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COMMENT: The Islamic side of the Cabo Delgado crisis

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by Liazzat Bonate

By Liazzat Bonate

Most analysis of the recent attacks in Cabo Delgado is right to say that the discontentment of the Muslim youth is one of the main causes of the phenomenon. Lack of employment, the ‘squeezing out’ of the local population from their ancestral lands by big international conglomerates, and feelings of marginalization, social exclusion, and hopelessness are all real problems that could have prompted the violence. Other possible causes include the loss of revenues from the artisanal mining and illegal trade in timber due to the tighter control by the state and private businesses. Disproportionate use of force by the police and private security against young people involved in these activities, along with other abuses, might have contributed as well.

Interactive map of attack locations


Larger attack markers indicate greater number of victims. Mouse over the markers for details of of the attacks.
Click here for a timeline of the attacks.

Although the violence has been perpetrated by Muslim youth and the villages attacked have been primarily Muslim settlements, the Islamic side of the crisis has been continually downplayed by various pundits and Mozambican officials. Yet the group’s only public communication, a video released in January, suggests that it believes it is  fighting a jihad. So what role does Islam play in the conflict?

Islam’s recent history in Mozambique

Islam in northern Mozambique has a deep history, which began in the eighth century. Salafi fundamentalism began appearing in Mozambique in the late 1950s. A local offshoot of a global phenomenon, Mozambican Salafis demand a literal interpretation of the Qur’an and the hadith (the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) and universal application of the shari’a (Islamic legal principles), in addition to denouncing Sufism as un-Islamic and reviling the imitation of Western lifestyles by Muslims.

The so-called Wahhabis, people who studied in Saudi Arabia and follow a brand of fundamentalism of that country known as Wahhabism, emerged in Mozambique in the early 1960s. After independence, some of them became close to Frelimo and launched a national organization called the Islamic Council of Mozambique in 1981. With the help of the international Islamic charities like the Africa Muslims Agency, the Council built mosques everywhere in the country. Many of its members managed to gain some political and economic power, especially in the south of the country.  Their numbers expanded significantly after the 1990s with more Mozambicans receiving scholarships to the Islamic universities of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, and Sudan.

The main target of Mozambican Wahhabist disdain has always been the deeply rooted black Sufi majority of the impoverished rural north, whom they accused of ignorance of the basic precepts of Islam. But things changed when some of the graduates of Islamic universities returned to their places of origin in northern Mozambique in the late 1990s and found nothing in terms of economic or social prospects. The disappointed youth directed their frustration not only against the Sufis, mostly their own parents, but also against the Islamic Council, which they viewed as excessively accommodating to Frelimo and focused on the acquisition of wealth rather than the well-being of Muslims. They proudly donned a label of truth and sincerity in Islam, that of Ahl al-Sunna (People of Sunna, of the true path set by the example of the Prophet Muhammad).

As access to the money of international Islamic charities was firmly in the hands of the Council, these youth started building their own mosques and madrasas with the material they could acquire by their own means. They not only preached and taught Islam, but also offered basic literacy classes to the general population, undertook the conversion of non-Muslims, and paid considerable attention to the education of women.  The centre of their activities was Nampula province.

The new generation

It seems the socio-economic dissatisfaction reached a tipping point in the generation that followed, who called themselves not only Ahl al-Sunna but also al-Shabaab, Arabic for “the youth”, because obviously they are young (the oldest are 35 years of age, according to those interviewed on TV). There is no evidence if this generation has been in contact with the al-Shabaab of Somalia or affiliated groups in Kenya and Tanzania, but it is certainly a possibility. The economic and kinship ties between coastal Mozambican Muslims and the Swahili communities to the north has been continuous for centuries. Moreover, this generation is a smartphone and social media generation, and reportedly listens to the sermons of the late Aboud Rogo Mohammed, a Kenyan cleric accused of belonging to the Somali al-Shabaab and providing it with funding and other support.

The new generation not only challenged the Sufis and the Islamic Council but went much further. After rebel youth assaulted three police stations in Mocímboa da Praia on 5 October 2017, the shaykh of the biggest mosque of Macomia, Seia Haif, suggested that in 2014-2015 those young men had begun preaching that Muslims should govern themselves according to the norms of Islam and follow shari’a rather than obey the government; that they should create Islamic courts and avoid going to the police and judicial institutions; and that they should take their children out of state schools. They also allegedly wanted statues of the first Mozambican president, Samora Machel, to be removed along with the big crosses erected by the Christian churches near Muslim settlements. But it is not clear whether these allegations are true because only shaykhs of the Islamic Council were interviewed on TV.

The altercations between the shaykhs and the youth became heated to the point that the youth were expelled from the mosque in 2015. Thereafter, they became secretive, built their own mosques and madrasas (often in simple sheds and huts), and a flow of young people from other regions began visiting them regularly, studying and staying with them. Shaykh Seifa showed Mozambican TV journalists 16 SMS messages from them on his cellphone with threats against his life. He filed an official complaint to the police and administration. Other shaykhs in neighboring places told similar stories on TV. Some of them filed complaints as well but to no avail, until the first days of October 2017 when about thirty of the said youth, including women, were rounded up by the police and taken to prisons in Mocímboa da Praia.

Where we are now

According to local witnesses interviewed on Mozambican TV, during the early morning prayers of 5 October, 2017, several armed local men appeared at the Macomia mosque and told the congregation: “We have no intention of harming you, but beware that anyone who denounces us to the police or government will be severely punished.” News of the assaults in Mocímboa da Praia shook the country later that day. The youth went there to release their comrades from prisons. As the assailants kept dying in confrontations with the police, the images of the dead were continually sent back to the parents and other family members via cellphone. One mother sobbed uncontrollably while showing the picture of dead daughter on her cellphone to the TV journalist, saying: “I am very distressed, my daughter left her small children here. Her husband went with her. I am now alone.”

Afterwards, it seems the remaining assailants went into hiding and regrouped in various places. Since then, the conflict has spread, with the group bringing horrific violence to villages across eastern Cabo Delgado. The government, in response, has conducted mass arrests. “Our forces are nervous and act in an exaggerated way, suspecting everyone. Mosques are being surrounded… and waves of unjustified Islamophobia are taking hold of people”, said celebrated Mozambican journalist Tomas Mario Vieira. These measures are likely to deepen the radicalization of Muslim youth even further, and impact on the expansion and transformation of the militant movement and increase the fatalistic outlook among the rebels. The revolt that was precipitated by localized intra-Muslim conflicts now seems to have attracted other, possibly foreign, individuals. For example, Mozambican TV showed a body identified as white or Asian among the dead on the insurgents’ side. And, although most of the rebels spoke local languages, Kiswahili purportedly was also heard.

Liazzat J. K. Bonate is a Mozambican scholar who has taught at the Eduardo Mondlane University, Seoul National University, and currently works at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago. She specializes in the history of Africa and Islam in Africa and has done most of her research on Muslim societies of northern Mozambique.

© 2018, Sam Ratner. All rights reserved.

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