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Dynamics of religious resurgence in the Horn

Timket, Ethiopia (2015) Life & Peace Institute

Over the last few decades there has been a resurgence of religion as a socio-political force across the Horn of Africa. This includes some violent and highly visible incidents, like the recent attack on the Garissa University killing 148 people, which in turn has raised concern about future regional stability. While religious violence certainly needs to be taken seriously, a one-sided focus on this aspect risks overlooking more subtle—and nonviolent—expressions of religious resurgence; expressions that have far-reaching consequences for the socio-religious landscape of the Horn.

While religion has gained an increased social, political and economic role in countries in the Horn of Africa, our knowledge about ongoing discourses remain sketchy and fragmented. The aim of this article is to give an overview of the main religious developments in the region, to provide some suggestions on how to best understand these changes, and to point to areas in need of further investigations.

With a focus on the Horn’s two main religious traditions, Islam and Christianity, a major objective is to point to the rich diversity found within these communities. Ongoing rapid changes, related, for example, to different forms of Salafism in Islam and a plethora of Pentecostal ministries in Christianity will also be discussed. A common denominator here is the many attempts to alter existing religious practices and orientations, and to induce new ways of being religious; Muslim or Christian. Although sometimes violent, religious resurgence occurs for the most part through peaceful means, seeking to produce change through preaching and teaching. Religious resurgence might in some instances be tied directly to a political agenda, but even if not, it does have socio-political implications—in turn making it crucial to understand this as something integral to broader societal and political developments.

It would be misleading to fit different religious expressions into a chart ranging from moderate to extremist, assuming a movement from the former to the latter. Rather, we need nuanced approaches that recognize ideological differences and local particularities, and perspectives that allow for multiple trajectories.

Forms of resurgence: a regional overview

Violent expressions of religious resurgence in the Horn are obviously most evident in Somalia, where the absence of effective political structures and decades of instability have created space for a range of religious insurgency groups. Groups such as the Al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya (AIAI), the Union of Islamic Courts, and Al-Shabab have all viewed themselves as salvaging the situation of insecurity and as implementing a political order based upon transformative Islamic values. The latter is crucial in the sense that these groups see control over the state as necessary for realizing their programme for change; becoming the very tool for what I have called the politicization of purity—the enforcement of a determined way of being a true believer.[1]

The terror attack on the Westgate Mall in 2013, the killings of Christians in Northern Kenya in late 2014, and the recent assault in Garissa could serve as indicators of an expanding battleground, There are claims that Al-Shabab increasingly is recruiting Kenyans—linked to its affiliate Al-Hijra (formerly the Muslim Youth Center) and to figures such as Sheikh Aboud Rogo of Mombasa (killed in 2012).[2] The regional implications of the Somali jihadi narratives are still uncertain, and there should be room for caution. The ethno-national aspect of these narratives and the internal debates within Al-Shabab over the “global” nature of the struggle could be factors constraining such expansions. There is also a tendency among many Muslims in the Horn to view this as a “Somali issue”. The need to closely monitor this situation is obvious, as is the need for more substantive research on possible ideological and logistical linkages between likeminded groups across the region.

The linkage between religious resurgence and politics has also been obvious in the case of Sudan. The coming to power of the National Islamic Front (NIF), under the ideological auspices of Hassan al-Turabi in 1989, provided the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood with the opportunity to embark on an encompassing programme of Islamization, which included the enforced implementation of Shari’a laws—in turn intensifying the civil war with the south. The growing rift between President Omar al-Bashir and Turabi in the late 1990s and the latter’s gradual marginalization from Sudanese politics have eased the state-enforced Islamization process, led Khartoum to engage in counterterrorism, as well as to the peace accord with the south in 2005. The decline of Turabi’s influence provided, at the same time, more space for Salafi groups, most notably the Ansar al-Sunna. While these groups do not represent any major political force, and have opted to stay away from formal politics, they have struck an accord with the regime: recognizing the regime’s legitimacy as long as it maintains Sudan as an Islamic state—and in return being granted operational freedom by Bashir.[3]

