Zanzibar's Mufti

A move to legalize the post of the mufti, a supreme Islamic leader, met with controversy on the island of Zanzibar in late October, as two members of the island’s Islamic clergy found themselves in police custody after threatening to hold demonstrations over the appointment.

The sheiks (as members of the clergy are called in Zanzibar) “contend that, since Tanzania is a secular state, the Zanzibar government should not meddle in religious matters,” wrote Faustine Rwambali in Nairobi’s weekly The East African (Oct. 29-Nov. 4).

They also wanted control over the choice of mufti, whereas the Tanzanian government wanted the island’s community to forward a number of names for the post.

“A section of Muslims are against the bill that they say is aimed at oppressing them in the face of what is globally misconstrued as the war between the West and Muslims,” read a story in Dar es Salaam’s Nipashe (Oct. 27).

Unlike mainland Tanzania, whose population is divided between Christians and Muslims, Zanzibar is 96-percent Muslim, and the leading clergy clearly felt uneasy about an alliance with the mainland government. Government representatives, however, argued that they were merely seeking to legalize a position that has existed in an administrative capacity for the past eight years.

“We do not intend to control Muslims,” Zanzibar Attorney General Iddi Pandu Hassan told The East African. “We suspect the current conflict is being fueled by politicians.”

The Tanzanian government, which suffered a public-relations blow last January after police killed 23 protesters at a post-election rally, moved quickly to avert demonstrations that, “given the charged international situation...had the potential to turn violent,” according to The East African.

The arrested clergy members agreed to take their case to court rather than protesting but told their followers that they would organize demonstrations if they lost the case. Though the threatened demonstrations did not take place, the arrest of the two sheiks and the evident pressure brought to bear on them left a bad taste in some commentators’ mouths.

“If...all the Zanzibar government is trying to to give ‘legal force’ to the office of the mufti...then it should use public forums and the voice of reason to explain its position and calm Muslim fears,” read an editorial in The East African.

“Arresting...religious leaders and hinting darkly at a replay of the January certainly not the way to win hearts and minds.”