Religions: Islam, Muslims in a Post-Genocide Rwanda

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My wife Leila and I were privileged to undertake a solidarity visit to two central African countries, Uganda and Rwanda from July 29 – August 11, 2014.

We travelled the length and breadth of these two countries, crossed the equator line twice by road, and visited numerous historical and religious sites. It was an intense and enriching experience which will take us months and perhaps even years to fully process. It was expedient that our visit to Rwanda took place during the year that the country was commemorating twenty years since its genocide. Here, I would like to share with you the relatively unknown story of the heroic peaceful role of the small Muslim community in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide and its consequent flourishing during the past twenty years.

During the past twenty years much has been written about the causes of the Rwandan genocide and the evidences against the thousands of perpetrators prosecuted at local gacaca courts and at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) have shed great light on the circumstances and motivations that led to the atrocities. One of the most distressing research findings and indictments on the Rwandan genocide has been the shameful role of the Catholic and other Christian Churches in aiding and abetting the genocide. At the time of the genocide in 1994 the Catholic Church counted 62% of Rwandans among its adherents.

Together with the Protestants, Christians constituted well over 80% of the Rwandese population. Our tour leader, Father Emmanuel Katangole, who himself is a Catholic priest and professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame described the role of the Rwandan Church as follows: “The most Christian country in Africa became the site of its worst genocide” (Mirror to the Church: Resurrecting Faith after Genocide in Rwanda, 2009). The evidence of Christian complicity in the Rwandan genocide is vividly depicted in the numerous Churches that have been converted into genocide memorial sites throughout the country. In contradistinction to the reprehensible role of Christian priests and churches during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the role of the small Muslim community and its masajid was praiseworthy. Muslims numbered around 2% of the total population of Rwanda in 1994. They were constituted by roughly an equal number of Hutus and Tutsis. Muslims were both physically as well as symbolically marginalized. The Muslims were banished to live in one of the worst neighbourhoods of the capital city, Kigali. It was called, “Niyamirambo,” literally meaning place of dead bodies. During our visit to the Niyamirambo masjid we were informed by the Imam that one of the very few places that Tutsis both Muslims and well as non-Muslims could find refuge and safety in were in masajid and Muslim homes. Rwandan Imams employed the Glorious Qur’an to actively preach against the genocide and Muslims bravely fought off militia who tried to attack Tutsis seeking refuge in masajid. Moreover, hiding the would-be victims became easier because of the Hutu perception of Islam. According to the former Grand Mufti of Rwanda, Shaykh Saleh Habimana, many Hutus had been taught that Muslims engaged in witchcraft and they therefore feared going inside masajid and Muslim homes.

This perception became a disincentive for the Hutu genocidaires to go after those who had sought refuge in masajid and in Muslim homes.

The courageous Muslim role in condemning and refusing to participate in the 1994 Rawandan genocide is widely recognized in Rwanda. As a consequence Islam and Muslims are currently being recognized in Rwanda like never before in their history. For example, despite their small Muslim number, the post-genocide Rawandan government has recognized `Id al-Fitr as one of the four official religious holidays.

Muslims also formed a key constituent member of an Interfaith Commission for Rwanda which seeks to “promote unity and reconciliation by supporting activities such as aid programs aimed at reconciling Genocide survivors, released prisoners, and detainees’ families.”

As a direct result of the peaceful role of Rwandan Muslims during the 1994 genocide, Islam is gaining many more converts than was the case previously. In 2004, a decade after the genocide the New York Times ran an article claiming that Islam was the fastest spreading religion in Rwanda and that the numbers of Muslims could be as high as 15% (Since ’94 Horror, Rwandans Turn Toward Islam by Marc Lacey, April 7, 2004). During our visit to the Nyamirambo masjid an elder proudly claimed that the number of Muslims exceeds 20%. These figures stand in stark contrast to an official report from the Rwandan government in 2006 which places the numbers of Muslims at 4.6%.

One can understand the new sense of affirmation of their Islamic identity by Rwandan Muslims, but exaggerating their numbers in the country is an indication that Muslims are beginning to become a part of the religious power games.

Even more disconcerting, is the fact that the Rwandan Muslims have been co-opted into legitimating the new government led by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). A few Muslim leaders have been given key government posts and the Ideal Political Party founded by Muslims has formed a strategic alliance with the ruling party. All these are clear indicators that Rwandan Muslims are rapidly moving from the margins of society and into the maelstrom of power politics.

Ann Kubia has argued that one of the possible reasons why Rwandan Muslims did not participate in the 1994 genocide was because of their marginalization (Walking a Tightrope: Christians and Muslims in Post-Genocide Rwanda, Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 18, No 2 (2007): 219-235). Rwandan Muslims were thus able to play a far more peaceful and sanctified role because they were not ensconced in the trappings of political power. This profound lesson, however, is in danger of being forgotten by Rwandan Muslims if they allow themselves to be seduced by their new powerful status in the country.

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A number of experts and Human Rights organizations have already raised the alarm with regard to the authoritarian nature of the RPF government and particularly it’s President Paul Kagame. In January 2014, a prominent Rwandese RPF leader who had fallen out with President Kagame and fled to South Africa was assassinated in his Johannesburg hotel room. During our interaction with local Rwandese we found them to be tense and unwilling to speak openly about their feelings about their governments new policies.

The key test, however, will come in 2017 when President Kagame’s two terms in office expires. Will he stand down as demanded by article 101 of the Rwandan constitution? If the country’s constitution will reign supreme come 2017 it will good for Rwanda’s future but if Kagame chooses to change the constitution in order to remain in power as many other African leaders have done, it may bring with it greater political strife.

God forbid, if this happens Muslims would be caught up in the middle of a political power struggle and it would be difficult nigh impossible for them to maintain and live up to their peaceful role that they had played during the 1994 genocide.

The key lesson for Muslim leaders and scholars in Rwanda then is a message I have been consistently preaching: beware of getting too close to the state. Such sound advice was already provided over a thousand years ago by the great Islamic polymath, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111).

He laments this in his book, Ayyuhal Walad, and advises his young disciples neither to get too close to princes and sultans nor to praise them excessively. But even more than that, Imam Ghazali warns them not to accept generous gifts from rulers, even though this may be permissible: “Coveting things from the rulers and those in power will spoil and corrupt your religion, since there is born from it flattery and ‘kowtowing’ to those in power and unwise approval of their policies.”

The critical question facing Rwandan Muslims and indeed all Muslims is the following: Will Abu Hamid al-Ghazali’s prudent advice be heeded?

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