Religion and Protest

By Irũngũ Houghton

Though tens of thousands of kilometres apart, recent moments in Palestine and Tennessee share parallels with the violence in Kibera last week. While the conflicts have very different drivers, all three experiences press citizens, police officers and leaders to better protect places of public worship and learning from violence, desecration, or excessive use of state power.

Horrific footage of Israeli police attacking Muslims in East Jerusalem shocked even hardened critics of Israeli apartheid policies. Israeli police justified the raids by arguing Muslims were spending nights inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque without permission. The Palestinian Authority has pointed out the right to prayer is not subject to authorisation. Several raids on praying men, women and children by officers armed with batons, tear gas cannisters and sound bombs has left tens injured, 400 detained, and the Israeli state globally condemned again by the international community.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque has been ground zero for resistance to Israeli apartheid for several years. Last year, 170 Palestinians were wounded and 300 arrested during this holy month of Ramadhan. The mosque and the Dome of the Rock is Islam’s third holiest site. This week’s attacks seem set to galvanise further global condemnation of the policy of mass forced evictions against Palestinian people by Israeli settlers in Sheikh Jarrah and other neighbourhoods.

As eyes were glued to the arrest of the 45th American President for sex crimes, thousands of peaceful protestors marched to the Tennessee State Capitol and demanded stricter gun controls. In a historically rare overreaction, the Republican controlled legislature expelled Democratic representatives Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson for supporting them.

One week before, a former student armed with military-grade weapons entered a Presbyterian church-affiliated school and randomly shot three children and three adults dead. Mass shootings in places of learning and worship are not isolated incidents in America. Anti-gun activists argue that firearm violence is the consequence of the USA having some of the laxest gun controls in the world. 43 per cent and 54 per cent of the 45,222 people killed by guns in 2020 were murdered or committed suicide respectively. This is the highest number since 1968. Tennessee has some of the most permissive gun laws and the highest rate of gun theft and deaths across the 50 states of the USA.

Public reaction was swift. Under the banner of national youth movement March for Our Lives, 7,000 university and secondary students walked out of classes in Nashville to demand gun reform. Their chants and actions are once again, energising policymakers and public activists.

Recent events in Palestine and Tennessee bear remarkable coincidences with the criminal destruction in Kibera last Monday. In both Tennessee and Kibera, property owned by Presbyterian church were targeted and the Palestinian and Kibera mosques bear the same name. Tennessee, Kenyan and Israeli police equally failed to protect people and property. In different degrees, Kenyan and Israeli police also used excessive and disproportionate force to attack protesters and the prayerful respectively.

Contrary to the initial narrative that Christians damaged the Aqsa Mosque and Muslims retaliated by destroying the PCEA church, it is now being argued that neither were responsible for triggering the two attacks, 100 metres apart. Public criticism of the police’s failure to restore order, arrest arsonists and protest homes and businesses remains and the line of theory that external actors were mobilised and paid by politicians remains un-investigated.

These three experiences demand a new playbook from law enforcement agencies and elected leaders. Citizens, civic, business, and religious organisations must demand accountability and new ways of policing that do not violate internationally recognised rights to life, education, worship, and protest.

It will take the courage of those Tennessee youth, the Palestinian faithful and the Muslim and Christian Kibran youth who renounced attempts to turn them against their neighbours. The Bible tells us, Jesus was crucified yesterday. Today was the darkest day for the faithful, yet tomorrow brought the possibility of resurrection and transformation.

Happy and hopeful Easter weekend all!

Irũngũ Houghton is Amnesty International Kenya Executive Director and writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]