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Muslims move into mainstream in Rwanda

By Heidi Kingstone - posted Tuesday, 28 August 2012

In one hundred days between April and July 1994, Rwanda turned into a slaughterhouse. In the ensuing genocide neighbour killed neighbour, doctors, nurses, priests and family aided and abetted the murder of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in churches, schools, homes and countryside. Of a population of eight million, it is estimated between 800,000 and one million people were killed in those three months as hatred and ethnic tensions were released.

In the lead up to the nightmare, national radio broadcasts incited hatred, using words of demonization and dehumanization. Extremists called for the annihilation of 'inyenzi', the Kinyarwandan (national language) word for cockroaches, an epithet often hurled at Tutsis. In the land of a 1000 hills, Radio Télévision Libre Mille Collines (RTLMC) was known as Hate Radio, its broadcasting acted 'like a drumbeat urging the killers on'.

Tensions had existed for generations in Rwanda but the shooting down of the plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira, the president of Burundi, on its approach to Kigali airport, brought it to a head. The person or groups responsible for this remain in dispute, but the event on April 6th was used as the pretext by Hutu extremists to commence murdering their fellow countrymen.


Some Rwandans helped saved Tutsis and moderate Hutus, At a time when the Christian Church was complicit in committing atrocities, a less visible group of people also tried to help.

One Friday in April 1994, the Muslim Council of Rwanda came together and decided that based on the tenets of Islam, their community should not participate in the liquidation. Mufti Sheikh Mugwiza Ahmad, the Mufti of Rwanda, the most respected Muslim leader in the country, issued a declaration instructing his community to help anyone who needed assistance.

"I told the people you must protect anyone who comes to your house and you must give them something to eat and drink," says Sheikh Ahmad, "because it is against Islam to kill."

In his film, Kinyarwanda, Forgiveness is Freedom, executive producer Ishmael Ntihabose interweaves six true stories of Rwandan survivors who were helped by the Muslim community. The film won the World Cinema Audience Award at Sundance in 2011.

After the Mufti's broadcast people began arriving in the Muslim area of Kigali. "I protected seven people in my own home," says Sheikh Ahmad. At this time the Grand Mosque and the Nyanza madrassa were closed. "Others did the same for the simple reason it was the right thing to do."

His large house in Kigali was on the main street near a bus station. With lots of annexes people could live quite freely. "They only went out in emergencies," says Sheikh Ahmad. According to the Mufti, strong young Tutsi men ringed the area, fiercely protecting it from roaming militia who threatened its inhabitants.


"When the genocide began," says Sheikh Saleh Habimana, Mufti of Rwanda from 2001-2011, "we thought why should we support this government that has done so much to harm us. The government had denied the Muslim community the right to education, and the right to move freely. Our community was ignorant. We felt hopeless," he adds, "we had no dreams. The Muslim community, which was comprised of a collection of intermarriages, helps explain our resistance."

Habimana attributes this defiance to several other factors. "In Rwanda we practise pure Islam. There is no fundamentalism, no terrorism. In the Holy Koran it says if you save one life, it is like saving the universe. If you kill one person, it is like killing everyone. The Holy Koran forbade us to partake," says Habimana.

The day I spoke to Sheikh Ahmad in June 2012, he had just received his right to remain in The Netherlands for five years. For the past two he has been living in a refuge camp. "At some point people started to say I was involved in the killing, but it is not true. I was accused in the gacaca court (the old fashioned, community based method of justice resurrected to enable people to live together) of killing some people and participating in the genocide," says Sheikh Ahmad. "In Holland, they say I didn't participate."

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About the Author

Heidi Kingstone is a Canadian freelance journalist living in the United Kingdom.

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All articles by Heidi Kingstone

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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