A Discussion with Hassan Ole Naado, Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims
April 15, 2015
Background: The Muslim population in Kenya is diverse in many ways, complicating efforts for the communities to speak with one voice or influence social or political issues. The Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM) in one organization that provides such a platform. Hassan Ole Naado, SUPKEM deputy general secretary, met with Crystal Corman on April 15, 2015 to discuss the organization’s mission and current work. Ole Naado discusses SUPKEM’s efforts to counter violent extremism and work with vulnerable Muslim youth. He also elaborates the challenges facing Muslims in Kenya, many historical, and highlights his concern about growing distrust between Christians and Muslims due to terror attacks targeted at the members of the Christian faith by terrorists. He describes the historical neglect of “low potential” regions of Kenya (where most Muslim communities are concentrated) as a contributor to current tensions and reflects on pitfalls associated with the devolution process. He also reflects on some challenges that demands for transparency place on Muslim communities, generally and in the Kenya context, as well as the advantages but also pitfalls of interfaith dialogue (being “painted as a zebra") and on the challenges to including youth as leaders in religious engagement.
Could you tell be about the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims and its history?
The Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims is the umbrella body of all Muslim organizations, societies, committees, and groups in Kenya. It was founded in 1973, following a conference in Nairobi, to support member organizations. SUPKEM is also involved in directly implementing a variety of different programs to address unique challenges that Muslims across Kenya face, especially perennial famine and related disasters. We advocate for issues like Muslim economic empowerment and land rights.
You’ve been very active in working to counter violent extremism and advocating for a returnee policy. Can you explain SUPKEM’s work on these issues?
SUPKEM is involved in campaigns to try to address the push and pull factors of violent extremism. We are actively involved in lobbying and advocating for policy change in different levels of government because, while the narrative of violent extremism is often framed in ideological terms, there are also genuine grievances. These are very appealing to communities where there are practical issues that we need to service. We have been engaging the government of Kenya from different levels, trying to encourage and change those policies. We need to ensure that we have general policies that actually treat all citizens equally. No one should ever feel that maybe somebody doesn’t like him because of his faith or ethnic identity.
We are also seeing an opportunity in terms of putting our faith forward to counter violent extremism. We want to discourage and dissuade young people from joining violent extremist groups because they are being promised things that do not exist. The best person to explain that is not me; it’s someone that’s actually gone there, who has had an experience, stayed for a while, and come back because he did not achieve what was promised by the recruiters. This is why we want to work with the returning foreign fighters to make documentaries on the experiences they have gone through. Returnees can weave a very powerful narrative. We think this is one of the things that has been lacking in the whole campaign.
The second level of the narrative is the community level. The minorities and marginalized communities have legitimate concerns that continue to serve violent extremists’ recruiters both as push and pull factors. Such issues, if ignored, might attract youth into joining violent extremist groups as the option. However, disillusionment and hopelessness exhibited by the returning foreign fighters can indirectly undermine recruiters’ narrative and communicates to the communities that the option [of joining the extremist group] is a no-go zone. Those people were promised heaven but they are returning to hell? This process will discourage more people in the community.
We either use the media, or we use the human relations at the community level.
You will find that counteroffensive is very effective when the face is put on it. Why are you advocating for these returnees so much?
It’s because they are human beings. They are human beings who can be led or misled by their instincts or by their friends. We cannot really justify condemnation of a group of people because they joined a certain group. I think it’s not fair. It’s always important to give someone a second chance. We cannot just say, "Because they have chosen to go the extreme way, let them remain there." I think we have an obligation, as human beings, to bring them back to the mainstream and let them live their lives and achieve their potential. That’s one of the key things that we are looking at, and why we are attempting to help with the returnees.
Returnees also often face a stigma in their communities. That’s exactly what we were discussing now when I walked out [of a meeting]. They were asking me, for example, “We have gotten amnesty from the government. What about the communities?” Because there are those among the returnees who have committed crimes against communities, so where will that category fit into? There is also another angle to that, the sympathizers [with the extremist cause]. Where do they fit?
You mentioned earlier that Muslims in Kenya have genuine grievances. Could you talk about those?
