Is Zanzibar jumping on the Islamist bandwagon? The tide of extremism washing through the Mediterranean basin seems to be reaching the shores of the traditionally laid back tourist Mecca off the Tanzanian coast.
According to the Financial Times, radicalism is spreading rapidly via extremist madrassas that receive substantial funding from the usual sources. This outside funding is allowing them to win over more students and parents than their more moderate, locally funded counterparts:
Academics estimate that Saudi Arabia—where Wahhabi Islam is practised—alone spends $1m a year on Islamic institutions in Zanzibar.
“Wahhabi madrasas are just starting—they are now many and Saudi funds are spreading their work—they have nice buildings, they are well off and well organised; they preach and convince the parents to come there, so the effect of the madrassa is very powerful,” says Idrissa Ahmad Khamis, a teacher who is from the Sufi tradition, a mystical form of Islam opposed by more literalist Wahhabis or Salafists.
This is an alarming trend, but not an unexpected one. Most Salafis are not jihadis, but both conventional Salafists and more radical organizations have long sought to expand across sub-Saharan Africa. Mali, until recently considered a model of African democracy, fell to a coup in April after Islamists and others swept away government forces in the northern part of the country. And Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and Cameroon are all threatened by radical Islamic movements as well. Weak states, an unemployed and frustrated young male population, and poorly patrolled borders make the region a fertile breeding ground for jihadist groups.
Zanzibar, once a vital way station in the Arab slave trade along the African coast, has always looked north. The island (briefly an independent state before Tanganyika and Zanzibar united to form Tanzania in 1964) is more than 90 percent Muslim with a significant Arab population. While figures in the rest of the country are disputed (for political reasons the census stopped asking about religious affiliation in 1967), Christianity seems to have passed Islam as the largest religion in the country. Zanzibar and the coastal areas are the strongholds of Islam; a rise in religious intensity among Muslims has political implications in a region that where interfaith relations are already strained.