Latest Clashes Reveal Underlying Religious Tensions

Christians in Dar es Salaam worshipped peacefully on Sunday despite alleged threats from radical Muslims to disrupt church services in retaliation for the government banning a planned Muslim demonstration on Friday, 31 August. Police had been deployed to guard a number of churches in the greater Dar es Salaam area but services passed off peacefully, according to residents and media reports.

The Tanzanian authorities were shaken by the eruption of violence in the streets of Dar es Salaam on Friday 24 August, when riot police used tear gas to disperse a crowd of mainly Islamic protesters demonstrating against the conviction in Morogoro District of 28-year-old Khamis Rajab Dibagula for defaming Christianity. The High Court later intervened to quash Dibagula's jail sentence.

Over 170 people were arrested and 41 charged on several counts after the 24 August clashes, including taking part in an illegal gathering, arson and causing a public disturbance.

The city was braced for further demonstrations after the 'Ijumaa' prayers last Friday, as Muslim zealots - or shady (unnamed) political forces taking advantage of the situation, according to some reports - had threatened to stage demonstrations with a view to securing the release of the 41 people detained after the earlier clashes.

Minister for Home Affairs Muhammad Seif Khatib directed that Muslims should not march in Dar es Salaam for fear of further clashes, saying the government recognised the right of worship for every religion but would not accept "defamation of other religions by some believers".

Severe warnings by police and senior politicians that the police had been authorised to use force, as well as calls for calm by religious leaders, seemed to have persuaded would-be demonstrators not to appear, according to Dar es Salaam residents.

Much of the Tanzanian reaction to the 24 August unrest in Dar es Salaam has focused on perceived police brutality in using tear gas and water cannon, and beating demonstrators as they tried to march.

In addition, there has been concern about firebomb attacks on ruling party (CCM) offices, which appeared to suggest a political agenda at play, and - underlying all that - certain underlying tensions between the Muslim and Christian communities of Tanzania that have become apparent in the episode.

The 24 August demonstration was sparked by a Morogoro magistrate's decision to jail a young Muslim preacher for declaring that Jesus was not God. Khamis was sentenced to 18 months in prison but released after the Tanzanian High Court ruled that he had received too harsh a sentence, since "the judgement should have considered the need to maintain peace and religious harmony in the country".

The last major Muslim riots were in 1998 at Mwembechai in Dar es Salaam, also ostensibly over freedom of expression. Two people were killed then, according to official records, but the Muslim community believes that many more died in the police intervention. Shocking footage of the incident was shown on television at the time.

Recent events follow a long list of similar incidents. In 1993, Muslims burned popular bars in Dar es Salaam where 'kiti moto', or barbecued pork, was served. [The consumption of pork is prohibited and offensive under Islamic law.] And in the popular area of Kariakoo in Dar es Salaam in 1999, Muslims rioted over the right to wear headscarves in schools.

Within the Muslim community the combination of poverty, unemployment and feelings of marginalisation have been powerful stimuli to protest, according to informed sources. Muslims say they are discriminated against in educational opportunities and the job market. They blame their misfortunes on Christians sticking together, sharing jobs and riches. Christian Tanzanians angrily dismiss such ideas and some quite openly blame the relative backwardness of the Muslim community on laziness.

Since independence in 1961, Muslims point out, the best jobs in the government, civil service and, in particular, the army and other security services have gone to Christian Tanzanians. Figures from the University of Dar es Salaam show a relatively low percentage of Muslim students in the first year of study, and a difference in the general level of education among the communities is said to have played a clear role in creating this inequality.

A Catholic priest from the White Father's order, living in Tanzania since before independence, told IRIN how his community has always had access to the highest levels of power in government. "Until recently, I could walk into every ministry or office without any problem; there was always somebody around educated through our schools," he said.

Aware of underlying religious tensions in the country, the Tanzanian government stepped in to try to avert the most recent demonstrations: an unusually rapid High Court decision overruled the Morogoro ruling and set Dibagula free; an urgent meeting between the Inspector General of Police Mahita and a group of Imams led to even Sheikh Juma Mbukuzi - considered quite a radical Muslim - to call for a postponement of the march.

Nevertheless, it went ahead, and Mbukuzi was condemned by more radical colleagues for allegedly betraying Muslims.

Splits within Tanzania's Muslim community are now in the open - between those derogatorily known as 'government Muslims' and represented by the largest organisation representing Muslims, BARAZA Kuu la Waislamu Tanzania (BAKWATA), among others; and other, mainly younger, 'firebrand Muslims'.

Analysts believe that certain [unnamed] groups are making use of discontent among Muslims in the country. Money from various foreign sources is easily available and new mosques are being built all over the country. According to some analysts, Muslim radicalism is on the rise in Tanzania, particularly on the semi-autonomous islands of Zanzibar.

One of those found guilty of involvement in the bombing of the US embassy in Tanzania in August 1998, reportedly masterminded by Usama bin Laden's 'Al-Qa'idah' terrorist movement, came from Pemba, the second largest of the islands on the Zanzibar archipelago.

The connections between Muslim-Christian tensions and political issues in Tanzania are also becoming clearer. One demonstrator on the Friday march was carrying a banner with the initials of the ruling party CCM (Chama Cha Mapinduzi), which was described as "Catholic Crusade Mission". Such a description was nothing new - it also appears on the radical Muslim website - but did indicate how Muslims perceive the CCM government as reflecting Christian rather than Muslim interests, according to political sources in Tanzania.

Such political-religious rivalry was reinforced by last October's alleged electoral fraud in Zanzibar, where the overwhelming majority of the population is Muslim. The opposition Civic United Front (CUF) has demanded fresh elections in Zanzibar, saying the October 2000 elections were neither free nor fair, just as it said of the so-called "stolen elections" of 1995. Yet the CUF itself was stigmatised by many CCM supporters during the election campaign as being "Muslim radicals", bent on introducing Shari'ah (Islamic law) to secular Tanzania.

At the weekend, President Benjamin Mkapa said the state of affairs where a group of Muslims was threatening to demonstrate and invade police stations to rescue their colleagues [arrested the previous week] was "becoming unbearable". They were forcing their government into a situation where it would have to use state organs to bring them in line so that respect for one another prevailed, he said.

In his monthly speech on national radio, Mkapa said the government was trying "to protect every citizen's rights, and to ensure that the law and constitution was being respected by every person." He said it was imperative that Tanzanians cultivated a spirit of trust, and called for "cooperation between all the communities in the country" as the only way to ensure tranquility in Tanzania.