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Interreligious living in Zanzibar: ‘Our common humanity is the starting point for any conversation’

Article by Anjum Anwar MBE, exChange and Dialogue Development Officer for Blackburn Cathedral. In January 2015, Anjum visited Zanzibar Tanzania, with the Revd Canon Chris Chivers, Us Chair of Trustees, to research an interreligious living project being developed by Us.

Zanzibar, is a small island off the coast of Tanzania with a population which is said to be made up, of Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Bahia's and other minority faiths.

I, a Muslim woman, and my colleague, Canon Chris Chivers, an Anglican Christian, were privileged to travel to Zanzibar with the help of Us.

Anjum Anwar
Anjum Anwar

 Our aim was to tease out some of the challenges facing Christian communities in Zanzibar, which is part of Tanzania though many in Zanzibar, including its own government, see Zanzibar as separate to mainland Tanzania.

We conducted our research through dialogues/workshops and one-to-one conversations in formal and informal settings.

We also wanted to find out what resources the Christian and Muslim communities have at their disposal to help resolve their own issues. And – as a Muslim and a Christian who have been working on interreligious dialogue for ten years in Blackburn – what could we do to help to resource the citizens of Zanzibar? And what could we learn to bring back to the UK to further enhance our own community cohesion work?

Difficult to tell Christians and Muslims apart

We stayed at the Anglican Cathedral in Stone Town, an old slave town in Zanzibar. The fusion of Islam and Christianity – religion and culture – was an amazing sight. It was extremely difficult to say ‘who was who’, as most men and women wore headgear (perhaps for protection because of the hot weather).

Interreligious living in Zanzibar
Teacher in traditional headscarf

 Our confusion was clarified during a conversation with 20 or so young people from the local university. All except one was Christian, but all the female students had been advised to wear headscarves for their own protection by their Muslim tutors. The university management did not want Christian students to stand out as easy targets for extremists. We also noted that an Caucasian Christian we met in the cathedral wore the hat worn by Muslims, and we were told he wore for it ‘security reasons’.

We wanted to know how young Christian students from the mainland, and other parts of Africa, were adjusting to life in Zanzibar.

One of the students was a Muslim who had become a Christian but retained his Muslim name and wore a cross round his neck. He told us he still lived with his family when he goes home during the holidays and it was not an issue as most families have members who belong to both the Christian and Muslim faith. While he became a Christian, he continued to respect Islamic values, his parents and other members of the family, and there was no conflict among them.

The difficulties created by tourism

Why has this changed? Or what has caused the change? What are the causes of ‘friction’ between two communities who used to live together in peace?

Religion was not cited as the cause of conflict. Rather, the blame was put on tourism and all that it brings with it, such as more liberal values, alcohol, drugs and different dress codes.

One morning while observing my colleague Canon Chivers deliver a sermon in the cathedral, I was sitting next to two women, totally covered like me from head to toe; it was difficult to ascertain who was not a Muslim! As the service was about to begin, in walked two young women, tourists no doubt, in ‘hassle-free attire’ that was in total contradiction to the cathedral setting. The two women next to me were upset at how little the tourists were covering their bodies and, unsurprisingly, we saw the vergers asked them to leave.

I spoke to a young man who is a Christian and lives just outside the old town. He told me that tourism was good for business, but he feels things are changing: culture is changing and tensions between Christians and Muslims have gone beyond dialogue and become violent. I asked him what he thought causes such frictions. He thought tourism was uprooting certain cultural and religious values.

Violence on both sides

There has been violence against both communities. Just outside the cathedral there was bombing, and Muslims who have spoken out against such violence have also been attacked.

One such Muslim who spoke out against extremist behaviour paid a heavy price. I interviewed Sheikh Fadhil Soraga, who had acid thrown in his face in 2013 for saying that Islam is a religion of peace and does not support violence.

Sheikh Soraga’s concern is that many young men are going abroad to study Islam, then returning as ‘experts’ after only a couple of years.

Concluding observations

In conclusion, from the conversation we had, it seems that Christians and Muslims in Zanzibar need to do the following:

During our time in Zanzibar, Chris and I heard members of both Christian and Muslim communities saying that ‘just talking’ helps.

We have heard this on many occasions. Instead of telling people what to do, it is always better to get them to speak about their own issues and then unpick their own resources to help resolve problems.

We believe we have left Zanzibar with more questions than answers, but within those questions lie solutions.

Tensions between the two religious groups have many explanations. One is that both groups are desperately trying to hold on to their religion in the face of aggressive secularisation, and sometimes clashes happen because of religious illiteracy of their own and the other’s faith. The solution lies in more religious literacy, but who will lead on this? We must be careful because those with an undesirable agenda will see opportunities to divide and rule.

Zanzibar’s ethnic problems, which have taken on a religious colouring, have much to do with labour inequalities. Christians feel they are not given the same opportunities as their Muslim counterparts. How far this is true cannot be ascertained without further research.

What we all have in common

On my last day, the young man who had taken me to meet his sister, said: ‘Please come back again.’ I felt a bond with this young man and I called it humanity. Our colour, religion, economic status, backgrounds, age and gender did not matter. We are both human, and this common ground is the starting point for any conversation.

Only when we are comfortable with each other can we start to ask the more difficult questions.



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