The Significant Role of Islam in the Civil War Between Tutsis and Hutus

Before starting this article, we have to keep in mind that Rwanda is a Christian country and Christianity was introduced to the Rwandans during the colonial period in the late 19th century. Islam is a “new and modern” religion and it is the largest minority religion in Rwanda. Muslim traders from the East Coast of Africa were the first people who introduced Islam in Rwanda, and that was in the 18th century.

The Civil War in Rwanda: Historical context

Christian missionaries tried a lot of times to hamper the spread of Islam in  the country. It was forbidden for Muslims to go to school or to have important  jobs and that’s why they had no other choice than just to choose jobs like drivers or retailers. One of the things that aggravated the situation between the Muslims and the Christians was the fact that in 1960 , the former prime minister Sebazungu ordered the burning of the Muslim neighbourhood and the mosque in Rwamagana. Muslims were terrified and many of them left Rwanda.

During the colonial period, the differences between the Tutsis and the Hutus were increasing. The Tutsis had all the political and economic power in their hands. The Hutus rebelled against the Tutsis. This led in 1962 to the overthrow of the Tutsi monarchy and the establishing of a republic led by the Hutus. In the late 80s, the expelled Tutsis wanted to regain control over their homeland. In 1990, Tutsi fighters attacked the Hutus and a civil war broke out.

In 1993 both sides signed a peace accord under the coordination of Tanzania, the Arusha Accords. The Tutsis regained some political power in Rwanda and the power of the president Juvénal Habyarimana was restricted. Everyone accepted this peace treaty except the Hutu extremists who were members of the CDR party, the party of President Habyarimana. They began to prepare for a coup.

April 1994 will be the first black day in Rwanda for the 100 coming days in that same year. On this day, an airplane carrying Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down on its descent into Kigali. In the following day, soldiers, police and militia executed some important Tutsi chiefs and moderate Hutu leaders. They put checkpoints and barricades to kill every Tutsi. These forces forced all Hutu civilians to arm themselves with knifes, sticks and other weapons to rape, wound and kill their Tutsi neighbors and to steal their property. Thousands of Tutsi women were taken away and kept as sex slaves. Every Hutu who refused to follow the orders was also killed. Military forces from Uganda arrived in Rwanda and brought an end to the genocide. Between April and July 1994, an estimated 800.000 Rwandans were killed during 100 days.

Islam as a reconciliation for the two parties

During the Rwandan genocide between the Hutus and the Tutsis in 1994 , Islam was not the principle target. A Hutu could kill a Tutsi or a Tutsi could kill a Hutu without knowing his religion.  Military forces stopped the bloodshed but thanks to Islam, Tutsis and Hutus made peace and fraternized.

The Rwandans lost faith, even in their religion. While some clergy made an effort  to protect the churchgoers, other Catholic and Protestant leaders participated in the killings. The Tutsis were killed by Hutu priests and militias. Hutu Muslims did not cooperate with the Hutu killers and protected every Tutsi , Muslim or not, who sought refuge in mosques and in Muslim neighborhood. Many Rwandan Muslims opened their homes for thousands of Tutsis and succeeded in hiding them from the Hutu troops. Hutu Muslims and Tutsi Muslims put their lives at risk to save the lives of thousands of Tutsis (and Hutus who refused to kill the Tutsis). The mosque served as a place where converted Tutsis and Hutus reconciliated and fraternized with each other.

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While the Tutsis mostly embraced Islam to protect themselves from liquidations and to follow the people who saved them, Hutus also came to leave behind them their violent past. The more the new converted Tutsis and Hutus knew about Islam the more they became closer to each other. Islam teached them how to forgive and to love each other for the sake of Allah and how to start a new beginning. Imams from both sides played a very important role in bringing both ethnicities together under the name of Islam.

Islam became a very popular religion in Rwanda. The authorities in the country started to allow Muslims to teach Rwandans about Islam and Muslim organizations are allowed to spread their activities across the country. In 1994, there were only 6% of Muslims, today about 14 % of Rwandans consider themselves Muslim.

Written by Afifa Thabet

Afifa Thabet

Afifa Thabet is 33 years old. She studied Oriental Languages and Cultures and volunteers as a teacher. She's interested in everything concerning Islamic history and Arab societies.

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    Bill Warner, Islamic history expert