Rwanda and radicalism (and a little geography lesson)

A still from a video showing Muslim men in various Islamic attires such as long robes, keffiyehs and topis coming out of a mosque into a street.
Muslims coming out of a mosque on Eid al Fitr. (Source: New Times.)

Yesterday the Spectator, a British conservative-leaning political journal (which was formerly edited by Boris Johnson and printed a series of very prejudicial articles about Islam and Muslims during that time) published an article on Islam in Rwanda by Qanta Ahmed, a British-Pakistani writer noted for her hostility to ‘Islamism’ and who has recently praised Boris Johnson in the same magazine, gushing praise on the mufti of Rwanda, a Sheikh Salim Hitimana. This is the first time I’ve heard of Sheikh Salim so I have no idea what his reputation is or whether he really has the influence Qanta Ahmed claims (the community, although it has grown since the mid-1990s, is still quite small and Rwanda is a small country). She does, however, make some claims about him and about Islam that reveal some quite basic ignorance about Islam and about the geography of the Muslim world.

First, he claims that Sheikh Salim was “trained in Libya by scholars in the Shafi’i tradition”. Libya is not the place to go to learn the Shafi’i tradition. Like most of north and west Africa, Libya is Maliki and, because of the influence of Colonel Qaddafi, was for most of the last several decades not a place favoured by students of Islamic law or any other Islamic science. Although hostile to Islamism because it would have been a challenge to Qaddafi’s regime, Libya was not a country noted for friendliness towards western powers or Israel; it is hard to imagine him picking up the views on Israel expressed in this article in Qaddafi’s Libya (of which more in a minute, in sha Allah). The places to go to learn the Shafi’i fiqh or understanding of Islamic law are Egypt, Syria and the regions around the Indian Ocean which include most of east Africa (as well as Yemen, Sri Lanka and south-east Asia), which explains why Rwanda follows that tradition as it is close to Uganda and Tanzania.

She claims:

Rwandan Islam has followed the Shafi’i school of Islamic thought, which differs greatly from the harsher Hanafi, found in Pakistan, and Hanbali, found in Saudi Arabia. To understand Islam, it’s crucial to understand these distinctions.

This is nonsense. Shafi’i fiqh is harsher in some aspects than the Hanafi or Hanbali (or Maliki) schools and less so in others. They all have differing opinions, especially about issues which have arisen in modern times. In fact, it is the Hanafi school which has acquired a reputation for liberalism, although this is not particularly well deserved. Schools differ in how they derive rulings from the original sources; the Maliki school, for example, regarded the practice of the people of Madinah as a source of Islamic law.

The Mufti wants to preserve an Islam that adheres to scripture, without the new politicised elements of sartorial — and therefore social — control. ‘I introduced a religious fatwa against the niqab in 2016,’ he says proudly. ‘We saw that niqab abroad, but in Rwanda we have stopped it. Everything you have to practice here must be mentioned in the Quran.’ There’s nothing Islamic, he says, about the niqab — and Rwandan Muslims, he believes, do not have to look radically different from the rest of the population.

In fact, the mainstream position of the Shafi’i school is that the covering of the face is mandatory when in public, and anyone who has travelled to some coastal areas in east Africa, such as Lamu and Zanzibar, will know that many women still wear it there, although it is a local, wrap-around veil called the bui-bui rather than the niqaab which is popular in the Gulf region and abroad. The niqaab is popular because it attaches around the forehead, not above the nose, and can be pulled up easily. The claim that “everything you have to practice here must be mentioned in the Qur’an” conflicts with the idea that he is a Shafi’i, because the Shafi’i school is based on the Qur’an, the hadith, consensus of scholars and analogical reasoning from the Qur’an and hadith; no scholar of any school believes that something is only compulsory if mentioned in the Qur’an. Even the specifics of the ritual prayer or the fast of Ramadan are not spelled out in the Qur’an.

The Shafi’i school is also the only one that regards female circumcision (the removal of the hood of the clitoris, rather than anything else as one finds elsewhere in Africa) as mandatory.

The Mufti himself was trained in Libya by scholars in the Shafi’i tradition, and realised that this more liberal model of Islam needs muscular protection. ‘In Rwanda, we learned that the result of division is genocide. That’s why we have set up these systems. We don’t allow any kind of thinking which can enter our society and divide us. That is why we don’t allow anyone to come to our country and teach about Islam without consulting the Rwandan Muslim community.’

