Zanzibar: Zanzibaris adopting stricter form of Islam

Associated Press
A growing number of Zanzibaris are turning toward a stricter form of Islam and possibly away from democracy ahead of this fall's elections, expected to be a volatile affair.
Multiparty politics ''has brought nothing but tragedy,'' said Abdallah Mohammed Suleiman, 42, who sells imported clothes. ''The best solution (is) to uphold our religious values, that is Islamic values, or revert to single party rule. ''After all, Islam is the sole unifying factor in Zanzibar.''
Fundamentalist clerics see an opportunity, offering Islamic law as an alternative to democracy, arguing that would bring discipline and moral values to political leadership.

''We clearly see a vacuum that could be filled by the Islamist system that could show people that democracy -- which they hoped would enable them to elect leaders they want, people with integrity -- has failed,'' said Abdallah Said Ali, secretary of Society for Islamic Awareness and Preaching in Zanzibar.

The secular government of Tanzania, formed after Zanzibar united with the former Tanganyika, clearly is worried. It has quietly tightened restrictions for foreign Muslim missionaries. Tanzanian embassies must now certify six months in advance that the missionaries are from groups that do not threaten Tanzania's security.

While Zanzibar is overwhelmingly Muslim, overall Tanzania's population of 36 million is about 44 percent Christian and 34 percent Muslim.

Residents and moderate clerics say missionaries here include Pakistanis preaching the idea that government and society should be Islamic and stressing a strict, sometimes anti-Western version of the religion associated with Saudi Arabia and known as Wahhabism. Moderate clerics also say Saudi Wahhabists have paid for Zanzibari clerics to study Islam in Saudi Arabia.

These days, it's not unusual to hear Friday sermons peppered with anti-Western and anti-Israeli rhetoric. Hard-liners argue that every Muslim has an obligation to help the people of Iraq and Palestine to fight what they describe as the illegal occupation of their homelands by foreign powers.

Still, there are no obvious signs Zanzibaris are being systematically recruited to go to Iraq to join the insurgency, as Saudis have as well as other Arabs and North Africans. Moderate clerics here say it may be happening, but so secretly it's impossible to trace.

The alleged participation of Zanzibaris in the 1998 truck bombing of the U.S. Embassy in mainland Tanzania and neighboring Kenya show sentiment here can be channeled in violent directions. It's unclear how the Zanzibaris were recruited into the al-Qaida plot that resulted in the first terror attack in the region.

''This kind of Islam is not native to Zanzibar -- it is alien'' in a society whose culture is a blend of Persian, Arab, Indian, Portuguese and African influences, said Maalim Mohammed Idris Saleh, one of the most respected Zanzibari Muslim clerics and Islamic historians.

This mostly Muslim archipelago in the Indian Ocean has had two turbulent elections since single party rule ended in 1992 -- 1995 and 2000 polls marred by opposition charges that the ruling party stole the vote. All indications are that polls set for Oct. 30 will be even more violent than past voting.

As Zanzibaris become increasingly skeptical that democracy will enable them to change the government through voting, there is a real danger that ''they will seek other options,'' said Ayoub Bakari Hamad, director of elections for Zanzibar's opposition Civic United Front.

''If there are no changes, I am absolutely convinced that there will come some crafty people who will come with a good option and people will buy into it,'' he said. ''And CUF will no longer be relevant at that time, so it will not be listened to by anyone. (The ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi) will also not be relevant.''

''It will be terrorism against liberalism,'' he said.

Working among the poor, the clerics offering Islam as a political solution are trying to expand their base through fund-raising for the needy, said Said Ali, the official from the Society for Islamic Awareness and Preaching.

''We never existed here in the 1970s,'' said Khamis Bin Ali, a member of the society. ''But these days, we are found in every neighborhood -- if not preaching in mosques, then we will be teaching Islam to children in'' religious schools.

The trend is likely to affect the interpretation of Islam in continental Africa. Although Zanzibar is less influential now, it has a history of leading the way -- the slave trade, Islam, Christianity, colonial rule and Kiswahili, Africa's most widely spoken local language, were all introduced by these islands.

Islamists in Zanzibar can be forceful when enforcing their brand of the faith.

''These days you cannot see tourists who are half-naked walking on our streets,'' Said Ali said, referring to attacks on women wearing short dresses in Zanzibar.

Early this year four Islamic clerics attacked a Zanzibari man who had reportedly planned a same-sex commitment ceremony similar to a wedding. The preachers were charged with abduction, a price they said they were willing to pay to show their commitment to their faith.

''They even insulted police officers investigating the abduction,'' said Ameir Juma Ameir said, a regional police chief.

Associated Press Writer Ali Sultan contributed to this report from Zanzibar, July 2005.