Kenya has traditionally been a diverse nation where people live relatively peacefully within mixed religious communities. Ethnically driven competition may have existed, but violence, such as occurred after the countries last two elections, has been historically restricted to political or economic objectives.
The country has been a target of sporadic terrorist attacks by radical groups for several decades, but largely unnoticed in much reporting is the a recent increase in radical Islamist attacks against smaller Christian targets, particularly churches. A rough count shows one attack per month countrywide, with – on average – every second attack occurring in communities living on the coast. The most volatile regions have been the areas near the Somali border where a spillover effect can be observed, but the rest of the coast has also experienced attacks, including the popular tourist destination of Mombasa. The situation has escalated to the point that reports have begun of small churches beginning to arm themselves in protection against perceived insecurity. According to several clerics, armed men – in the form of police, professional guards, or church members – now guard or patrol churches in Mombasa.
Radical groups have been primarily targeting churches, yet mosques have been attacked on occasion as well. Several mosque takeovers have occurred in Mombasa and have ended violently as police opened fire in an effort to apprehend the occupiers. Last year several religious leaders requested that the government provide them with AK-47s to churches in order to ensure their protection. This request was initially met with opposition from Muslim and Christian religious leaders alike who plead for better general security rather than a resort to arming religious establishments. Yet after the most recent attacks in Likoni, pastors from Mombasa have renewed requests for the government to provide churches with guns.
Not only is the militarisation of churches a reflection of the increased insecurity in the region, but it has the ability to create a dangerous religious dimension to violence within Kenya. As various religious entities seek to arm themselves, they may become more likely to be involved in further violence.
Beyond bringing religious establishments into the broader dynamics of violence as participants, the rise in attacks against places of worship has the potential of framing ethnic and political violence as religious. Although a religious conflict is an implausible scenario in Kenya, given its history of inter-religious peace, the polarisation of communities resulting from repeated attacks is possible in the long run. A collective armed response in defense of a community may serve only to radicalise its members further.
Kenya’s coastal region has at least the potential for increased insecurity arising out of religious polarisation, and is a dynamic to which careful attention needs to be paid. If escalation were to continue, the longer-term results could be severe – particularly given the present instability and insecurity of coastal regions closer to the border with Somalia.
Although Kenya has been safe from inter-religious conflict in the past, the targeting of places of worship by radical groups has created the potential for religious polarisation. The government must invest in security measures in the regions prone to such attacks if they wish to avoid a situationin which security is gradually eroded .