In other parts of the region we see religious communities actively using politics as a venue for expressing complaints about discrimination and unequal treatment, something clearly noticeable among Muslims in Kenya and Tanzania. Christians’ involvement in politics has been less visible, yet nonetheless important. Kenyan churches were in the early 1990s vocal in addressing corruption, before gradually becoming more passive.[4] The Kenyan political elite has also used association with Pentecostalism as a means to gain legitimacy for their authority, and which reciprocally opened up space for Pentecostal churches to propagate a certain public morality underpinned by religious idioms.[5]

The situation in Tanzania is somewhat different where political actors since the time of the Ujamaa (under President Julius Nyerere) period have sought to refrain from attaching themselves to any religious movement.

The vast majority of religious reformist movements in the region—whether Christian or Muslim—are, however, not directly targeting the political sphere. The main focus is rather on changing existing religious practices for more “correct” ones, on the production of the pious self, and on inducing a stronger devotional attachment to one’s religious tradition. Salafism, making broad inroads across the region’s Muslim populations, is a relevant case in point here, as is Pentecostalism in its various forms. Politics is for many of these a “dirty game” that would defile their religious identity. Certain Salafi groups, such as the Ansar al-Sunna in Sudan, are actively advocating the need to stay aloof from political engagement, basing this on theological considerations.[6] It thus becomes inaccurate to treat Salafism as a monolithic movement that provides the ideological framework for violent activism.[7]

On the other hand, it is clear that such “quietist” reform has socio-political implications. The Salafi movements might be intent on building an Islamic state through a bottom-up approach of da’wa—or invitation to the ‘correct’ path—and Islamic teachings. Pentecostals, on their side, forward narratives that emphasize spiritual salvation, promises of healing and prosperity, while at the same time making this dependent on compliance with a public ethical behaviour aimed at enhancing societal morals. Another aspect is how exclusivist perceptions of the “other” and the re-demarcation of religious boundaries have produced polemic religious discourses, exacerbated intra- and inter-religious tensions, and, in some instances, led to the eruption of communal violence.

Enabling factors

Explanations of the resurgence of religion often underscore crisis as the key factor. References are usually made to deteriorating socio-economic conditions with enduring poverty, unemployment, and precarious futures—or civil war, in Somalia’s case. Processes of modernization and rapid social change are along similar lines said to have shattered communal cohesion and destroyed traditional structures of authority. Local feelings of inequality and marginalization are also seen as a cause of religious resurgence in the Horn.

However, a too narrow focus on religious resurgence as a response to a sense of crisis risks reducing the phenomenon to an instrument for something else. This ignores important ideological dimensions. The very fact that we are dealing with groups, organizations, churches, and ministries that are addressing questions of a religious nature, that are driven by what they see as divinely ordained imperatives, and that they have an explicit agenda for enhancing the role of religion in people’s lives—all make it important to recognize the ideological aspect. Taking ideology seriously also means applying a high degree of accuracy when we are analyzing the various movements. Muslim reformists should not be lumped together under nebulous labels such as “fundamentalist” or “Islamist”, and it would be wrong to equate Al-Shabaab with any form of Salafism. Pentecostalism is similarly an ambiguous category, covering a range of different ideological positions.

An emphasis on ideology should not prevent us from considering structural factors that have enabled the resurgence of religion. Particularly important here is the political developments over the last decades. While the most obvious case is NIF’s state-enforced Islamization in Sudan, the political instability in Somalia produced a fertile breeding-ground for religiously-motivated violence, while also leading to a situation where many found refuge in religion.[8] In other parts of the region processes of political liberalization commencing in the 1990s, wherein both Tanzania and Kenya transitioned from a one-party state to a multiparty democracy in 1992, opened up space for religious activism. The ousting of the Marxist Derg regime in Ethiopia in 1991 by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front marked a deliberate shift from former restrictive policies and introduced a new political climate underscoring religious freedom, immediately boosting religious activism. This was seen through the emergence of several Islamic reform movements, by the rapid growth in (Pentecostal) Protestant Christianity, and by the surfacing of a strong revivalist movement within the Orthodox Church. A similar process of liberalization emerged in Eritrea, but was, as I will discuss later, soon replaced by increasing authoritarianism.

