FAITH NEWS

Trouble on the mainland and in Zanzibar
At least 1,202 people were arrested in connection with violent clashes in Dar es Salaam’s Mbagala suburb on October 12 between anti-riot police and Muslim youths protesting an alleged act by a 14-year-old boy of desecrating the Quran. The riots erupted when the youths stormed a police station and demanded that the boy be handed over to them so that he could be punished.

Dar es Salaam Special Zone Police Commander Suleiman Kova said that 32 of those arrested allegedly vandalised and torched church buildings while 86 were arrested for demonstrating. He named the churches that were attacked as including Shimo la Mchanga (Tanzania Assenblies of God TAG), Kizuiani Seventh Day Adventist (SDA),the Church of Christ at Rangitatu, Kizuiani Anglican church, Agape at Kibondemaji and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania (ELCT) at Mbagala Zakhiem. A car was burnt and eight others had their windows smashed.

ELCT Head Bishop Alex Malasusa appealed to Christians to remain calm as their leaders worked on the matter. “We need to meet with leaders of other Christian denominations so that we’ll come up with a joint position. We ask Christians to take part in Sunday services and pray for peace and the future of our country.” Tanzania Episcopal Conference (TEC) Secretary General, Fr Anthony Makundi, said the gruesome incident should remind Tanzanians of the need to embrace the culture of respecting each other’s faith. Africa Inland Church Bishop Peter Kitula said he was saddened by the incident and the country should learn techniques of solving its problems in a peaceful manner.

For his part, Council of Islamic Organisations Secretary General Sheikh Ponda Issa Ponda blamed the police for causing the turmoil. “I think the police mishandled the matter. They failed to give it its due weight when the boy was initially sent to them. Muslims were enraged by this police laxity, making them feel sidelined.”

Human rights activist Helen Kijo-Bisimba said the government delayed in taking appropriate action. “Had the authorities acted speedily, the matter would not have gotten out of hand,” she argued. But opposition party NCCR-Mageuzi Secretary General Samuel Ruhuza attributed the incident to the high level of unemployment.

People had a lot to say on social networks, as revealed in the Citizen. One wrote: ‘A prank between two school kids escalating into such a disproportionate reaction is totally inappropriate and unjustified. Religious leaders should inculcate restraint and discipline and should not justify mob justice. There should be a civilised response. The real issue here was not the Koran – the Word of Allah. It was a matter of childish argument and action by children, causing chaos by breaking the property of churches. It is mere hooliganism by children.

The view of the London Economist

On November 3, a comprehensive article headed: ‘Contagion of discontent. Muslim extremism spreads down East Africa’s coastline’ analysed some of the background. Extracts:

It is a century since cartographers drew East Africa’s coastal strip as a single territory. A map from 1876 shows “Zanziebar” stretching from what is now southern Somalia to northern Mozambique. In the colonial carve-up that followed, lines were drawn between the port cities of Mombasa and Dar es Salaam and the island of Zanzibar. The Swahili coast, named after a language created by the cohabitation of inland Bantu tribes and Arab traders and slavers, was at various times divided between four colonial countries: Britain, Germany, Italy and Portugal. Their vast possessions in the hinterland eventually became Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia and Mozambique. Yet in terms of culture, religion and geography the coastal strip, especially its swathe in the middle, has retained a distinct identity.

Rising discontent. Inequality, land grabs and corruption have soured many coastal communities in recent years. In radical Islam some now find an outlet for their anger. A spate of apparently unrelated church burnings, riots, disappearances and assassinations has swept the coast. Secessionist sentiment is rising. In Stone Town, Zanzibar, angry slogans decorate mouldy concrete walls denouncing “Muungano”, Swahili for the Union with the mainland. Since October 16 rioters have repeatedly clashed with police, following the brief disappearance of a popular local cleric. Farid Hadi Ahmed, the leader of Uamsho, or “Awakening”, which has recently evolved from a religious charity into an Islamist political movement demanding independence for Zanzibar, restrictions on alcohol consumption and a dress code for the tens of thousands of foreign tourists visiting the island every year.

Political violence is not new to Zanzibar, nor is unease among religious conservatives over the behaviour of holidaymakers. But Uamsho has succeeded in funnelling cultural and political tensions into support for radical Islamism. The group denies involvement in church burning but openly feeds resentment of Wabara, or mainland Tanzanians. Supporters are implicated in attacks on bars said to be owned by immigrants. Almas Ali, a history teacher, calls the 1964 union with the mainland a “bad marriage”. A divorce, he says, is long overdue. Grievances include the loss of tax privileges in the 1990s that hit transit trading, and Tanzania’s failure to join the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, a club of Muslim countries that locals hoped would channel aid to Zanzibar.

Islamist hotheads used to support Tanzania’s main opposition party, the Civic United Front (CUF). But in 2010 it formed a unity government with the ruling Revolutionary Party (CCM) following unrest amid accusations of voter fraud. This disappointed many Zanzibari supporters and created a political vacuum on the island. Ismail Jussa, the deputy CUF leader, says, “By the time we woke up, we found ourselves engulfed by this religious group.”

Officially, unemployment on the islands is 34% but officials at the Zanzibar Chamber of Commerce say the real rate is much higher, with youth joblessness and underemployment estimated at 85%.

Across the border, Tanzania’s business capital, Dar es Salaam, has been rocked by the worst religious riots in years. Churches were looted and burned on October 12th. Sheikh Issa Ponda, a radical cleric, has been arrested and accused of inciting violence. If the secessionist groups up and down the coast link up, they could become a powerful dissident force.

The recent discovery of gas along the coast could make things still worse. Mohamed Hafidh Khalfan, an economist at the State University of Zanzibar, fears a Nigerian-style insurgency, “Poverty is like a fuel that just needs a spark to blow it up.”

(Some observers thought that this article exaggerated the situation in Tanzania and was unnecessarily alarmist – Editor).

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