Kenyan Muslims Threaten to Secede Over Islamic Law Issue

Kenyan Muslims have threatened to form their own state under Islamic law ( shari'a ) after delegates reviewing the Kenyan constitution overwhelmingly rejected demands that shari'a get formal recognition.

Muslim leaders accused their Christian counterparts here of working with "foreign evangelists" to suppress the freedoms enjoyed by the country's Muslim community.

Muslims make up about 10 percent of Kenya's population of about 31 million.

The chairman of the Council for Imams and Preachers of Kenya, Sheikh Ali Shee, said Muslims in the coastal and northeastern provinces would break away if denied the recognition they were calling for.

Another Muslim leader, Sheikh Abdisalam Sheikh, also said Muslims may opt for a federal system of government.

"If need be, we will balkanize the country and declare shari'a law in areas predominantly occupied by Muslims."

The current constitution, which says Kenya is a secular state, recognizes Islamic law in cases of personal disputes involving matters such as marriage and inheritance but not in criminal disputes.

Punishments for criminal offenses under shari'a are controversial, including stoning to death for adultery or the amputation of limbs for theft.

Christian leaders argued that giving full recognition to the Islamic legal code would give Muslims an unfair advantage over the followers of other faiths.

They said shari'a should retain its current status, for use only in personal disputes involving Muslims.

The head of the Ecumenical Centre for Peace and Justice, the Rev. Jephthah Gathaka, said it would be illegal for all Kenyans to be asked to pay taxes for the benefit of one particular faith.

Drafters of the new constitution had been asked to establish a clear structure for the administration of Islamic law, with courts at district and provincial levels, along with a court of appeal. Muslims wanted the head of the Islamic court to enjoy the status and privileges of a high court judge.

A number of political leaders, led by the leader of the official opposition, Uhuru Kenyatta, condemned the secession threats.

Kenyatta said the existing Islamic courts should be retained.

"We believe that our Muslim brothers have a right to these courts, and we respect them for that. Our party position is that we want the [Islamic] courts to deal with personal and family law."

The Law Society of Kenya also criticized the Muslim leaders.

"No religion whatsoever should expect favors from the government," said Daniel Musinga, the society's branch chairman in Mombasa, a coastal city with a large Muslim population.

Last month, Muslims held protests across the country to demand the extension of shari'a to criminal matters.