A reflection on Christian-Muslim relations in East Africa

By Nico Brice-Bennett

This post is from Nice Brice-Bennett, a PhD candidate in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh. It is a reflection of a paper given by Dr Arngeir Langås’ titled, ‘Peace in Zanzibar: Proceedings of the Joint Committee of Religious Leaders in Zanzibar, 2005-2013’.

Dr Langås’ presentation at the workshop was, in effect, an overview of his new book, which is itself a reworked version of his doctoral thesis. As the title of his paper suggests, his primary concern was to talk about the work of the Joint Committee of Religious Leaders in Zanzibar – a multi-faith body of which he himself was a member – between 2005 and 2013. The talk itself gave the audience a good sense of the background of the Joint Committee, covering the history of Christian-Muslim relations in Zanzibar and the resulting 21st century context in which the body was established. He went on to talk about how the Joint Committee had seen successes in its work to quell violence in Zanzibar during times of political unrest, as well as in its efforts to promote dialogue between the Muslim majority on the islands of Unguja and Pemba and the small but long-established Christian minority who also call the archipelago home. Dr Langås also provided those in attendance with a good idea of his own background, as well as that of his wife and what their duties and initiatives entailed whilst they lived in Zanzibar.

Dr Arngeir Langås offers a presentation titled, ‘Peace in Zanzibar: Proceedings of the Joint Committee of Religious Leaders in Zanzibar, 2005-2013’ at the Workshop on Islam and Inter-religious relations in Africa at the University of Edinburgh on 29 January.

Perhaps the most important contribution of Dr Langås’ work is that it highlights several themes which are useful for scholars studying religion and interfaith relations across East Africa more generally. Whilst Langås’ research focuses on Zanzibar – a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania – many of the ideas his work explores are pertinent to the mainland as well. One example of this is the matter of identity. Langås looks at how, in Zanzibar, matters of culture, race, religion and identity are complexly – and perhaps inextricably – intertwined. On the Tanzanian mainland where, in general, no single religion is dominant in the way that Islam is in Zanzibar, these dynamics are often not as obviously expressed as they are on the islands. At the same time, however, in many communities there remains a real sense – particularly amongst older people – that particular regions and peoples are culturally more aligned with one of these two religions than they are with the other. For example, to quote a senior Catholic clergyman I spoke with last year who is himself a member of the Chagga people on Kilimanjaro, ‘There are Muslim Chaggas, but the Chagga as a people are Christian. Islam is more at home amongst other Tanzanian peoples like the Zanzibari and the Nyamwezi, where their traditions are more similar to its teachings.’  Opinions like these amongst religious leaders highlight that the study of – and the promotion of – Christian-Muslim relations in this part of the world must, as Langås does, take the formation of complex, regionally specific identities over the longue durée into account.

This, in turn, leads into the matter of religious leadership and partnership. Whilst official figures do not exist, it is estimated that there are roughly equal numbers of Christians and Muslims in Tanzania, and that together they account for the vast majority of people in the country. For this reason, at independence, the Tanzanian constitution was careful to state that the country was a secular republic, in which religion’s role was to be strictly limited to people’s private lives. However, as Langås’ work highlights, religious leaders – who are often seen as moral authorities in Tanzanian communities, both in Zanzibar and on the mainland – play an important role in public life in a country where a very high proportion of people are practising Christians and Muslims. Religious leaders’ proximity to their congregations, as well as their generally better education and their more prominent platforms, means that they often act as arbiters between the government and the people. As might be expected, this sometimes brings them into conflict with the authorities as a result. In 2017, for example, Tanzanian President John Magufuli threatened to shut the churches in response to Christian leaders who criticised the growing authoritarianism of the Tanzanian state since his election in 2015. His argument for taking such action was that the churches had no business mixing religion and politics in a strictly secular country. The problem with such an argument, of course, is that secularism, in a Tanzanian sense, as in many other parts of Africa, is very complex. More often than not, it is understood to mean that the country is neither officially Christian nor Muslim, rather than that it has no religion at all.

Nico Brice-Bennett shares a paper focussed on Christian-Muslim relation in Tanzania, at the Workshop on Islam and Inter-religious relations in Africa at the University of Edinburgh on 29 January.

This is because, in many ways, the country is unofficially both Christian and Muslim. Other religions, whilst they may be mentioned now and then in public discourse, are often left out of the picture due to their relatively small followings. For example, public meetings in Tanzania often start with both Christian and Muslim prayers, despite the country’s officially secular status, without any reference to or accommodation for those of other faiths. Whilst this obviously raises questions about how religious leaders from other faiths can be brought into inter-religious dialogue in the country, particularly in areas where large numbers of people practise Hinduism or traditional religions, it also reinforces Langås’ argument that the promotion of Christian-Muslim partnership is vital to maintaining peace in a country where the vast majority of people are devoted followers of one of these two religions. This is a particularly salient issue in the present day, when worries about growing divisions between Christians and Muslims in the modern world – particularly in East Africa – are an increasingly important matter of public concern in these communities. Dr Langås’ work, therefore, provides a much-needed start to a discussion which has thus far been neglected, and which is deserving of further detailed study.