A Discussion with Abdulhamid Sakar, Kenya Muslim Youth Alliance

With: Abdulhamid Sakar Berkley Center Profile

November 13, 2014

Background: Muslim youth in Kenya face marginalization from various sources for different reasons, but the Kenya Muslim Youth Alliance (KMYA) creates a space for youth to gather, discuss, and engage. Crystal Corman met with three KMYA leaders on November 13, 2014 to learn more about the organization and issues facing Muslim youth in Kenya. She met with Abdulhamid Sakar, the current executive director, and also Fadhilee Msuri and Fatuma Kamene. The conversation ranged from the idea to organize a national Muslim youth organization, to programmatic activities, communication tools, and youth dialogues. The youth described their work on peace and security, as well as their desire to include more women. They also speak about persistent barriers for youth they feel the government can quickly address.

How did KMYA begin?

The Kenya Muslim Youth Alliance was formed in 2002 after we recognized various factors. First, we had a constituency of Muslim youth all around the country without a coordinating body or institution. Another major reason for founding a youth organization was because the mainstream institutions such as SUPKEM (Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims), did not much recognize the contribution of youth, particularly in issues of religious development in this country.

Our simple vision was to try and identify the potential of Muslim youth, to nurture those potentials and then deploy them back into their community so they can effectively participate in socio-economic and the political development of our society. Basically, it was a vision of trying to bring the youth together, trying to give them a bit of capacity building—including human security and the media--so that it becomes easier for them to transform their community.

You mentioned that a survey to map Muslims in Kenya also informed the organization. What did you learn?

You find that Muslims are almost everywhere in this country. We had a good working relationship with SUPKEM, and they were doing a survey to determine the impact of HIV/AIDS on Muslims in this country in 2001 and '02. In this process of trying to gauge the disease burden among Muslims, they realized the need for a very extensive survey to establish the estimated population of Muslims. Demographics from that survey helped us a lot in trying to determine 1) the distribution of Muslims around the country, and 2) to take stock of the various Muslim initiatives in the country. We wanted to understand the infrastructure of Islamic organizations and efforts owned or run by the Muslims. These include religious institutions and community based organizations as well as madrasas and mosques. That survey definitely played a role in the founding of KMYA and gave us thematic focus.

What are the primary themes Muslim youth are engaged in?

As an organization, we selected some thematic areas from this survey. One is youth leadership where we try to build the capacity of the youth for community leadership and management. Youth have the potential and the edge, but lack some necessary skills enabling them to be productive members of their community. We also established some leadership structures so youth can put what they’ve learned into practice.

Another thematic area we are building is human security and human rights. In our analysis of Muslims in Kenya, we realize many Muslims inhabit slum areas all over the country. Within that situation there is a challenge of human rights and human security.

The area of democratic governance is informed by the fact that we realized many Muslims have not been participating effectively in the political process of this country, whether in leadership positions or voting, even policy development. We sought to engage in those democratic governance processes so that issues pertaining to Muslims, and Muslim youth in particular, are appreciated and included in the policy development processes.

Media is another thematic area where KMYA has invested a lot. We realized that in Kenya we didn’t have any Muslim media to actually communicate issues pertaining to Muslims. We established a monthly newspaper called the New Dawn. Its goal is to communicate to Muslims in Kenya whatever is happening in the Muslim world and of course in Kenya. We believe Muslims are stakeholders in this country. Our printed circulation is about 50,000. Interestingly, we have a good following through the diaspora; we reach more than a million people. Those on staff contribute articles and we produce it here in Nairobi.

We also engage on the issue of gender. Since the constitution lifts up women’s participation, we decided to create this thematic area. Women are marginalized, just as youth are marginalized.

We have the whole issue of health and HIV/AIDS. Muslim youth are actually getting a larger burden of infections so we focus on it to better serve the health of our constituents.

We also do a bit on the environment, cleaning exercises and creating awareness about environmental conservation.

