Kenyan Muslims cry out after assassination of moderate imam

The shooting of an Islamic leader who preached tolerance adds to a string of unsolved murders of clerics and imams in Kenya's coastal city of Mombasa. 

Joseph Okanga/Reuters
Muslims faithfuls carry a coffin with the body of Sheikh Mohammed Idris, chairman of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK), who was gunned down by assailants, during his funeral at the coastal port town of Mombasa June 10.

The killing by unknown assailants of a leading moderate Islamic imam in the port city of Mombasa this week is igniting calls for action and heightened security, and stirring bitter emotions in the Kenyan Muslim community, which has felt besieged in recent months as a result of a virtual "war on terror" in the country. 

Sheikh Mohammed Idris, the chairman of a prominent Kenyan Muslim council and an advocate for tolerance and jobs and education for young people, was going to his morning prayers on Tuesday when he was shot and killed, according to local police.

Muslims leaders in Kenya called for the imam’s killers to be found, and warned about further attacks on moderate Muslim clerics like Mr. Idris, who often spoke against the militant ideology of Al Shabab, the Somalia-based terror group. 

Mombasa itself has been the scene of three recent unsolved killings of prominent radical Muslims – and 21 murders of clerics in all.

(In March, one of the murdered Mombasa clerics, Abubaker Shariff Ahmed, known as Makaburi, a well known figure in Kenya,  predicted his own death at the hand of police or “government agents.”)

The shooting of Mr. Idris is the first killing of a moderate cleric in a popular coastal city that has been a tourist destination, a gathering spot for Somali refugees – and of late the scene of tension between mosques with different views on Islam.

“We strongly condemn the killing of Sheikh Idris. He was not a radical and we want the government to find the killers,” says Sheikh Juma Ngao, the chairman of Kenya Muslim National Advisory Council, a Muslim public advocacy group here.

Rev. Wilybard Lagho, a Roman Catholic priest in Mombasa, said that Idris had used his Friday  sermons to preach peace and tolerance among people of different communities.

“His death is a big blow for the campaigns toward peaceful co-existence and tolerance,” says Rev. Lagho, who had worked with Idris in interfaith dialogue forums.  Idris had headed the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya, a leading council.

Months before the shooting, Idris had said his life was in danger. In the past year he clashed with Muslims youths over control of the traditionally mainstream Sakina Mosque in Mombasa, where he was chairman. The youth wanted a more active if not radical approach to the faith.  

Last December, Idris narrowly escaped a violent crowd of some 100 youths who attacked the mosque and put it under their control, meanwhile advocating for the group Al Shabab that had months before attacked Nairobi’s posh Westgate Mall, killing more than 60.  

Last year Idris spoke against Al-Shabab and radicalism and more recently urged the Kenyan government to arrest Al-Shabab financiers and other radical prayer leaders living on the coastal strip. (On May 16, he said that the CIPK council he headed is opposed to Al Shabab and violent jihad, and said that the ongoing conflict in Somalia was not a holy war.

“If he was a radical, people would have thought he has been assassinated by local or foreign security agencies, but he was not. We want to know the killers,” says Mr. Ngao.  “If the investigators cannot resolve the cases, then they should invite those [foreign investigators] who can,” he added.

Raila Odinga, the leader of Kenya's opposition party coalition, said the death underlined Kenya’s  bad state of security.

“These are just signs of what may be befall our country, if no drastic measures are taken. Kenyans must be told the truth,” Mr. Odinga said in Mombasa, where he attended the funeral of the cleric. Odinga has been calling for national dialogue to discuss issues affecting Kenya, including insecurity.

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