‘Islam in Uganda, the Muslim Minority, Nationalism & Political Power’

Reviewed by Abdul Hai

“In the name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the Most Gracious.”

Joseph Kasule is a research fellow at Makerere University, Uganda. He is the author of the article entitled “The Restrictive Immunity Doctrine under the 2004 U.N Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of States and Their Property: the Need for a Human Rights Protocol?” In 2018, he successfully defended his Ph.D. thesis, which is published under the title ‘Islam in Uganda, the Muslim Minority, Nationalism & Political Power’. This is the title of the present review.

In the tradition of the Holy Prophet (May Allah’s peace and blessing be upon him) it is stated that

Islam began as something strange and it will return to being strange, so blessed are the strangers.

 Muslimness has become somewhat of a global threat. Expressing one’s Islamic devotion in the public and political sphere could lead to trouble. However, Islamic history and tradition tell us that politics is part and parcel of Islamic identity. Attempting to separate them will cause anxiety in a world that is already suffering. Strangeness is not only felt by the outsider but strangeness is also felt by those who are native with an Islamic worldview. Ugandan Muslims are not an exception. 

Between 2012 and 2016, Muslims, especially the ulema (Scholars), experienced a wave of violence and in some cases kidnapping and murder. This is described in the book as ‘mysterious circumstances’. Many explanations and counter-explanation are given by various official bodies. The book sets out to analyse and examine those explanations. To understand Muslims’ present condition, the author gives us a social, political, and cultural history of Muslims and Islam in Uganda. He divides Islam and Muslim historical experiences in Uganda into three eras; namely pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial. It is within these three eras that the discourse develops. 

violence against the Muslims

In each era, there is a complexity that exists between Islam as a social-economic structure and the ruling bodies. The kingdom of Buganda, in the central region of Uganda, played a major role in introducing Islam as a powerful political force. King Kabaka Muteesa I (1845-1884) conversion to Islam was a major economic and political change for the people of the region. There were many local cultures and traditions that governed the local people. It can be said that Musteesa’s attempts to forcefully unify the people under Islam were the first resistance to Islam. The author argues that Muteesa’s conversion to Islam was not one of conviction but of convenience since Islam, according to Musteesa would allow him to have social and political control over Buganda’s internal affairs and gain external support from the greater Muslim world as pointed out by the author. (2022. pp, 31)

“I argue that Muteesa used Islam as an ideology to centralize royal power vis-à-vis other competing centers of Ganda power”. 

King Kabaka Muteesa I

In this pre-colonial era, Islam was forced into the social-cultural-religious domain of the people by Muteesa, and this dominance did not take Islamic legal and social principles into consideration. Muteesa’s Islamization project was self-serving, rather than working with different groups and convincing them of Islam’s divine nature. In this regard, the author highlights (2022, pp. 54). 

“What can be seen is that Islam ended up playing a functional role to Muteesa’s social reorganization to support a new type of state…”

Muteesa took a more radical and forceful position. In this sense, Islam was used as a tool by which Muteesa and members of his elite circle ruled the masses. Muteesa’s Islamization project did not work fully, since we later learn that many of his leading people, including himself, converted to Christianity. Muteesa personalized Islam to meet his political aims and any opposition to his understanding of Islam would lead to his disapproval and in some cases violence. Violence against Muslims was instigated by Muteesa. His lack of knowledge of the Islamic legal system has made him inflexible and ruthless and forced him to kill some seventy Muslims. In this regards the author notes (2022, pp. 54)

 “…reveal that what disturbed many was how Muteesa, claiming to be the leader of the Muslims in Buganda, could kill his own brethren…” 

In this period, Islam and Muslims, at least those Muslims who agreed with Muteesa, enjoyed a degree of political and social power. However, this will change. The author takes us to the colonial era. By this time, many Muslims have gained access to Islamic primary texts and other legal schools’ teaching independent of Muteesa’s version. Muteesa sees the potential threat to his power and looks for another social and religious tool to regain control. Muteesa was introduced to Christianity by J. Grant and J.H. Speke in the year 1862, and also by H.M. Stanely, who visited Muteesa in early 1870. 

The colonial era was the beginning of a systematic attempt by colonizers to take political power away from Islam and the Muslims. This was done to reproduce a version of Islam that was more manipulative. In order to control political power and understand the religious commitment of the Muslims, the colonizers divided Muslims into two phases to better understand and study them (2022, pp. 67).

“The formative and the transitive…in the formative phase the Muslim question was about securing the state from the Muslim threats…the second, transformative phase, the colonial instituted tactics of administrative governance that would undergird a stable political structure.”

Uganda under British colonisation

In the formative phase, the colonizer developed two strategies for Islam and Muslims. As a result of their experience in other colonial territories outside Uganda, the colonizers quickly realized Islamic ideology was a very serious threat to the colonial power structure. There was an institutional structure within the colonial government to study Muslims. Questions concerning Muslims’ leadership, their theological teaching, ethnographical belongings, and geographical locations were discussed. This approach isolated and alienated the Muslims from the rest of the Ugandan communities, thus beginning the othering process. Over time, colonial power restricted Islamic identity and representation to their taste. Islamic leadership became a propaganda tool for the colonizers. In response to this kind of representation, the Muslims split into two camps: those who support colonialism and those who support traditional Islam. This division was a recipe for violence in the Muslim community. To make things worse, the colonizers started the settler program, which consisted of Asians belonging to different denominations from the Muslims of Uganda (2022, pp.90-91).

