A Discussion with Mustafa Y. Ali, Secretary General, Global Network of Religions for Children and Director, Arigatou International-Nairobi
November 19, 2014
Background: Mustafa Y. Ali has an impressive interfaith background experience. In his current role at Arigatou International’s Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC), he brings this expertise and reputation to focus on the youngest and most vulnerable—children. Dr. Mustafa met with Crystal Corman in Nairobi on November 19, 2014 to discuss his current work, with particular emphasis on interfaith activities in Kenya. In addition to GNRC’s work with former child soldiers and recruitment of children and youth into militant groups such as the Lord's Resistance Army and Al-Shabaab, Dr. Mustafa explains current efforts to change narratives about religion and conflict. He also explores changing trends in interfaith activities in Kenya and across Africa.
What type of work are you doing these days?
Most of the time is spent with the Global Network of Religions for Children, which is an initiative of Arigatou International. I serve as the secretary general of the Global Network of Religions for Children, which has just moved its global secretariat from Tokyo to Nairobi.
We work for and with children. All we do is for future generations—children. Our slogan is “creating a better environment for children.” Creating a better environment for children also means that you have to work with religious and political leaders to create a better environment for children. We cannot have violence against children in our homes and still expect to have peaceful communities; we cannot look at children simply as passive recipients, as if they don’t have a mind of their own. Our work with the media, religious and traditional leaders to change the negative narratives is part of our mandate and work to create a better environment for children.
We actually involve children in our work. The recent research published last year by the Institute of Security Studies and Finn Church Aid, clearly shows that children between the ages of 10 and 19, are the ones who are mostly being targeted for recruitment and joining groups such as Al-Shabaab. Radicalization, brainwashing and recruitment starts earlier, when they're in school. The children actively join Al-Shabaab between the ages of 15 and 19. Radicalization into violent extremism begins much earlier. We are addressing this radicalization that constitutes harshest forms of violence against children and a grave affront to childhood.
Beyond this, we are implementing three major programs—ethics education for children, children’s rights, and ending child poverty. Arigatou International has, through Ethics Education for Children, developed a manual called “Learning to Live Together.” This, in many ways, targets young people between the ages of 12 and 18 on how to understand the ‘other’ from an early age. It nurtures one to empathize, to move beyond tolerance to respect. Based on the convention on the rights of the children, we work with children to know their rights and of course, responsibilities. We also mobilize religious leaders to address violence against children in support of the Prayer and Action initiative.
You have extensive experience in interfaith. Can you summarize some of that involvement?
I've been working on and with interfaith since 2000 while I was at the Islamic Foundation Kenya. In 2003, I joined Arigatou International in Tanzania to, together with a Maryknoll Sister Jean Pruitt, to build the GNRC Africa from the East and Southern African Network. In 2007 I moved back to Nairobi when I was requested by Religions for Peace international secretary general Dr. William F. Vendley to take over from Mr. Abubakar Francis as the Religions for Peace representative in Africa. At the same time, we were formally rolling out the pan-African interfaith work of the the African Council of Religious Leaders, after its establishment in Abuja, Nigeria. I served as the secretary general of the Council, and in that capacity, as Religions for Peace representative for Africa. This was my interfaith work from 2007 to 2013. Now I am back with Arigatou International.
How would you describe the work of the African Council of Religious Leaders?
Our work at Religions for Peace and the African Council of Religious Leaders involved a range of strategic objectives: sustainable development, peacebuilding, conflict prevention and transformation, and protecting the earth. Our approach was to mobilize religious and traditional leaders to address these issues. All our approaches were interfaith in nature, particularly when it came to advocacy. We did work with the United Nations agencies, the African Union, and particular countries when addressing protracted conflicts such as Somalia, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Sudan, focusing on alternative conflict resolution methodologies. We helped build the capacity of religious actors to be able to respond to those conflicts at the local level more effectively. So we worked at the Pan-African level, the country level, and the grassroots level.
From your perspective, what is the trajectory of interfaith in Africa or specific to Kenya?
In all the countries that I've visited doing interfaith work—more than 50—I see interfaith more or less the same. The challenges are location specific (sometimes country or continent specific) but a closer comparison shows the trends are more or less the same. The challenges are how much do we understand the other? How much do we know about the other? How far do we go to understand the other? Do we do that because we want to do it or because we've been called or invited around a table to do it? Once you know the other to a certain level, how much do you want to continue to engage with the other to create more peaceful communities?
