Translator: Fatıma Nur Dinçer
Many of us have probably heard about Hotel Rwanda, a film that takes on the subject of Paul Rusesabagina saving the lives of many during the Rwanda genocide. Yet today the Rwanda genocide, which rose due to the ethnic conflicts between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes, is more so mentioned with the sacrifices given by those who are striving to prevent any further bloodshed. Rwandan Muslims are also included in the names of those brave warriors at the backstage of this tragic situation.
The History of Islam in Rwanda
Before going into the subject matter at hand, let us briefly take a look at how Islam came to this land. Islam had come to Rwanda through a variety of different occasions such as the travel of Arab merchants to the country, the army personnel who accompanied the Germans as cooks or translators in the 1900’s and finally the South Asian merchants who married Rwandans.
The deeply rooted Catholic tradition in the colonial past of the country always proved to be a barrier for Islam to spread, and it is not hard to guess why. According to the Belgians, who colonized the land, the political side of the Quran posed a threat to the existing system and order. Officials were worried that Islam would open the gateway to a course of the Rwandans questioning the colonial regime, and for this reason, Muslim communities were politically, socially, and economically marginalized. An example of this would be the scheme of naming army personnel as ‘’Swahili’’ and posting them in certain villages in order to separate them and prevent any possible contact with Arab Muslims. As a result of having little to no political representation and identity, Muslims in Rwanda were largely affected by the ethical enmity and hate propaganda between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes.
The Role of Muslims
It was during this period that Imams and Islamic leaders took a stand. These opinion leaders who tried to objectively evaluate their political climate signed off many great works. An example of this would be the signing of the agreement by the Rwanda Muslim Community in leadership with the Rwanda Mufti, which condemned all forms of violence against the Tutsi. Alongside this Imams had started to give messages of peace and tolerance in mosques in hope of settling tensions between the two tribes. Imams would constantly remind their congregation that their Muslim identity always came first and that they should base identity upon religion and not ethnic background.
Despite all these efforts, the situation escalated in Rwanda and got out of hand, even then Muslims strived towards finding the middle group, they refused to join in on any of the murders or killings. Alongside this, refugees who came to Muslim neighborhoods were taken under the protection of Muslims, hence showing that they were on the side of those oppressed. Mosques were open for those who sought refuge and similarly for those who were wounded. The approach which Muslims took during these troubling times led many to revert to Islam and become Muslims.
The Ripening of Islam
Jean Pierre Sagahutu was one of the many who reverted to Islam during the Rwanda genocide, and he mentions:
“I KNow that Americans view Muslims as being terrorists, however Muslims were our warriors of freedom during the Rwanda genocide here.”
Thousands followed Sagahutu and choose the same path, to enter Islam. Is it estimated that Muslims now make up 4%-15% of the population, showing a clear increase when compared to the 2% Muslim population before.
Today, Eid ul Fitr is accepted as one of the four religious holidays in Rwanda. Muslims, to this day, play a front-line role in the efforts to end the ongoing ethical conflicts. Muslims strive in this cause as Islam teaches that superiority is only achievable with piousness. We remember, with gratitude and praise, the Rwandan Muslims who were able to do more than just pray for peace and actually take a stand while also achieving great, exemplary work to the world.
This article was originally written in Turkish. Click to read it! Ruanda’nın Müslüman Kahramanları