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Between witchcraft and terrorism: how social fears in coastal Kenya impact religious expression

todayJune 7, 2024 11

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By Erik Meinema, Utrecht University



Kenya’s coastal region has, since about 2011, grappled with terrorist attacks carried out by the Somalia-based Islamic terrorist organisation Al-Shabaab.

Muslims in coastal Kenya have long complained about their relative marginalisation versus Christians. Al-Shabaab has sought to capitalise on this sense of marginalisation to draw recruits and support from a small minority of Kenyan Muslims.

Kenyan authorities have also associated the problem of violent extremism with witchcraft.

I have been researching religious diversity in coastal Kenya since 2016. In one study, I looked at how fears about witchcraft or terrorism had influenced religious coexistence in coastal Kenya. Extensive ethnographic research was carried out in the coastal Kenyan town of Malindi, where concerns about witchcraft and terrorism reflect and inform tensions and conflicts.

I found that fears about witchcraft and terrorism had shaped the ways in which various religious groups expressed themselves. This includes their outward appearance. Terrorism was often associated with Islam, and witchcraft with the traditions of the coastal Mijikenda ethnic group. Christianity often escaped such stigmatising associations. The circulation of fears about witchcraft and terrorism privileged the public expression of Christianity.

Counterterrorism programmes

In an effort to curb terrorism, western partners have supported Kenyan authorities in security operations against Al-Shabaab. They also fund prevention programmes to counter violent extremism in Kenya. These programmes often bring in Kenyan civil society organisations and religious leaders. Together, they organise peace education and interfaith dialogues to prevent radicalisation. These almost exclusively aim to counter violent extremism that is related to Islam.

In coastal Kenya, however, Islam is not the only identified potential driver of violent extremism. Kilifi County is one of the five counties facing the Indian Ocean that is targeted for counterterrorism efforts. Here, the county action plan identifies a “strong belief in witchcraft practices” as a “motivating factor” of violent extremism.

The plan also mentions the Mombasa Republican Council. This is a coastal secessionist movement, which has been associated with the coastal Mijikenda ethnic group. Several sacred Kaya forests of the Mijikenda are identified as “hideouts” of the Mombasa Republican Council.

Why are these seemingly unrelated issues grouped together? And how do fears about witchcraft and terrorism affect religious coexistence?

Witches and terrorists

The term “witchcraft” finds its roots in European scientific and theological discourse. It was strongly associated with the primitive, irrational and evil.

During colonial times, British leaders used the term “witchcraft” to demonise African resistance movements. By doing so, the British denounced resistance movements such as Mau Mau as irrational expressions of “deranged violence” and “primitive savagery”.

Scholars have argued that accusing Mau Mau of witchcraft concealed the economic and political motives of the movement. It also legitimised its extremely violent repression by colonial authorities.

This association between witchcraft and violence continued to linger after Kenya gained independence. Movements that threaten state power, including the Mombasa Republican Council, continue to be associated with witchcraft or demonic practices. In this sense, the “witch” continues to function as a powerful anti-image of morality, order and proper (Christian) religiosity.

Similarly, the presence and activity of Al-Shabaab in Kenya triggers the mobilisation of a powerful societal anti-image – that of the terrorist. Taking inspiration from US rhetoric in the global war on terror, former president Uhuru Kenyatta described terrorism perpetrated by Al-Shabaab as the work of “evildoers” or “the devil”.

Kenyatta did stress that “Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance.” But he nevertheless linked terrorism with Islam by arguing that radicalisation

occurs in the full glare of day, in madrassas, in homes and in mosques with rogue imams.

Three overlaps between ways of speaking about witches and terrorists can be observed in Kenya.

  • Both witches and terrorists are seen as hidden enemies. They secretively plot violence that threatens society – even though terrorists might reveal themselves when they execute attacks.
  • Both witches and terrorists are seen as evil figures without political motives. They deserve extreme punishment.
  • State actors often attempt to reveal these hidden enemies. They do so by formulating suspicions that particular groups may involve themselves in witchcraft or terrorism.

Impact on religious coexistence

Fears about witchcraft and terrorism have politicised and shaped the ways in which various religious groups express themselves. In my research, I found that fears about witches and terrorists had been linked to actual people and their outward appearances.

To avoid unwanted policy or security interventions, Muslims and followers of Mijikenda traditions often avoid expressing themselves or their religions in particular ways. This could include wearing traditional attire, having beards, or publicly airing political dissent. Such forms of public expression have come to serve as indicators that a person may be susceptible to radicalisation. These dynamics also affect people who are not involved in planning or perpetrating violence in any way.

Christianity does not remain entirely free from suspicions around terrorism or witchcraft. Yet, so far it’s not associated with them within western donor policies or Kenyan political discourse to the same extent. As a consequence, Christians generally do not have to restrict their public religious expression in the way that I observed among Muslims and followers of Mijikenda traditions.

I argue that the circulation of fears about witchcraft and terrorism favours the public expression of Christianity. This continues a colonial pattern in which Christianity is generally seen as a civilised religion that is compatible with modern statecraft.

Religious minorities continue to be looked at with suspicion. It is feared that they may inspire forms of terrorism or witchcraft that threaten peace and unity in Kenya.

The impact of these fears on religious coexistence in the future remains to be seen.The Conversation

Erik Meinema, Assistant Professor of Religion and Heritage, Utrecht University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Written by: Staff Writer

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