real name for fear of both police and his fellow worshipers at Sakina. And there are reports of moderate coastal clerics going into hiding for fear of attack by the radicals.

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