Zanzibar, Wahhabism and Churches on Fire

Left: An old mosque in Zanzibar. Middle: President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania in Muslim Cap, and a burning church on  to the right.

Left: An old mosque in Zanzibar. Middle: President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania in Muslim Cap, and a burning church to the right.

By Jaston Binala Recently in Pemba. 

Zanzibar currently  presents  itself to the world with  two faces:  one is  a  face of two troubled islands in East Africa. The other face, a paradise  of white sand beaches, palm trees, dancing dolphins and taarab music in the night.

The second face presents Zanzibar as East Africa’s ultimate holiday destination.  But the archipelago is not exactly a safe place to live now,  or  to visit,  as it was in the past–with  its schizophrenic posture the outcome of  growing religious intolerance–the growing intolerance allegedly nurtured by political administrative failure.

Preliminary findings point an accusing finger to two Muslims groups in the country as responsible for the deterioration of security as a result of religious intolerance in the country: with the  groups being  Ansar al-Sunnah, which seeks a purified Islam in Tanzania, and the Tablighi Jama’at, which seeks to improve the morality of the Muslim society  in Tanzania by improving the behavior of Muslims.

But the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission blames  President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete and all the country’s successive governments which took over from Tanzania’s first president,  Julius Kambarage Nyerere, for making possible  growth of religious intolerance in Zanzibar and Tanzania as a whole.

The “successive governments of the country have ignored early signs of religious intolerance, and the result is evident,”  the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission said in a report published on a Christian website in March. President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete, a Muslim,  cannot avoid blame, the report said.

In the year 2000, a Christian preacher  from mainland Tanzania named   Yohana Shikalile tried to establish a Church in Chake Chake municipality on Zanzibar’s smaller island of Pemba.  He called his church the Redeemed Gospel Church.  Two young men tracked him down sitting in an Internet Café located across the road from the Chake Chake food market, behind Barclay’s Bank.

The young men paid for internet surfing time at a computer next to where the pastor sat.  One of the youngsters wore a  ring on one of  his  right hand  fingers. The ring had been custom made to have a  spiked,  short, sharp needle with a deadly poison smeared on the needle.

When Pastor Shikalile rose from his seat after his computer time expired, the two young men also rose from their seats and hurriedly walked to greet the pastor. The young man with the ring extended his hand to greet the pastor, and the pastor offered his hand to greet the young man. The young man squeezed the pastor’s hand to pierce his skin with the poisoned needle on the ring. The pastor felt the biting nib but was not able to make up what had happened until the young men had vanished.

Pastor Shikalile fell to the ground dizzy.  The source who describes this ordeal says it is only by  God’s grace that this pastor lives in Iringa now. He was saved by weakening the poison in a small privately owned hospital in ChakeChake when doctors determined he had been poisoned. He contacted fellow Christians before the poison had spread too far and still conscious. They rushed him to a government hospital in ChakeChake, but the doctors were reported inaccessible because they had gone to a mosque to pray. The Christians then rushed the pastor to an unnamed private hospital where the poison was  identified and weakened.

A source in Pemba with access to information from the Tanzania Intelligence and Security Services (TISS) says this incident took place as a second attempt to kill Christian preachers in Pemba. TISS succeeded to thwart the first attempt which could have killed many people in Christian homes.  Plotters decided to use poison rings on discovering the first plan had been foiled. Pastor Shikalile was the first victim. The second plan could  now  not continue because Christians stopped  shaking hands with people they did not know.  In the first plan, allegedly hatched in a mosque at ChaChani area  in the  ChakeChake municipality, shops were identified  where Christian preachers  bought their groceries. Plans had been made to put poison in the foods they buy often with intention to poison entire Christian families.

Tanzania Intelligence operatives stationed in Pemba picked up the plan and warned Christians in Pemba to  not buy food stuffs where they bought  foods regularly, and to keep stocks  for one whole month. This advice was followed and nobody got poisoned.  It was then that plotters moved to plan B—which was the elimination of one preacher after another using spiked rings.

It was correct  in 1942 to describe Pemba and Unguja islands in  Zanzibar as the exotic,  unknown,  magical islands of  spices– where holiday seekers could  hide for a  slow, relaxed,  peaceful hide-away for whatever reason; to make a baby, to write a novel, maybe to unwind from a stressful year of corporate board meetings.   But Zanzibar has changed;  changed by violent religious intolerance not sufficiently tamed by government agencies.