Another enabling factor has been enhanced mobility and trans-local interaction, producing a situation of increased availability of a range of alternatives for religious orientation. People in the Horn were obviously never isolated from broader religious currents, but improved means of communication over the last decades have enabled the movement of people and ideas on an unprecedented pace and scale. The blurring of local boundaries and increased trans-local interactions have produced a situation of augmented pluralism, leaving individuals with opportunities to choose from a variety of competing religious narratives.

Among Muslims, we see how a growing number have sought religious education abroad, before returning home to disseminate reformist ideas that challenge existing ways of adhering to Islam. Christians in the Horn, initially connected to Western mission societies, have established a higher degree of independence from these founding missions, while also connecting themselves with a growing number of American Pentecostal missionaries, consequently leading to the establishment of a plethora of separate churches.[9] Adding to this is the expansion of global broadcasting and the Internet, rapidly accelerating the flow of alternative ideas and producing a highly complex and eclectic ideological picture.[10]

Ideology in context

It is important to note that ideologies never occur in vacuum; they are always interlocked with local contexts. Religious reforms are complex dialectical processes involving trans-local and local contexts, actors, and currents where broader discourses are negotiated and appropriated into the particular local context. As the Horn of Africa is home to a wide spectrum of political, socio-economic, and ethnic varieties, it becomes pivotal to pay due attention to local particularities.

A common denominator for religious resurgence in the Horn—and elsewhere—is the tendency to attract the younger generation. The name Al-Shabab, which means “youth”, is a case in point, and across the region we see that both Christian and Muslim reformists, in the form of Pentecostal churches or Salafi movements largely consist of members of the younger generation. Youth, arguably, constitutes a social category which has “less to lose” in terms of family obligations, employment, or social responsibility and which hence are more prone to display agency and to position themselves. They want to act, want to test the world around them, thus finding themselves at the forefront of developments affecting their immediate realities and being active in responding to the array of currents made available to them.

In certain parts of the region we see that religious reform is closely attached to ethnic identity. Ethnicity remains a strong marker of difference, and coupled with religious resurgence, we see how these two dimensions can reciprocally reinforce each other in strengthening boundaries. Groups like IAIA and Al-Shabab in Somalia tried to override clan divisions, and promoted a rhetoric that combined pan-Somaliness with the idea of an Islamic state, a rhetoric that also was directed towards neighbouring powers that were depicted as adversaries both in ethnic and religious terms. Ethnic or clan identity proved, however, to be a constraining factor for these groups, forcing them to recognize the enduring role of clanism within Somalia. Ethnicity has to a certain extent segmented Muslim reform movements in Ethiopia, wherein they have been important means for certain ethnic groups to gain relevance and to compete with the traditionally dominating Muslims from the northern parts.[11]

Ethnic belonging is usually closely related to geographical location, and again we see how religious resurgence might be appropriated in processes delineating local identities. Although there is a dearth of knowledge here, it seems that religious reformism has become an added dimension to Muslim lowlanders’ identity in Eritrea, fuelling discontent towards the perceived dominance of Christian highlanders in post-independent Eritrea.

The connection between religion and regional identity is clearly at play in Zanzibar and coastal Kenya. In the former case we see how Salafi reformers, embodied in the Uamsho (revival) movement, are explicitly utilizing a religious rhetoric in advocating for greater Zanzibari autonomy from the mainland, highlighting an Islamic Zanzibari identity against Christian migrants who are seen as representing both the ethnically/regionally and religiously “other”.[12] Regional identity coupled with religion is also at play in coastal Kenya, where Muslims see themselves as marginalized and unfairly treated as a religious group. The Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) is said to embody such an identity, also accused of being allied with Al-Shabab. However, MRC’s mixed-faith membership, the fact that it has not forwarded a similar religious agenda and that it is more focused on land issues, are indications of a far more complicated situation.[13]

