June 12, 2024

Over a week ago, Kenyan authorities deported Jamaican-born Muslim cleric Abu Ameenah Bilal Phillips, invariably demonised by the media as a “radical”. The Qatar-based preacher was scheduled to meet Muslim leaders and address an education conference in Nairobi. He was ordered back on arrival at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

Dr Bilal was deported because the government considers him a security threat to the country. But Muslim leaders, including politicians from the Coast, protested the expulsion.

“It is shocking that someone of Dr Bilal’s calibre, the uncontroversial preacher respected worldwide, can be treated in the manner he was treated on Wednesday bearing in mind that he once visited Kenya in 2009 and his sermons were of great benefit in fostering good understanding and forging closer relations between Muslims and non-Muslims”, the Muslim Human Rights Forum said.

Interestingly, Dr Bilal went on to address Muslims in Nairobi over Skype. The power of communications technology!

“I advised against any violent demonstrations which may cost the loss of lives over this minor issue,” he was quoted in international media as saying. “I further advised the Muslim community to take the necessary steps to combat ‘Islamophobia’.”

“I also reminded the community that malpractices and unwarranted violence on the part of Muslims have also contributed to the global stigmatisation of Muslims and Islam. Thus, proper knowledge of authentic Islamic teachings is necessary to combat these deviations and to put Muslims back in a position to contribute positively to the world community.”

That doesn’t sound like the tongue of a “radical” Muslim preacher, or does it?

Well, what exactly is the truth surrounding this man’s expulsion from Kenya? Whose story do we believe about the deportation of Dr Bilal: the government’s or Muslim leaders’?

A neutral, alert watchdog should have tried to tell Kenyans who Dr Bilal really is and whether his deportation was justified. What did the government have against him? That watchdog is, of course, the media.

Dr Bilal has been denied entry into some Western countries. Was it on that basis that Kenya acted against him, or did the authorities have more concrete reasons touching on national security? If the latter, have the local Muslim leaders who Dr Bilal is in touch with been questioned by the security forces? Why didn’t the government stop the speech Bilal delivered via Skype if the man’s preaching could indeed endanger our security?

But, unfortunately, the Fourth Estate, other than merely reporting the deportation of the “radical” Muslim preacher, largely ignored the bigger story. Now Kenyans don’t know whom to believe between the government and Muslim leaders.

But The Bulletin suspects that most Muslims do not have this difficulty. They are likely to have accepted their leaders’ interpretation of the whole saga: that there were no good enough security grounds to deport Dr Bilal.

What would stop Muslims from thinking that they are being persecuted by the state because of their religious beliefs? Who would blame them for seeing this as yet another instance of official Islamophobia? Would they be wrong to conclude that even the media has aligned itself to the state against Muslims?

Can anyone imagine a situation where a visiting foreign Christian cleric is deported and the media gives the saga scant attention? The matter would most likely receive saturation coverage.

Let’s admit it, press conferences called all over the place by the men and women of God prophesying fire and brimstone on Kenya would get maximum exposure. There would even be live TV coverage of processions of Christians cursing the government. Public prayers would be held around the country in support of the cleric.

But not when it is about a Muslim preacher. Or even a Muslim human rights activist like Al Amin Kimathi who spent a year in a Ugandan prison over allegations of involvement in terrorism, only to be released without charge!

The reason for this indifference is simple. Ever since the West launched its global war on terrorism, Islam has more or less been conflated with terror – even in the media. The most glaring violations of the basic freedoms of Muslims can always be justified on grounds of national security.

As a matter of fact, it is the primary duty of the government to guarantee the security and peace of its people. The state does not do this out of goodwill. Citizens pay for security as a common good.

And as we well know, terrorist activities have mostly been perpetrated by certain extremists invoking the name of Islam. But great care must be taken not to stigmatise a world religion and not to profile and persecute its believers in the name of national security.

The war on terrorism cannot be won without involving Muslims. But how does the state hope to secure the goodwill and active collaboration of the majority of peaceful Muslims when it is perceived to be unfairly targeting the whole faith group already?

A case like that of Dr Bilal, if not handled sensitively, could easily worsen the sense of grievance among Muslims and stoke radicalism. Remember that every religion has both moderate and extremist segments among its believers.

The media does not help matters by giving fleeting attention to the concerns of Muslims, or by seeming unconcerned in the face of apparent violation of basic rights of Muslims.

By far the best news coverage of Muslim issues in the Kenyan media is found in the Star newspaper – in-depth reporting and analysis are, of course, lacking across the board. But most reports in the Coast section of the Star are about Muslims. Yet Muslims elsewhere in the country outside the Coast do and say important things that deserve media attention.

We run a real risk of worsening the feeling of exclusion and persecution among Muslims in Kenya. A ‘persecution complex’ is what partly feeds religious extremism. It is very dangerous.

About Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *