Religious extremism a threat to African states but could also reverse the gains of modern civilisation

Religious extremism manifests itself whenever normal governance and social relations break down in a particular country or region

THE phenomenal growth of religious groups that espouse radical and divisive ideologies poses a mortal threat to peace, cohesion and development across the east African region, experts say.

East African nations have lately grappled with religious extremism that has fuelled terrorism while undermining pluralism and tolerance.

Experts from diverse school of thought who spoke to Xinhua agreed that religious extremism has spread tentacles across the east African region, hence the need for governments to adopt new and tactical measures to vanquish it.  

Andrew Franklin, a Nairobi based security expert noted that religious extremism has thrived against a backdrop of collapse of nation states, poverty and marginalisation in the east and Horn of Africa region. 

 “Religious extremism manifests itself whenever normal governance and social relations break down in a particular country or region,” Franklin told Xinhua in Nairobi last Tuesday. 

Perverted religious doctrines 

He added the east African region has its fair share of groups that have perverted religious doctrines to justify terrorism. 

“The main religious extremist group active in East Africa is Al-Shabaab which is an Al-Qaida affiliate. Al-Shabaab also cooperates with the secular Kenya’s Mombasa Republican Council, especially with its more radical and Islamist youth wing,” said Franklin.

Terrorist organisations have filled the void created by civil strife, marginalisation and abject squalor to spread their violent ideologies.

Franklin noted that militant groups like Al-Shabaab have exploited chaos and disorder inside Somalia to spread violent extremism in the wider east African region. “Al-Shabaab is a consequence of the total elimination of central government in Somalia since 1991; it emerged after the Ethiopian government with American support invaded Somalia in 2006 to overthrow Islamic Courts Union (ICU) that were Al-Shabaab’s precursor,” Franklin said.

Attainment of peace, social cohesion and economic growth will remain a pipe-dream unless east African countries address religious extremism as a matter of urgency.

Franklin warned that religious fundamentalism will not only shake the foundation of nation states but also reverse gains unleashed by modern civilisation.

Need for soft power

He urged governments to tackle youth unemployment, uphold the rule of law and transparency in order to tackle religious extremism effectively.

“Surveys also show that government’s heavy-handedness, incompetent or ineffective policing and lack of accountability create an environment in which religious extremism, insurgency and terrorism can take root and thrive,” Franklin told Xinhua. There is need for East African states to invest in soft power in order to win over groups that have espoused medieval religious dogma to cause havoc.

Professor Hassan Nandwa, a Kenyan-born religious scholar who lecturers at Umman University of Zanzibar noted there has been a proliferation of religious fundamentalists in the East Africa region who have exploited historical grievances to spread terror. “There are many religious extremist groups in East Africa and their common denominator is misinterpretation of religious texts, inadequate knowledge, attachment to social, economic or political issues,” Nandwa remarked. 

He stressed that dialogue rather than confrontation is key to address the root cause of religious extremism in the region.

Absence of social dialogue, lack of role models for the youth, lack of proper religious institutions to address grievances in East Africa and the world at large are the root cause of religious extremism, said Nandwa.

He regretted that Western foreign policy in North Africa and the Middle East has to some extent fuelled religious extremism and terrorism.

Governments across the east African region must partner with community leaders to combat religious extremism through education and youth empowerment, Nandwa said, and emphasised that a durable solution to the menace of religious extremism in East Africa hinges on dialogue and increased appreciation of pluralism.

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