In Kenya we have had a history of marginalization of minority communities, and it happens that the majority of minority communities are actually Muslims. The big share of arid and semiarid lands in Kenya is where you find Muslims. If you look at upper eastern Kenya—from Isiolo to the border of Ethiopia, to the border of Sudan and moving to the east, towards part of Somalia, moving downwards to the coast—all that area is dominated by Muslims. These are also areas that have never realized development. The presence of government there is very small. There are places within those areas where you have to travel 200 kilometers to go to a hospital or a clinic. There are little to no roads. What do we expect those communities to do? As you can imagine, the idea that there has been deliberate marginalization sells very well within those communities. The narrative of "We are nobody; we are not wanted." sells very well among those people.
What created this imbalance within Kenya?
Two things have created the imbalances in this country. There is a famous paper co-authored by the former president, Mr. Mwai Kibaki, in 1965 under the title “African Socialism and its application in Kenya.” This sessional paper gave priorities for government development on what they call "high productivity areas." When you talk of high potential areas, you are talking of areas where there is rain and there is agriculture, there is coffee and tea and other few things. The low potential areas are areas where pastoralists live with their cattle, camels, goats, and everything else. It so happens that goats and cows cover 80 percent of the landmass of Kenya. The place that was considered to be "high potential" is the remaining 20 percent. And where is that? It’s mainly central Kenya. This is one thing that created those development imbalances.
The other thing is the international community, especially the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. In their policy, they can only invest in high potential areas. They can’t risk their money. They can’t take their money to a place where there is no potential. If the World Bank wants to build a road, they research the potential investment before committing.
The result of this strategy in this session paper was a skewed approach that destroyed certain communities while giving opportunities to others. We are going to struggle for very many years to get out of this problem. Today we have water, road networks, and electricity in "high potential" areas but not in others.
For many years the Kenyan government has not been able to do development; it relies on World Bank and other foreign development organizations. The money that we have been getting is only enough for salaries and a few corruption issues. Since it’s not our money, the giver decides where to use the money. We cannot decide where we want to develop on our own efforts. This gap was supposed to be very comfortably filled by the devolution. Now, unfortunately, it’s not working.
In your opinion, how far is devolution working to address this imbalance?
It was supposed to help, but today we are experiencing political leadership that is not very keen to realize successful devolution. We are seeing a deliberate attempt to undermine devolution. And if one does that, one can actually undermine the overall agenda.
Unfortunately, I am now almost becoming an advocate against devolution because of the deliberate roadblocks that have been erected on the way and corruption. That is exactly what is happening. We have successfully devolved corruption and made a few additional millionaires at the county level at the expense of everyone else. But in terms of realizing real development, we can’t see it because we have really wasted a lot of money. I think if Kenyans are wise, because I think they are wise, we should advocate changing the number of counties; instead of 47, reduce to something more manageable like eight or 13. At the moment we have 47 mini governments with 47 cabinets and 47 parliaments...one more of each counting the national level. All of these have budgets and resources they have to spend for development or for sustaining the workforce. A recent report showed that some counties have only spent 1 percent of their budget on development, with the rest covering administration. It’s very bad. And we are seeing many white elephant projects that never take off. They drum up a lot of support, even though we do not see true value.
Does SUPKEM engage in development in Kenya?
That’s one of the challenges that we have. For example, I am the deputy secretary general of this council, but I don’t receive a salary. I must find some consultancies and also develop projects to survive. Another challenge is that funding sources can undermine the independence of the institution. At the moment, we are only able to plan with what funds we have, so we are unable to make plans very far into the future. That has undermined us. I would say the reasons why we operate like this is history. Islam, and Muslims as a community, are very traditional and conservative; we are used to a system where your right hand doesn’t know what your left hand has done. This system is highly challenged by the modern day chorus of transparency and accountability.
Let me give an example. Let’s say we want to build a mosque in Kibera. We come to you to ask and you reply, "Okay, I’ll do that. But I don’t want anyone to advertise that I’ve given this money. Okay, go and build the mosque." We get that money, and we build the mosque. The community has a beautiful mosque – but nobody knows how much was spent or who donated the funds. This is because in our belief system, we believe that what you do should only be between you and your God, not between people. But transparency demands that what you do should be known by people.
