Friday, December 28, 2012
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Under the peach arches of Al-Noor charitable agency for the needy just outside Stone Town in Zanzibar, a 24-hour Islamic radio station broadcasts religious guidance.
Female tourists should wear headscarves and cover their knees, says Mohamed Suleiman Ali, director of Radio Al-Noor, echoing the opinions voiced on radio. “It’s too early to fight for an Islamic state because there are several stages to that, but a lot of things are being done contrary to the teachings of Islam,” he says. “There’s no social responsibility; the government keeps producing more [social] freedom.”
Famed for its beaches, more than 170,000 holiday makers come to Zanzibar every year to swim with dolphins and lie beneath coconut trees. But the relaxed way of life that lures tourists to the mainly Muslim islands off the east coast of Africa is coming under threat from a rise in less tolerant forms of Islam. This is tapping into festering discontent over the island’s sovereignty and beginning to influence social mores.
The islands – which make much of their money from tourism – are home to 1m people and more than 2,000 Muslim religious schools. Most of these draw on a long tradition of moderate and Sufi forms of Islam. But these are underfunded and staffed by volunteer teachers. Increasingly, parents are sending their children to better financed alternatives in a process that is beginning to parallel that taking place across a swath of sub-Saharan Africa from Somalia to Mali, where the growing influence of more radical forms of Islam can be felt.
Al-Noor charity, set up four years ago with money from private donors in Dubai and Saudi Arabia, is among a clutch of new foreign-funded religious institutions to increase its investment on the island. As well as the radio, it has established a mosque, internet rooms and a nationwide network of madrassas. It plans to build more, and every year pays for students and teachers alike to study in Sudan, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia.
Academics estimate that Saudi Arabia – where Wahhabi Islam is practised – alone spends $1m a year on Islamic institutions in Zanzibar.
“Wahhabi madrasas are just starting – they are now many and Saudi funds are spreading their work – they have nice buildings, they are well off and well organised; they preach and convince the parents to come there, so the effect of the madrassa is very powerful,” says Idrissa Ahmad Khamis, a teacher who is from the Sufi tradition, a mystical form of Islam opposed by more literalist Wahhabis or Salafists.
Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations draw their thinking from Wahhabism. “We’re not happy with other sects like [Sunni hardline] Wahhabi – people who go to countries like Saudi Arabia; when they come back they want to change everything,” he says.
Past attempts to introduce Wahhabism have not been successful, says Jussa Ismail, a parliamentarian. “But it’s very difficult for the traditional madrassas that are in really poor shape to rival the influence of those who are being funded by foreigners and Wahhabi-based institutions,” he says.
Few Zanzibaris admit to hardline views but now “some parents are sending their children to the new Wahhabi madrassas on the pretext of needing extra lessons”, says Shakra Hassan, an unpaid instructor at an underfunded madrassa.
In the wake of the September 11 attacks and the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings of the US embassy in Dar es Salaam, in which two Zanzibar-born men were involved, the US is among those worried by the potential for Islamic militancy on the islands.
Washington has helped build pre-school madrassas throughout Zanzibar and last year spent part of its $76m counterterrorism budget for Muslim communities in Africa on textbooks and teacher training in Zanzibar.
Saudi funding for conservative religious institutions comes amid a government crackdown on Uamsho, a group advocating greater observance of Islam and for independence for the semi-autonomous islands, part of Tanzania.
Mr Ali denies any links to Wahhabism or Uamsho although before a government ban, the station had given Uamsho preachers airtime.
Uamsho supporters deny charges of religious extremism and claim the group is standing up for Zanzibaris whose rights have been suppressed since political union with the mainland in 1964.
“Zanzibar cannot afford to have its neighbours looking at it as an enemy or as a centre of subversive activities,” says Mr Ismail. “There was always this [western] concern that Zanzibar should not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands that can be used against western interests – communism may not be a problem now, but now you’ve got terrorism.”