I’ve been in Zanzibar during several periods of political and social unrest, some of it related to politics, some to religion, but more often than not, a potent mixture of the two. Sweeping generalizations regarding Islam, the West, or ideologies in between only perpetuate misconceptions and conceal facts. This latest bomb explosion in the Darajani market area on Friday 13 June has produced yet another confused post-bomb aftermath of reductive, irresponsible journalism and cut-copy reporting.
I am not a reporter by trade, but the inadequate reporting on this issue spurred me to try to fill in the gaps where English-speaking news media left off.
What exactly happened on Friday night around 8.30 p.m.? Who was hurt? Where exactly did it happen in Darajani? And what were the motives for throwing an explosive device out of a car window in an area where people were gathered on a Friday night, some who had been at the mosque for evening prayers, others who had just been walking or gathering in the area near Mazumil store and Fahoud pharmacy, where during the day date sellers swat flies while standing by their carts attracting customers?
Friday — Ijumaa — is a holy day for all Muslims, Sunii and Shia alike. Despite differences of belief within Islam, all agree that Friday is a holy day. Men wear kanzu and kofia and attend prayers even more faithfully than on any other day of the week. Zanzibaris gather around plates of pilau and biriyani for lunch — sermons are heard over the loudspeakers throughout town. It’s a day of kindness and calm.
That night, patchy, unverified news arose out of nowhere that a bomb had exploded in Darajani. One person was reported to have been killed and four wounded. Pictures of a bloody body were posted across social media, often with sparse accompanying information. Panic rose, people started to speculate. The news also spread physically like wildfire across small, close-knit Stone Town. Some had heard the explosion while sitting in nearby restaurants. Others had already seen the pictures or had friends connected to those attacked. It was unclear for quite some time what had happened, but conspiracies bubbled to the surface. It was the West trying to suppress Muslims! It was radical Islam against foreigners! Rumours and fears took hold, and information was hard to come by.
Through a series of conversations and online research, I was able to gather information that would not appear in any western news media outlets. It seems clear at this time that targets of the attack were attendees of a religious conference of Muslims from all over the East African coast, from Mombasa, Kenya, to Tanga, Tanzania, to Stone Town, Zanzibar. The explosive device was thrown from a car window and the car sped off, making it difficult to determine the identity of the attackers. Were they coming directly from the mosque around the area of Kaiser Photo shop, where men sometimes like to sit in the evenings and talk opposition politics? Or was it closer to the street, where cars can more easily rush in and peel out?
Who was hurt? According to Jamii Forums, the bloodied boy in the pictures shared online is Muhamed Khatib Mkobalaguha a student from Tanga region. He was here in Zanzibar for the conference, which was also attended by well-known Sheikh Kassim Abu’Fadhil Kassim Mafuta Kassim, who was hurt but not killed and is now in stable condition after being taken to Mnazi Mmoja hospital along with three others. Later, the wounded were taken to Al-Rahma and Kiembe Samaki hospitals, as reported on Sunday by The Citizen -- where the journalist has apparently done a bit more research but has misused the term "casualties" to mean injured.
Who might have wanted to hurt or kill Sheikh Kassim Mafuta? I am too much of an outsider to run a full political analysis, so I did some basic research on Sheikh Kassim, who represents a Salafi mosque in the Tanga region.
What exactly does Salafi mean? The Salafist movement is a sect within Sunni Islam which refers to the notion of “salaf”, meaning honouring the traditional ancestors of Islam — especially the first three generations following the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH). Those who identify as ‘Salafi’ are known to be more on a spectrum ranging from traditional and conservative to literal, strict and purist, depending on the perspective and context. For example, nearly 50% of the Emirates and Qatar populations identify as Salafi Sunni Muslims.
The West has often criticised Salafi Muslims for espousing jihadist ideology, but Salafi scholars have objected strongly to this accusation and the majority of leading scholars of the Salafist tradition reject violence in their speeches and sermons. On Saturday morning, I listened to an hour or more of a speech by Sheikh Kassim Mafuta, who seems to debate the concept of Jihad but does not promote it, and warns followers of the evils of violence as it violates Sharia (law).
For the last couple of days, many people just wanted to know who the "bad" guy is in the story. But researching Sheikh Kassim Mafuta reminded me that it’s always more complex than it appears. On the one hand, he is associated with what the West has determined to be “radical”, but on the other, he seems to caution against violence in his discussion of Jihad as written in the Holy Qu’ran. It's not easy for any of us at this moment to make definitive statements, and situations like these challenge all of us to suspend assumptions while trying to consider multiple possibilities as to motive and circumstance. Better communication between Muslims and non-Muslims, Swahili and non-Swahili speakers would certainly help demystify the intricacies of the Sheikh’s position and message.
Why might Sheikh Kassim Mafuta have been targeted? I am not an expert and there is no clear single narrative, but it might have been a political gesture, to send a message that those deemed radical are not welcome in Zanzibar even as guests at a religious convention. Or it could have been motivated by factions within Sheikh Kassim’sgroup. His name has been mentioned on Zanzibar separatists' UAMSHO (Awakening) Facebook page, but as a voice of opposition against the pan-Islamic movement Hzbr-Ut-Tharir East Africa. His name is also mentioned in relationship to several controversial books, one called Hoja Zenye Nguvu Katika Kuthibitisha Kuonekana Allah (Sub’Haana Wata’Alaa) Kwa Macho Huko Akher (roughly translated to mean Strong Arguments for the Existence of God). Some have praised him while others have accused him of lying. He is a well known public figure with his own Facebook page, but it doesn’t include much information. It would take far more research and interviewing to get a fuller read on the various layers of reality here.
