The impact of a world drunk on religion is about to unfold

04Jan 2016
East African News Agency
The Guardian
The impact of a world drunk on religion is about to unfold

It is ironic that in today’s world, nothing is as divisive as man’s beliefs in how he should reach out to God. Religion has been behind some of the worst conflicts and atrocities in history, and this remains true in our day as well.

Listening to politicians and people on the streets, one would be forgiven for thinking that religious fundamentalism is something to be found in the Middle East and a few other isolated spots around the world. Nigeria is an obvious victim, far away from us.

But East Africa has not escaped the madness. Like other religious conflicts around the world, it is not home grown. The ideas over which men fight were brewed in distant lands in the Middle East and Europe.

And whenever there is any unfairness over the distribution of resources, any perceived difference between the faiths of the protagonist groups immediately translates the conflict into a religious flare-up.

For years, Uganda soldiered against the Lord’s Resistance Army, which claimed it wanted the country ruled using the 10 Commandments.

Unfortunately for many Muslim-bashers and Christian apologists, this group was not motivated by Islamic but Christian teachings. Yet, it was as cruel as terrorist organizations come.

Sudan, which for years supported the LRA insurgency in a tit-for-tat war with Uganda, has also had its fair share of religious controversy. Uganda supported Southern Sudanese rebels fighting for secession, a war that was partly motivated by religious differences.

In particular, the South resented the Khartoum’s imposition of Islamic Sharia law in the whole country, even though most Southerners followed Christian and traditional faiths.

But it is Somalia’s Al Shabaab militia that has gone into overdrive in its efforts to bring a wedge between Christians and Muslims in East Africa.

Taking advantage of historical grievances of marginalization, it has helped radicalize large numbers of young Muslims, especially in Kenya.
For a time, it appeared that Al Shabaab’s strategy was working.

But the effect of Al Shabaab’s strategy has also been to cause even greater marginalization in Muslim-dominated lands as non-locals fled these areas.

That has left these places with a severe shortage of doctors, nurses, construction workers, and other services that were largely provided by non-Muslims from other parts of Kenya. That, more than anything else, has pushed the residents to the wall, making them seek to stop Al Shabaab in its tracks.

This explains the recent internationally-acclaimed case where Muslims refused to be separated from Christians in a bus, shielding them against a massacre.

And while this is important in showing that East Africans have refused to follow the path of religious extremism and bigotry, it is also a pointer that there is a very real danger of this happening.

In a global village where information almost literally travels around the world at the speed of light, the effect of what happens in one part of the world affects relations thousands of kilometres away.

The attacks on Paris are creating a backlash against Muslims throughout the Western world, giving Islamophobes a field day. Yet, the views expressed in the Western press influence local thinking around the world, including in East Africa.

Closer home, there is the Boko Haram monster in Nigeria, which provides fodder for local Islamists to try and replicate their murderous feats.

The conflict in the Central African Republic, again one with a religious dimension but where Muslims have mostly been left holding the short end of the stick, is yet another reminder that East Africa isn’t that far away from today’s theatres of religious war.

The realignment of a section of Al Shabaab militants to give allegiance to ISIS further internationalizes the conflict in the Horn of Africa.

Underlying tensions in religious hotspots such as Kenya’s northern and coastal counties, as well as Zanzibar, could go a notch higher given the direction of global and regional conflicts.

In 2016, therefore, we are likely to see the various factors and players that encourage religious zealotry having an even greater impact in East Africa. This will affect not only relations between various faith communities, but politics and security as well.

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