Conservative American Christians assisting the 'No' campaign are focusing at least as much on the kadhis courts issue as on the proposed constitution's provisions regarding abortion.
“On websites and in opinion pieces,” The Washington Post reported from Nairobi last week, “conservative US Christian groups have denounced the proposed constitution. They are opposed to the kadhis courts provision, and they see other aspects of the constitution as being pro-abortion. Some have organised petition drives against the courts.”
Prominent among those groups is the American Centre for Law and Justice, founded by US right-wing evangelical Christian leader Pat Robertson.
Jay Sekulow, the centre's chief counsel, told the Nation in May that his organisation is supplying “tens of thousands of dollars” to leaders of the 'No' campaign. Mr Sekulow spoke then mainly about the centre's opposition to the proposed provisions on abortion, which, he alleged, would greatly increase the number of abortions in Kenya.
But in a subsequent commentary published by Global Post, an international news website based in Boston, Mr Sekulow identified the kadhis courts as “divisive issue number one in the proposed constitution.”
Acknowledging that the draft provisions regarding the Islamic courts “may seem benign,” Mr Sekulow suggested in his analysis that the proposed constitution would actually violate Kenyans' right of equality by giving special standing to the courts.
A spokesman for the American Centre for Law and Justice did not respond to the Nation's requests for an interview with Mr Sekulow.
Underlying some US conservative Christians' opposition to the kadhis courts is concern over the growth of Islam in Kenya and in other black African countries with non-Muslim majorities.
Some American activists critical of the proposed constitution have warned that the kadhis courts represent a step toward imposition of sharia (Islamic law) in Kenya. And they equate sharia with the atrocities inflicted on Somalis by the fundamentalist Shabaab insurgents.
Cliff May, a blogger for a leading US conservative publication, reviewed the debate in Kenya over the kadhis courts in a posting on Thursday. Writing on the website of the secular National Review magazine, he concluded: “Here’s the larger point: An international effort is now underway to import sharia into nations that do not have Muslims majorities.”
The 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, coupled with the United States' ongoing wars against Islamist forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, have led sections of the US Christian right wing to frame Islam itself as a threat.
“They don't want to say it,” observes Zambian Anglican priest Kapya Kaoma, “but they're opposed to the spread of Islam in Africa. They use phobia about Islam as an organising tool.”
In a report he wrote last year for Political Research Associates, a US group that monitors right-wing movements, Rev Kaoma argued that conservative American Christians have been exporting to Africa their opposition to gay rights along with their stands on other social controversies.
Debates over such issues have rippled through American society for decades. And now, partly at the instigation of US Christian conservatives, these culture wars are beginning to be fought in Africa as well, Rev Kaoma observed.
Politicised US evangelicals “have turned their attention to Africa as its role in global Christianity has grown,” he wrote in his report.
Todd Nettleton, a leader of the Voice of the Martyrs group in the United States, said in an online interview on Friday with Mission Network News that many Kenyans worry that the kadhis courts system “will expand with Islam's growth.”
He added that such a development could “make the Muslims stronger in their position -- maybe a little harder to reach."
On their part, The Washington Post reported last week, Kenya's Muslims “are wary of the rising power of fundamentalist Christian organisations backed by American Christians.”
Mr Nettleton said in his online interview on Friday that “a significant mission field” exists in Kenya “to reach into the Muslim community and share the Gospel and share the love of Christ.”
But in an interview the same day with the Nation, he said his own organisation has “very limited involvement in Kenya.” Voice of the Martyrs focuses on countries in which Christians are believed to be suffering persecution, and Kenya is not one of those, Mr Nettleton explained.
Kenya has a “democratic past and stronger civil society” than “more authoritarian countries, like Uganda and Nigeria,” Rev Kaoma added in his 2009 report for Political Research Associates.
Those attributes enabled Kenyan citizens to “challenge and slow down efforts for broad criminalisation of homosexuality,” Rev Kaoma noted.
And he suggested to the Nation that Kenya's tradition of religious tolerance may trump the efforts of those who present recognition of kadhis courts as a “divisive issue.”