I have found that in interfaith work, knowing the other is valuable so that I can then understand better why that person (or group) behaves the way they do. Most of the time suspicions exist between religious people, leaders, and faith communities. Suspicions also exist within religions at the very basic intra-faith level. This causes a lot of challenges and problems. But once you get to know people, then you can predict how they will react. Then you're able to address challenges so that people don't respond out of misinformation.
Particularly here in Africa, people have generally been very understanding to each other. That first contact that you have between a Christian and a Muslim, a Hindu and a Muslim, a Christian and a Sikh, is that of respect and wanting to genuinely know more about each other. This happened more often during the ‘70s and ‘80s but by the ‘90s, growing suspicions started to emerge.
Why this change? In Africa, we have tended to super-impose the global challenges and the international conflicts such as those in the Middle East, Asia, or Southern Europe to define our identities and thinking. A concrete example is conflicts in the Balkans, Israel-Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. Communities here who are religiously related to communities there have tended to take those conflicts as their fight in Africa. There increasing ‘religionization’ of politics and conflicts, as well as politicization of religion in Africa.
The example of ISIS targeting Yazidis or Christians in Syria and the larger Middle East has caused people from different religions here to become more aggressive to each other—even though these conflicts happen outside of Africa. Too often people are not analyzing the situation, asking why ISIS is targeting Yazidis or Coptic or Orthodox Christians? Is it really because of Islam? Is it political? What is the problem? Also, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has had an impact on the way Muslims are now relating to or perceiving members from Jewish communities. There is very little understanding here of what is the cause of the problem between the Israelis and Palestinians. Instead, it is generalized as a challenge between Muslims and Jews, and unfortunately people uncritically take it the way it comes out of the media. This misinformation or oversimplification is actually used by extremists to project the ongoing fighting in religious terms or using religious narratives.
How does interfaith look for children in Kenya today? For example, do parents allow children to engage with children from other faiths?
In the past, yes, but today there's real suspicion growing—a Christian or a Muslim parent being more careful with their children and youth even though the children and youth are friends and spend most of their time together. This is not the way it used to be in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. But since the ‘90s, these identities have been reason for suspicion rather than seeing ourselves as Kenyans or from the same community. For me, it was very easy because our home was diverse. This is common across Africa and creates a home and space for lived interfaith experiences in day-to-day interactions.
How do you build long-term interreligious relations and understanding versus one-off meetings?
It’s true that in a lot of work that we've done in practice, we've observed “short-termism” where people just come to a meeting, discuss interfaith or collaborative work that they want to do together, but then go back and retreat in their own homes or organizations with very little follow-up. Part of this is due to suspicions; people are worried that there is a hidden agenda. And it is true that there are organizations that call people to interfaith meetings to perpetuate their own versions of religious beliefs, or project their organizations and image, however superficially.
To address those suspicions, we've developed a formula. When you're organizing or designing a program, project, or even an activity, we don’t design, plan, and organize on our own (only one faith tradition). As a Muslim or a Muslim organization, I don't do it on my own and then call the Christians, Jews, Sikhs, and Hindus to the table. You must involve all faiths you wish to work with from the beginning. Diversity during the formation of a steering committees or working groups will ensure that the process is owned by members from all relevant faith communities. It’s like setting the table together, so that people don't come to the table as guests. Instead, you go to the kitchen and prepare the meal together, set the table together, and eat together. That way people happily continue in the work together. When people come as guests, they stay as guests, and feels no ownership in these processes. These processes don't last long when there's not joint ownership between the people of different faiths.
I have observed a number of organizations here in Africa, which pretend to be doing interfaith. They prepare the meal, set the table, invite others as guests, make them feel like they own the process, launch an initiative, and then people go back after the launch. But whoever is running with that program from one single organization or a single faith, they can’t address an interfaith problem. The others have left because they came in as guests—they were not involved in planning, designing, and conceptualization. The good will is there, but they do it wrongly.
