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Growth of the Muslim community in Rwanda

M. D. Abdullah

Rwanda, once Africa’s most Catholic nation, now has twice as many Muslims as it had before the genocide in 1994. It is now common to see villagers with caps, scarves and copies of the Qur’an arriving at a mosque on a rainy Sunday afternoon for a talk addressed to new converts. There is one topic that attracts attention in all meetings: jihad.

There is one talk about 6 April 1994, the first day of the state-sponsored genocide, in which ethnic Hutu extremists killed more than a million minority Tutsis and Hutu moderates. "We have our own Jihad, and that is our war against ignorance between Hutu and Tutsi. It is our struggle to heal," Saleh Habimana, the head Mufti of Rwanda, has said; "our Jihad is to start respecting each other and living as Rwandans and as Muslims."

Since the genocide, Rwandans have accepted Islam in huge numbers. Muslims now comprise 14 percent of the 8.2 million of Rwanda, which is twice as many as before the massacres in 1994. Many converts have said that they chose Islam because of the role that some Catholic and Protestant leaders played in the genocide. Various human-rights groups have documented several incidents in which Christian clerics allowed Tutsis to seek refuge in churches, then surrendered them to Hutu death-squads, as well as instances of Hutu priests and ministers encouraging their congregations to kill Tutsis. Four clergymen are currently facing genocide charges at the UN-created International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Last year in Belgium, the former colonial ruler of Rwanda, two Rwandan nuns were convicted of murder for their roles in the massacre of 7,000 Tutsis who had sought protection at a Benedictine convent.

By contrast, many Muslim leaders and families protected those who were fleeing or hiding during the period of crisis, and are now being honoured for it. Many Rwandans believe that it is natural for Muslims to follow Islam’s strong injunctions against murder. Others feel that Muslims were not swept into the Hutus’ campaign of hatred and bloodshed, and were courageous enough because of their Islam to support a cause that they felt was honourable.

"I know people in America think Muslims are terrorists, but for Rwandans they are our freedom fighters during the genocide," says Jean Pierre Sagatuhu, 37, a Tutsi who converted to Islam from Christianity after his father and nine other members of his family were slaughtered. "I wanted to hide in a church, but that was the worst place to go. Instead, a Muslim family took me and saved my life."

The genocide in Rwanda followed the assassination of Juvenal Habyarimana, then president of Rwanda, on 6 April 1994. For weeks television screens around the world showed horrific scenes of dead bodies being piled up. Relief agencies, human-rights campaigners and even western governments have now accepted that, between April and July 1994, the military of the old Hutu-led regime perpetrated a campaign of genocide against the Tutsi minority in Rwanda, which ended only when the Tutsi-dominated Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) came to power.

Some people suspect that in reality the Rwandan bloodshed was not just a genocide driven primarily by racial or tribal passions. It could well have been a struggle for political power between the Hutu-led government and the leadership of RPF; the leaders of either group could have used the ethnic issue to their advantage. The animosities between Hutus and Tutsis were kept alive not by ancient tradition, but by the very modern practice of western interference in Rwanda’s affairs.

As was the case in most of Africa, tribal differences were of limited significance in Rwanda before the arrival of the colonialists in the nineteenth century. Many historians acknowledge that the Belgian conquerors politicized the differences between peoples in Rwanda by pursuing a policy of divide and rule and promoting the Tutsis over the Hutus.

For several years before 1994 the hostility between the Hutu-run government and the Tutsi exiles in the RPF was shaped by foreign powers. The French and Belgian governments, to protect their interests, supported the Hutu-led regime, while the British and the Americans tried to increase their influence by supporting the RPF. From 1986 the RPF was also openly backed by the Ugandan government, which acted as an Anglo-American proxy. Rwandans serving in the Ugandan military received training from the British at their base at Jinja in Uganda, while the Americans schooled the RPF leadership. RPF leader Paul Kagame, for instance, attended the US Army and Staff College at Leavenworth, Kansas. The US also supported joint RPF-Ugandan attacks on Rwanda from 1989 onwards.

As American and British relations with Uganda and the RPF strengthened, hostilities between Uganda and Rwanda’s government escalated. In 1990 the RPF was prepared to invade Rwanda with the full knowledge and approval of British intelligence. Belgium then withdrew its support for president Juvenal Habyarimana and allowed the RPF to set up an office in Brussels. This left France as Habyarimana’s only western supporter.

