Kenya's constitutional vote on sharia courts pits Muslims against Christians

Kenyans protest the proposed constitution, which goes for a vote next month. Ten percent of the country is Muslim.
Kenyans protest the proposed constitution, which goes for a vote next month. Ten percent of the country is Muslim. (Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)
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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

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."

Centuries of tradition

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.

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