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

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Wednesday, July 7, 2010; A01

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.

The U.S. ambassador to Kenya has publicly urged Kenyans to vote in favor of the proposed constitution, including the kadhis courts, arguing that passage is key to keeping Kenya stable. But on Web sites and in opinion pieces, conservative U.S. Christian groups have denounced the proposed constitution. They are opposed to the kadhis courts provision, and they see other aspects of the constitution as being pro-abortion. Some have organized petition drives against the courts.

The American Center for Law and Justice, founded by evangelical Pat Robertson, opened an office in Nairobi this year to oppose the new constitution. On its Web site, the group says that the "high number of Muslims in the slums and a significant increase in the number of Somalis" have brought the kadhis courts issue into "sharp focus."

"There are those who believe there is an overall Islamic agenda geared towards the Islamisation of the country," the group says.

Last month, Kenya's high court ruled that the kadhis courts provision should be removed from the draft constitution. That decision is being appealed. Some senior politicians have railed against removing the courts from the draft constitution, partly because Muslims have become a powerful voting bloc.

'We want unity'

On June 13, explosions ripped through a park in Nairobi during a demonstration against the constitution, killing five people and injuring dozens. No one asserted responsibility, but the assault deepened the suspicion among Christian groups.

"We want unity in Kenya, but not a unity that will compromise us," said Bishop Joseph Methu, a senior evangelical Christian leader. Christian leaders say they fear that if the courts are enshrined in the constitution, "sooner or later, you will find an enclave where they will say we are predominantly Muslim and Islamic laws rule here," said Oliver Kisaka, deputy general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Kenya. "You have created space for the creation of a nation within a nation."

As evidence, the Christian leaders point to an incident in April in which a group of Muslim clerics in the northeastern town of Mandera, near the Somalia border, imposed a ban on public broadcasts of films and soccer ahead of the World Cup.

Muslim leaders say the kadhis courts protect their community's rights and cultural values.

"A good constitution is gauged by the extent to which it protects minorities," said Abdalla Murshid, a Muslim lawyer and community leader.

Other Muslim leaders said the courts would stem Islamic radicalism in Kenya. Judges, not mosque imams, would regulate the uses of sharia law. Muslims would feel a deeper sense of national identity.

Kadhis courts are an entity that binds "Muslims to the Kenyan state," said Hassan Ole Naado, head of the Kenyan Muslim Youth Alliance. "It is for the best interests of Kenya to have such courts."

A recent public debate about the courts at a hotel in Nairobi quickly degenerated into a Muslim-vs.-Christian fight.

A Muslim woman named Fatima said that removing the courts from the constitution would make it too easy for Christian members of parliament to get rid of them altogether.

"That's what we want," muttered a man in the audience.

Then a Christian said: "Who are the Muslims? Are they Kenyan or non-Kenyan? If they are Kenyan, they should be satisfied with only one court."

"The Christian clergy have a problem with Islam," said Hussein Mahad, a sheik from the northeastern town of Garissa. "But we are here to stay. We are not going anywhere."

Afterward, he declared: "This is a Christian agenda to keep Islam contained. They think we are all terrorists."

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