Muslims against the Rwandan genocide

No-one has the right to kill!

As genocidal violence broke out against the Tutsis in Rwanda back in 1994, it appeared no-one was safe. But one small religious minority refused to take part: Rwandan Muslims. They mounted peaceful resistance to the horrors, saving many innocent lives in the process. By Markus Weingardt

When, on 6 April 1994, the immediate response to the death of the Rwandan President in a plane crash allegedly caused by the Tutsis  turned out to be a nationwide killing spree, one thing was clear: the genocide had been planned meticulously and well in advance by a small power clique within the state apparatus. Their goal was the complete annihilation of all Tutsis and opposition Hutus. Militias with guns and machetes combed the entire country. People murdered their long-time neighbours. Family members betrayed one another and churches full of refugees were set on fire.

The atrocities were only brought to an end by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (FPR), the armed wing of the ruling political party, which eventually took control of the capital Kigali. Only then did the full extent of the horror become apparent: in just 100 days, from 6 April to 15 July 1994, while the world looked on, between 800,000 and one million people had been brutally murdered, with many more fleeing to neighbouring countries.

The resistance of Rwandan Muslims

Amidst this climate of hatred and violence, amidst a war that was being waged between neighbours, former friends and even within families, only a few people took a stand against the regime propaganda. The Rwandan Muslims were the only section of the population to almost collectively rejected the messages of hatred and incitement to violence. They made up 5-10 percent of the population (both Hutu and Tutsi) in the otherwise nominally most Christian of all African states.

Muslim scholars and religious leaders were quick to spot the looming danger and sensitised the faithful in their communities. Using their own classroom programmes, teachers instructed their pupils not to be ensnared by the violence propaganda.

Skulls and mortal remains dating from the Rwandan genocide in 1994 (photo: Getty Images)
Incalculable horror: within the space of just 100 days, the UN estimates that between 800,000 and one million people were brutally murdered in Ruanda in 1994. The rest of the world preferred to stand idly by. The Rwandan genocide is one of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century

Drawing from the Koran, they taught that ethnicity should not divide, but that all people are equal and no-one has the right to kill another person. In prayer services, flyers and via other media, clerics reminded their followers that it was the duty of each and every Muslim to help all victims and not allow their views to be polarised and therefore also not to join political parties.

In a "pastoral letter" sent to all the mosques in the land, religious leaders called on their followers to reject any ideology not consistent with the Koran. Speaking on the radio, they warned the entire nation that hard times were imminent and called on people to observe peaceful values.

They based their rejection of the hate propaganda on values derived directly from the Koran. Their key message was that these values stood in total contrast to the ideology of the Hutu militias: they regarded killing as a sin against God and instead called for non-violence, protection of the weak and help for the needy, regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation.

Against hatred and violence

Encouraged by the consistent stance of their religious leaders, Muslim communities also positioned themselves against hatred and violence. As well as the refusal of Muslim Hutus to take part in the murders or to meet violence with violence of their own, many also put up active, but always peaceful resistance: the persecuted were sheltered in their homes and mosques without fear of betrayal. Muslims hid Tutsis within their communities, provided them with food and even physically put themselves between the killing gangs and their victims, which sometimes cost them their lives.

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