The Zanzibar Riots, the Union, and Religious Tolerance

Nobody in his right mind would condone the torching of churches and shops in Zanzibar last weekend. But it is a great shame that so many, including some of the top leaders in the country have made these symptoms of a socio-political malaise in the country the central issue for discussion rather than looking at the disease itself. It seems to have been a bonanza for most of the newspapers on the mainland who have used this to launch for what I can only call Islam and Zanzibar-bashing spree for more than a week.

As a Zanzibari I am proud to say we have had more than 170 years of history of Muslim-Christian interaction in our islands, and before 1987 we never had anything but cordial relations between all religions in our country. Anybody who disagrees with this can produce the evidence.
The highest denomination of Zanzibar’s independence stamps carried the theme of religious tolerance, designed by our revered art teacher Mr Abdalla Farhan, showing the Catholic and Anglican cathedrals, a Sunni and a Shia mosque, and even a Hindu temple. Nobody should try to teach lessons about religious tolerance.

The modern history of Muslim-Christian interaction in Zanzibar goes back to 1840 when the German Christian missionary Dr. Johanne Krapf visited Zanzibar to ask for permission to build a church at Mombasa which was then part of Zanzibar’s territory.

According to the missionary’s own testimony, the Muslim Sultan of Zanzibar, Seyyid Said bin Sultan wrote to his governor in Mombasa in which he said:

‘I am sending you Dr Krapf. He is a man of God who wants to spread the word of God. Do everything in your power to facilitate his work.’
This was not because Seyyid Said was a uniquely tolerant ruler, but because this was the tradition of religious tolerance in the Indian Ocean before the coming of the colonialists

Thirty three years later, Bishops Steere and Tozer came to Zanzibar to build the Anglican Cathedral at Mkunazini, but these were enlightened people who wanted to live at peace with the local Muslim majority. They had regular cordial debates with the Muslim clerics of the time, including Shaikh Mansab bin Ali of the renowned clerical family of Zanzibar.
Part of the land on which the cathedral was built was donated by the Hindu Customs Master, and Sultan Seyyid Barghash donated the clock that is still in the tower of the cathedral.

