A Discussion with Sheikh Saleh Habimana, Head Mufti of the Islamic Community of Rwanda

With: Saleh Habimana Berkley Center Profile

May 25, 2009

Background: As part of the Peacebuilding Practitioners Interview Series, Jason Klocek interviewed Sheikh Saleh Habimana, who has served as the head mufti of Rwanda since 2001. In this interview, Sheikh Habimana shares information about the Islamic community's involvement in working toward reconciliation in Rwanda. He also discusses the historical relationship between the Christian and Muslim communities.
Sheikh Habimana, can you please begin by telling me about the Islamic community in Rwanda?

There is some disagreement about whether Muslims first arrived in 1894 or 1896, but either way, Muslims have been present here for over 100 years. Before World War II, Muslims had very good relations with the Germans, who at that time controlled the region. In 1913, the first mosque was built in Rwanda, and this upset many of the Christians because there was still no official church built. So after the mosque was finished, Sainte Famille, the first church in Rwanda, was built as a sort of retaliation.

Was there much tension between Christians and Muslims at that time?

You have to understand that the arrival of Islam to Rwanda was not accompanied by strong proselytization. The arrival of Islam to Rwanda does not equal the propagation of Islam. The Muslims who first came to Rwanda were traders and not particularly interested in spreading Islam in the region. However, these Muslim traders were not married; they left behind families and traveled far to get here. They were very concerned with avoiding the sins of fornication, so one of the first things these traders did upon their arrival was seek marriage. And as there were no Muslim women, these traders married local women—very often Tutsi women.

Over time other Rwandans came to see that Muslims lived very good lives. They were very attentive to good living habits—eating and dressing well, etc. This impressed locals, especially the families of those women these Muslim traders married. These families then were interested in Islam and many converted. So you can say that one way in which Islam was propagated in Rwanda was through good behavior. Muslims set an example for their brothers and sisters to follow, and this attracted many people to our faith.

At the same time, Muslims also enjoyed a closeness with the German army and authorities in the country. This was especially due to the fact that Muslims could communicate with the local population since they had married into their families and learned the language. This meant that they could translate for the German officials.

And how were relations between Muslims and the local population?

Muslims also enjoyed close relationships with the Rwandan monarchy of that time. As a result of their good living habits and closeness with the colonial rulers, Muslims enjoyed an elevated place in Rwandan society. As such, they eventually began to marry into the Rwandan elite, even into the family of the monarchy. You might even say Muslims were a type of “super-class” in those days.

Did this elevated social position last?

No. After World War I when control of Rwanda was taken away from the Germans and given to the Belgians, the status of Muslims changed, just like that of the Tutsis. The Belgians did not like either group and saw both groups as closely linked. Both groups were labeled "anti-Christs." As a result, the Islamic community suffered greatly under Belgian rule. Starting in 1925 proper education, ownership of land, and jobs were denied to Muslims. Muslims were even denied the right to move freely around the country, requiring written permission to visit their families if they did not live nearby or to have those family members visit them. Really from 1925 until 1994 the Muslims were second-class citizens in Rwanda.

Can you please talk about the role of the Islamic community during the 1994 genocide?

First, you have to remember that Muslims represent one of the only—perhaps the only—truly integrated community in Rwanda. What do I mean by this? I mean that most mothers of Muslims are Tutsis, and most fathers of Muslims are Hutus—let’s say something like 80 percent on each side. And while many Muslims share the appearance of Tutsis, we are really a mixed community. We are a community built by intermarriage.

Since Muslims suffered much as the Tutsis did from 1925 on, and especially from 1959 on, we felt a friendship with them. We lived in the same places as them, the same towns, and realized that genocide was never productive, never the answer. So even in the lesser genocides and periods of violence before 1994, Muslims never participated or facilitated such killings. And, of course, in the 1994 genocide, we were not involved in any of the killings. In fact, many, many Muslims helped to hide and protect Tutsis during that time.

Was this not a dangerous task? Many people who tried to hide Tutsis, even moderate Hutus, were killed for such actions, were they not?

This is sadly true, but we Muslims had an advantage. You see, for many years Hutus had been taught to fear Muslims. They were scared of our mosques, so we could hide Tutsis there without fear of Hutus entering. Hutus had been taught that our mosques were houses of the devil. They were taught that the devil lived in Muslim homes, too. It went even further. It was also believed by many Hutus that if you shook the hand of a Muslim something bad would happen to you, maybe get sick, because Muslims were dirty people. So for all these reasons, Hutu militias were afraid of Muslims and left us alone for the most part.

It has been said that there were many conversions to Islam in the years immediately after the genocide. Is there any truth to that?

There is some. The number of Rwandan Muslims did increase after the genocide. This was for two main reasons. First, people, in particular Tutsis, felt protected in our communities. They saw that we had protected them and knew that they would be safe. This was one major reason why people converted after the genocide. Second, many people converted as a type of purification. Muslims did not kill during the genocide; we did not have blood on our hands. So, converting to Islam for some was a way of purifying oneself.

Can you talk about how the Islamic community thinks about reconciliation in Rwanda? Do you have a vision as a community of what reconciliation looks like?

We have a very positive view of reconciliation. We know there is much pain in the hearts of many people in Rwanda and that the process will take time. We know that in many ways, reconciliation in Rwanda is asking people to forgive the unforgivable. But we are confident in the future of Rwanda.

In what ways has the Islamic community participated in the reconciliation process?

In many ways we have an upper hand when it comes to unity and reconciliation. As Muslims, we can say that there is no blood on our hands; we didn’t kill. In fact, we can say that we saved many lives. So, many people can trust us in ways they may still not be able to trust other communities.