This has denied us opportunities to engage with development organizations; they would accuse me of lack of transparency. And I’ll be accusing them for micromanaging me. You see? And when we have come to learn that there is a need for us to adopt these new management systems, it’s too late. People have left us many, many, many years ago. Others have gone very far because they adopted long ago those systems while we are still struggling with our own traditional means. We realize that we have been left behind. You know, when people are running 100 meters, it’s a disaster if you don’t start running at the trigger of the gun. Because, by the time you do this, other people are already finishing! That’s where we found ourselves. But we are waking up. We’ve thought, "Can we put in place the systems that can adopt and adapt the conventional system of funding?" It’s not too late. But we need to determine who we can work with.
We also struggle with institutional development because often funders do not want to give core funding. There are very limited organizations that give you core funding. So those are some of the key challenges.
You mentioned that certain people think that participating in interfaith activity dilutes your own religious identity, so you want to make sure that you don’t have that public face?
You can’t fight the propaganda when you are part of it yourself. I deal with the idea of interreligious relations by standing on the outside and dealing with it. Not from the inside, because if you’re on the inside, you’ll be defending yourself. If you are standing outside, you are seen as defending the cause, not yourself.
You can fight the propaganda when you are trying to save a certain narrative or protect a certain interest; they will not even listen to you if you are in it. The Qur’an calls for interfaith relations, very clearly in many respects. For you to deal with that propaganda, you should not be painted a zebra—because you’ll become a zebra. So you have to ensure that nobody portrays you that way. Then you’ll be able to deal with the actual issue. You know, the moment they paint you that way, they will not even listen to you. They see you not as offering an alternative voice; instead you are part of this other group that they are fighting.
How do you provide an alternative voice? You have to stay out of the fray and find a way for how you deal with that to ensure that we sustain this relationship that’s very important to the country. At the same time, however, you don’t lose your core objective of engaging and countering this group of [extremists].
What challenges do you see for interfaith relations in Kenya?
You know, Kenya is coming from a very difficult past. We have had very good and encouraging interfaith relations in the country that really brought us this far. The qadi court challenges changed things. That is the first time there was really religious tension in the country. The Christian community did not want to have the qadi court anymore. But the court is not about them, it’s about Muslims. This issue created a lot of suspicion.
How do you see the needs for reconciliation and trust-building?
You know, I just retired from the youth movement. I’m the founder of Kenya Muslim Youth Alliance, by the way. While in the youth movement, I could so clearly see how youth voices are suppressed. Youth have no role in the church or the mosque. There’s no work for them. This is the reason why I formed Kenya Muslim Youth Alliance, while serving as a director of youth affairs in SUPKEM. I demanded that the youth have to be represented. I did not succeed, so I went out and formed a youth organization to give space to young people. I felt that we needed to have a parallel structure where youth can feel at home. In my opinion, you cannot lead people who cannot decide anything for themselves or at some level contribute to the work that is being done.
To me, it seems nothing is changing. Even though we talk a lot about democracy, we are not practicing it at the level of religious and traditional organizations. One of the things that is breeding extremism is isolation of the youth. These old men, who are part of the clergy, are very protective of their territory. How do they protect it? They protect it by ensuring that no youth comes close to that. You find that in some religious institutions, there are age limits for positions. In the Catholic Church, for example, you find that there are certain years you have to become a catechist. This doesn’t work. It had been designed in a manner where it only favors wazee, old men.
In Islam, you rarely find very youthful imams who are 25 years old, for example. Even if that imam is a graduate of Medina University, it's difficult because the elders are not comfortable with that. These are some of their protective mechanisms that religious institutions put in place. I remember I had an argument with a Muslim scholar youth definition during the National Youth Policy formulation process. Religious leaders were of the opinion that youthfulness should go beyond 40 years and not 35 years as defined by both UN and the Kenyan youth policy. They told me "Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was given prophethood at the age of 40 years old." Jesus was given his at 33 years old. They are saying God gave them this responsibility when they were mature, so you cannot be given this responsibility when you are young. The religious community cannot even attempt to address the question of exclusion. This is one of the many things that makes the youth rebel in religious institutions.