It’s early evening as we bump around in a taxi van through the old town of Mombasa, Kenya. We get off at a narrow street that leads to the river and enter a small restaurant. We are loudly and enthusiastically greeted in three different languages. Jambo, selamat datang, hello! The exchange has started.
At the beginning of 2020, twelve young people from the Netherlands and Indonesia travel to Kenya at the invitation of Mensen met een Missie. For five days, young adults from different religious backgrounds come together to talk about deradicalisation, combating discrimination and violent extremism. All problems in which young people play a major role, both positive and negative.
Exclusion, discrimination and radicalization
The threat of violent extremism, mistrust, people feeling misunderstood, radicalisation; Dutch, Indonesian and Kenyan youth all recognise the problems. “Indonesia still has the image of being a moderate country, but that image is less and less true. The level of intolerance is slowly rising”, says Indonesian Azar (25). Extremist groups use social media to spread a message of hatred. Although these groups are a minority, they do have a lot of political influence and draw a growing audience.
Kenya has been a hotbed of terrorism for Al-Shabab for the past ten years. About ten per cent of the Kenyan population is Muslim and many of them feel discriminated against. It leads to isolation and makes young people especially susceptible to recruitment by violent radical groups. As the government rules with an iron fist, it only leaves them feeling more disparaged. “If you don’t know who you are, the police will decide who you are”, Phyllip (31) from Kenya shared with the group.
The feeling of exclusion among Muslims is experienced in the Netherlands as well. “There is a group of impressionable young people that are cleverly preyed upon by hate preachers and social media”, says the Dutch Bouchra (24).
A study by the Dutch Social and Cultural Planning Agency shows that about three-quarters of Muslims say that people with their background are occasionally or often discriminated against. Almost half have experienced this themselves. About sixty per cent say that people in the Netherlands think too negatively about Islam.
The twenty-five young people who participate in this exchange are youth workers. In collaboration with Mensen met een Missie and local organisations, they’re developing a countermovement. In Indonesia for example, a large youth network creates an online counter-voice by sharing positive messages about diversity and tolerance on social media. In the Netherlands, youth workers are committed to talent development programmes, joining forces with parents from the neighbourhoods they’re working in. In Kenya, Muslim and Christian youths are brought into contact with each other and with the police to gain a better understanding of all parties involved. Kenya is the first stop in a series of three to learn from each other’s experiences, meet inspiring people and experience the power of dialogue.
Bringing together different faiths
Part of the exchange is a meeting with young adults from Kwale, a town south-west of Mombasa. These young people have been participating in the Freedom of Religion and Belief (FORB) programme for about two years now. This programme brings together young people of different religious backgrounds. Because getting rid of mistrust starts by getting to know each other. “I grew up without Muslims around me, so my opinion of them was based on what I heard and read in the media. For example, if a terrorist attack was carried out. That made me scared of Muslims”, said Cherry (25) from Kenya. Since the programme, young people attend the mosque or church together. It has even resulted in marriage. “As a Muslim, I would not have met my Christian wife if it wasn’t for this programme. We now have a son, he is true FORB material”, says one of the youngsters with a smile.
In conversation with the imam
In Nairobi, the young people are welcomed in the Islamist Shia community by Imam Sheikh Ali. Here, Mensen met een Missie works together with a local partner organization on the programme “welcoming the other”, which encourages dialogue between different religious groups. The visit leaves a deep impression. “I thought I knew a lot about Islam, but so much more has become clear to me here”, says Joseph (32) from Mombasa.
Ajoub (25) from the Netherlands is disappointed that questions from young people in the Netherlands are often left unanswered. How does the imam feel about this? “Not everyone is ready for dialogue”, says Sheikh Ali. “There is also too little real dialogue happening in the mosque. The youth exchange you are doing now is the right way to go. Bringing people together with different opinions, different insights, different cultures. You listen to each other and are not influenced by others and the media. You are open to each other’s opinions, judgment-free. But always be honest about who you are. We are all different and that’s okay.”
What is the impact of the exchange?
A few months have passed since that meeting. The WhatsApp group created during the exchange is bustling with activity, with new messages and videos every hour about how the young people use and test what they have learned. “When we heard about the exchange, we didn’t think it was going to be that big”, said Kenyan Mary (28). “The experience really creates movement. Through the activities we participated in, we shared our knowledge and experience, learned about each other’s culture and discovered opportunities for future collaborations. It has made us understand how we can further improve the activities we organise with our fellow youngsters. But also acknowledge what mountains we have already moved.”
The youth exchange is part of the Freedom of Religion and Belief programme of Mensen met een Missie in Kenya, Indonesia and Pakistan. Funding for this programme comes from the Human Rights Fund of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.