Cloves Plantation at Tundaua Ward in Central Pemba

Cloves Plantation at Tundaua Ward in Central Pemba

People interviewed in  Zanzibar on this subject asked not to be named.  They pointed an accusing finger to two institutions for the rise of religious intolerance in the isles:  they accused the Tanzania government of  an alleged  security management failure and  one particular  Muslim  sect called Ansar al-Sunnah, the followers of  a breakaway Muslim Sheikh called Wahhabi. The Wahhabists are also called Masalafi,, and this is the group  allegedly inciting violence and religious hatred  in the archipelago, as well as on mainland Tanzania.  The Masalafi wear short, skin-tight trousers and keep a long beard. This is the hard-line Muslim group with a philosophy which identifies even other Muslim groups as Kaffirs or unbelievers of Allah and his Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W).  Interviewees  in Zanzibar also associated  Sheikh Ponda Issa Ponda  of  Mainland Tanzania, and his followers with the hard-line Wahhabism.

But while superficially events in Zanzibar appear  to reveal a rise of religious intolerance leveled against  the Christian minority in the islands  where 98% of the population is Muslim, investigations revealed serious tensions  also exist between two Muslim groups in the isles. Tensions exist between Al Sunah wal  Jamaah or simply refered to as Suni  and the Shia Ithna Asheri Muslim sect—particulary in Pemba.  Sources said  Ansar al-Sunnah (Masalafi) have infiltrated Al Sunah wal  Jamaah (Suni) mosques and have planted their hard-line Muslim philosophy in the originally peaceful Suni mosques but this change has not affected Shia Ithna Asheri mosques. As a result, Sunis in Zanzibar DO NOT see the same thing in Islam as the Shia, and sectarian tension is on the rise in the islands—especially in Pemba.

Kikwete  On Eid

President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete (Centre Foreground in White Muslim cap and robe) wishing fellow Muslims a happy Eid.

One important point to note is that Al Sunah wal  Jamaah or called simply as Suni IS NOT  the same thing as Ansar al-Sunnah who are also called Wahhabi, or Masalafi.  Sources said Ansar al-Sunnah make themselves sound like  Al Sunah wal  Jamaah to be accepted by the Sunis. But they are different, reactionary and explosive financed by brethren  in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar. The Wahhabi Muslim sect is said to have originally been formed by western intelligence organizations, The American CIA and British MI6  to create chaos in places where western nations foresee future interests attainable through the creation of political chaos.

These findings  which point an accusing finger at Wahhabists for the rise of religious intolerance in Zanzibar and indeed on mainland Tanzania contradict another report purportedly  leaked to the media by a Western Intelligence organization.  The western intelligence report published by  the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission on Sunday, 16 March 2014, exonerates Wahhabists from blame for the rise of religious intolerance in Zanzibar.

They point an accusing finger  to another Muslim  sect in the isles—The Tablighi Jama’at. The leaked report quoted  by  a Christian website attributes the rise of religious intolerance in Zanzibar to the Tablighi Jama’at, which is a Muslim sect associated with the people of Zanzibar of Persian origin.

Additional research work  may therefore need to be done to pin-point who exactly is the correct causative factor  of  religious intolerance in Zanzibar between Wahhabists and Tablighi Jama’at.

The dominant Muslim group in Zanzibar is the group called Al Sunah wal  Jamaah, or simply called Suni.  Then there are two smaller groups  with concentrations differing in the two main islands. The  Shia Ithna Asheri, or simply called ‘Mashia’ are found in larger numbers in the bigger  Island of Unguja while they are fewer in the smaller Island of Pemba. The other smaller group found in Zanzibar is the Wahhabi group, which is also known as’ Masalafi,’ with investigations indicating the Wahhabis have however managed to Change Suni attitudes in Pemba to become hardline Muslims, explosive and violent.

A sectarian conflict similar to the Muslim against Muslim conflicts in Iraq  and Afghanistgan  currently exists at two places in Pemba.  In early 2013,  the Zanzibar Government diffused a potentially explosive  conflict between Al Sunah wal Jamaah and the Shia group at Ziwani area in central Pemba, but the sources say the situation is still volatile.  The Sunis met in a mosque at Ziwani Ward in Central Pemba and resolved to chase the Shia from pemba because they allegedly pollute the Muslim faith.  They resolved to do this by ostracizing the group and boycotting shops owned by the Shia and by forcing children of the Shia out of Ziwani Secondary School in Central Pemba.  Shia children were way-laid and beaten on their way home from school. But it  turned out the Shia own more land in central Pemba than the Sunis. The Shia responded by banning Sunis from walking on their landed properties.

