Muslims in the Central African state of Malawi, west of Lake Tanganyika, are living in constant fear of violence from armed Christian fanatics who have already destroyed scores of mosques and killed dozens of people throughout the country. During the last five months, at least 20 mosques have been torched or razed to the ground by anti-Muslim gangs.
The religious tensions are attributed to the country’s president, Dr Bakili Muluzi, nominally a Muslim, who won elections in June which the opposition considered to have been rigged. Dr Muluzi is already emerging as one of the most corrupt leaders in the continent, in one of the poorest countries in the world.
No official figures are available for the numbers of followers of the various religions in Malawi. Catholics claim that they are the largest group, comprising an estimated 35 percent of the country’s 10 million people. However, the Muslim Association of Malawi (MAM) claims that the Muslims are the majority, with a community of 4.8 million. This figure - supported by some independent agencies - is disputed by opposition politicians. What is not disputed is that until a few years ago, Malawi was a Muslim country.
This betrays an alarming demographic trend in Africa, once an overwhelmingly Muslim continent. A policy of aggressive Christian proselytising, aimed not only at converting African Muslims to Christianity but also at “diluting the Muslim identity” of those who do not actually convert, has lead to a major shift in the numbers of people who identify themselves as Muslims.
As a result, Malawi might actually be the first country in Africa to change from being a Muslim one to a “Christian” one. The situation is even more paradoxical if you consider that when the country had a clear Muslim majority (for most of the 1960s and 1970s) it was led by one of the most eccentric and Christianised president in the continent: now it is in danger of becoming ‘Christian’ it is lead by a ‘Muslim’!
Malawi provides another interesting lesson in the politics of post-independence Africa. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the “founding father of Malawi”, was - like Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Leopold Senghor of Senegal - a Christian leading a Muslim country. During their hold on power, their religious affiliation was not an issue, and nobody questioned their legitimacy to rule over Muslim countries.
When he first stood for the presidential elections Dr Muluzi’s religion was not an issue either. However, once he proved to be as cunning and resourceful as any of his non-Muslim countrymen, winning the 1994 elections as a result, the country’s media went berserk. “We have all been sold!” screamed a headline in one newspaper.
According to the story, Dr Muluzi’s United Democratic Front (UDF) had received US$89 million campaign-money from an Arab country. The newspaper alleged the party had agreed that, if victorious, “it would force all Malawians to become Muslims”!
The following year The Malawi Times ran another version of the story, this time increasing the figure to $384 million. Some of the funds, it was claimed, were being used “to buy Bibles from bookshops so that Christians were deprived of the Gospel”, a move said to be aimed at “weakening Christianity in the country.”
According to Muslim leaders, the rumour of Muslims buying and burning Bibles were being spread deliberately, in order to provoke a Christian uprising against Muslim and mosques.
“It is all part of the politics of chaos and confusion being practised by Muluzi,” said one Imam. “While he and his Christian friends continue to suck the country dry, we have to contend with fanatical Christians who want to murder and chase us out of our country.”
Despite having a Muslim for president the plight of Malawi’s Muslims continues. The only beneficiaries have been the wealthy Elite who work with the corrupt politicians to plunder the country. Dr Muluzi and some ministers have used the plight of the Muslims to raise funds from the Arab countries, much of which has ended up in private accounts overseas. Dr Muluzi, who has been in power for only five years, is thought to be one of the richest men in sub-Saharan Africa.
The future of Muslims in Malawi looks even bleaker today than it did thirty years ago. Unlike their aggressive Christian neighbours, financed by evangelical Christian associations in the west, Muslims receive little of the resources donated by their international co-religionists. They continue to be almost totally dependent on missionary schools and hospitals because the government refuses to invest in Muslim areas. And on top of it all, the Muslims have to bear the brunt of the people’s anger over the antics of a Muslim Elite that does nothing for them.
Muslimedia: December 1-15, 1999