There are also those who do it deliberately, because it's quite easy to go to Europe or America these days for interfaith activities. All you have to say is, “I can deliver the Muslim leadership to the table” and get a few gullible euros and dollars. It’s unfortunate because there are organizations in Africa that are doing that. Their plans and programs read very well on paper and are very convincing so they get donors in the U.S. and Europe. But at the end of the day, you're still calling the others as visitors; they will not partake in those programs in a serious manner. Planners will see that religious leaders don't want to continue those programs after their first attendance, because they feel that there's no joint ownership.
Two months ago I attended a conference that didn’t help organize, but I was asked to go with a few religious leaders. After three days, the religious leaders asked me, “Why did you invite us to this meeting?” I could see from day one that the meeting would not be good—but it looked good on paper and that is why I recommended religious leaders to it! It is a question of quality—but also deception of invitees and attendees. You have well-meaning religious leaders and faith communities wanting to do something, but the event is misrepresented. They feel misused in the process.
What brings faith actors together around the table to collaborate?
Dialogue on its own is good, but it is a starting point to reduce suspicions and build confidence. That needs to be done—but that's what you do at events or one-off conferences. But for programs, you must have clarity and substance. For example, Arigatou International (and GNRC) gathers grassroots workers and interfaith actors together to address child poverty, ethics, violent extremism, violence against children and others. There's concreteness in these kind of actions.
Faith communities participate in this and feel they are moving from one point to the next—or seeing progress. If it's about addressing violent extremism, which is an ideological issue right now that we must grapple with, we want to move from a position of ignorance to a position of knowledge. Our approach is knowledge based, training imams so that they are building their own capacity to respond more effectively to the challenges facing young people as a result of increasing violent radicalization in Kenya, the horn of Africa, all around Africa.
Faith communities participate in this and feel they are moving from one point to the next—or seeing progress. If it's about addressing violent extremism, which is an ideological issue right now that we must grapple with, we want to move from a position of ignorance to a position of knowledge. Our approach is knowledge based, training youth leaders, imams and others so that they are building their own capacity to respond more effectively to the challenges facing young people as a result of increasing violent radicalization in Kenya, the horn of Africa, and around Africa.
When dealing with this very concrete issue, you would find that asking the African Union, governments in the region, and partners from outside of Africa to join with religious leadership to address this single issue of violent extremism, they readily join in. It becomes a process.
Do you think some religious leaders have interfaith event fatigue?
There's a lot of fatigue, I can confirm to you. There are so many repetitive meetings. In a single month, I have to say no several. I often look at a program of a conference and see it's the same content, same participants as a conference I attended six months ago. The only difference is the group sponsoring and organizing the event. We are repeating the same mistakes, at both the interfaith level and also the governmental level. I'll give you an example. The East African community secretariat brings together five countries; they organized a meeting in Kigali to bring religious leaders from those five countries together. When I reviewed the agenda, I realized it's a program that we've actually done before! The original meeting produced a declaration, so why do we have a similar meeting to probably come up with a similar declaration? Why don't we use the original declaration written two years ago and start implementing? Or evaluate the gaps and then build on it with new partners willing to participate?
Another example. We had a meeting in Abuja in 2010 between the African Union, the African Council of Religious Leaders, and senior religious leaders from around Africa. We came up with a good declaration signed between the African Union and African religious leaders. Only recently, a similar meeting was held here in Nairobi, which came up with another declaration. When I compare both declarations—in fact, the one written recently is poor, imprecise, and frankly, misleading, in comparison to what was done in 2010.
It's a circus! Religious leaders upon receiving invitations to the meeting called me to ask, “Hey, what's this? I thought we did this already? Why should I go for three days and do the same thing that we already did before?” So many never turned up. So yes interfaith fatigue is real. And deception, poor judgment, and inconsistencies exist, unfortunately.
What other challenges do you see within interfaith efforts?
Too often people are looking for reasons to spend money irrespective of whether the activity is going to yield positive results. For example the meeting held in 2010 and the one recently are similar except that the earlier one was hosted by organizations executing formal mandates to organize the conference. The more recent conference looked largely ecumenical, and was organized by a non-interfaith organization. Maybe these organizers didn’t do their homework. Even if they learned that the 2010 meeting had little follow-up—which may be true—they should not have repeated the same mistakes—hosting a similar meeting with similar objectives. Instead, take what was agreed upon in the first and build on that and move forward.
Looking at your extensive interfaith experience, what lesson have you learned that needs more emphasis currently, globally?
