Islamist extremism in East Africa frequently centres on Somalia and the violent actions of Al-Shabaab, yet local adherents to extremist versions of Islam can now be found throughout East Africa, reveals the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, in a new report.
The growth of the Salafist ideology in the region has challenged long-established norms of tolerance and interfaith cooperation, argues the report, which highlights how the traditionally tolerant form of Islam is being switched for a much more extreme version, through internal realities and external influence.
This includes a decades-long effort by religious foundations in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to promulgate ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam throughout East Africa’s mosques, madrassas, and Muslim youth and cultural centres.
Rooted within a particular Arab cultural identity, this ideology has fostered more exclusive and polarising religious relations in the region, which has contributed to an increase in violent attacks.
Kenya, which shares a border with Somalia, has been particularly targeted. Two years ago, Al-Shabaab militants besieged Garissa University campus in Kenya’s volatile northeast, killing 147 students. Muslims were spared, but Christians targeted: the attackers killed all students present at an early morning Christian prayer meeting, and hunted down several more hiding in rooms.
These tensions have been amplified by socio-economic differences and often heavy-handed government responses that are perceived to punish entire communities for the actions of a few.
Thus the report makes a few suggestions about ways the governments of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania can tackle this issue. They should counter external influences and emphasise domestic traditions of tolerance through inter-religious dialogue, notes the report, which also points to the importance of education to balance the effects of external ideological influences.