When ostracism started against Shia children at Ziwani Secondary School, the head teacher, Idarus Hamad Yusuf called a general assembly to address the children about religious tolerance. The head teacher told the students that Pemba was part of the United Republic of Tanzania whose constitutions provide for freedom of worship.

Suni mosques met and resolved to ask the Ministry of education in Zanzibar to sack Idarus Hamad Yusuf  from his post as  Ziwani Secondary School head teacher because he was polluting the children’s minds.  The Central Pemba district government moved in quickly to stand by the head teacher and the problem was defused. But the sources say Sunis and the Shia in central Pemba still do not like each other and anything is possible in future.

A similar conflict took place between Sunis and the Shia at Mtambile Ward close to Mkoani area in southern Pemba five years ago and tensions continue to exist between the two groups in the two places up to this moment.

The sectarian differences are based on  the differing understanding of inherited authority in the Muslim faith. While the Shia believe that when Prophet Mohammad S.A.W died, he left the leadership authority in the Muslims faith to  Ali bin Abu Twalib, the Sunis of Pemba have been convinced by the hard-line Wahhabis to believe it is  the Khalifa Abubakar who was given the authority to lead Muslims after the death of Prophet Mohammad S.A.W.  Sunis originally held the same belief as the Shia but the Masalafi have changed Suni attitudes in Zanzibar, and particularly in Pemba, so that the Sunis now consider the Shia to be ‘kaffirs’ (unbelievers).

A source who told me he got access to Tanzania Intelligence and Security Services (TISS) information last year said  some of the religious violence  which has in the recent past been witnessed  on the larger Island of Unguja has been traced  to originate from  Pemba. Giving an example, he said one religious hate inciting  mobile phone SMS which was circulated and thought to originate from Unguja, was traced to have originated from Pemba island. He said some intelligence operatives in Tanzania believe the larger Island of Unguja has actually just been dragged into violence by  hard-liners from Pemba to create the impression that all of Zanzibar is unstable.  The problem in Zanzibar is therefore Wahhabism fron Pemba.  Sunis and the Shia of Unguja  island have co-existed with the Christian church since antiquity and there were no  church burnings! The new wave of violence is therefore from outside Unguja island.

One government officer in Pemba in the armed forces said  it may be high time the Government took measures to reduce the level of  religious conservatism in Pemba by increasing the Pemba people’s exposure to the outside world. This could be done by increasing the island’s accessibility to the outside world through  increasing fast ferry boats to the small island of Zanzibar like is the case in Unguja, and by sending more people from other parts of the country to go work in Pemba.  Blind conservatism could be reduced in that way with the passing of time.

In the year 2000 this was done by sending more government workers  from the mainland to work in Pemba and sending people from Pemba to work on  the mainland. Many police officers and army officers and even other government  workers  were sent to work in Pemba. This increased the number of people with other outlooks in Pemba, but  all outsiders were sent back where they came from and those from Pemba were returned back in Pemba in 2010 to go vote back home. The 2010 elections thus returned  Pemba back to where it was in the pre-2000 elections years when religious conservatism was as high as it is now.

In the meantime Zanzibar is no longer the same. Several incidents of bombing of churches and killing of Christians have been reported in Tanzania in the recent past. While the attackers are non-state actors, the government shares the blame for failing to deal with growing religious tensions in the East African nation, the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission reported on a website recently.

Attacks have increased in Zanzibar, which is a semi-autonomous archipelago where around 98 percent of the population is Muslim, as well as on the mainland, where Christians supposedly outnumber the Muslim population.  On Feb. 24 this year (2014), a bomb exploded at the entrance of the Christ Church Cathedral, an Anglican church building, in Stone Town in Zanzibar, according to Morning Star News. On Feb. 23, a bomb exploded near the door of the Evangelistic Assemblies of God Zanzibar church building in Kijito Upele-Fuoni, outside Zanzibar City, just as the worship service was about to end.