You work in many areas! Can you give me some examples of how you engage youth?

We have learning circles, which are groups of Muslim youth gathering regionally to discuss the issues affecting them. They meet monthly to talk and also look for possible solutions and strategies for their issues. This includes a youth leader and maybe 20 to 30 people who bring different information regarding the community, such as security, peace and development, etc. This is a combination of leadership, team building, and integration and transformation of ideas.

We realized that it is normally challenging for youth to get invited into decision making organs in the country and society. In this approach, we tried to craft a way to get the attention of policymakers that would ultimately get us invited to such meetings. They see the importance of our contribution and development agenda.

What types of topics have you come together around?

Certainly we discuss security. For example in Mombasa we have had a lot of violence and killings. The county commissioner can work with us by requesting that we facilitate that kind of dialogue. They learn from us as citizens; learn how we approach some of those problems. This kind of constant communication, dialogue, and interaction helps to create an enabling environment so that the government can come to understand the community’s perspective.

As an organization, who do you work with or meet with?

We’ve worked with various agencies. We’ve worked with the U.S. Embassy on the issue of peace and security, particularly in northern Kenya. This is our primary issue working with the U.S. Embassy; we realized that in this region there is a problem, a disconnect, between the community in general and the security personnel. Programmatically, we’ve been trying to bridge the gap between the community and the duty bearers of sustainable peace and security. We’ve found that peace is the cornerstone of any social economic development of an area.

We’ve worked with the royal Danish Embassy, also on peace and security. Here, we encouraged the residents of the region against the agenda of secession. We emphasize dealing with peace through constitutional means; establish our government structure and task them to realize development needs. It’s been difficult; there are still some challenges there.

We also work with the British High Commission on the same topic of security. We’ve worked closely with both the U.S. and British Embassies to promote reconciliation in various communities using interreligious, intergenerational, and interethnic dialogue forums.

How big is your organization and your staff?

We have a workforce of almost 50 people. About half of them are receive some payment and the others are volunteers. In Nairobi there are 10 to 12 and the others are in the coast and also in Nakuru. I think we are presently active in 15 counties.

How would you describe Islam in Kenya? Isn’t it quite diverse?

I think that diversity is a positive thing because traditionally Islam was linked to a specific grouping. But currently in Kenya Islam is dispersed across various ethnic lines which opens up Islam. It debunks Islam belonging to just one group or the notion that there is one single “true” Islam. In Kenya, it is spread all over the country and all of the tribes have Muslims. This actually helps in peace efforts.

Within this diversity, do you do intra-faith dialogue?

We react to certain needs by bringing the community together to talk amongst ourselves. For example, in 2012 we gathered to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was formed by the former president in order to take stock of historical injustices. After collecting information, we brought all the leadership in one place in order to enhance and validate a document to be submitted to the commission.

That same year we handled the impact of the Kenyan government’s incursion in Somalia by gathering to discuss. We had noticed that Muslims were being profiled by the government due to the close religious relationship with Somalis and the conflict was becoming a world issue. We met to discuss how to work with the government in order to reduce this type of harassment from the government and to consider the whole issue of violent extremism.

Is this the biggest problem facing Muslims in Kenya?

The immediate challenge is the one coming from the government. Yes, the structure of government makes it difficult, but we’ve also realized it also depends on the person you’re working with and their interest and dedication to be in dialogue.

Also, sometimes there is a lack of formal government structure. For example at the moment, some Kenyans who have gone to fight in Somalia now want to return. They were lured with promises they now see are false, so they wish to return home to Kenya. But currently there is no government structure dealing with returnees. Instead, the government tactic has been suspicion and to shoot them. This has caused fear among such persons, prohibiting them from being open about coming back to our country; actually, they want to participate in the social economic development of this country. We want assurance from the government that you will be viewed as citizens who have regretted their initial action. Instead, the stigma associated with the extremist is taken to the next level so that youth feel that they now have nothing to lose. If they can’t be reintegrated back into the community then they don’t have anything to lose; so they engage in any criminal activity without regards to nationhood or patriotism.