Governments, inter-governmental organizations, and multi-laterals need to understand that religious leaders work differently from secular organizations. You cannot lump religious leaders or faith organizations in the same basket as secular civil society organizations. They won't even accept that. Religious leaders and faith communities work differently. The dynamics are different, for example there's the whole element of spirituality. When they come to meetings, they don't leave their religion outside. They come in with it, and that spirituality itself—though an intangible—can be a valuable resource. Spirituality can be an asset to drive people, to inspire people to work to mitigate conflicts. It may give them more strength to address the challenges we are facing in very difficult situations. Perhaps the research can explore these spiritual assets. What are they? How useful are they in the mobilization process, and ensuring that people are committed to the work they are doing?
How do you see religious actors playing a role in peace and violence prevention—especially at a time when outsiders are calling many African conflicts “religious” in nature?
The root causes of most conflicts in Kenya and in Africa are not religious. There are a variety of reasons for these conflicts. I'll give you a few examples: In Kenya, in the coast region, we see the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), which is a secessionist movement. Al-Shabaab is now active in Kenya. We also experienced the post-election violence in Kenya. There is the problem of Boko Haram in Nigeria. We also see brutal conflict in the Central African Republic.
In Kenya, most of our problems are caused by challenges resulting from land and resources distribution and sharing, exclusion, perceived marginalization, and competition between ethnic communities. In certain geographic regions like in the Kenya’s coast, ethnicity and distribution of resources is playing out negatively, and violently. The question of citizenship and identity seems to be reaching boiling point levels, and might complicate the existing problems there. The issue in the coast region is actually an identity, citizenship and ethnicity problem complicated by political exclusion, corruption and greed. These have quickly become violent and pitted two religious groups against each other. The identity of that conflict is automatically labeled as “religious” even though the ethnic groups fighting based on reasons other than religious in the coast province.
It’s true that religion is very strong in the coast province. Muslims have a distinct identity; Christians have a distinct identity. Religion there is just automatically, an identity marker. And the media uses this to correlate the conflict in these terms. And we see that on Fridays the Muslims will be talking very harshly about Christians and government. On Sundays the Christians will be talking very harshly about Muslims and their community. So already the conflict has been transformed. Attitudes are being hardened and radicalized. It's all becoming a Muslim-Christian conflict, even though the root cause was something else—land. Once religious identity becomes the marker for opposing sides, we see the Muslims and Christians start fighting over doctrinal issues, which totally ignores the original cause of the fighting: political exclusion and land distribution. Then there is hatred between the groups.
It’s true that religion is very strong in the coast province. Muslims have a distinct identity as much as Christians have a distinct identity as far as faith is concerned. Religion there is just automatically, an identity marker. And the media uses this to correlate and report on the conflict in these terms. So already the conflict has been transformed. Attitudes are being hardened and radicalized. It's all becoming a Muslim-Christian conflict—even though the root cause was something else. Once religious identity becomes the marker for opposing sides, we see the Muslims and Christians start fighting over doctrinal issues, which totally ignores the original cause of the fighting: political exclusion and land (re)distribution. Hatred starts to creep in.
Let me give another simple example from my recent visit to Nigeria. Boko Haram killed three people when I was there (this was when Boko Haram was not very active, so they weren't killing as many people as they are today). They had targeted Christians in Northern Nigeria. The same day, the Fulani—who are pastoralists—attacked another ethnic community in Nigeria and killed more than ten of them. They were fighting over grazing land. Guess which of the two incidents were in the headlines and what were Nigerians talking about? In mosques, in churches, and the political leaders were talking about the fact that Boko Haram had targeted Christians.
Beyond the framing and messaging, how have you seen the media play a role in conflict?
The media will, sometimes quite unintentionally or intentionally, hype inter-religious tension and problems between Christians and Muslims more than ethnic challenges. Recently co-sponsored an event with the KAICIID Dialogue Centre to discuss the impact of the media on the current inter-religious relations in Kenya, from discord to dialogue. What we have observed over the years with all the conflicts that are now pitting Muslims against Christians, Muslims against government, is that the media, including social, has become a battle ground for these conflicts. We invited journalists, government policy and decision makers, and religious leaders to address the issue of the media becoming the battleground where very extreme and violent messages are coming through.
