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Images in a cracked mirror – Muslim and Christian perceptions of each other in Kenya

Some observers have characterised the relationship between Christians and Muslims in Kenya as one of longstanding conflict.[1] The recent Al-Shabaab attack at the university in Garissa, where reports indicate that Christian students were especially targeted, may seem to confirm this observation.[2] There were similar reports concerning the Al-Shabaab attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in 2013. However, this form of terrorist violence is best understood as a conflict between the Kenyan state and a militant, religious-political group, Al-Shabaab, which is also engaged in a war with the government and other Muslim groups in Somalia. The specific targeting of Christians—though it should be noted that Muslims were also killed by Al-Shabaab militants at Westgate and at the university in Garissa – appears to be a tactic intended to divide Kenya along religious lines in imitation of Boko Haram hoping to control large sections of territory in Nigeria.[3]

This tactic raises questions about the character of the relationship between Christians and Muslims in Kenya. Rather than attempting to document periods of peaceful coexistence and episodes of conflict, which assumes “the stability of society and notion of social order”[4] as theoretical norms, it should prove helpful to examine each religious community’s perceptions of the other.

These perceptions are not formed in a religious vacuum, but rather as Kenyan Muslims and Christians engage in symbolic contests over public and political space. Though open conflict is rare, tensions often remain high as the two religious communities battle symbolically for increased political power, for more access to government resources and for their respective visions for Kenya to be realized. This is best understood as a contest for symbolic power that enables a community to gain the legitimacy to define Kenya’s national identity and their place within the nation.

The concept of symbolic power comes from French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who views it as the ability of social groups “to shape perceptions of social reality.”[5] The two religious communities confront each other symbolically through attempts to enhance their own public prestige (increase their own symbolic capital in Bourdieusian terms) or through attempts to devalue the public standing of the other (reduce the other’s symbolic capital).

Symbolic Confrontations

The symbolic confrontations that will be examined centre on the following questions. Who best represents what it means to be Kenyan? Who carries the greater religious and ‘moral’ status in Kenya?

Neither the Kenyan Christian community nor the Kenyan Muslim community represents a united group with a single perception and approach to their own religion or to the symbolic contest over public space. Within each religious community intrareligious symbolic contests also exist along both ethnic and confessional lines. Though these contests will not be discussed in any detail, it will be necessary to indicate where major differences of viewpoint exist within a religious community.

Who best represents what it means to be Kenyan?

Being truly Kenyan is contested through the promotion of one’s own history and the devaluation of the history of the other. Christians tend to emphasize their role in the struggle for independence,[6] while pointing out the history of the Muslim community’s involvement in slavery.[7] In this way Christians are presented as freedom fighters and the architects of modern Kenya, while Muslims are shown to have enslaved Africans, occasionally phrased as ‘enslaving our ancestors’.

In contrast Muslims highlight their long history of urban development and civilisation along Kenya’s coast; sometimes implying that the ancestors of modern Kenyan Christians were uncivilized, living in the jungle.[8] Muslims also frequently refer to Christianity as a European religion, the religion of the colonizers.  Islam is, therefore, portrayed as the agent of Kenyan civilisation, while Kenyan Christians are depicted as following in the way of their former colonial masters. Each community portrays itself as the true founder of Kenya and depicts the other as essentially ‘foreign’ to the nation.

Being truly Kenyan is also debated over the issue of indigeneity. Christians frequently infer that Muslims along the coast are Arabs; even Kenyan secondary school history textbooks describe the Swahili people as Swahili-Arabs, indicating their ‘foreign’ nature. In addition Somali Kenyans are more often referred to as ‘Somalis’ than as ‘Kenyans’.[9] It is not particularly unusual for a non-Muslim Kenyan to shout ‘go home’ to a Muslim on the streets of Nairobi.[10] Christians assume their own indigenous origins, often mentioning their ancestral lands in Kenya. While this issue tends to be more stressed among Christians, Muslims will argue that Islam is indigenous to Kenya and Africa; then Christianity is said to be a foreign imposition. The goal of this symbolic contest is to identify the other as primarily foreign, and therefore an illegitimate representative of Kenyan values.