With that said, it is important to point out that as a community, we Muslims do not place blame on any one person or group. We are all responsible in some way for what happened. Also, I would like to say that it was not the churches that failed during the genocide; rather, it was churchgoers. The teaching of the churches has always been to protect life, but some people did not respect this teaching during the genocide. So, people must accept their complicity and responsibility as individuals. At the same time, we must remember that God hates sins, but not sinners. He loves all of us. This is our challenge then when facing people who killed or committed other acts of violence during the genocide—to hate their sins, but not them as fellow human beings.

Can you please talk about the Islamic community’s involvement in interfaith work?

We have been involved in interfaith work since almost right after the genocide, but the biggest efforts have been over the last 11 years. There is, you know, the Interfaith Commission of Rwanda headed by Archbishop Emmanuel Kolini, the Anglican archbishop. I am the second person in charge of this commission. We launched this initiative in 2003. The work of this commission has dealt mainly with bringing together survivors of the genocide, victims’ families, and released prisoners.

We believe that faith is tangible action, so our commission focuses on what we can do for Rwandans today. We have focused on three main areas. First, we have tried to provide shelters for those persons affected by the genocide that lost their homes and families. Many people had no place to live, no one to turn to. So we have tried to support them by providing the basic need for shelter.

Second, we have focused much on the need to address poverty in Rwanda. We run programs that challenge survivors of the genocide, victims’ families, and released prisoners to work together on a project so as to earn some income. Of course, we run first workshops and seminars that help each group come to terms with what they experienced. But when they feel ready to begin to move on and face one another, we provide opportunities. For example, we may help buy some cows to be shared by both a group of survivors, victims’ families, and released prisoners. These people learn to work together, to care together for this animal. And they see that by working together the cows stay healthy and provide milk for both their use and perhaps even extra to sell. We have also done this with machines that may be needed for farming. Again, the community must work together. Of course, just bringing these people together in the first place is a part of reconciliation.

Third, the Interfaith Commission of Rwanda supports the education for the prevention of HIV/AIDS, as well as provides support for those living with the disease. This may include providing medical treatment and medications for those who don’t have access or can’t afford such things, as well as trauma counseling for those who were raped. You must remember that mass rape was one of the tools of genocide. Many of the women who were raped have been left with psychological trauma. And also, many of the rapists have guilt for what they did and need to be helped.

Finally, I would like to add that just this year, March 2009, we had a major summit in which religious leaders from across faith traditions came together to share their experiences working for reconciliation. This was a wonderful opportunity to see what lessons we can learn from one another and plan together for the future of Rwanda.

What kind of reconciliation programs do you have specifically in the Islamic community?

We are particularly focused on our youth. One of the underlying causes to the genocide was the fact that a genocide ideology was taught in schools. Ideas of ethnic divisions were taught. We now know this to be the case as it is even in a report of our Parliament on the causes of the genocide. So, we focus very much on teaching our Muslim youth about respect for everyone. We are after all a mixed people, as I said before. Not only a mix of Hutus and Tutsis, but many of Muslim children’s fathers come from neighboring countries—Uganda, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, etc.—and most mothers are Rwandan. So our community very much understands the need to respect everyone and live together peacefully.

Also, reconciliation efforts today have been an opportunity for our Islamic community to come to live closer with non-Muslims in Rwanda. We were once seen as second-class citizens, but today we work together. You know I consider Archbishop Kolini a very close friend. We work together; sometimes eat together. This friendship is a result of being put together, in a sense, as partners in reconciliation efforts.

We as an Islamic community have also been very fortunate to benefit from international funding, from Muslim and non-Muslim communities. In particular, we now have new secondary schools teaching 1,000 students thanks to a grant from the American embassy. And recently we received another large grant from the German embassy to provide training for women in our community, focused on literacy and professional development skills.

To what extent do reconciliation efforts led by both the Islamic community and interfaith projects collaborate with government efforts?

In Africa, the government is everything. Reconciliation in Rwanda depends very much on the government. We are, after all, asking people to forgive the unforgivable. And it is a very slow process. How do you motivate perpetrators to come forward and confess, or tell victims to forgive? So I would say in a very real sense that the reconciliation effort is the government’s baby.

It is good to have the authority of the government behind these efforts so we can say never again. You know, there are still some who have hatred, who would try and finish what they started if they had the chance. But, these people cannot oppose the will of the government. They know they will immediately go to prison.

I was recently watching the troubles your president, Barack Obama, is having in closing the Guantanamo Bay prison. People oppose his decision, and this isn’t such a bad thing, maybe. But in Africa, here in Rwanda, the government carries much weight. And our Rwandan leaders say we will move forward; we will not be afraid; we will face our challenges and make a peaceful Rwanda.

What do you see as the role for the international community in reconciliation efforts?

We need the international community. But immediately after the genocide there was much resentment towards those countries that did not help us in our hour of need. We have begun to own our conflict now, and I think the best thing the international community can do is to support our government, our current leaders. People in other countries do not truly know what happened here; many have never experienced such a thing, so they must be patient with our leaders and never underestimate the difficult job they have, the torture our leadership goes through in their hearts as they work for a peaceful Rwanda.

Finally, what do you see as the biggest challenges to reconciliation in Rwanda today?

First, there is the issue of exiles—those who fled Rwanda after the genocide. They do have a right to return, but they must give up their desire for violence. They must become part of the reconciliation effort, not remain opposed to it.

Second, the survivors of the genocide still have many needs. Many genocide survivors have a very low quality of life. Poverty is a big problem. This needs to be addressed if we are to have lasting peace in Rwanda.

Sheikh Habimana, thank you very much for your time today.
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