The prominence of religion in the public space is one of the dominant features of life in today’s Addis Ababa. This essay discusses interreligious rivalry and competition, involving Orthodox Christians, Protestants and Muslims. The paper seeks to show that the religious rivalry and competition is much more pervasive and widespread, involving mainstream religious institutions and the majority of their followers, than something confined to reformist movements on the fringe as often assumed.
Some observers have characterised the relationship between Christians and Muslims in Kenya as one of longstanding conflict. 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. 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.
The number of Muslims in Kenya is a matter of contention. The 2009 census estimated Christians to be around 81% and Muslims 11%. These figures have been dismissed by Muslim leaders who feel that their population has been underestimated as a justification for apportioning them fewer state resources and appointments to positions of power. What is certain, though, is that as a minority religious group, with the highest concentration in the coastal and northeastern regions, Muslims do not constitute a dominating force in the country, either in terms of numbers or influence. Moreover, as Brislen argues in the preceding article, each community sees the other with suspicion.
In the mid-20th century, new Islamic reform movements emerged throughout the Muslim world, including Somalia, advocating for strict adherence to the written sources of Islam— the Koran, Hadith, and authoritative comments. An important motive of these movements was to correct what they saw as aberrations of politicians influenced by eastern, western or non-aligned positions during late colonial rule and the Cold War. It is in this context that the term ‘political Islam’ gained currency and relevance. The term refers to actors involved in religious reform in the way just mentioned. Political Islam covers social reform movements, as well as militant or so-called ‘jihadi’ groups. The boundaries between these various and often ideologically heterogeneous strands of political Islam are blurred. Any clear cut ‘black-and-white’ (e.g., ‘moderate’ versus ‘extremist’, ‘Sufi’ v ‘Salafi’, ‘nationalist’ v ‘globalist’) separation is misleading.
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.