“…the settler population also contained Muslim groups that were internally differentiated…The Asian community consisted of Muslim groups that affiliated with Shias, Khojas, Boras, and Ahmadiyya…”

The mixture of different sects was not an accident, but rather a well-planned decision. This was seen by some sections of Ugandan Muslims as a challenge to Ugandan Muslim unification. Mixing different sects into one location will, in the eyes of the colonizer will stop the creation of a Muslim-unified political voice. The social and political life of the Ugandan Muslim communities was restructured by the development of institutions, including educational institutions by the colonizers in order to create new Muslim leaders (2023, pp.96)

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“Education policy also influenced the Muslim question in Uganda, especially in how it nurtured a particular way of life by teaching the Muslim students ‘secular’ knowledge, attempting to ensure that they would abandon their ‘fanatical’ ideologies and at the same time acquire relevant knowledge that would contribute to the colonial economy.”

 Although the murdering of Muslims can be traced back to Museesa’s rule, the actual blueprint of discrimination, the systematic principle of othering, and the right recipe for violence were laid in the colonial period. It is this period that became either directly or indirectly the principal reference point for the post-colonial era. By this time three distinct groups had emerged from Uganda’s political scene. Two have already been mentioned, namely the pro-government Muslim elite and the more Islamocentric Muslims. The third group is those who are more Christian-focused. Each group is soon to play a major role in forming Uganda’s national identity. Apollo Milton Obote (1925-2005) became Uganda’s first leader after the colonial period ended. The post-colonial period was historical, and the unification of all Ugandans into one national identity was a challenge for the new leader. Obote (2022. pp 112)

“…perceived the Muslims to be in a weaker position… [although] Obote did not create this situation; colonial statecraft had championed Muslim elite parochialism.”

Apollo Milton Obote

The question of nationality was a central mandate for Obote’s government. He welcomed the Muslim question into his political agenda, not because he had a genuine concern for the Muslims. Instead, he understood that he needed Muslims to make his movement strong and relevant. (2002).pp. 122)

“Obote would appeal to the Muslim identity to further his political interest.”

There was already a split among the Muslims before Uganda’s independence (Kasule, 2002). Obote couldn’t identify the ‘pro-Obote Muslims’ so he founded the ‘Association for the Advancement of the Muslims (NAAM).In this, he followed the colonizers’ tactic, and this new organisation, favored by the state further contributed to already existing violence. Apart from the few Muslim elites, the Muslim mass was distant from any political inclusivity. The NAAM was a tool for furthering Obote’s interests. NAAM did not represent the Muslim mass, thus an internal battle began amongst the Muslims, which contributed to the overall political chaos. The legacy of Idi Amin (1925-2003) remains a source of honor and power for many Muslims in Uganda. Muslims’ consciousness did play a part in Amin’s political career. However, like the Ugandan leaders before him, Islam and Muslims, for the most part, were something to be used for pure political interests. Amin’s pro-Muslim policies were seen by others, mainly Christians as undermining Christian identities. This erupted into many violent scenes between the two groups.

Idi Amin

From this point forward, the successive leaders of Uganda only included Muslims in their political space for their political interests. Many Muslim organizations were formed to serve the state version of Islam. A number of young Muslim leaders emerged independent of the government, including Jamil Mukulu and Yunus Kamoga. Some of those leaders were more radical than others. They were demanding social and political change from an Islamic perspective. The disunity among Muslim leadership further threatens their political power, thus giving the government full license to represent Muslims according to their political interests.

Dr. Joseph Kasule takes the reader through three stages to understand the Muslims of Uganda and their role, their relationship with the rulers, governors, and the broader society. He argues that (2022. pp. 214)

“Successive regimes of political power in Uganda’s long history have witnessed violence either committed against Muslims or arising from within the Muslim community”.

For each stage; namely; pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial era, Kasule tries to understand the complex relationship between the ruling body and Muslims and concludes that violence was an indicator of larger issues that defined the internal and external relations of the Muslims (Kasule, 2022). This complicated relationship makes it difficult to hold one group responsible for the violence against the Muslim community.

Exploring the social and political interconnection of the Ugandan Muslims, Kasule accomplishes the task on two fronts; firstly he gives a broader history of Ugandan Muslims, which allows the reader to gain a better understanding of the social and political make-up of Ugandan Muslims. Secondly, he ventures into internal conflict among Muslims. As a result, readers can make informed decisions about the violence. The strength of Kasule’s work lies in his ability to analyze the internal and external politics of Ugandan Muslims very methodically. Kasule introduces a number of sects that claim to adhere to Islam. However, a brief theological background into each sect would have allowed the reader to better understand the social and political position a sect had taken. Kasule’s work is a significant contribution to a growing body of literature on understanding Africa’s social and political dynamics. There have been a number of recent publications such as Paul Naylor’s ‘From Rebels to Rulers: Writing Legitimacy in the Early Sokoto State’ and Ousmane Oumar Kane’s two publications ‘Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa‘ and’ Islamic Scholarship in Africa’. New Directions and Global Contexts’, Kasule’s work fits into this series. Kasule’s work will stand the test of time and become a reference for the future of African studies in general and more particularly the Islamic identity of Uganda. The author must be applauded for his scholarly contribution to this field of study. 

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