A week earlier on Feb. 15, a home-made bomb was thrown at the door of a Seventh-day Adventist church during the worship service in the Tomondo area, just a few miles from Stone Town. A day later, another such bomb was thrown at the church’s doorway.  Last year, the Rev. Evaristus Mushi, a Roman Catholic priest, was shot dead in the Mtoni area outside Zanzibar City. And acid was thrown on the face and chest of a Catholic priest, the Rev. Joseph Anselmo Mwangamba, on the outskirts of Zanzibar City. In 2012, the Rev. Ambrose Mkenda, a Catholic priest, was shot in the cheeks and the shoulder in Tomondo in the archipelago. Such attacks have also grown on the mainland.

Last December, a Lutheran church in Korogwe town in Korogwe District and an Evangelical Assemblies of God church in Kalalani village in the same district were burnt down. In May 2013, a bomb exploded at the Saint Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church at Olasti,  a predominantly Christian suburb of the northern city of Arusha, killing three people and injuring more than 60 others.

In March, unidentified people attacked the residence of Archbishop Valentino Mokiwa, the Bishop of Dar es Salaam and Primate of the Anglican Church of Tanzania. In February 2013, 45-year-old Pastor Mathayo Kachila was beheaded in the Geita Region’s Buseresere town following calls by Muslim leaders to close down all Christian-owned butcheries.

In Zanzibar, attacks on Christians have been rising since the formation of the Zanzibar Government of National Unity in 2010, after the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party and the rival Civic United Front (CUF) party resolved differences. Following this, the Islamic political group UAMSHO (Association of Islamic Awareness and Public Discourse) began calling for the separation of Zanzibar from mainland Tanzania, the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission reported, adding that most of the attacks on Christians have been attributed to the UAMASHO.

On the mainland, supporters of the controversial cleric, Sheikh Ponda Issa Ponda, who leads the group called Simba wa Mungu (God’s Lion), are believed to be behind many attacks on churches. Ponda is also highly influential in Zanzibar, the Christian commission reported. Other Islamic movements – such as the Ansar al-Sunnah, which seeks a purified Islam in Tanzania, and the Tablighi Jama’at, which seeks to improve the morality of Muslim society by improving the behavior of Muslims – also exist on mainland Tanzania.

Some Islamic figures preach that Muslim traditions are under threat in a secular state, and therefore there’s a need to return to the basics to protect the Islamic way of life.  The Saudis are allegedly spending about $1 million annually in Tanzania to build new mosques and also to woo the ruling CCM party, according to a Western intelligence report.

Thus far, Tanzania’s Islamist forces have generally remained confined to addressing issues in their local contexts. However, visible attempts are being made by Islamist militant and terror groups operating from elsewhere in East Africa and beyond to target Muslims in Tanzania for recruitment and mobilization.

In 1998, suicide bombers linked to al-Qaeda killed 11 people in an attack on the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam with the involvement of some people from Zanzibar. This was an early warning sign for Tanzania. Most recently, police arrested more than a dozen youngsters in the southern Mtwara area (last September) for doing armed drills, using videos of alleged training manuals by al Qaeda and al Shabaab.

The World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission said in their report the president of Tanzania, Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete, who is a Muslim, cannot evade responsibility for the growing sectarian tensions on the mainland or in Zanzibar.

The constitution of Tanzania and other laws and policies protect religious freedom. The Zanzibar constitution also contains religious freedom provisions. And while the archipelago has its own president and constitution, it is subject to the Tanzanian constitution. But  the successive governments of the country have ignored early signs of religious intolerance, and the result is evident. Continuing to do so can be catastrophic for not only Christians but also for the nation as a whole.

Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania in East Africa. It is composed of the Zanzibar Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, 25–50 kilometres (16–31 mi) off the coast of the mainland, and consists of numerous small islands and two large ones: Unguja (the main island, referred to informally as Zanzibar), and Pemba.  The capital of Zanzibar, located on the island of Unguja, is Zanzibar City. Its historic centre, known as Stone Town, is a World Heritage Site and is claimed to be the only functioning ancient town in East Africa. Zanzibar’s main industries are spices, raffia, and tourism.

The people of Zanzibar are of diverse ethnic origins.  The first permanent residents of Zanzibar seem to have been the ancestors of the Hadimu and Tumbatu, who began arriving from the East African mainland around AD 1,000. They belonged to various mainland ethnic groups. Zanzibar united with Mainland Tanganyika in 1964 to form the United Republic of Tanzania.