Christians, in particular, have adopted the self-perception of being African Christians. Catholics and mainline Protestants, especially, have developed African Christian Theologies in which the “reconstruction” of the nation is understood to take place through a commitment to finding African solutions to African problems.[11] Christianity, once divorced from Western historical trappings, becomes compatible with Africanness and the true African values of enhancing life. Through the involvement of Christian scholars in this issue, Muslims are sometimes invited into the conversation. Yet, there appears to be some questioning of Muslim commitment to Africanness, which is the basis of relationships of trust from the African Christian perspective.

Kenyan Muslims, on the other hand, have not placed the same emphasis upon being African. Historically, they have resisted the label. For example, during British colonialism Somalis in Nairobi protested for the right to pay higher taxes, which was considered preferable to being classified as native Africans.[12] Kenyan Somalis from North Eastern Province, who are travelling to Nairobi, frequently say that they are going to Kenya,[13] and it can sometimes be heard that they are visiting Africa. Swahili Muslims have also contrasted ustaarabu (Arabness) with nyika (bush) to emphasis their cultural superiority over native Africans.[14] In this symbolic contest each community is making very different claims. Christians assert their Africanness as a sign of being truly Kenyan, and therefore they carry the legitimate privilege to define Kenyan national identity. Muslims, whose Africanness is questionable, remain outsiders. On the other hand, Muslims—while declaring their indigeneity—contend that their superior civilisation over African (Christian) backwardness legitimizes their claims to defining Kenyan identity.

Who carries greater religious and ‘moral’ status?

To make claims that one is more religious or ‘moral’ than another is viewed as lacking humility. Therefore the symbolic contests to affirm one’s religious and moral legitimacy critique the spirituality and morality of the other, rather than exalt one’s own status.

Mainline Protestant and Catholics, whose leaders participate in interreligious gatherings, tend to have more positive views of Islam than Neo-Pentecostals. Leaders, writers and scholars from Catholic and mainline Protestant churches usually understand Muslims and Christians to worship the same God. In the same way, Muslim leaders also participate in interreligious gatherings and tend to refrain from disparaging Christianity.

However, at a more popular level Neo-Pentecostals and ordinary Muslims have found ways to question the religious legitimacy of the other. Neo-Pentecostal magazines, which can be easily found throughout Nairobi, contain testimonies of conversions and other stories that link Islam with ‘evil’ spirits.[15] African traditions, Catholics, mainline Protestants, Hindus, Masons, the government and others are also frequently linked with evil spirits, indicating that Islam becomes part of the negative spiritual background against which Neo-Pentecostals believe themselves to engage in a spiritual battle of good versus evil. Though Muslims are not singled out exclusively in association with evil (i.e., non-Christian) spirits, this link is explicitly discussed in several popular Christian magazines where the writers attempt to symbolically delegitimize Islam as an appropriate religious actor in public space. It can also be assumed that many ordinary mainline Protestant and Catholic Christians share at least some of these negative assumptions.

The practice of mihadhara (confrontational street preaching) by Muslims in Kenya has become a form of both actual and symbolic confrontation as Muslim speakers seek to discredit the Christian scriptures and Christianity, often by reinterpreting Christian scriptures to support their own conclusions.[16] These confrontations are public performances, and though their effectiveness at converting Christians to Islam may be questioned, mihadhara preachers strongly endeavour to delegitimize Christianity as a viable religious option in the public space. Though mihadhara meetings and preachers have not received official sanctioning from national Muslim leadership, they do seem to receive tacit approval. This practice then provides a quasi-official symbolic contest in which Christianity is directly denigrated, while allowing the national Muslim leadership to ‘keep its hands clean.’

The moral legitimacy of the Kenyan Muslim community is frequently impugned by Christians through references to slavery in East Africa, the violence associated with terrorism and suspected dishonesty. East African slavery was discussed earlier as an historical issue. Mentioning Muslim involvement in slavery is also used to question the moral character of Islam.[17]

Publicly, Christian leaders have been careful not to associate Islam directly with terrorism. However, ordinary Christians can be heard to express ideas that violence and Islam go together. There have also been subtle means that contrast the ‘peacefulness’ of Christianity with the ‘violence’ of Islam. For example, Ciku Muiruri of Nation FM wrote a public letter addressed to Al-Shabaab after the recent attacks in Garissa, in which she declares her forgiveness of the terrorists after the manner of Jesus, who pronounced forgiveness from the Cross.[18] Without doubting Muiruri’s sincerity, this letter and similar responses enter the public discourse as symbolic confrontation, where Christians are represented as forgiving, merciful, peaceful etc., whereas Muslims have been signified as the perpetrators of the violence.

