We must not allow religious intolerance to thrive

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NGUNJIRI WAMBUGU

Anyone who has ever been to my office has seen a picture of an old man hanging on the wall. This old man is Mr Jeremiah Ngunjiri; my ‘guka’ (grandfather) and the man I am named after in line with the Kikuyu tradition. My grandfather became a Christian at a very early age and ended up as a religious leader in the Anglican Church.

The convictions of his faith were apparent to anyone who interacted with him. The way he engaged you, the humility, mutual respect and openness of everything he did, spoke about his religious convictions. He lived his faith, genuinely, throughout his life. In a great testimony to this religious honesty amongst his children and grandchildren number tens of pastors and reverends in various Christian denominations; including my father who is a reverend in the Anglican Church. Christianity is real to us because of how he lived it.

Ironically the last sermon I remember hearing him preach was about Islam. He was castigating Christians for how loosely they hold onto their faith. He compared them to Muslims and explained how Islam was a way of life to its followers, defining how they lived, ate, did business and even exercised personal hygiene. He explained that although he did not agree with everything they did he respected them profoundly because of how they lived out their religion; how to them Islam was a lifestyle, not a religious experience one could wear on and off like clothes.

He challenged us as the congregation and the wider Christian community to learn from Muslims and live our faith like them, in its totality. He then concluded his sermon in the most controversial manner; he stated categorically that had there not been a fundamental conflict in ideology between Islam and Christianity on the matter of the centrality of Jesus Christ in relation to God and the salvation of man, he would have been a Muslim!

It is now 20 years nearly to the day since my grandfather passed away but I still remember that sermon like it was yesterday. I can see him standing on that pulpit looking very stern, in that small church that he started in Kamuyu in Nyeri. I can even still remember how shocked I was that he had any positive things to say about Islam! It was the day I learnt the importance of religious tolerance.

Today Kenyans face an enemy who is strategically creating distrust between Muslims and other religious communities, especially Christians, for his own purposes. This enemy has chosen to hide under the guise of Islam because they know that most Kenyans only understand the doctrine and ideologies of their own religion. They know that an average Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, etc tends to be completely ignorant of the doctrines and ideology of other faiths and in fact; in that funny way of religion, will often look down on other faiths and categorize them as false.

This enemy understands the ethnic schisms of our nation, the historical fault-lines of the Kenyan state, and the historical narratives of injustices and marginalization in our communities. He is now using this social environment to propagate a war of terrorism that he then presents to us as a warped ideology of Islam; one meant to make even the most tolerant of us angry; very angry!

Unfortunately it is working. It is also turning us against genuine adherents of Islam; those people my late grandfather admired. This ignorance of other faiths and exclusivity of our own is being used against us and since most non-Muslims will not go out and learn the truth about Islam, the onus is now on those true adherents of Islam to correct the misrepresentation, and isolate from themselves, those behind it.

This is my challenge to Muslim leaders. You must correct the image being propagated, especially at the Coast and Northern Kenya, that Islam is a religion of violence against other religions. You must also partner with State security to isolate those indoctrinating your youth with hatred against other religions. We also need you to hear you preach tolerance to your followers when Muslims are arrested or God forbid; murdered; however unjust the action. Today I only see you preaching it to Christians when their colleagues are killed by people claiming they are Muslims.

Please also acknowledge that there are some bad apples amongst your followers, and isolate and hand them over to the police. You must also admit that when a mosque becomes a store for weapons of mass destruction and hate propaganda it ceases to be a house of worship.

Finally I know that Muslims are upset at being profiled and collectively punished. However even in school when some students make noise and the whole class refuses to pinpoint the guilty one, all the students get punished. It is unfair but it teaches us that if a community does not police itself, it gets policed collectively, to its disadvantage.

(Wambugu is a Director at Change Associates; a Political Communications Consultancy)

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