During all my study of the history of Zanzibar there has never been a confrontation between these two religions until 1987. So what happened in 1987?
The country was then discussing personal law, marriage and inheritance, and the Muslims said that we were bound by the Islamic Shariah, as they had every right under the constitution to believe and practice their religion.
A prominent woman political leader of the ruling party on the mainland said ‘we will change the Shariah.’ Muslims in Zanzibar were incensed, and they came out in a demonstration to protest against this infringement of their rights. They were met by the police, an arm of the Union government, with live fire, and two people were killed. The commission under the late Abdulwahid Borafia confirmed that the Muslims were unarmed and peaceful; but no remedial action was taken to bring the culprits to book.
More recently, a young Christian man was instigated by the American preacher to burn the Muslims’ Holy Book, but I am happy to say we did not hear Muslims retaliating by burning the Bible.
So the fundamental question is why cases of intolerance have increased since 1987?
We will be the proverbial ostriches if we bury our heads in the sand if we conclude that all this is because ‘udini’ and hatred against Christians have suddenly flourished in Zanzibar even more luxuriantly that our cloves, and these are always carried out by one religion against the other. It needs two to tango.
The fact is that over the past two decades, we have been going full speed to develop tourism as the primary foundation of our economy, and aiming to quadruple the number of tourists coming to Zanzibar to half a million, without considering the way we are doing it and the inevitable consequences for our society and culture.
I have been dismayed to see how some of our fishing village communities have been turned upside down by the invasion of tourism. Nungwi at the northern end of Unguja was inaccessible before the tarmac road was built in the 1970s, and I had the fortune to visit it in 1979.
It was a beautiful stable Zanzibar village community – not very prosperous, but I remember it as a clean village in which almost every house had a well-kept carved Swahili door. It destroyed my assumption that isolation from the town meant poverty and desolation.
A few years ago I had the misfortune to revisit Nungwi to give a lecture at one of the beach hotels that now completely encircle the whole Nungwi peninsula. I could not find that village any more. It had been completely over-run by a shanty town of tourism kiosks, bars with blaring foreign music, and brothels.
As former President Ali Hassan Mwinyi once said, when you open the window to get fresh air, flies also come in. A few years ago the women of Nungwi took out a demonstration against this invasion that was stealing their husbands and destroying their families. But has anything been done to rein in these misfortunes of our villagers, beyond saying ‘bahati mbaya, utandawazi, etc.?’
Last year there was another outbreak with the burning of 80 tourist shops and hovels at Pwani Mchangani, and all the mainland-based newspapers plastered their front pages with stories and pictures about Zanzibaris ‘hating Wabara.’ Nobody investigated why all these shops in a Zanzibari village were owned only by Wabara, and why local villagers were not benefitting from the tourism bonanza, but only having to suffer from its bars and brothels.
But there is still the question why the churches were targeted. As I said above, places of worship and their holy books must be respected by all, whether mosques and churches, or the Quran and the Bible.
A lot has been said about the culpability of Uamsho in this saga, but nobody has documented the evidence either of their direct instigation or their so-called ‘hate sermons.’ Their DVDs are freely available, and it should be easy to document this for anyone who wants to speak on the subject. But most of those who have spoken or written have not cared to see them. Mao tse Tung used to say: ‘no research, no right to speak.’
But, again as I said above, it takes two to tango. Are we so absolutely sure that the clerics of all the other denominations are clean on this score? I cannot say what is being preached in all the mosques and churches, but I was a witness to one incident that was frightening.
A Norwegian missionary organized an interfaith meeting last year in Zanzibar, and I was invited. I was flabbergasted to hear a cleric from the Anglican Cathedral say that since Tanzania was a secular state, why is the Zanzibar Government finance the Qadhi’s courts here?
Anybody who knows anything about Zanzibar will know that 97% of the people of Zanzibar are Muslims. S/he should also know that religion is not a Union matter, and that the Zanzibar constitution nowhere says ‘nchi hii haina dini.’
There have been Qadhi’s courts here even before the coming of the British. In their wisdom they did not abolish them but allowed Muslims to practice their religion in terms of personal law. For more than a century the dual jurisdiction has worked smoothly to the satisfaction of all, including non-Muslims who could take their cases to the country’s civil courts.
So who is this cleric to add insult to injury by proposing the Qadhis courts should be abolished in Zanzibar, as they were in Tanganyika in 1963, and why at this stage when Muslims on the mainland are demanding restoration of their Qadhi’s courts?
Fortunately, it was not left to a Zanzibari Muslim to answer him, which would have made it a Christian-Muslim malumbano. A wise Christian Copt from Egypt stood up to answer. He said:
‘I am really surprised. We Copts constitute 10% of the population in Egypt, but we have to recognize that 90% of the people are Muslims who want to be governed by their religious rules in these matters. Why should we object? Here, you Christians form less than one per cent of the people, and you want to abolish the Qadhi’s courts?’ Nothing more needed to be said.
So wisdom is called for on the part of all responsible leaders, religious or otherwise. And this relates not only to this sensitive question of religion, but in all matters during this critical period.
I was dismayed when I read the story by Mwinyi Sadallah in the Nipashe of 31st May, 2012 quoting the Archbishop of the Anglican Church in Tanzania, Dk. Valentino Mokiwa, saying that the suspects ‘wakamatwe, wapigwe bakora na polisi na baadaye wafikishwe kwenye vyombo vya sheria.’
When we are writing the new constitution in which we should be safeguarding the human rights of all people against police brutality, should a responsible cleric be giving them free license to beat up people before they have been convicted of any crime? I just hope that he has been misquoted. If he was, then the journalist should apologise to him and to the rest of us.


6 responses to “The Zanzibar Riots, the Union, and Religious Tolerance

  1. Pingback: The Zanzibar Riots, the Union, and Religious Tolerance·

  2. Hii paper ni miongoni mwa zile “a must read”, sina budi kumshukuru Prof.Sharrif kwa kazi hii.Sitarajii kama kuna gazeti la kitanganyika litalochapisha paper ya aina hii.

  3. Yapo magazeti ya huko Tanganyika yameshachapisha article hii tokea juzi nayo ni gazeti la Annur limechapisha makala yote kwa kiingereza na pia wameiandikia story pia lakini pia gazeti hilo hilo la annur wiki ijayo itatafsiriwa kwa kiswahili na gazeti jengine lililochapisha makala hii ni gazeti la Citizen la leo jumapili

  4. Interesting article. It would however be interesting to hear a view on why churches were attacked during the riots, as well as the influence of ‘wanao sera kali’ which to my surprise is not at all touched upon in this article. What is their role, who finances them and what is their agenda? I believe their impact on development (religiously-political) in recent years is one of the keys to understand the current situation

  5. It is much better for us Zanzibaris to prefer having HIV/AIDS to remaining in the MFUMOKRISTO upside down Union. We don’t want to share your robbery, embezzlement, betrayal, hypocricy, parment poverty, God association with other dieties like Nyerere, falsification, cheating, moral decay, and your superior ignorance. Jamani hatutaki Muungano mbona hamsikii, aah!. Msitufatefate kaeni na madini na magesi yenu.



    “When peace fails apply force”



  6. All that are happening in Zanzibar have to do with social problems that the people are best with. Zanzibar has never had extremism culture. Those that are creating mosaic to make Zanzibar appear as a place of extremists are not doing justice to its people who are known as being most caring and very friendly indeed. Professor’s analysis on the recent developments is very informative and spares no shadow of doubts. It is true that Zanzibar is predominantly Islamic country. It is however, very wrong to believe that the recent church burning in Zanzibar had a religious motivation. I see this as a social problem that needs to be looked at from a social point of view.

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