I was not there on Friday night, not there in the market, and I can’t find any first-person accounts, at least in English. It did happen in a pedestrian area, but not in a touristic part of town, though Stone Town is small enough that it would be possible to have been caught up in the explosion had anyone been walking through the area at that time.
In so many cut-copy reports of this event, Western news outlets conflate this event with other bombs and riots that have occurred in Zanzibar over the last few years. This is deeply unfortunate for the majority of people here, whose lives are far more rich, varied, nuanced, and detailed than the blanket assumptions that are derived from these ill-reported events. It’s true that many disturbing and violent crimes have taken place and it grieves both Zanzibaris and foreign residents alike that this peaceful island has been periodically pinched by moments of instability and insecurity.
The why of all of this is not easily explained in a word or two — it’s religious, it’s political, and it’s difficult to extricate one from the other or to simplify the many co-existing equations of social tension. It’s about power and justice, identity and union, impending elections and failed leadership. It’s about culture and pride, it’s about trying to make decisions that will give Zanzibar some traction on the global stage. It would help if journalists would actually ask meaningful, penetrating questions, seek out interviews, and demand more when it comes to reporting sensitive news like this. It affects how everyone ‘sees’ the other, and how people react to reports that are at once confusing, alarming, and prone to gross simplification.
One thing is certain — melding unrelated events — equating the acid attack with this bomb explosion, for example, does not help anyone understand or deal with the complexity of the situation. Assuming some “common cause” for all violence and unrests leads to lazy and dangerous inaccuracy. Journalists have a responsibility to present varying viewpoints, and we as citizens and residents have the responsibility to share and exchange information with caution, care, and curiousity, not fuelling skewed stereotypes in either direction.
This complex situation unfolds against an intense political background. Tensions between the ruling party CCM (Chama Cha Mapinduzi) and the opposition party CUF (Civic United Front) grow daily as disagreements about the union government and the new constitution have caused a stalemate in Parliament. Elections in 2015 will determine not only a new president, but also whether or not Zanzibar and the mainland will remain legally bound to the same conditions as 50 years ago. Tanzania First campaigning by CCM is met by Zanzibar First voices on the island. Religion has been used in the past as a way of masking conflict that is in essence political, and similarly it’s possible that this attack may have multiple angles that are not visible to the public at this time.
The reckless use of the word “terrorism” to describe a violent crime whose motive has yet to be revealed offends and dismisses more textured truths. Are there those on the island sympathetic to radical Islam? Yes, of course. There are also radical Evangelicals and Muslims all over America, the UK and Australia as well as mainland Europe. It’s unjust and extremely dangerous to collapse all events related to Muslims into the category of “terror”. Do I think there are groups here sympathetic to views that would be deemed extreme in the West? Yes. The same way I have come to realize that certain Western behavior is also understood as offensive and extreme in various ways in this part of the world. At any given time, there are social, political, economic, and ideological shifts and energies at work here, and offering up tired, cartoonish narratives of heroes and villains condescends to all of us.
I root for a fuller understanding, a radical “middle ground”, a true commitment to dialogue and to the posing of questions that could expose the real facts and enlighten us as to the spectrum of views and concerns present here, and in places with similar tensions.
The news I present here is gathered via Jamii Forums, online research and conversation with local residents. I urge everyone to do their own research, ask the difficult questions, challenge their own assumptions, and make room in their hearts and minds for all possibilities. Al Jazeera, BBC Africa, BBC Swahili, CNN, and others who have sent out lazy, conflated reports need to check themselves and do due diligence on the stories that have real impact and consequences on the ground. It frustrates many here that from the moment an event like this happens to months later when life goes on, the real details and motives are rarely revealed.
It was the opening day of ZIFF, Zanzibar’s international film festival, that the incident took place. Last night, as I went to watch Mandela: A Long Road to Freedom, my thoughts were focussed on the perplexing layers of justice movements, the sometimes necessary opposing energies and surprisingly shared commonalities that eventually rise up to the surface. I cannot say what happened on Friday night in Zanzibar that caused the death of one young man and the injury of others, but I do know that asking questions is the first step toward humanizing a very complex situation.
There was a lovely energy in Forodhani Gardens last night, as the film festival readied itself for a new incarnation. Gorgeous light flooded the scene as the "flipper" boys spun circles in the air before diving into the sea. There are multiple stories unfolding here, as anywhere, at any given moment — of fear and hope, art and justice, aggression and anger, all at once, all the time. To define Zanzibar by this or any other tragic event alone does not do justice to the beautiful contradictions of this place.
*Thanks to Rachel Hamada, editor of Mambo Magazine, for edits. Thanks to Pernille Baerendtsen & Francesca McKenna as readers. Thanks to everyone in Stone Town who helped process this information with me and contributed their opinions to the conversation.