What led to the genocide in Rwanda is very well-documented; it had its roots in the Belgian colonials’ pitting Hutus against Tutsis, imposing a spurious race science on what had been a class system, and subsequent racial rabble-rousing by Hutu leaders after independence. Wahhabis have not at any time ever been implicated in genocide and it was Muslims’ resistance to the 1994 genocide that inspired a large number of conversions in the years after. There is nothing ‘liberal’ about a form of religion that is dictated by a central committee which tells local imams what they can or cannot talk about regardless of the circumstances of their community. The word ‘liberal’ means ‘free’.

In Britain, there has been much talk about ‘preachers of hate’ whom the government has struggled to deport. In Rwanda, any deviation from Shafi’i principles and clerics are immediately barred, and their minbars shut down until they fall into line.

Some of the preachers in question were British citizens who had every right to be here, and as long as they were not directly encouraging violence, they could preach what they like because Britain is a free country. Some of the others came from countries which were dictatorships without the rule of law, and where anyone deported could be imprisoned for no reason and tortured. We also have Muslims from all over the world, so enforcing one school of thought would be impractical, to say the least. As mentioned earlier, the Shafi’i school has nothing to do with politics; it is a set of principles for deriving rulings in law.

Anti-Semitism is banned, the Mufti tells me, because ‘our basic Islam does not allow anyone to discriminate against other people.’ It’s often said that Islam’s problem is the lack of a hierarchy — no bishops, no excommunication — leaving it open to extremist infiltration. In Rwanda, there is a strict hierarchy, and it works.

Israel’s right to exist, he says, is defended in the Quran. ‘We have our land: Rwanda. God created Arabs, they have their land. He has created Pakistan, [he] has created Israel, and Jews must have their land. When you interpret the Quran — “ya bani Isra’il” — what does it mean?’ The children of Israel, I say. ‘Yes! He has named them for their nation, a name related to their land.’

The “strict hierarchy” probably works in the particular environment of Rwanda which does not have a tradition of democracy (Paul Kagame has been in power for the whole 25 years since the end of the civil war and genocide) and where the smoothing-over of divisions has been a priority since the end of the genocide. It does not mean it would work anywhere else; in the Catholic church, the hierarchy has colluded in the abuse of children by moving priests around and silencing victims and this has caused the whole church a lot of discredit. In Islam, the lack of a formal hierarchy is a strength; it means the religion is not discredited if a group of its leaders is. The religion is independent of any organisation.

A crowd of Black Muslim women wearing colourful headwraps and dresses in an open area among trees and bushes.
Muslim women on Eid day in Rwanda. Source: New Times.

As for his comments on Jews, he must surely be aware that there are many nations across Africa that do not have their own land, and that most countries there are based on colonial boundaries, not ethnic or linguistic ones. Nowhere in any Islamic source is the idea of a land for Jews countenanced and the early Muslims, when they conquered the land known as Israel, did not establish one. Rather, Jews could live in any part of the Muslim empire except the Arabian peninsula, and did so. Some Jews continued to live in the area but the majority population were Christian and, increasingly, Muslim. The name Israel refers to the prophet Jacob or Ya’qoob, peace be upon him; the kingdom was at one point in history called Israel because all of the tribes descended from him lived there; at other times, the kingdom around Jerusalem was called Judah, after one of his sons, and subsequently Judaea (Israel uses this term nowadays for part of the West Bank). So this shows ignorance both of Islamic law and practice and of history.

I came here as part of a delegation from the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation and Visual History Archive. The idea was to hear from genocide survivors, and to document and learn from their testimony. I ended up learning about my own religion, and how liberal Islam — or, as millions of Muslims would put it, normal Islam — can flourish if the right protections are put in place by the right leaders. Protections enforced by Muslims themselves.

At a time when many European countries are struggling to protect both liberalism and religious tolerance, Rwanda’s achievement offers hope.

The biggest threats to liberalism and religious tolerance in Europe come from the state, the commercial media and the Far Right, not from Muslims; whatever Muslims do is used as an excuse. Rwanda is not a liberal country and never has been, before or after the colonial era or the genocide. In the period after, the Rwandan army has been involved in the civil war in the eastern Congo and has been involved in atrocities. The model depicted in this article may (or may not) work in Rwanda but cannot simply be lifted to any western or other country where there is a diversity of thought among the Muslims and an expectation of religious and intellectual freedom.

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