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.
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,
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.
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
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.
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
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.
contrast, many Muslim leaders and families are being honored
for protecting and hiding those who were fleeing.
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
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."
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."
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.
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."
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.
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."
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."
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 Islam.
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."
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.
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.
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."