NAIROBI – The veil that cloaks the head of Zafran Mukanwali is a modest symbol of a potentially dramatic shift in religious affiliation in Africa.
The former Roman Catholic put down her rosary and embraced Islam a decade ago out of disgust with ethnic murders committed by Catholics, including priests, in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.
“I realised that the Catholics do not practice what they preach,” said the 22-year-old Tutsi, whose parents were among the 800,000 people butchered by extremist Hutus.
“When I realised that the people I was praying with killed my parents, I decided to convert to Islam because Muslims saved many lives and did not take part in the killings.”
Before 1994, Muslims comprised between 1 per cent and 2 per cent of the overwhelmingly Catholic population in Rwanda. Today that figure is 5 per cent, census returns show. Muslim leaders say the number of mosques has risen to 570 from 220.
Those who gauge political risk are on alert for any sign of strain in the usually equable relations between Christians and Muslims south of the Sahara, and for any evidence of the arrival of radical Islamic movements from the Middle East.
While anecdotal evidence suggests a growth in the proportion of sub-Saharan Africans embracing Islam, as well as “born again” forms of Protestant Christianity, data is scarce.
Hassan Mwakimako, who teaches religious studies at Nairobi University, says census surveys either do not track religious affiliation, or if they do, tend not to publish it.
Ephraim Isaac, director of the Institute for Semitic Studies at Princeton University, said there are estimates but none are authoritative.
“There is a kind of statistical warfare with Islam said to be growing by leaps and bounds on one side, and growing Christianity, especially Pentecostalists and charismatics, on the other,” said Isaac, an Ethiopian. “Statistics have influence. People like to be on the winning side.”
But Bah Thierno Amadou, 36, a Sierra Leonian Muslim living in Madagascar, has no doubt his religion is on the march.
“More Africans are converting to Islam. There was hardly any Islam in Sierra Leone in the 1960s. Now it has a big following, and it’s getting bigger in each generation,” said Amadou, who also lived in Liberia for 16 years.
He says the wars pursued by US President George W. Bush are powerful recruiting tools for Islam in many parts of a continent with long memories of 19th century cooperation between European missionaries and colonisers.
“He (Bush) says he’s a Christian and he does things to destroy people’s lives and property who are Muslims. Africans identify with the victims of Bush, because they suffered under the European colonisers, also Christians,” Amadou said.
“In Uganda, Islam is growing so fast. Every single minute we are getting people converting,” says Sheik Harun Sengooba of the Union of Muslim Councils for East, Central and Southern Africa.
In South Africa, Islam is growing among blacks in a country where 80 per cent of the 45 million people are Christian.
Currently, less than 2 per cent of South Africans, or about 650,000 people, are Muslim, mostly members of the country’s Indian and Coloured (mixed-race) communities.
But the semi-autonomous Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) estimates 74,700 Africans are Muslim from fewer than 12,000 in 1991 when apartheid outlawed racial interaction.
“The gap is closing and we are finding each other,” Sheik Thafir Najjar, who heads the Cape Town-based Islamic Council of South Africa, says of reconciliation since the end of apartheid.
Money helps. Islamic non-governmental groups in Africa, many backed by Gulf oil cash, grew from 138 in 1980 to 891 in 2000, more than twice the rate of increase in the total number of Africa’s NGOs in the period, says Mohammed Salim, a Sudanese political scientist at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
Islam or Christianity, both proselytising religions that are inherently competitive, have long co-existed in Africa.
Tensions between the two have been mitigated by the influential legacy of tolerant African traditional religions, communal movements that have no ambitions to convert humankind.
But the contest can be violent, feeding sectarianism into wider conflicts such as those in Sudan and Ivory Coast.
A report by the Roman Catholic church as far back as 1990 said Catholics and Muslims in Africa risked going on a dangerous collision course over efforts to convert new followers.
Relations seems to be at their worst in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, where the two religions share roughly equally its population of 130 million people.
Religious violence there has killed at least 5000 people since 2000, when 12 northern states predominantly inhabited by Muslims established Islamic Sharia law.
A demonstration by Muslims in Nigeria’s northern city of Kano against the US war in Afghanistan in October 2001 flared into communal riots with at least 200 people killed.
Kenyan historian Ali Mazrui says tensions have been stirred in parts of Africa after Sept. 11 as Washington demanded African nations co-operate in a crackdown on Muslim militants.
“The aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, may begin to undermine the multiracial solidarity of post-apartheid South Africa. It has already deepened the cleavage between the Christian-led central government of Tanzania in Dar es Salaam and the overwhelmingly Muslim separatist islands of Zanzibar and Pemba,” he said.