The United States is engaging with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states on the spread of radical Islam in East Africa, a State Department official said last week.
“Saudi Arabia has been what we call a country of particular concern,” David Saperstein, US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, acknowledged in an August 16 press briefing.
Practitioners of the ultra-conservative Salafist Islam rooted in Saudi Arabia have sought to win followers in East Africa and other parts of the world by funding mosques and schools that promulgate their views, Mr Saperstein said.
Imams preaching Salafist beliefs “are trained and sent to those areas,” the US envoy added.
Mr Saperstein made the remarks in response to a question about a recent report on Salafism in East Africa issued by a US Defence Department think tank.
The analysis by the Pentagon’s Africa Centre for Strategic Studies says Salafist proselytising efforts financed by Saudi and Gulf religious foundations have been underway for decades.
The Salafist interpretation of Islam “forbids most aspects of modern education, requires strict dress codes, abides by ancient traditions of social relations and disregards many basic human rights, particularly for women,” the analysis states. “Rooted within a particular Arab cultural identity, this ideology has fostered more exclusive and polarising religious relations in the region, which has contributed to an increase in violent attacks.”
The slaughters at the Westgate shopping mall and Garissa University College in Kenya were carried out by militant Islamists affiliated to Somalia’s Al Shabaab whose beliefs are based on Salafist teachings.
The Westgate attack is said to have “required support from multiple local Kenyan sympathisers,” the report said.
The impact of Salafist ideology has been felt in Tanzania and Uganda as well, adds the study written by Abdisaid Ali, a political advisor to the European Union special representative for the Horn of Africa.
Sheikh Ponda Issa Ponda and his group Jumuiya ya Taasisi za Kiislam (Community of Muslim Organisations) have been accused of inciting riots and burning churches in Dar es Salaam, the study said.
“Mr Ponda’s network, which has been active since the 1990s, includes hundreds of mosques and dozens of Islamic schools across Tanzania,” Mr Ali writes.
“Extremist interpretations of Islam and notions of a religious divide and persecution by the state have crept into the sermons of other Tanzanian Islamic preachers as well.”
The report also cites a warning by Tanzanian Defence Minister Hussein Ali Mwinyi that increasing numbers of citizens are joining the Islamic State and Al Shabaab.
The study advises governments in East Africa to adopt a more judicious approach in responding to the threat posed by the spread of Salafist ideology.
Muslim communities in the region should be given a greater sense of political and economic inclusion, the report suggests. It also calls on authorities to abide by principles of due practice in their handling of persons suspected of involvement in Islamist violence.