During campaigns for a new constitution in 2005 and 2010, there were discussions concerning the provisions for kadhi courts in the proposed constitutions. These courts have been provided for in every constitution that Kenya has had since its beginning, yet many Christian leaders insinuated that a hidden Muslim agenda to establish sharia as law and Islamize Kenya was behind the provision in the constitution.[19] The implications of asserting that the Muslim community had a hidden agenda were that the word of Muslim leaders on the topic was untrustworthy. Interestingly, Muslims leaders also accused Christians of dishonesty concerning the kadhi courts issue, as many Christian leaders believed that the provision for the courts in the proposed constitution was a new initiative by the Muslim community. Rather than advocate that Christians should better educate themselves about the constitution, Muslim leaders tended to accuse Christian leaders of lying. These mutual accusations – that the other is untrustworthy – go beyond the kadhi courts issue to hint that every public pronouncement from the other community should be suspect.

The most common way that Kenyan Muslim leaders question the moral character of Christians is through accusations made against the Kenyan state’s treatment of Muslim people. Muslim regions of Kenya are among the poorest and least developed areas of the country,[20] and Muslim leaders present this disparity as a result of the corruption and injustice of the Christian-led government in Nairobi. Other forms of marginalisation, such as difficulty obtaining official documents, lower school enrolment, lack of national political power etc, are also viewed as forms of oppression by the Christian government. In the Kenyan school system secondary schools are often sponsored (i.e., subsidized) by religious organisations, mostly Christian ones. In many of these Christian-sponsored schools female Muslim students are forbidden from wearing a veil, and Muslims prayer, celebrations, food restrictions etc, are not respected. Muslims often come to see their difficulties with both the government and in achieving personal and communal success as the conscious, intended consequences of Christians in positions of power. In terms of the symbolic confrontation, Christians are portrayed as oppressive overlords and Muslims as innocent victims.

An interesting development in the Somali practice of saar possession[21] reveals perceptions of Christianity found among ordinary Somali residents of the Eastleigh section of Nairobi. The saar spirit is understood to normally affect women. The appropriate therapy consists of a ritual celebration that includes exhaustive dancing and gifts for the saar. Over the past several years, Somali women have found themselves increasingly possessed by ‘Christian’ saar, who demand whiskey, cigarettes and dancing to the music of Kenya’s night clubs as gifts of appeasement. This woman’s practice, considered aberrant by orthodox Muslims, shows Muslim perceptions of Christians in the popular imagery. Saar rituals, which are also (semi-)public performances, unintentionally become part of the symbolic contestation that portrays Christians as night-clubbing drunkards, thus engaged in delegitimizing their place in public space.

Signs of positive relations

While Kenyan Christians and Muslims have been engaged in this type of symbolic confrontation since independence, it does not mean that interreligious relationships and perceptions have been uniquely negative. Programmes such as PROCMURA[22] and CCMRE[23] aim to promote better relations between Muslims and Christians. Organisations such as CICC[24] and IRCK[25] bring Muslims, Christians and others together to improve interreligious understanding and to work together on social and economic issues. As Chidongo writes, “There is a great existing need for the joining of hands (umoja ni nguvu) with people of other spiritualties in order to bring about a healthy and just community, with the aim of making it possible for Africans to live better lives today and after.”[26] Throughout Kenya, wherever Muslims and Christians live in close proximity, the communities have cooperated in response to local difficulties, such as drought, violence, crime etc, developing perceptions of the other as people with whom one can work to better communal life.

Christian leaders have commended peace rather than revenge in response to terrorist violence. Government response to terrorism and suspected terrorists has been heavy-handed with frequent human rights abuses, such as extrajudicial killings, deportations without hearings and mass arrests of ‘Muslim-looking’ young men in a particular area. Muslims leaders encourage Muslims to distinguish between the police and Christians, calling for legal recourse to injustice and urging frustrated young Muslims to refrain from blaming and seeking revenge against innocent Christians and churches.[27] Leaders of both communities have managed to shape perceptions that refuse to see the other community as essentially violent.