Those guys are pressuring us to help them integrate back into their communities. We are in a catch 22 situation because if we leave them alone they will be killed by security forces who hunt them down. But if we give their information to the government, they are using this same information against us.

How have you as an organization responded?

We intend to have intra-religious dialogue for deeper discussion. First just let the youth talk about the problem together. We feel we must do something for ourselves first before going to the government in this instance. How can we help each other? Let’s bring together the whole spectrum, moderates to radicals.

It seems whenever we do interreligious events, only the moderates attend. Besides, who invites the extremists? But if there was an intra-faith forum between people of the same faith, in as much as they hold a different view from mine, it will create a space to discuss these kinds of ideologies. Also, even with interreligious forums, problems persist. It’s time now for us to rethink our strategy because at the moment, interfaith efforts are not effective.

As Muslim youth, what concerns you most at the current moment?

We were just discussing the issue of radicalization. We are worried that Sheikhs fear going to mosques. They have become the target! Madrasa teachers are also trying to reduce their presence in madrasas because they fear being profiled. If this problem isn’t addressed, then in five or 10 years we may see mosques without imams and madrasas without teachers. This will have a long lasting effect for the Muslim faith, weakening it but also creating a vacuum.

Also, if no one stands up against this threat of targeting imams and madrasa teachers, what will Muslims think? They will feel betrayed by the government and feared by non-Muslims. The government needs to change the way they are dealing with the issue of peace. The cornerstone of any peace is a strong judicial system—justice. If justice is done and seen to be done, and people are actually happy with the justice system, then peace is evident.

What are your ideas for responding to extremism?

Let us learn from the response to AIDS in Kenya. It was considered to be a wide problem so there was a concerted effort between different countries, various organizations, and institutions. They created a joint effort, joint initiative, and joint strategy in dealing with the issue. The Kenyan government created the National AIDS Control Council, and it was declared a national disaster. Different sectors tried to work together—the media, the government, the civil society, and the general population.

Now if we come to extremism, we see it is also getting a lot of donor funding. How can there be similar collaboration for a common goal? At the moment, each donor agency is working in isolation. We had a discussion some months ago with donor organizations saying please, we are actually dealing with one issue: violent extremism. Why is it that we cannot work together?

We can replicate the kind of strategy for addressing the AIDS crisis in dealing with extremism.

Many people are talking about radicalized youth and how to prevent this. It sounds like you are well positioned to reach such youth.

Radical indoctrinated youth were jobless and hopeless before. Most of them are lack formal education, or those with formal education didn’t get an opportunity to get employed. They just believe that the state is frustrating the Muslim community.

It is said that radicalized youth are taking over mosques in Kenya, chasing away their leadership and instilling their own leadership. This doesn’t seem possible, for youth to wake up one day and take over the same mosque where they grew up and are known. We think it must be outside people who give them courage to chase from the mosque someone the youth has known for years. An imam of the mosque has maybe been there over 25 years; he has seen some of the youth who kicked him out be born, raised, and even taught them in madrasa. Maybe he has mentored them in school or their families. This is someone who did not give youth radical ideas including kicking him out. I don’t believe you wake up this morning and say, "We need to start something."

As a youth, I know that if I want to see changes in my mosque or community, I know the exact people to talk with to request such a thing. All mosques in Kenya work the same way; yes, the committees may be old people, but most committee members have their children from that locality. So where are youth getting such ideologies or this "additional" knowledge?

How is the government responding to this threat?

Given the new constitution, when someone is a suspect of terrorism that person is entered into a court of law; evidence is gathered. But we have not seen this happen here. Instead, suspects end up dead. But the more youth are killed, the more radicalized youth become. And this increases messages that if you’re killed in the name of religion, you become a martyr and tomorrow you’ll get 70 virgins waiting for you in Paradise.

