Sunday, January 24, 2010

Whatever we do, let us put the nation first

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 24 January 2010

The fiasco surrounding the alleged radical Islamic cleric from Jamaica, Abdullah al-Faisal, has exposed several facets of our national life that many Kenyans would prefer were kept under wraps.

One question that has been glossed over by all concerned is: How did this individual gain entry into the country in the first place? The government’s response that the cleric entered through a manned entry point that was not networked with headquarters will just not wash. It implies that there are areas along our borders where unwanted persons may enter and leave the country at will, posing a threat to national security.

To make matters worse, after the Nairobi protests, Internal Security minister George Saitoti pointed fingers at the al-Shabaab group from neighbouring Somalia, suggesting that the extremists had entered the country and managed to organise violent protests in the nerve centre of the republic. Unwittingly, the minister was conceding that the security apparatus had failed, and that every citizen was now on his or her own.

Many Muslims have expressed righteous indignation about the whole saga, although it is by no means unanimous what their grouses are. Issues being raised include discrimination against the Muslim population, profiling and targeting of ethnic Somalis in the name of illegal immigrants and even violating the protesters’ right to demonstrate in favour of a cause they believe in.

These issues have been freely mixed up, such that whenever someone raises their voice in protest it is not clear what exactly they are protesting against. Some people are even talking about radicalisation of Muslim youth, as though the conflict involving the Jamaican cleric was a Muslim affair.

The government has tried its best to steer clear of this line of thought, and even trotted out some Muslims among its ranks to demonstrate this point. Those taking this line of reasoning might already have scores they are trying to settle against the government.

Discussion of this issue now even includes thinly veiled threats of secession curiously couched in religious language, as though Muslims only occupy one segment of the country. The truth is that Islam is a religion and, like other religions in this country, it remains a matter of choice. One may be born into a Christian family and convert to Islam at some later stage in life, and vice-versa.

It is, therefore, difficult to envisage establishment of an alternative statelet based solely on religion. It raises the question of what will happen to the Muslims in Western and Central Kenya, if the assumption is that Muslims are only to be found in the North Eastern and Coast regions. Further, what is to happen to non-Muslims living in the presumably Muslim areas?

The non-Muslim citizens of this country have not behaved any better themselves. Some were even caught on TV stoning the protesting Muslims and chanting nationalistic slogans. Many would like to be seen as patriotic Kenyans struggling to protect their nation against a threat from extremists. On closer examination, however, one discerns a deep-seated antipathy towards Muslims based solely on their professed religion.

This is even better illustrated when one holds their current sentiments against their sentiments at the beginning of 2008 when the country was up in flames and needed just this kind of activism to drag it back from the brink. Many of those making noises “in defence of the republic” were deeply involved in the fighting, either personally or by proxy.

The middle class chattering mobs outdid each other demonising members of other tribes, softening them up for the subsequent slaughter by their tribesmates. Many of those lauding the police response, and even suggesting that the police should have been more forceful with the Muslim youth, were at the forefront of condemning the police force in 2008 for slaughtering innocent citizens “peacefully” demonstrating for their rights.

This Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde character of our nation bodes ill for any major decisions we may be required to make in the near future. Instead of carefully examining the issues involved, we quickly assess our position in relation to the parties to the conflict and then rush to take sides without any consideration as to its merits. Often, our position is informed by such parochial considerations as the tribe or religion of the protagonists.

This is the Kenya we have at this point in time and it is entirely in our power to decide if it is the Kenya we want to bequeath to the next generation or not. It may be useful at this point to step back and put the interests of our nation first and, maybe, then the issues will be clearer.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine

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