MOMBASA, KENYA – If a major American TV network made a last-minute decision to put together a panel on Islamic radicalism in prime time tonight, they’d likely have little problem assembling pundits, eggheads, counter-terrorism experts, ex-diplomats and any number of other alleged experts. Conversation almost certainly would be lively, probably featuring dramatic clashes between “hawks” and “doves” on Islam.

That, however, is the theater of TV, not so much real life.

On the ground in places where Islamic radicalism is a constant danger, one often gets a different, and, generally, more nuanced take – an impression confirmed by Archbishop Martin Kivuva Musonde of Mombasa, Kenya’s second-largest city located in the country’s eastern coastal region, and home to a large Muslim population often buffeted by radical currents crossing the border from neighbors such as Somalia and Sudan.

Archbishop Martin Kivuva Musonde of Mombasa, Kenya. (Credit: Crux/Ines San Martin.)

Kivuva, who spoke with Crux on Tuesday, strongly believes there’s a third choice vis-à-vis Islam beyond confrontation and appeasement. Its effectiveness, he asserts, is confirmed by his own personal and pastoral experience of watching this pluralistic and multi-religious city he loves, and where he grew up, appear not so long ago to be teetering on the brink of self-destruction.

Kivuva recalled the period in Mombasa shortly after he was appointed archbishop, in late 2014 and early 2015, marked by a rising tide of Muslim-Christian animosity. It erupted in April, when gunmen from the Somalia-based radical group al-Shabaab stormed the grounds of Garissa University and killed 148 people after forcing students to separate along Christian-Muslims lines and leaving the Muslims unharmed.

“That incident didn’t come out of nowhere,” the 65-year-old Kivuva told Crux on Tuesday during an interview in his office in the pastoral center of the Mombasa archdiocese.

“Before it happened, the atmosphere was getting worse. Muslims were openly challenging Christians in the street, asking why they didn’t go back up-country since they’re not actually from here.”

Historically Mombasa has had strong links with the Arab world, including having been a protectorate of the Sultanate of Zanzibar for a stretch. (The first Christian missionaries who arrived in Mombasa in the 19th century, ironically, did so with the Sultan’s permission.) Today, Muslims feeling their oats will sometimes suggest that Christians don’t really belong in the area.

Further, Kivuva said Christians here have their resentments and historical grudges too, related to a sense that the dominant Muslim establishment in Mombasa sometimes freezes Christians out of schools, jobs, and other opportunities, relegating them to second-class citizenship.

That’s a point amplified by Father Joseph Mwashighadi, who works for Kivuva in the diocesan center and is also the pastor of a parish that lies right in the heart of Mombasa’s complex religious divide. He cited both cases of Muslims denying Christian families the right to enroll their children in public schools, as well as what Christians believe is discriminatory treatment in many local and regional government institutions.

“They’ll say it quite openly,” he said of Muslims agitated during cycles of tension. “They’ll tell Christians that if you’re not a Muslim from this region, then just pack up and move.”

Crispin Mwashagha, a 34-year-old layman who today works on a project for orphaned children on behalf of the Catholic charity Caritas in the archdiocese, says he remembers the sense of a gathering storm in 2015 too.

“Back then, guys would just disappear for a while, and you couldn’t help thinking they were getting trained in Somalia,” he said. “Then he’d come back and act suspicious, and obviously that made people afraid.”

Of the atmosphere before Garissa, Kivuva now says only: “It was quite intense.”

Yet if the run-up could be taken to imply that violent clash is inevitable, Kivuva is emphatic that Garissa’s aftermath at the two-year mark proves precisely the opposite conclusion – that determined, intentional leadership can succeed at building peace.

In the wake of Garissa, he said, the Catholic church redoubled its commitment to inter-religious dialogue, creating a series of new forums involving clergy and lay activists from the various religious traditions. In turn, those dialogues led to aggressive new peace-building efforts, including creating teams of mediators ready to deploy whenever a conflict seemed ready to ignite.

At first, Kivuva recalled, getting buy-in from everyone wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t just the Muslims who were dubious. He said one prominent Protestant pastor at the time was going on TV openly suggesting that Christians should take up arms themselves and fight fire with fire.

Yet, he said, the proven results of those efforts have begun to change the climate.

“I believe we have gotten out of the fear,” he said. “Fear is the worst thing, because it immobilizes people” and leaves them prey to almost anything.

“When the people see Christians meeting Muslims, issuing common statements together, it changes them,” Kivuva said.

On that point too, Mwashighadi concurred. He cited the example of community policing efforts after the Garissa attack, which now feature both Muslims and Christians together identifying potential bad actors in neighborhoods and reporting them to authorities.

“Our kids play together, they go to the same schools, and we run the same shops,” he said of Christian/Muslim relations today. “They both know what it means,” he added, when violence erupts, and nobody wants to go back.

To add yet another layer of nuance, Mwashighadi said that disaffected Muslims are hardly the only ones who can sometimes be seduced by radicalism. Counter-intuitively, he said, there’s a small but striking trend of al-Shabaab attracting recruits from among Christians, “even Catholics,” he said.

“Wherever you have people who are idle, jobless, and living in abject poverty,” he said, a call to destruction, no matter what its ideological or religious justification, can be powerful.

That reality, Kivuva said, has created the basis for a sense of common cause.

“We’ve deliberately played down the idea of a Christian/Muslim conflict here, when the real problem is not the ordinary Muslim, it’s radicalism in whatever form it takes,” he said.

“If you look at it that way, you can get out safer, and you can bring back some sanity,” he said.

(He also, however, added another note of realism, saying that some of the influential Muslim leaders responsible for the change, especially in the business community, were motivated not just by high-minded idealism, but fear of seeing tourist income on the coast dry up if it became seem as a perennially unstable and dangerous place.)

Here too, Mwashighadi echoed his archbishop.

“We’ve resisted being sucked into fighting battles with Muslims,” he said. “We realized there’s actually a greater danger from people who see gains for their political party when Christians and Muslims are fighting.

“If we don’t co-exist, lots of development opportunities will be lost,” he said. “We know now that we can manage better together than divided.”