Islam Attracting Many Survivors of Rwanda Genocide

Jihad Is Taught as 'Struggle to Heal' 

By Emily Wax

Washington Foreign Post Service

Monday, September 23, 2002; Page A10

RUHENGERI, Rwanda -- The villagers with their forest

green head wraps and forest green Korans arrived at

the mosque on a rainy Sunday afternoon for a lecture

for new converts. There was one main topic: jihad.

They found their seats and flipped to the right page.

Hands flew in the air. People read passages aloud. And

the word jihad -- holy struggle -- echoed again and

again through the dark, leaky room.

It wasn't the kind of jihad that has been in the news

since Sept. 11, 2001. There were no references to

Osama bin Laden, the World Trade Center or suicide

bombers. Instead there was only talk of April 6, 1994,

the first day of the state-sponsored genocide in which

ethnic Hutu extremists killed 800,000 minority Tutsis

and Hutu moderates.

"We have our own jihad, and that is our war against

ignorance between Hutu and Tutsi. It is our struggle

to heal," said Saleh Habimana, the head mufti of

Rwanda. "Our jihad is to start respecting each other

and living as Rwandans and as Muslims." 

Since the genocide, Rwandans have converted to Islam

in huge numbers. Muslims now make up 14 percent of the

8.2 million people here in Africa's most Catholic

nation, twice as many as before the killings began.

Many converts say they chose Islam because of the role

that some Catholic and Protestant leaders played in

the genocide. Human rights groups have documented

several incidents in which Christian clerics allowed

Tutsis to seek refuge in churches, then surrendered

them to Hutu death squads, as well as instances of

Hutu priests and ministers encouraging their

congregations to kill Tutsis. Today some churches

serve as memorials to the many people slaughtered

among their pews.

Four clergymen are facing genocide charges at the

U.N.-created International Criminal Tribunal for

Rwanda, and last year in Belgium, the former colonial

power, two Rwandan nuns were convicted of murder for

their roles in the massacre of 7,000 Tutsis who sought

protection at a Benedictine convent.

In contrast, many Muslim leaders and families are

being honored for protecting and hiding those who were


Some say Muslims did this because of the religion's

strong dictates against murder, though Christian

doctrine proscribes it as well. Others say Muslims,

always considered an ostracized minority, were not

swept up in the Hutus' campaign of bloodshed and were

unafraid of supporting a cause they felt was


"I know people in America think Muslims are

terrorists, but for Rwandans they were our freedom

fighters during the genocide," said Jean Pierre

Sagahutu, 37, a Tutsi who converted to Islam from

Catholicism after his father and nine other members of

his family were slaughtered. "I wanted to hide in a

church, but that was the worst place to go. Instead, a

Muslim family took me. They saved my life."

Sagahutu said his father had worked at a hospital

where he was friendly with a Muslim family. They took

Sagahutu in, even though they were Hutus. "I watched

them pray five times a day. I ate with them and I saw

how they lived," he said. "When they pray, Hutu and

Tutsi are in the same mosque. There is no difference.

I needed to see that."

Islam has long been a religion of the downtrodden. In

the Middle East and South Asia, the religion has had a

strong focus on outreach to the poor and tackling

social ills by banning alcohol and encouraging sexual

modesty. In the United States, Malcolm X used a form

of Islam to encourage economic and racial empowerment

among blacks. 

Muslim leaders say they have a natural constituency in

Rwanda, where AIDS and poverty have replaced genocide

as the most daunting problems. "Islam fits into the

fabric of our society. It helps those who are in

poverty. It preaches against behaviors that create

AIDS. It offers education in the Koran and Arabic when

there is not a lot of education being offered," said

Habimana, the chief mufti. "I think people can relate

to Islam. They are converting as a sign of

appreciation to the Muslim community who sheltered

them during the genocide."

While Western governments worry that the growth of

Islam carries with it the danger of militancy, there

are few signs of militant Islam in Rwanda.

Nevertheless, some government officials quietly

express concern that some of the mosques receive

funding from Saudi Arabia, whose dominant Wahhabi sect

has been embraced by militant groups in other parts of

the world. They also worry that high poverty rates and

a traumatized population make Rwanda the perfect

breeding ground for Islamic extremism. 

But Nish Imiyimana, an imam here in Ruhengeri, about

45 miles northwest of Kigali, the capital, contends:

"We have enough of our own problems. We don't want a

bomb dropped on us by America. We want American NGOs

[nongovernmental organizations] to come and build us

hospitals instead."

Imams across the country held meetings after Sept. 11,

2001, to clarify what it means to be a Muslim. "I told

everyone, 'Islam means peace,' " said Imiyimana,

recalling that the mosque was packed that day.

"Considering our track record, it wasn't hard to

convince them."

That fact worries the Catholic church. Priests here

said they have asked for advice from church leaders in

Rome about how to react to the number of converts to


"The Catholic church has a problem after genocide,"

said the Rev. Jean Bosco Ntagugire, who works at

Kigali churches. "The trust has been broken. We can't

say, 'Christians come back.' We have to hope that

happens when faith builds again."

To help make that happen, the Catholic church has

started to offer youth sports programs and camping

trips, Ntagugire said. But Muslims are also reaching

out, even forming women's groups that provide classes

on child care and being a mother.

At a recent class here, hundreds of women dressed in

red, orange and purple head coverings gathered in a

dark clay building. They talked about their personal

struggle, or jihad, to raise their children well. And

afterward, during a lunch of beans and chicken legs,

they ate heartily and shared stories about how Muslims

saved them during the genocide.

"If it weren't for the Muslims, my whole family would

be dead," said Aisha Uwimbabazi, 27, a convert and

mother of two children. "I was very, very thankful for

Muslim people during the genocide. I thought about it

and I really felt it was right to change."

 2002 The Washington Post Company 


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