For a long time, we have been sitting with the government, but we have grown tired. For example, we’re sitting in the quarters of the security forum together with the government and one week and two days after this meeting, they arrest youth in the same manner they did before that particular meeting. After this effort, we get tired.

Even the youth themselves get tired of participating in the meeting. At the end of the day their cries are not heard by anyone. The youth are trying to tell the government their feelings about a particular incident but feel ignored. After some time the government loses interest and kills their own citizens.

There is no way to work towards peace without the participation of the government.

What makes youth so vulnerable, in your opinion?

Youth form 70 percent of the Kenyan population. And every year as we check off thousands of graduates only about 10 percent are absorbed into the job market. There are no opportunities. And if you want them to create self-employment, the government is not conducive to help here.

The extremists come to town with money and goodies. They organize conference every day at the mosque; feed them and they’ll come. They’ll tell their friend, let’s go to the mosque, there’s lunch. They’ll group at the mosque or whichever center and they’ll take us step by step.

Also, there are so many problems with the government, whether Muslim or Christians, you’ll end up believing the government will never help you. They are not keen on youth employment.

The government has strategies for the youth to improve employment options, but there are deep restrictions for Muslims. The government reserves space for youth access to government procurement opportunities. Thirty percent of these opportunities must go to youth, women, and persons with disabilities. A recent proposal showed that much more went to women than youth.

It’s also very difficult to apply for this funding. In order to get the registration certificate for the treasury, you must supply the budget accounts from the last two years. This government policy came into effect in 2013, so how can a youth produce a [required] certificate of this? Instead, you see the same contractors register using the name of youth to have access to these funds. A person will list his son or cousin to get the funding.

They should have removed all the bottlenecks; as long as I’m a youth and I meet all the criteria, if I have a company, I should get first priority. But when you hear of the corruption, you are disappointed.

If all youth lack employment opportunities, do Muslims have additional obstacles?

There is the issue of getting an identification card in the Muslim community. As an example, we heard of a case where a person could not secure an ID card for six years because they needed a birth certificate of a grandfather. We were shocked—and laughed, actually. We met with the head of registration and even asked him jokingly, "Can you produce one for your grandpa?"
No, it is a deliberate attempt, because why do you need extra vetting for Muslims in this country? Without the card, one can’t be employed, can’t do studies, can’t vote, can’t do anything. So what is this person left to do? They become a radical.

The government could defeat radicalism with such small means. You don’t need to deploy military in Mombasa. Fix these small issues, these bottlenecks, within government.

Tell me more about applying for this ID card?

When I was in school they would send those identification passports to schools, because admittance to school included a process that confirmed this person was a Kenyan. Therefore registering the youth through schools was the best approach. Things changed after the 1998 attack on the U.S. Embassy.

The vetting process requires so much paperwork, which can be tricky for some to produce. Think of people in Kibera, the slum? They can’t produce a deed or title for their land. Here is a situation. I’m a Muslim born and brought up in Kibera. Unlike you, I didn’t go to school because of the financial burden. I turn 18 and apply for an ID and am denied. So this means I can’t be employed unless I employ myself. This perpetuates vulnerability. And frustration that no viable options exist. If someone comes with extreme ideology and money, he accepts because he feels the system is against him.

The slums have produced many youth runaways to Somalia. Why? Because the living conditions are very low, they don’t have title to that place, they don’t go to school. They simply don’t see any future. So how do you tell that person that you need to be patriotic?

And in many Nairobi slums, the vast majority of tenants are Muslim. The marginalization perpetuates segregation. It cannot be a coincidence.

Muslims are a minority in Kenya. Are Muslims frustrated with being marginalized?

We can appreciate the fact that despite all the injustice, Muslims have never risen up against the government or any other tribes. Given the violence over land in this country, along ethnic lines, this says something.

