The rising divide between Christians and Muslims in Tanzania

In early May, “an act of terrorism” disrupted the consecration of a church in Arusha. A bomb blast outside this Roman-Catholic church killed two and injured 30 people. Until today, it is not yet clear who carried out the attacks, although six people have been taken into custody, among them two Christians from Tanzania and four individuals from Saudi Arabia. During the past years, Tanzania has been passing through increased religious bigotry, although the country experienced for decades a high degree of toleration between the two main faith communities in this East African country.

Tanzania is a country of 45 million people with more than 120 ethnicities. The country is known for its peace and stability; any division on an ethnic basis is hardly known, they only have their “joking cousins.” Intermarriage on an ethnic or religious basis is common and highly practiced. Today, about half of Tanzanians are believed to be Christians and around a third of the population to be Muslim, although there are, purposefully, no official government figures. Tanzania is a secular state and people are free to follow their religion. Until today the majority of people of either faith have a good relationship with each other. And yet, the situation is deteriorating rapidly. Serious measures have to be taken to change course.

From the beginning there were hidden controversies between Christians and Muslims ever since the union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar was sealed in 1964, as I recently wrote in a blog post. Ever since sects from both denominations receive lots of money from abroad, tensions are rising. Instead of spreading the message of love and unity, something the founding father of the nation Mwalimu Julius Nyerere always stressed, seeds of hostility were sown among worshippers who gradually have started to get more divided for no valid reason.

During the past five years the situation has deteriorated between the two faith communities in Tanzania, particularly during the last year or so. On 21 September 2011, radical Muslims burnt three churches in Mwanza region because of claims that four Christians had burnt the Quran. In February 2013, a Catholic priest was shot dead and a church was set on fire on the Muslim-dominated archipelago of Zanzibar. Another priest was beheaded in Buseresere next to Lake Victoria during the same month. In March 2013, 52 followers of the controversial Muslim cleric Sheikh Ponda Issa Ponda were jailed for a year for violent riots where five churches were put on fire at the outskirts of Dar es Salaam in October 2012, sparked by reports that a 14-year-old Christian boy had urinated on the Quran. In April 2013, police fired tear gas to disperse about 200 Christian rioters in the far south of Tanzania. They attempted to torch a mosque over an argument over who should be allowed to slaughter animals. And in early May this bomb blast happened in Arusha.

While it seems that most of the violence is coming from the Muslim side, it is also claims that the Muslims are suppressed by the Christian majority. Therefore, questions are raised why government offices closes on Sunday while Fridays are not equally recognized by the government. Another issues are schools, as private schools are doing much better than the public schools. However the private schools achieve much better results, particularly the Catholic schools, a relic from colonial times. While Muslims children usually are allowed to attend these Catholic schools, these schools more or less openly attempt to proselytize these kids. Therefore an unfair advantage is given to the Christian population. However, Christians would argue that Muslims send their children to the madrasa learning about the Quran instead of how to write, read and calculate in a young age.

What has really sparked the attention of Tanzanians during the past two years or so is the supposedly really minor issue of who is supposed to slaughter animals. In quite some villages that I have visited in Kilimanjaro Region, I have heard many complaints that only Muslims are allowed to slaughter and that Christians would not be allowed to keep pigs. This on-going heated public debate about who and how to slaughter animals for human consumption is taking Tanzanians towards the edge of the cliff.

Certainly, this discussion seems to be led by emotions instead of rational arguments. Traditionally, Muslims took care of slaughtering animals in Tanzania. Since decades, slaughtering of the animals was being carried out in the Islamic method which involves instantaneous killing by cutting the main large blood vessel in the throat area. In fact, the meat business was basically a monopoly of Muslims in Tanzania. However, Christians now try to enter the butcher business which is not well received among Muslims. Despite government efforts and public statements from religious leaders in the country, on the local level these messages hardly seem to appear at all.

President Jakaya Kikwete, who is a Muslim himself, stresses that he does not favor either side in Tanzania but he is the president of all Tanzanians. However, tensions got to the point that the President’s Office issued in February 2013 that the task of slaughtering animals for public consumption should be executed only by Muslims. Also, people of other faiths may slaughter animals if the meat is solely for family or private consumption but certainly not for sale to, or consumption by, the general public. Such statements make many Christians believe that the president is not taking decisive action and that the president supports his fellow Muslims.

As this blog post from “Muslims in Africa” points out, there are three questions to ask about the debate who and how to slaughter animals:
1) Is this conflict around Muslim fears of mistakenly eating non-halal meat?
2) Do Muslims attack and kill non-Muslims for being business competitors?
3) Is this controversy rather about the dire economic situation in the country?

Cleary, to me the first two questions hold some water, but it is the third question that is the most important reason why Tanzanians increasingly face “religious violence.” As all too often, religion is just used as a tool but other underlying reasons are behind it, particularly socio-economic discontent. Tanzania has experienced a decade of strong economic growth. And yet, the benefits have not trickled down to the big majority of the people who remain stuck in poverty, unemployment and have to find strategies every day of survival. Thus, the discontent is rather based on economic reasons more than anything else.

Hopefully, Tanzanians re-claim their country that has decades of experiencing peace and security since independence. Of course many injustices happened as well, against individuals, groups and on a structural level. And yet Tanzania is just so much better off than the religious divide that happens in Nigeria or the ethnic divide that is haunting Kenya and many other neighboring countries in the region. Now, it is time that existing forums of inter-faith dialogue reach out to the local level. And this year’s “Uhuru Torch” motto already includes an important outreach to the wananchi (citizens) of Tanzania: “Tanzanians are one, we should not be divided by our religious creeds, colour, or political inclinations.” Now, this motto has to be translated by the local governments and each and every priest, pastor or imam to their faith communities.

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One thought on “The rising divide between Christians and Muslims in Tanzania

  1. Thank you Johannes for writing on the riots past in Tanzania between Muslims and Christians. Nevertheless no longer conflict exist actively as all Muslims and Christians can sit and exchange their matters together peacefully.

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