While Christians were killing, Muslims saved their neighbours from genocide.
A room in the Muslim health centre in Kigali serves as Sheikh Musa Sindayigaya’s office. On the ground floor, patients waiting for their doctor appointments sit on simple wooden benches. Between 3 and 6 per cent of the population in the Christian-dominated country of Rwanda are Muslims. Sheikh Sindayigaya is their representative in Kigali City.
How did Islam come to Rwanda?
It was in the late 19th century, when Arab and Indian traders came to our country. And then there were also local staff members of colonizers traveling from Tanzania, a country that had a large Muslim community.
The Arab traders were known for treating the local population with respect. Many people were impressed by their behaviour, and so they decided to convert to Islam.
Over the years, the number of Muslims in Rwanda continued to rise.
What does the Muslim identity mean for Muslims in Rwanda?
The Muslim identity was characterized by the discrimination that the Muslim community had to endure over a long period of time.
Before the current government under the Rwandan Patriotic Front – which took power in 1994 and stopped the genocide – Muslims were discriminated against.
They were considered foreigners in this country because they came with new ideas and a new culture that was unfamiliar to the local people here.
The government at this time was dominated by church people, and they used these differences to discriminate against the Muslim community.
Muslims were discriminated against in terms of access to education, in terms of employment and even in terms of citizenship. Some Muslim personalities supposedly changed their Muslim names to get access to education.
And if you looked at the Rwandan army, you could only find very few Muslims, especially in senior officer positions.
I can also give the example of a primary school that was built by the Muslim community in the 1950s.
It was constructed to provide Muslim children access to education because they were being discriminated against by the other schools.
But as soon as the building was complete, the school was forcibly taken over by the church – which maintained control over the school until 1994.
Since then, we have been running the school again.
What role did the Muslim identity play during the genocide in 1994?
It is widely recognized that the vast majority of the Muslim community did not participate in the genocide.
There is much proof of the positive actions of Muslims all over the country.
First of all, no Muslim religious leaders have been sentenced for participating in the killings, whereas many leaders from other confessions have been jailed.
And amongst the people who sought shelter in mosques, nobody was killed. If you look at the churches, you find many people were killed inside. Many churches were even destroyed at that time.
What did the imams do differently compared to other religious leaders?
Every day in the congregational prayers, the imams addressed the people and said: “Let’s help the persecuted people. Let’s save them.”
We also have a letter from the time before the genocide that was addressed to the Muslim community here in Rwanda.
It was the time that political parties that were directly linked to the genocide ideology were being established.
And in this letter, the Muslim leadership asked all Muslims not to participate in what was going on in the country.
It told all Muslim leaders that they were not allowed to join political parties.
Did they not put themselves in danger?
Yes, of course. But according to our faith, if you have to put yourself in danger to save many people, it’s still your obligation.
And we compare: If you are killed while protecting 1000 people, then it could be better to sacrifice your life. That’s the philosophy that we have in our religion.
How did the Muslim community develop after the genocide?
After the genocide it became clear that a large number of both Muslim and non-Muslim survivors had been protected by Muslims.
Many people had sought refuge in Muslim houses, and many who had been hunted during the genocide had told themselves: “If only I can reach the Muslim area, I will survive.”
Afterwards, many Rwandans were convinced of the positive actions of Muslims during the genocide, and many even decided to convert to Islam.
Since then, the number of Muslims in Rwanda has been increasing.
Do you think that the Muslim community is nowadays better integrated into the Rwandan society than in the past?
Today we feel happy and proud, like all of the other citizens here in Rwanda. The current government treats all citizens equally, including members of the Muslim community.
Before 1994, access to education was denied to Muslims. Now it is different. If you pass your exams, you have access to the universities. The government does not look at your religious affiliation.
We have many young Muslim girls and boys who have already graduated. They can now do their Master’s degrees or even their PhDs.
Our students are also allowed to have their own Muslim student union and the university organises special Iftar meals for them during Ramadan.
Nowadays you can also find many Muslims in senior positions. They are becoming ministers.
And Eid [the end of the Ramadan] is an official public holiday in Rwanda.
What role do you think the Muslim community should play in the reconciliation process twenty-one years after the Rwandan genocide?
We play many different roles within the reconciliation process.
We are collaborating with the religious leaders of non-Muslim communities and we are trying to reconcile the families of genocide survivors and the genocide perpetrators who have now been released from jail.
As religious leaders, we collaborate and cooperate with our government for the sake of Rwanda’s reconciliation.
To reconcile people and bring them together to seek forgiveness, that is actually the role of religious leaders.
Would you say that the role of Muslim leaders within the reconciliation process is different from that of other religious leaders, due to the Muslim leaders’ mainly positive role during the genocide?
I think we have a specific role because our word can reach further than the word of others.
But the Muslim community is small and we cannot play that role all alone; we need to cooperate with others.
If the Muslim community acted all alone, it would once again create something negative. That is why we prefer collaborating with other religious leaders.
There is not only one religion in Rwanda! Just because some religious leaders have participated in the genocide does not mean that all leaders of these religions are bad.
Those who are responsible are now being judged. We collaborate with those who are good – and there are so many.
We should never generalize. I can say that there is not one religion that incites people to kill. If people use their religion to justify killing others, they are either misusing or misunderstanding it.