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.

Some set up road blocks to hamper the militias' advance, or infiltrated the death squads to discover their plans, so that refugees could be warned in good time and taken to safe areas. Others saved Tutsis from drowning or staged "sham massacres" and "sham burials" to fool the Hutu militias and hasten their withdrawal.

Former Rwandan President Pasteur Bizimungu (photo: Reuters)
During his lifetime, Pasteur Bizimungu, former president of Rwanda, took a stand against the excesses of the Hutu majority in his country and was regarded as a symbol of the reconciliation process. At the swearing-in of the first Muslim minister to join the cabinet, he had a request for his country's Muslim community: "Teach other Rwandans how to live together!"

Of course, all this occurred under the greatest threat of death. Both the public resistance of religious leaders and the direct action of communities and individuals involved a huge risk and required immense courage and resolve.

Tradition of non-violent resistance

The exemplary conduct of Rwandan Muslims can be partly explained by their own history. Since Islam was brought to Rwanda in the 19th century by Indian and Arab merchants, its followers have been members of a marginalised minority. During colonial rule, which was closely associated with Christian churches, they were perceived as a threat and banished to isolated settlements.

After independence too, both the government and the predominantly Christian population ostracised Muslims and branded them as foreigners. They were regarded as not belonging to any of the main ethnic groups – Hutu, Tutsi or Twa – but perceived as a fourth, foreign group.

Dr. Markus A. Weingardt (photo: private)
Dr. Markus A. Weingardt is an expert in political and administrative sciences. He conducts peace research with a religious focus at the Weltethos Foundation in Tubingen, Germany and is currently head of its peace division. He is also one of the founder members of the German research association Religion and Konflikt. Published works include "Religion Macht Frieden" (2010) and "Was Frieden schafft" (2014)

The non-violent resistance of the Muslim community to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda is linked to this experience: widespread social marginalisation has served to strengthen its coherence. Additionally, shared religious rituals promote a sense of community (e.g. through daily prayers together or breaking the fast together during Ramadan).

Their own experience of discrimination meant they could identify with the persecuted Tutsis. Belief in religiously-founded values such as non-violence and inter-ethnic neighbourly solidarity was (also) deeply rooted in their own interests. This faith forbade killing and demanded protection of the weak.

"Teach other Rwandans how to live together!"

Broad political marginalisation also meant Muslims maintained no links to political parties. This gave the Muslims – in contrast to the Christian churches – sufficient distance to be able to correctly gauge the development of politics and propaganda in a timely fashion; moreover, there was nothing to be gained through participation in the genocide.

Impeded access to public schools meant that children and young people were less exposed to inflammatory Hutu, or more specifically, government propaganda; on the contrary, many Muslim schools were able to conduct awareness programmes aimed at sensitising pupils to the dangers of hatred and violence.

There were isolated cases of Muslims who turned away from their communities and took part in the killing. Nevertheless many people – Tutsis and opposition Hutus, Muslims and Christians – where saved due to the intervention of Muslims, as confirmed by the official report by UN special investigator Christian P. Scherrer.

To this day, not a single Islamic cleric has been charged with assisting the genocide. Instead, at the swearing-in of the first Muslim minister to join the cabinet, the nation's former president Pasteur Bizimungu had a request for his country's Muslim community: "Teach other Rwandans how to live together!"

Markus Weingardt

© 2017

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

More on this topic