NAIROBI — For 13 years, Judge Mudhar Ahmed has worked in relative obscurity, issuing Muslim marriage certificates, divorcing Muslim couples and weighing in on Muslim inheritance disputes. Now, he’s facing an issue unlike any he has seen. He has one word to describe it: “Islamophobia.”
Ahmed is the head of Nairobi’s Kadhis Court, one of 17 judicial bodies that administer sharia, or Islamic law, to Kenya’s Muslim minority. The courts were enshrined in the nation’s constitution decades ago, but Christian leaders are seeking to remove them from a proposed new constitution, scheduled for a referendum Aug. 4. They argue that Kenya is a secular state and that Muslims should not receive special privileges.
Muslim leaders say the maneuvers are part of an agenda to deny their community rights and undermine their beliefs. “They are creating hatred between Muslims and Christians,” said Ahmed, his soft voice hardening.
The tussle portends a larger collision between Islam and Christianity in Kenya, a vital U.S. ally in a region where Washington is quietly fighting the growth of Islamic radicalism. Many Kenyans are concerned that the tensions, if not contained, could deepen political fissures and spawn the sort of communal upheaval that left more than 1,000 people dead in 2008 after elections.
In this predominantly Christian nation, Christians are worried about a Muslim community that is growing in numbers and influence, and they have been vocally backed by U.S.-based Christian groups. Muslims are wary of the rising power of fundamentalist Christian organizations backed by American Christians.
The 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania frayed relations between Christians and Muslims. Those links have further eroded in the decade since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as concerns about Islamic radicalization and terrorism grew in this East African country.