Transitional Justice and Religion: An Examination of Faith-Based Actors in Kenyan Civil Society
Al Shabaab, or the Youth, emerged in the early 2000s77 as an affiliate of the ruling Sharia Courts.78 Its early members came from other Somali Islamist groups such as al-Itihaad al-Islammiyaa (IAIA).79 Shabaab’s commanders donned names such as Christian-killer (Gaal dille), reflecting the group’s anti-Christian and extremist ideology.80 Shabaab’s core ideology, though it has shifted and splintered over time, is broadly based on both jihadism and local political control.81
The ties to global jihadism were solidified during the Afghan war of 1979-1989 in which Somali jihadists fought with Afghan jihadists to repel the invading Soviet troops.82 The loose network of Afghanistan veterans mobilized with former members of IAIA as a small group of militia that functioned as the enforcing arm of the Sharia Courts, the ruling body in Mogadishu.83 In 2006, Shabaab successfully attacked Kismayo and publicly announced that it had non-Somali fighters and international connections.84 After the Kismayo incident, more foreign fighters joined the group.85
Training camps prepared recruits for the evolving methods of the group: suicide bombing,86 remote control devices, death threats, and assassination.87 Regional attacks increased by 2007.88 At that time, Shabaab split from the Sharia courts and became a purely insurgent group.89 Eventually, Shabaab controlled large portions of land and extracted taxes from Somalis as funding.90 Through 2008 and 2009, its territorial control expanded through successful sieges on Somali and Kenyan port cities.91 The US declared the group a terrorist organization in 2008; soon after, the UN and the EU also adopted this classification.92
Shabaab poses a major security threat to Kenya, and particularly to Kenyan Christians. Targeted attacks by Shabaab in the country began in 2009. In 2011, Shabaab began kidnapping tourists and aid workers inside Kenya.93 Shabaab militants killed 67 people in a brutal siege on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in September 2013.94
On March 31, 2014, Shabaab attacked the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi, killing six and injuring more than 25.95 And in June of 2014, Shabaab militants attacked the coastal town of Mpeketoni with explosives, killing at least 48 people.96 Most recently, in April of this year, Shabaab militants killed 147 students at Garissa University College. Militants separated Muslim and Christian students and killed the Christians.97 Kenyan officials report that in the last three years, the country has endured 61 Shabaab attacks.98
There are a few apparent reasons why Shabaab has targeted Kenya. First, inside Kenya both Muslims and ethnic Somalis have been historically marginalized99 and thus represent a group that is potentially responsive to Shabaab’s goals and tactics. Moreover, Wahhabism has increased among Kenyan Muslims, and this message of anti-secular government corresponds with “the core theological outlook of the Salafi-jihadi trend, including al-Qaeda.”100
Further inflaming tensions, the Kenyan government has forged close ties with the US, a major enemy of al Qaeda and its affiliates.101 The 2013 attack on Westgate Shopping Mall—a symbol of the West—and the 1998 al Qaeda attack on the US embassy in Nairobi both demonstrate this trend of anti-Western sentiments recapitulated in the Kenyan context.
In response to the attack on Garissa University College, the Kenyan government offered a ten-day period of blanket amnesty to any Shabaab militant who comes forward.102 The next section explores the amnesty offer and its reception among Kenyan civil society actors.