French forces left Rwanda in December 1993, signalling the Habyarimana government’s complete isolation. A 1,000-strong UN force also arrived in the same month. These troops escorted an RPF battalion to the UN’s premises in the Rwandan capital, Kigali. The UN, at that stage, seemed to be handing Rwanda over to the RPF. Then came the last squeeze: Habyarimana was threatened with a UN pullout and a final RPF offensive if he did not comply with all the accords. These were the events that preceded the shooting down of the presidential plane on 6 April 1994 and the ‘genocide’. On one side of the polarisation were the Rwandan government and the national guard (supported by weapons from South Africa and Egypt). On the other side stood the RPF, Uganda, Britain, the US, Belgium, the UN and the World Bank. Caught between the two sides were the Rwandan people.

Rwanda had been on a knife-edge for more than a year before the president was assassinated. It was a country split by war and devastated by the impact of a Structural Adjustment Program that had been imposed by the World Bank in 1990. An estimated 85 percent of the people were living below the poverty line, and a third of all children were malnourished. In such a situation, with many desperate enough to do anything for their survival and their children’s, a western-backed RPF offensive inevitably ignited a wave of violence. After the massacres, then US president Bill Clinton announced that he was not ready to deal with a leadership that permitted its army to massacre hundreds of thousands of citizens.

Britain and France joined the US and engineered an arms-embargo in the UN Security Council, after the genocide, thus denying weapons to the Hutu-led Rwandese government. However, this embargo was only applied to the Hutu-led government. The one-sided embargo in effect allowed the RPF to continue to receive military supplies, while the Hutu-led Rwandese government lost all supplies, even those it had already paid for. A transfer of power took place eventually, and the rest is history.

Almost a decade after the genocide shook the faith of this once predominantly Christian country, Islam has surged. Women in bright tangerine, scarlet and blue headscarves stroll the bustling streets of the capital with men in long white tunics and embroidered caps. Mosques and Islamic schools are overflowing with students. Today about 14 percent of the Rwandans consider themselves Muslim, up from about 7 percent before the genocide. "We are everywhere," says Sheikh Saleh Habimana, the leader of Rwanda’s Muslim community.

Western governments feel that the growth of Islam, high rates of poverty and a "traumatized population" could make Rwanda the perfect breeding ground for "Islamic terrorism". But Nish Imiyimana, an imam inRuhengeri, about 72 kilometres (45 miles) northwest of Kigali, contends, "we have enough of our own problems. We don’t want a bomb dropped on us by America. We want American NGOs to come and build hospitals for us instead." Imams across the country held meetings after September 11 last year to clarify what it means to be a Muslim.

The Churches in Rwanda are frustrated. Priests all over the country have asked for advice from Church leaders in Rome about how to react to the number of converts to Islam. "The catholic church has a problem after genocide," said Father Jean Bosco Ntagugire, who works in Kigali. "We can’t say ‘Christians come back’. We have to hope that happens when faith builds again." To help make that happen, the Catholic Church has started to offer young people sports programmes and camping trips, Ntagugire said. But Muslims are also reaching out, even forming women’s groups that provide classes on childcare and mothering. During a recent women’s gathering in Kigali, Aisha Uwimbabazi, a 27-year-old convert, said, "If it weren’t for the Muslims, my whole family would be dead... I was very, very thankful for Muslim people during the genocide. I thought about it and really felt that it was right to accept Islam." Another woman, Salmah Ingabire, 20, who accepted Islam in 1995 after losing two brothers in the genocide, said, "We see Muslims as very kind people. What we saw in the genocide changed our minds."

Another achievement that has gone to the credit of Muslims in Rwanda is the reconciliation efforts. Sheikh Habimana is one of the leaders of the country’s new interfaith commission, created to promote acceptance among Hutus and Tutsis who are still subject to fear and anger. The mosques in Rwanda are among the few places where reconciliation genuinely appears to have taken hold. "In the Islamic faith, Hutu and Tutsi are the same, as Islam teaches us about brotherhood," said Imam Kayiranga. Rwanda’s Tutsi have mostly come to Islam seeking protection and to honour and emulate the Muslims who saved them, and Hutus have embraced Islam seeking to leave behind their violent past. "They all felt the blood in their hands and they embraced Islam to purify themselves," said Saleh Habimana. The head Mufti also said that the Muslim community in Rwanda had a "wonderful opportunity" in the reconciliation process and "integration of interfaith commission". He has pointed out that Muslims were not involved in the violence and bloodletting, partly because of their tradition of intermarriages between Hutus and Tutsis.

Long before the call to prayer begins each Friday for juma’ah, Rwanda’s Muslims crowd into the main mosque in Kigali’s Nyamirambo neighbourhood, the overflow spreading prayer rugs on the mosque steps, over the red earth parking-lot and out of the front gate. The popular saying that "Africa is the only continent that is Muslim" may well be soon made true by the steady growth of Islam in Rwanda and other parts of Africa.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 38, No. 7

Ramadan 11, 14302009-09-01

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