As a way forward, Christian leaders should advocate for justice and equality on behalf of Muslims, as well as for their own people. In addressing the marginalisation of the Muslim community, Muslim leaders should focus upon the political character of their marginalisation, rather than emphasizing a religiously oriented interpretation of it. The government should be able to develop clear guidelines concerning religious plurality for religious-sponsored public schools and to consistently enforce the guidelines. Programmes like PROCMURA and CCMRE are funded and operated by Christians. Similar programmes can be encouraged among the Muslim community.

Mike Brislen, PhD in Christian-Muslim Relations from the University of Birmingham (UK), is currently adjunct professor in Religious Studies at James Madison University and Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. His research interests are in Christianity and Islam in the Horn of Africa. He can be reached at

[1] Mwangi, I. (2012, October 31). Christian-Muslim Tensions in Kenya: Open Door for Terrorism. Christian Century. p. 26.

[2] Al-­Shabaab militants claim responsibility for Garissa University attack. (3 April 2015). Daily Nation.

[3] Mushtaq, N. (2013, September-October). Kenyan State, Society Respond to Extremist Threat. Horn of Africa Bulletin, pp. 1-3. Mutiga, M. (2015, April 4). Are the terrorists of al-Shabaab about to tear Kenya in two? Retrieved April 5, 2015, from The Guardian:

[4] Soares, B. F. (2006). Introduction: Muslim-Christian Encounters in Africa. In B. F. Soares, Muslim-Christian Encounters in Africa). Leiden: Brill, p. 2.

[5] Swartz, D. (2013). Symbolic Power, Politics and Intellectuals: The Political Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Chicago: Chicago University Press, p. 78.

[6] Githii, D. (2007). Exposing and Conquering Satanic Forces over Kenya. Nairobi: self-published, p. 98.

[7] Brislen, M. (2013). Christian Perceptions of Islam in Kenya. University of Birmingham. See chapter 4.3.4.

[8] Ebrahim, A. A. (1994). Islam in Kenya. Retrieved February 12, 2013, from Jamia Mosque Nairobi:

[9] Brislen. See chapter 4.1.

[10] Botha, A. (2013). Assessing the Vulnerability of Kenyan Youths to Radicalisation and Extremism. Nairobi: Institute for Security Studies, p. 19.

[11] Mugambi, J. (2003). Christian Theology and Social Reconstruction. Nairobi: Acton Publishers.

[12] Turton, E. (1974). The Isaq Somali Diaspora and Poll-Tax Agitation in Kenya, 1936-41. African Affairs, 73(292), p. 326.

[13] Mutiga.

[14] Kubai, A. N. (2004). Christian-Muslim Relations in Kenya since Independence. In K. Hock, The Interface between Research and Dialogue: Christian-Muslim Relations in Africa. Munster: LIT Verlag, p. 32.

[15] Brislen. See especially Chapter 7.

[16] Mutei, J. M. (2012). Mihadhara as a Method of Islamic Da’wah in Kenya: An Analysis of Inter-religious Dialogue in a Proselytising Context. Nairobi: Nairobi Academic Press. Wandera, J. M. (2013). Public Preaching by Muslims and Pentecostals in Mumias, Western Kenya and its Influence on Interfaith Relations. University of Capetown.

[17] Mwakimko, H. (2007). Christian-Muslim Relations in Kenya: A Catalogue of Events and Meanings. Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, 18(2).

[18] Muiruri, C., & Kenyan Kid. (2015, April 3). Popular Radio Presenter Addresses The Al-Shabbab In A Emotional Letter: Read It Here. Retrieved April 6, 2015, from

[19] Brislen. See chapter 5.4.

[20] (2012). Regional Disparities and Marginalisation in Kenya. Nairobi: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

[21] Lewis, I. (1998). Saints and Somalis: Popular Islam in a Clan-based Society. London: Haan Associates. Pelizzari, E. (1997). Possession et Thérapie dans la Corne de l’Afrique. Paris: L’Harmattan.

[22] (Programme for Christian-Muslim Relations in Africa)

[23] (Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations in Eastleigh)

[24] (Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics)

[25] (Interreligious Council of Kenya)

[26] Chidongo, T.-M. (2014). Theology, innovation and Society: Towards developing Dialogical Theology for African society. Kabarak Journal of Research & Innovation, 2(1), p. 110.

[27] Murder on the Highway. (2012, August 31). The Friday Bulletin(487), p. 2.

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