Because of the rules of Islam, we coexist peacefully. But now we see this extremism swallowing our population slowly by slowly. And if it is not taken care of soon, in the next five or 10 years, only a small percent will be left as moderates. The danger is that this is slowly spreading to other parts of the country. It is at a very slow pace, but their strategy is to go test the waters in that region, then the next.

I’d like to ask more about your work with women and girls. Can you tell me more?

We’ve been focusing on empowering Muslim women politically, socially, and economically. We also want to have more women involved in peacebuilding, as it’s largely been ignored. It can be particularly important now because a woman is able to detect when a child, youth, brother, or man has started to behave differently in a family or community. We see many of the things taking place in our community, but we need to empower women so that their voices can be heard. When a woman’s voice is heard you will be able to stop the radicalization of the youth, the recruitment of brothers or sons. The first person who can understand early changes of behavior is the woman.

What are some of the things you’re doing to empower Muslim women?

A lot needs to be done with women on so many fronts. Peacebuilding is nowhere to be seen. Health issues nowhere to be seen. Economic empowerment nowhere to be seen.

From the post-election violence, we saw that it was women who suffered most. We worked in camps, and when you consider the conditions of these women and children it was really because the men fled away, but the women had to stay behind to protect her children. Since women feel the consequences of violence the most, we feel they should be involved in their own peacebuilding initiative.

We haven’t done so much in developing peacebuilding yet but it is an aim and focus. We are thinking of engaging donors to see how we can partner with them and empower women so that when the women sit together they can share the information and inform the community of the dangers of the youth.

We also need to empower women economically. If you look at the poverty index of women, I think when it comes to Muslim women, it is very high. We need to bring the sense to these women that they also have the capacity to provide for their family, not just the man as the only provider. You are seeing families breaking up because of this ideal.

There is also the issue of gender-based violence. It’s an issue that also happens among the Muslim community but it is silent, based maybe on family setup and culture. There is the notion that if you get abused you cannot come out and say so, because you are afraid it will shame the family. So who to go to for help? But if women are empowered to reshape the family into a healthier family; I’m not saying she should just break the family. If the man follows the true concept of Islam about family life, then this woman will actually be a good example.

What are some of the problems Muslim women and girls face?

Young Muslim girls are not motivated to study hard, because they know at the end of the day they will get married and depend on their husbands. Dependency makes women more vulnerable and you see that the majority of Muslim women are housewives.

It seems that when a woman marries, her power has been silenced when it comes to making a decision. Once married, she no longer has the authority to decide if she wants to continue working. It is tradition. It’s not Islamic, it is tradition that shapes the role of the women. Once you are married, stay at home, make your house neat, and feed your husband. When he goes out there, people see you through your husband.

There is also the issue of early marriage; it destroys the potential of these young girls at a small age. Some get pregnant by 12 years old!

How have you worked to empower girls and female youth to stay in school?

We’ve been focusing on madrasas, and also the youth in school, and the youth out of school. What we’ve been doing is bringing them together and trying to counsel them to instill in them the need for living together and encouragement to attend the university.

We conducted a first youth camp in December 2013. We brought together young girls aged 12 to 23 years from different parts of the country for one week. We also did a camp for boys on different dates. We’ve been doing counseling for the girls and motivating them to how to work hard in school so they can join universities. The majority of the girls, and even the boys, especially from the slum areas, others don’t even finish primary level because of maybe peer influence.

By having those clubs we’ve found that we’ve been able to motivate many of the girls. In fact, most girls have been asking for more clubs because they want to be far from home, they want to learn a lot. We taught about access to resources in times of need, school fees perhaps. Maybe their parents are not able to afford the university fee. But when a child performs very well in school, he or she can access the government’s sponsorship program for university and also for secondary. And also we have been talking to parents on how they can access school fees and different initiatives the government has brought on board to help educate the poor population.

I found that the ones that are interested in going back to school, they then perform well in schools. They are excited to learn and motivated. We are looking for partners that we can work together to bring the girls together in or out of school to share for friendship but also motivation so there is a big community that is learning, that is focused, that is well informed.

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