Eastleigh – Kenya’s Battleground to Fight Radical Islam
By Aidan Clay
Five times a day, a recited prayer murmurs through the streets as Muslim faithful gather to kneel before Allah. Though the recorded voice of the muezzin calls from every corner of the city, there are neither minarets nor buildings resembling mosques in sight. Among the business centers, speakers blare the Islamic prayers and worshipers gather in makeshift “mosques” found in the upper floors of practically every building – whether shopping mall or apartment complex.
Eastleigh is a suburb of Kenya’s capital city Nairobi which was allotted to Asian and African elites before the country’s independence in 1963. Now, the dingy district consists of thousands of Somali immigrants, most of whom are refugees. While Somalis outside of Kenya may find it difficult to identify Nairobi on a map, Eastleigh on the other hand is widely known and often considered a Somali home-away-from-home, or a ‘little Mogadishu.’
Practically ungoverned by Kenya’s police, an extreme brand of Islam has taken root in Eastleigh. The impoverished community has become a recruiting ground for providing dispensable bodies to fight for the reign of Somali warlords or militant Islamic groups.
“Those who kill people in Somalia are also here – scattered all over the place,” says a Muslim sheikh. “This is the hotspot of Somali fundamentalism…. They are recruiting right here in Nairobi.”
Eastleigh has become a port through which Somali insurgents – like U.S.-labeled terrorist faction Al Shabab – raise money and recruit fighters. Hard-liners push a strict interpretation of Islam in Eastleigh’s mosques and madrassas. “My teachers tell us al-Shabab is fighting for our religion and for our country,” said 11-year-old Ahmed Awil. “Sometimes they ask us if we would like to go [to Somalia] and fight.”
Moderates in Eastleigh are afraid the problem will only get worse. “What most worries me is that this extremist ideology will continue to grow,” said Dualle Abdi Malik, the director of an Islamic school. “We have to confront it before it is too late.”
The announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death last week was greeted by many in the community with a sadness and skepticism that was a further indication of the extremism found in Eastleigh. “Many here view Osama as a hero,” said an ICC source that lives in Eastleigh. “I went walking through the streets on Monday, and many shops were closed and people were glued to the television for reports. I visited some friends who cried over the news. But a lot of people are saying that they don’t believe he’s dead.”
According to unconfirmed statistics gathered by the Institute for Security Studies in Kenya, one in every ten refugees crossing the border from Somalia into Kenya is a member of Al Shabab, an Islamic group known for using severe forms of Islamic law (Sharia), such as the amputation of the hands of thieves, the stoning of adulterous women, and the murder of many Christians. From Eastleigh, Al Shabab treats its wounded and runs madrassas (Islamic boarding schools), from which children often disappear.
Christianity has also been threatened in Eastleigh. Imam Hussein, a Christian convert and an Ethiopian refugee who came to Eastleigh after fleeing persecution in his home town, worships with several other believers in secret underground services. According to Hussein, there is only one church building that remains in Eastleigh, even though Kenya is still considered a predominantly Christian country.
“Ask any Kenyan what has happened to the church across the street. It used to be the largest in Eastleigh,” said Hussein. Three shopkeepers told me the church was bought out by Somalis. “They’re building a mall in its place.”
Walking past the bulldozed church, I noticed another large church that was closed. It struck me as odd that poor Somali immigrants could afford to buy a huge church property and then bulldoze the building to the ground, but the reality is that many Somalis come to the country with thousands of dollars acquired by piracy.
“If you’re approached by a Somali offering you twice the amount your home is worth, you had better sell or else you’ll be killed,” a missionary in Nairobi told ICC. “It’s dangerous for them to hold onto the money, so Somalis come to Nairobi and invest in property and housing.”
This does not occur in Eastleigh alone, but has spread to other suburbs in Nairobi, including South C. In some of the city’s poorest communities, new multi-million dollar office buildings and apartment complexes are going up. Where is the money coming from?
“Everything here in Eastleigh is like a dream, like fiction, like a vision, you know. This is not only pirate money, but this is also religious money, Islamic money. Yesterday they start some building, after one month, maybe two months, you cannot imagine, the house is complete in a very unique way, like you are in Dubai. Most of them are refugees, how can they afford that? This money is a dream.”
Imam had studied under the mujahedeen (holy warriors) in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan before coming to Christ. He had been told to return to Africa to preach extremist ideology to impoverished communities like Eastleigh. “If you have studied the Quran, you must be a leader and you must be in the field preaching Allah. There are two kinds of fields. If you are chosen in the field of jihad, you sacrifice yourself dying in jihad. If you are in the field of Imam [an Islamic preacher], you’re supposed to follow the regulations of Sharia.”
“They give you a lot of money,” Imam said in explaining how the spread of radical Islam, like what is seen in Eastleigh, is funded. “When you go to the field, the money is there. The Saudi government pays for your education and for building mosques abroad. Half of the mosques in Ethiopia are built by Saudi Arabia, even here in Eastleigh. Where I live, from Shashamane to Addis Ababa [the capital of Ethiopia], you see a mosque every kilometer.
The Somali immigrant community has nothing. Even to build a mosque like this, a very, very great building, they can’t even offer a single shilling. They are kind of victims in that area. You ask yourself where that money comes from. It is coming from the Arabs; it comes from the Middle East.”
Eastleigh is not an anomaly, but an example of successful implementation of Saudi strategies to expand the rule of Islam and Sharia law into impoverished communities. Without immediate intervention, Eastleigh, and countless other communities in Africa and the Middle East will fall prey to this radical agenda and experience the same decay that has characterized life in Somalia.