Historically known for a relaxed pace of life, Mombasa on Kenya’s coast has also been a regional hub for business, trade and tourism. Its population is diverse; recent figures indicate the city is divided between Christians and Muslims (59% and 41%, respectively), with one-third of inhabitants also originating from outside of the region. Along with its diversity, Mombasa has also been associated with experiences of everyday tolerance.

In the past year, this seems to be changing. Mombasa has come under particular scrutiny with reports of a police raid on a mosque and the incarceration of more than 100 youth, targeted killings of prominent Muslims leaders, shooting in a local church, heightened international travel advisories, and the evacuation of tourists by UK-based tour operators.

Serious attempts to understand recent events require attention to local differences and how they shape unrest. I suggest there are three broad differences that must be considered.

First, religion. Kenya is predominantly Christian, but Mombasa is situated in a region where the dominant way of life appears intimately bound to Islam.

Second, place of origin. Place and identity are closely linked in Kenya. Mombasa is part of the ‘home’ areas of coastal ethnic groups, controversial due to land ownership by those originating from outside the region. However, the city challenges discourses of autochthony, with a growing number of inhabitants from ‘upcountry’ Kenya, but whose birthplace, occupation and children belong to Mombasa.

Third, ethnicity. While arguably dynamic and negotiable, ethnicity remains an organising principle for political contest in Kenya, as people perceive that the benefits of political office follow ethnic lines.

Through recent events, these differences have not provided for the emergence of clearly defined victims and perpetrators. Muslims identify disadvantage within a national context dominated by Christians, reinforced by targeted anti-terrorism efforts. Christians in Mombasa perceive disadvantage in a region dominated by Muslim politicians. Coastal ethnic groups see themselves as continually marginal in national political and economic structures, while ethnic groups constituting the national ruling coalition find they are a minority in the region.

There is a sobering potential for different explanations of insecurity to resonate in ways that enable multiple groups to identify as victims. This is particularly concerning as identities converge into broader fault lines, for example, Christian and upcountry versus Muslim and coastal, producing captivating, simplistic narratives of persecution.

While stability does require addressing direct causes and conditions of violence, both internal and external, it also hinges on the popular narratives that define disadvantage, and shape people’s willingness to speak and act. Competing views of disadvantage point to a pressing need for action by those in positions of power: action that acknowledges multiple differences that resonate locally; action that presents a transparent and just response to insecurity across these differences; and action that values and upholds the right to life and security of all denizens of Mombasa.