The media is generating some of this through sensational reporting. The media is simply covering violent narratives coming from extremists. The extremists are using their own media—social media, radio stations, newspapers—to reach out to the sympathizers. What we wanted was to have the mainstream media engage in a dialogue with religious leaders and government officials so as to reduce instances in which the media continue to be a battleground—where extremist narratives are competing and perpetuating conflicts.
We also wanted to address how the media is not equally covering the counter-narrative of religious leaders perceived to be boring because they're peaceful. The media won't cover this to balance or drown out the extremist narratives. We know there is a lot of interfaith dialogue—very good quality interfaith cooperation and action—that is not so much in the public domain. Instead, the public sees conflict, because the media loves conflict. This results in a misrepresentation of religious angles of conflict in the media.
Second, we're trying to educate the media to be more careful in the narrative or the language they use. For example, if a person with the name ‘Mustafa’ goes to burn a church, it should not be reported that a Muslim has burned a church. Instead, the report should state that a criminal has burned a church. If ‘Crystal’ goes to burn a mosque, it should not be reported that a Christian has gone to burn a mosque. It should be reported that as it is—and as a criminal act. It is true Christianity doesn't teach Christians to go and burn down mosques, and Islam doesn't teach Muslims to go and burn down churches. The person doing the act is a criminal, and should be treated as a criminal—not as a Christian criminal or an Islamist criminal. The law takes its course, rather than inciting a whole community. It’s true that there's a lot of mobilization along religious lines happening now, but that should not mean that when criminal activities occur, a whole community becomes an accomplice to that criminal activity.
How did the media respond to this event?
We see it working with a section of the local media here in Kenya. They're actually working great, and then we have the government, Cohesion Commission (NCIC) and political actors there too. We are working together on this. But it's very difficult to work with the international media. First of all, they never attend these meetings as they are not really sensational and therefore not newsworthy for them. Their narratives are horrendous, and the young people receive these narratives. But we try our best to distance religion and genuine religious people from these criminal activities.
Let me give the example of Jospeh Kony. He wants to restore the Ten Commandments in Uganda, and that's why he calls his group the Lord's Resistance Army. He’s been abducting and killing children; we’ve just completed a research there together with the Goldin Institute, talking to former ex-combatants and former child soldiers. These children were taken at the tender ages of 4, 5, 6 to around 10; some were forced to kill their parents under the influence of drugs which the LRA gave them. Their behavior is not normal because of the difficult childhood that they went through. Now, do we blame those children from the violence? Are they villains or victims? And did we as adults fail in our duties and responsibilities to protect them from being abducted in the first place? Now, Kony as their leader says he’s fighting for the return of the Ten Commandments, but we cannot call him a Christian terrorist. He's a terrorist, and the media would not call him a Christian terrorist. On the flip-side, Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda, Bin Laden and others are being called Islamist terrorists by CNN or BBC, and their activities Islamist terrorism. You cannot be an Islamist terrorist. It's a contradiction; it's an oxy-moron, because Islam is “salaam” or peace. So you cannot have a ‘peaceful' terrorist. Let people determine whether they're terrorist belonging to Islamic or Christian or Jewish or Hindu or Buddhist faith. Don’t just drop these terms for the sake of dropping them to ‘color’ your story. So we're trying to work with the journalists on narratives.
In your opinion, what is the most important need for children in Kenya?
It's education. We are recommending and advocating for the introduction of ethics or values education in schools. The LTLT tool I talked about earlier is designed to be used in formal and informal spaces including youth children’s camps. We’re also training teachers and others in the hope they will use the tool widely. But in a sense, this is a part of peace education. We've worked on it with UNICEF and UNESCO. It took us more than three years to prepare the toolkit, and we tested it around a lot. The toolkit is endorsed by religious leaders around the world.
I also think we shouldn't look at children just as passive in-takers. Now-a-days children and youth are exposed to so much information. They are increasingly becoming critical in their understanding and actions. It's very important that we initiate inter-religious dialogue between children and youth at a younger age. Older generation have kind of fixed minds. So there is less benefit compared to younger generation. We need to have interfaith for younger generations as a living reality, so that they can grow up with interfaith knowledge and relations—respecting each other. It's much easier when we grow up in that lived experience of inter-religious dialogue.