State responses

Religious resurgence in combination with violence has obviously caused much concern for state-actors, resulting in policies of securitizing religion. The most evident responses have been military interventions into Somalia—by Ethiopia in 2006 and 2011 and by Kenya in 2011. Subsequent violent incidents on Kenyan soil in 2013 and 2014 spurred security operations like the Usalama Watch initiated in April 2014, through which the infamous Anti-Terrorist Police Unit (ATPU) profiled and harassed ethnic Somalis. There are also claims that the ATPU was involved in assassinations of Muslim leaders in the coastal areas. This has caused serious resentment among Kenya’s Muslims, and enhanced Al-Shabab’s recruitment opportunities.[14]

Several states in the Horn have also passed anti-terror legislation; Tanzania in 2002, Ethiopia in 2009, and Kenya in 2009, and with Sudan establishing Anti-Terror Special Courts in 2008. Terror activities are defined rather broadly, and regimes are often using such laws to clamp down on opposition movements. Ethiopia has, for example, listed ethnically-based groups such as the Oromo Liberation Front and the Ogaden National Liberation Front on its list of terrorist organizations. In Kenya, claims by the opposition that the anti-terror law violated civil rights have recently resulted in the High Court annulling several of its clauses.

State policies have more broadly affected the ongoing religious dynamics of the region. While political liberalization was, as noted, important in providing space for religious actors, such liberalization has in many cases proved to be rather tenuous. This is most obvious in Eritrea, which has moved in the direction of becoming a totalitarian state, and which has banned certain religious groups (both Muslim and Christian). The implementation of a lasting democracy in Ethiopia has also proven to be a slow process. The dominant role of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party (the revolutionary party, in Kiswahili) in Tanzania has been encumbered by real multi-party competition, whereas post-election violence have demonstrated how brittle Kenyan democracy is.

This has also led to more restrictive policies where mechanisms of control of religious movements are evident. Particularly important here is co-option of different Islamic councils and the Mufti institutions in Eritrea and Zanzibar. While these bodies are said to be representative bodies for the countries’ Muslim communities, their close links to the political authorities have severely dented their popular legitimacy.

Added to this are policies of asserting secularism, seeking to purge the public sphere from religious expressions, often having the form of restricting the use of hijab and niqab in public spaces. We should not forget that politicization of religion can be a result of invasive state-policies, in which religious actors react to limitations on their religious freedoms. This was clearly the case in Ethiopia where Muslims took to the streets protesting the government’s attempt to have the Lebanese Al-Ahbash movement teach Muslims to adhere to a “moderate” form of Islam.

State driven securitization of religion in the Horn tend to be driven by an extremist-moderate dichotomy, where extremism is portrayed as a foreign force; arriving from Somalia or imported from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States and imposed on “moderate” Muslims in the Horn. Kenya’s recent plan of erecting a wall along the border with Somalia is a clear manifestation of this view.[15] Rapid expansions of religious institutions, for example the mushrooming of mosques in Ethiopia, and the increasingly visible character of Islam in the form of dress-codes in general, are often forwarded as proofs of religious expansion financed by foreign powers. At the same time, the lack of concern over a similar growth in the number of Pentecostal churches reveals a clear and inherent bias.

The foreign/extremist-local/moderate dichotomy is not only overtly simplistic and flawed, but it also has some serious implications. First of all, to reduce religious resurgence to a foreign phenomenon imposed upon largely passive Africans deprives local actors of agency and reproduces a colonial subject-object relationship, in which Africans are located at the subaltern end of a power pendulum. There is ample evidence showing that people in the Horn were the main agents for introducing religious change in the region.

Secondly, interpreting this as something foreign becomes a convenient solution for regimes not willing to address immediate domestic issues. Only after the recent attack in Garissa did the Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta recognize that the assailants were integrated in the Kenyan society. He rejected, however, the claim that Muslims in Kenya constituted a marginalized group.[16] The important point is that merely blaming outside forces and refusing to deal with local grievances have serious implications: leaving them unresolved can easily become contributing factors for further radicalization.


This overview is unavoidably sketchy, and demonstrates the need for deeper and more systematic knowledge about ongoing religious dynamics in the Horn. There is a need to reduce politically driven and alarmist approaches, and instead, to apply more sober approaches that recognize actual facts on the ground. In order to understand the complexity of religious resurgence in the Horn, we also need an analytical framework that is nuanced and flexible. Religious resurgence has many faces, and to uncritically equate one representation in one locality with another in other parts produces an inaccurate picture. Moreover, as religious movements are “moving targets”, we need approaches that allow us to recognize several possible trajectories, and not be locked in a linear moderate-extremist scale.