Faith-Based Responses to the Amnesty Offer
On April 16, 2015 the Kenyan government made a ten-day amnesty offer to youths who had been radicalized by al Shabaab. After coming forward, anyone could receive a pardon and the Kenyan government says it will also provide those who accept amnesty with training for alternative sources of livelihood. The Kenyan statement says, “The government hereby calls upon all individuals who had gone to Somalia for training and wish to disassociate themselves with terrorism to report to…National Government offices within the next ten days.”103
In its statement, the government explains that some recruits were tricked into traveling from Kenya to Somalia by “cunning individuals” who are “terrorists masquerading as religious leaders.”104 Indeed, one Kenyan Al Shabaab militant in Somalia who spoke under the condition of anonymity to a Turkish newspaper said he welcomed the amnesty because he was tricked into traveling to Shabaab. He said, “We were not told we were coming to fight. I was told we were coming for daawa [preaching] and religious studies.”105
The Supreme Council of Kenyan Muslims supports the amnesty, but requested an extension of the amnesty period from ten days to one month because of “the logistics involved in traveling from Somalia to Kenya.”106 A two-week extension was granted, and the Kenyan government offered text and phone hotlines for those who could not travel to a government office within the amnesty period so they could still participate in the deal.107
Other than support among some Shabaab members who want out and the Supreme Council of Kenyan Muslims, there seems to be very little domestic support for the amnesty, particularly in the faith-based sector. The Christian Leaders’ Consultative Forum issued a strongly worded press release entitled “Standing with the Christian Faith,” which denounced the amnesty offer and accuses Muslim leaders of a “lack of commitment…to address the challenges of terrorism.”108 The statement is worth quoting at length:
The religiously divisive rhetoric paints Muslims and the government as enemies to Christians, and Christians as the victims. While the rhetoric of the statement may be fiery, the deliberate targeting of Christians is undeniable. In fact, after the recent Garissa attack Shabaab spokesperson Ali Mohamoud Raghe said in a broadcast the group attacked the university because “the Christian government of Kenya has invaded our country.”110
He also said Garissa was part of Kenya’s “plan to spread their Christianity and infidelity” and was educating many Christian students in a “Muslim land under colony”—a reference to the large Somali population in Kenya, particularly in the Garissa region.111 The anti-Christian rhetoric from Raghe aligns with previous Shabaab attacks, many of which have targeted churches. For instance, in July and November 2012, Shabaab fighters attacked churches near the Kenya-Somalia border, killing more than a dozen and wounding more than 50, all of whom were churchgoers.112
The targeting of Christians is a major point of the Christian Leaders’ Consultative Forum’s statement, which says that “believers in Jesus Christ have clearly been the targets for death and maiming. It is naïve for anyone to imply that the so-called terrorism in Kenya is anything otherthan jihad against Christians.”113 Given the persecution of Kenyan Christians, it is hardly surprising that the statement continues:
Clearly, Christians recognize the threat and are becoming more hostile towards Muslims. The resistance to the amnesty, coupled with the harsh rhetoric, demonstrates a counterpoint to Philpott’s argument about the reconciliatory orientation of faith-based actors. Given that Kenyan Christians are currently under attack, it seems that forgiveness may be context dependent, and specifically dependent on the feeling of safety for faith-based actors as a precondition for forgiveness.
In fact, the hostility of Christians towards Muslims goes against historic trends, in which Kenya has been a nation with high levels of religious tolerance.115 The historic tolerance provides further evidence on the context dependence of the propensity of faith-based actors to forgive, since historically Kenyan Christians were not under targeted attacks. Nonetheless, it is a case that complicates the current conversation on religion and transitional justice and should challenge scholars to account for outlying cases.
Rather than supporting the perpetrator-facing transitional justice mechanism of the government-offered amnesty offer, the Christian Leaders’ Consultative Forum is spearheading its own victim-oriented variety of transitional justice: memorials. The statement says, “The Church leaders and Christians in general consider the people killed in Garissa onaccount of Christianity as Martyrs. And as such, a memorial monument should be built in Garissa and other placeswith the names of those killed in their honor.”116
The preference for memorialization and declaration of martyrdom demonstrates the Kenyan Christian leadership’s continued focus on the violence rather than on reconciliation. Memorialization indicates an unwillingness to forget the victims, and as a corollary the violence that claimed their lives.
Because the amnesty offer was made so recently, there is not yet scholarship analyzing the response, and many organizations and faith-based actors have not responded to the government’s actions. The situation is on-going and should be monitored moving forward. It could prove a fruitful area for research in the field of religion and transitional justice since the amnesty responds to a religiously charged conflict.
The research and analysis presented in this paper offers many important implications for future research and provides original contributions to the literature. The first implication to be drawn from this paper is that further research into the interplay of faith-based actors and transitional justice measures would provide productive insight into many conflicts, both religious and secular.
One major impediment to writing this paper was a lack of scholarly research on the particular subject of faith-based actors’ responses and opinions about transitional justice in Kenya. In the case of the amnesty offer to al Shabaab militants, it is merely an issue of recency. Hopefully this paper offers a jumping-off point for future scholarship into this important issue. For both scholars and practitioners of transitional justice, it is important to understand the faith dimensions of enacting different mechanisms, especially in highly religious contexts, such as in Kenya.
Another implication of this paper and the overarching argument presented herein is that Daniel Philpott’s review article of the state of the field of religion and transitional justice over-broadly characterizes the forgiveness and reconciliation orientation of faith-based actors. While his analysis leaves room for and acknowledges the existence of outliers, he fails to thoroughly consider them. It may be an oversight on his part, or a reflection of the true state of the literature, but in either case, it is important to recognize that faith-based actors often do not pursue forgiveness, particularly when they have conflicts of interest or on-going security concerns.
Understanding complicating factors of faith-based actors’ decision-making strategies and interests is crucial to enacting more successful transitional justice in areas where civil society is tightly connected to churches. This complication to the conversation invites a wide range of future research into this topic area that could translate into useful information in the practice of transitional justice in religious civil society environments.
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