Kenya Muslims resent being fall guys Prejudice: Many believe the bombing exposes the anti-Muslim bias of Kenya's Christian majority.

August 15, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Nasreen Almas, 51, weeps as she tries to understand why her 29-year-old son, Anjum Javed, is behind bars after being arrested outside the U.S. Embassy here shortly after the bomb left 247 dead and more than 5,000 injured.

"If you look at him he looks like an Arab, but he isn't," says the teacher of the Koran at a mosque in Pagani, this city's Pakistani area. "He went to work, and he was arrested."

On a wooden stool in a white-washed tea room across town in the Muslim sector of Pumwani, Famau Ali, 34, a local leader of the radical Islamic Party of Kenya, declares: "When I think the Americans have offended these people enough, I am ready to put those bombs on me and sacrifice my life too."

And along potholed Dogi Road, beside the stall of a cobbler putting new rubber soles onto old sneakers with a burning newspaper, Hussein Karume, 45, says solemnly: "Human life is very special. You don't take it that way."

The Muslim community here is reacting in various ways, ranging from regret to resentment, from grief to anger, to the embassy blast, for which Islamic extremist groups have tried to claim responsibility and in which several Muslims perished.

The Arabs were the earliest arrivals on the east coast of Africa, ahead of the Europeans by about centuries. They intermarried with local tribes and their mixed-raced children were called Swahili, now the name of the predominant language which is a mixture of Arabic and coastal African languages.

Over 60% Christian

But to this day, they do not feel entirely at home in a land where Christianity took later but firmer root. Christians now make up over 60 percent of the population.

"They are still not prepared to accept Muslims as citizens in this country. Islam is still seen as an alien culture, an alien influence in this country," says Abdulraham Wandati, secretary general of the Islamic Party of Kenya.

When they are embroiled in a tragic horror like the embassy bombings, all their convictions, insecurities, resolve and sensitivities surface and are tested.

Early in the morning of the terrorist attack, Anjum Javed bid farewell to his mother, his wife, Safia, 24, and their 2-year-old son, Mohammed Mobil. According to the family, he was on his way to work at the Atheni furniture warehouse on Factory Road, a 15-minute walk from the U.S. Embassy.

The next they heard of him was when a relative called and said Kenya television had just screened pictures of Javed being led away from the bomb site by the police. Why he was detained is still not known. Like at least five others held by the police, he remains incommunicado and uncharged.

Mother, wife barred

Only an uncle has seen him, shortly after he was held. Javed asked the uncle to tell his mother not to worry and that he expected to be home by evening.

Neither his mother nor his wife has been allowed visits by the Criminal Investigation Division, which is jointly conducting the bombing investigation with the FBI. His family has delivered food and medicines -- he has a liver ailment -- but don't know if he has received any.

Nasreen Almas produces a 1992 certificate of appreciation for her son's work for the Citizen's Crime Prevention Committee, and a photograph of him in the uniform of a Boy Scout.

"He is a very nice boy," she said. "In the Scouts they teach you if there are any problems you go and help. He can't [bear to] see people suffer."

After the bomb, she said, her son's workshop closed and he was on his way home, which took him past the bombed-out embassy with its bloodied victims.

"He saw these [wounded] people and he started to help," she said. "While he was helping, they arrested him, because he has a beard or mustache."

Javed grew the beard for a 1992 family pilgrimage to Mecca.

His crime? He looked Arab

"His only crime was he looked like an Arab," said Abdulraham Wandati, the political leader. "What is clear in our minds is that within this investigation, apparently being a Muslim is already a liability. We are all guilty by association."

No one could be contacted at Javed's workplace, which had a padlocked iron grille over the door. Upstairs, Raju Naji, managing director of another furniture warehouse, said he often bumped into Javed on the stairs.

"When I saw his picture in the paper, I thought it must have been for looting or something. He's not a very brainy guy. He is not a guy who would be very provocative or anything like that. He would not fight back for any reason," said Naji.

Faridun Abdalla, an importer of auto parts from China, was not detained, but was questioned by an FBI agent and his Kenyan police partner Tuesday. They wanted to know if he had visited Tanzania, Uganda or Iran. He hadn't, he says. They also asked him whether he opposed U.S. policies. Some of them, he replied, should be looked at."

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