Whereas religious resurgence involves a range of diverse actors, the state remains a major player. Too often we have seen policies bent on security that have failed to address the critical issues at hand, and that often runs the risk of making things worse. The Horn is a highly diverse region, and there is an urgent need for policies that actually recognize this diversity and that would accommodate difference. This entails taking religion seriously as a strong force in people’s lives, finding ways to accommodate secularist principles in contexts that are inherently religious, and to reduce feelings of injustice and inequality based on religion. Failure to do so can easily run the risk of allowing developments that becomes self-fulfilling prophesies of further radicalization.

Terje Østebø (PhD, is an assistant professor at the Center for African Studies and the Department of Religion, and the Director of the Center for Global Islamic Studies, University of Florida. He is also a senior researcher at the International Law and Policy Institute in Oslo, Norway. His research interests are Islam in contemporary Ethiopia, Islam, politics, and Islamic reformism in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, and Salafism in Africa. He can be reached at

[1] Terje Østebø, “African Salafism: Religious Purity and the Politicization of Purity,” Islamic Africa 6, no. 1-2 (2015)

[2] Fredrick Nzez, “Al-Hijra: Al-Shabab’s Affiliate in Kenya,” CTC Senteniel 7, no. 5 (2014)

[3] Einas Ahmed, “Militant Salafism in Sudan,” Islamic Africa 6, no. 1-2 (2015)

[4] Paul Gifford, Christianity, Politics and Public Life in Kenya (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), : 34f.

[5] Gregory Deacon and Gabrielle Lynch, “Allowing Satan In? Moving toward a Political Economy of Neo-Pentecostalism in Kenya,” Journal of Religion in Africa 43, no. 2 (2013)

[6] Noah Salomon, “The Salafi Critique of Islamism: Doctrine, Difference and the Problem of Islamic Political Action in Contemporary Sudan,” in Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement, ed. Roel Meijer (London: Hurst & Company, 2009)

[7] “Kenya: Al-Shabaab – Closer to Home,” (Nairobi/Brussels: International Crisis Group, 2014)

[8] Roland Marchal, “Islamic Political Dynamics in the Somali Civil War,” in Islamism and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa, ed. Alex de Waal (London: Hurst & Company, 2004)

[9] Steve Brouwer, Paul Gifford, and Susan Rose, Exporting the American Gospel: Global Christian Fundamentalism (London: Routledge, 1996),

[10] J. Kvabena Asamoah-Gyadu, “‘We Are on the Internet’: Contemporary Pentecostalism in Africa and the New Culture of Online Religion’,” in New Media and Religious Transformations in Africa, ed. Rosalind I. J. Hackett and Benjamin Soares (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015); Ehab Galal, “Conveying Islam: Arab Islamic Satellite Channels as New Players,” ibid.

[11] Terje Østebø, “The Question of Becoming: Islamic Reform Movements in Contemporary Ethiopia,” Journal of Religion in Africa 38, no. 4 (2008)

[12] Terje Østebø, Islam in Zanzibar: A Case Study under the Project Tanzania Towards 2015, ed. Kjetil Tronvoll, vol. Report 2 (Oslo: International Law and Policy Institute, 2014),

[13] For a good overview over the differences between al-Shabaab and MRC, see Anneli Botha, “Radicalisation in Kenya: Recruitment to Al-Sbabaab and the Mombasa Republican Council,” ISS Paper 265 (2014)

[14] David M. Anderson and Jacob McKnight, “Kenya at War: Al-Shabaab and Its Enemies in Eastern Africa,” African Affairs 114, no. 455 (2015)

[15] Kalume Kazungu, “Kenya to Build Wall on Border with Somalia,” Daily Nation, March 27 2015. (accessed March 27, 2015).

[16] Edith Honan, “Kenyatta Says Campus Attackers ‘Embedded’ in Kenya’s Muslim Community,” April 4 2015. (accessed April 6, 2015).

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