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Islam in Rwanda benefits from positive role played by Muslims during the genocide

M.A. Shaikh

In the decade since the genocide in Rwanda, which resulted in the murders of more than 800,000 people in 100 days, the Muslim population of the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic West African country has more than doubled. There is no accurate census, but Muslim leaders now estimate that their number has risen to one million and constitutes 15 percent of the population. They attribute the increase to their success in rescuing most Muslims and many Christians from certain death, when thousands who had sought protection in churches were butchered or betrayed by pastors and priests. Many of the thousands who were rescued and have since accepted Islam agree with them. Yet this remarkable feat has rarely been mentioned in the avalanche of media comment that began on April 6 and still goes on. That was when a ceremony, to mark the tenth anniversary of the genocide, was held in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.

In one of the few newspaper articles on the issue, the New York Times on the day after the ceremony described Islam as "Rwanda’s growing faith", ascribing this phenomenon to the loss of faith of many Rwandans not only in their government but also in Christianity (or at any rate Roman Catholicism). "Many people, disgusted by the role some Catholic priests and nuns played in the genocide, have shunned organised religion altogether, and many more have turned to Islam," the article said. To accommodate the growing number of Muslims, the Muslim community has to build many more mosques, doubling the number that existed a decade ago to 500, as the article pointed out. But this is not enough, as many Muslims find that they have to pray outside mosques during jumu’ah (the Friday congregational prayer and worship). The Muslim population is expected to carry on growing as more and more Rwandans, disillusioned with their old faith, overcome their natural abhorrence of the seeming disloyalty of conversion, and turn to Islam for reconciliation with each other and for new hope.

Some of the ex-Christians who are now Muslim were interviewed by the New York Times. Yakobo Djuma Nzeyimana, a 21-year-old who became a Muslim in 1996, was quoted as saying: "People died in my old church and the pastor helped the killers. I couldn’t go back and pray there. I had to find something else." Another, Alex Rutiririza, who also accepted Islam, expressed his admiration of the Muslims’ role during the genocide: "The Muslims handled themselves well in 1994 and I wanted to be like them," he said. He added that during the massacres the safest place to be was the Muslim neighbourhood. The reason was that the Muslims did not see themselves as belonging to the various tribal groups that were at loggerheads with each other, which were mainly the Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority of Rwanda’s population. It was the Hutus that had planned to wipe out the Tutsis and perpetrated the genocide. The Muslims, Hutu and Tutsi alike, protected each other, standing up to the Hutu militias to save both Tutsis and Hutus, whether Muslim or Christian.

One Tutsi Muslim who was saved by Muslims who did not even know him was Ramadhani Rugema, executive secretary of the Muslim Association of Rwanda. Pursued by Hutu militias, he was hidden in the home of a perfect stranger. Explaining why Muslims had been able to protect themselves and others, he said: "Nobody died in a mosque. No Muslim wanted any other Muslim to die. We stood up to the militias. And we helped many non-Muslims to get away."

The Rwandan Muslims’ courageous, dignified and honorable stand contrasts sharply with the attitude of the so-called international community, which not only ignored the preparations being made for the genocide, but also stood aside and watched when it was happening. The UN, the US and EU countries, for instance, reduced the numbers of peacekeepers in Rwanda by withdrawing most of those that were there already. The US and Britain, as members of the security council, blocked attempts to send extra UN forces to Rwanda, and were instrumental in the reduction of the peacekeepers who were already there from 2,500 to 450. Kofi Annan, the current UN secretary-general, who was then in charge of UN peacekeeping, cooperated with the US and turned down repeated demands by the UN forces in Rwanda for reinforcements. Belgium, which had been Rwanda’s colonial master, withdrew its forces during the first week of the genocide. France, which was a close ally of the then ruling Tutsi terrorists, has an even worse record: it armed the police and military that trained and supplied the militias that planned and carried out the massacres.

Both Kofi Annan and Bill Clinton, US president at the time of the Rwandan genocide, have admitted their fault, although seemingly not very sincerely or penitently, to mark the tenth anniversary of the killings. On April 6 Clinton repeated previous expressions of regret that his administration did not intervene, but stopped short of a full apology. "The death and destruction that began in April 1994 still haunts Rwandans and all of us who failed to respond," he wrote in the Washington Post. "It is important to remember the horrors of that period with clarity and honesty, both to benefit from the lessons learned and to honour the memory of those who perished." Kofi Annan, who has personal responsibility for the failure of the UN’s peacekeeping in Rwanda at the time, made a statement the next day: "The genocide in Rwanda should never have happened, but it did," he said. "Neither the UN, nor the security council, nor member states in general, nor the international media, paid enough attention to the gathering signs of disaster."

These feeble remarks are utterly inadequate and hypocritical. As the man in charge of the failed ‘peacekeeping’, who repeatedly and openly refused to heed the loud calls of UN officials to act, he should resign (at least). How persistent the calls for help were is clear from statements made recently by Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian who was then commander of the UN peacekeepers. Dallaire, who is now retired, has accused Annan of ignoring his calls, rejecting them publicly, and has also accused European and US governments of not acting. "There was no interest in any of the capitals of the world to come and solve the problem, prevent it or stop it once it was in motion," he told Reuters on April 6. "We have a racist background in the White community, of saying our wars are complex, like in Yugoslavia, but black people in Africa killing each other is nothing more than tribalism," he explained.

The Muslims of Rwanda clearly do not believe in this tribalism, having their faith and trust in a deen (religion, law, code, etc.) that abhors violence and injustice, and expects its adherents to oppose both. It is interesting that, at a time when those who let down the victims of a genocide characterise Muslims as terrorists, this remarkable achievement in Rwanda has barely been mentioned in most of the world’s press and media. The New York Times, which did so, appears to have done so because it believes Rwanda’s Muslim community to be "inward-looking", as it put it, and "not a likely candidate for harbouring al-Qaeda cells."

Clearly Rwanda’s Muslims are busy helping to restore normality to a shattered country in which they are a minority. They could well do with some help and support from Muslim countries and organisations elsewhere. Such help should not be withheld in deference to those anti-Islam, anti-Muslim powers that appear to have an interest in keeping Muslim minorities from contact with the wider Muslim world. A start can be made by helping them to build the extra mosques, and giving them assistance to organise madrassas to improve Islamic education. Another way for other Muslims to help the Rwandans and themselves is for us to strengthen ourselves collectively wherever we are, in order to be able to help each other better whenever such help should become necessary or desirable. We should not need massacres or genocides to alert us to the importance and urgency of these collective tasks.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 3

Rabi' al-Awwal 11, 14252004-05-01

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