Little is black and white about Islam


This week is the first anniversary of the terrorist attack on the upmarket Westgate Mall in Nairobi.

On September 21 last year, gunmen belonging to the Somalia militant group al-Shabab attacked the mall, and by the time the siege ended on September 24, there were 67 people dead – including four terrorists – and over 175 people were injured.

CNN is next week scheduled to broadcast the HBO documentary on the attack, Terror at the Mall. Many parts of the documentary make for very uncomfortable viewing, and some of the survivors – including a brave policeman who was one of the first rescuers and who was wounded – raise the issue of Islam and terrorism.

The policeman, himself a Muslim, makes the point that those who kill in the name of Islam are working against the teachings of the Qur’an.

All this speaks to a serious contest between different visions of Islam. Though the extremists dominate the headlines, the reality on the ground is different.

Closed cultural centres
Two weeks ago, Sudan quietly shuttered Iran’s cultural centres and expelled the cultural attaché and other staff, offering little explanation for its actions.

Media speculated that the expulsions were linked to Khartoum’s concerns that the officials were promoting Shia Islam – the majority faith in Iran. Sudan is largely Sunni, but because of a barrage of sanctions has been forced to seek friends from across the sectarian divides.

Balancing the resultant complexities has presented some difficulties. Last year Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was prevented from crossing Saudi Arabian airspace, as Riyadh insisted his aircraft did not have prior approval to do so.

But it was not lost on observers that Bashir was on his way to the swearing in of new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are majority Shia and Sunni respectively, and vie for influence in the Middle East.

Several branches of Islam
Islam has several branches, derived from the predominant Shia and Sunni schools. The two initially differed politically over the succession of Prophet Muhammad in 632, which then evolved to differences in theological and religious practice. In reality, the contrasts are not as wide as many would have you believe.

These sub-branches include, for the Sunni, the Wahhabi or Salafi movements and the followers of the Shafi and Maliki schools, among others, whereas Shias include Ismailis, Alevis and Alawites.

Other Muslim groups that do not fall under the two main schools also exist. Some, like the Sufis, combine aspects of both. In many ways, it is not any different from the divides one sees in Christianity.

Back in Africa, things are a little less complex, with the continent being largely Sunni.

This is not surprising – globally, Shia Muslims account for about 15% of the total Muslim population, and Sunnis make up 85%.

In fact, most Shias live in only four countries: Iran, India, Pakistan and Iraq. Almost one third of the world’s Muslims reside in Africa, with early accounts of an Islamic presence spanning back to the 7th century.

Predominant religion
The religion is predominant in North Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Sahel and West Africa.

The Middle East and North Africa (Mena) have the most countries with Muslim majorities – many in the range of 95%. Sub-Saharan Africa has 15% of the Muslim population, and Mena has 20.1%.

Botswana (166.7%), Eritrea (156.6%), Congo Republic (130.8%), Benin (130%) and Namibia (125%) saw the highest gains in Muslim populations between 1990 and 2010, according to data from Pew Research Centre.

The key trend to watch for in the Muslim world and relations with other religions may actually be how fast the internet spreads.

The irony here is that the internet has become the extremists’ main pulpit, so the very thing that makes them strong is also what is making them weaker.

In the end, then, as East Africa marks the first anniversary of the Westgate mall massacre, little is black and white about Islam, and appreciating this fact instead of ignoring its many facets may go a long way towards helping religious harmony, and aiding Islamic moderates. – M&G Africa

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