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Supporting Radicalism in Contemporary Zanzibar

Akbar Keshodkar, assistant professor of anthropology, in the departments of history and sociology, shares his research into the rise of radicalism in Zanzibar at the February 4 Faculty Luncheon.

“Why do people become radical?” asks Akbar Keshodkar, assistant professor of history, as he delves into the heart of his presentation at the first Faculty Luncheon of the spring semester. Keshodkar has been exploring this question as it applies to the indigenous population of Zanzibar since he began research on his doctoral thesis there in 2001, blending extensive field work with scholarly theory and discourse.

“Radicalism, in the way that some Zanzibaris perceive it, seems to be an effort for revitalization,” suggests Keshodkar. “As their lives collapse around them, with limited economic mobility and greater socio-religious marginalization, it is a search for dignity and a nostalgia for what a society might have been.”

A Glimpse of History

Zanzibar is an archipelago off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa. It owns a tumultuous history imposed by the actions and influences of British colonialism and mainland Africa and, over the past several years, by global political and economic ideologies of neoliberalism emanating from the West. In the mid-1800s, Zanzibar, which served as a major center for trade, became a hub for the slave trade in the Indian Ocean, and thousands from mainland Africa poured into the islands and converted to Islam to live under the protection of the Muslim edict forbidding slavery. As a result of interaction with societies from other parts of the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar emerged as a center of Islamic learning in East Africa and while Islam was the dominant faith, it co-existed peacefully with Hinduism, Catholicism, and other Christian traditions.

With the rise of an Africanist insurgency in 1964, which resulted in the genocide of Zanzibaris of non-African descent, the tide turned. Fearing competition, the totalitarian leaders of the 1964 Revolution imposed scientific socialism policies and imprisoned and exiled Islamic scholars, which incited a mass exodus of Muslims from Zanzibar. For the next 20 years no Islamic learning took place. “A vacuum in knowledge was created,” explains Keshodkar, “and people became susceptible to new ideas, particularly when the economy was liberalized in the mid-80’s. Many Zanzibaris that fled in the aftermath of the revolution sought refuge in the Arabian Peninsula and thus, with liberalization and their return to Zanzibar, new interpretations of Islam were imported into the region. With wealth from the Arabian Peninsula now greatly influencing the region, by offering social welfare support such as schools and hospitals for the impoverished community of Zanzibar, orthodox traditions of Islam, such as Wahabbism from Saudi Arabian now gained a foothold in the society.”

The Tourism Economy

As Zanzibar’s Islamic traditions went through a transformation so did its economy. Google Zanzibar and you get a list of travel sites extolling the splendors of this beautiful archipelago with it’s white sandy beaches, turquoise waters, and brilliant sunsets. It’s as if the islands exist only for the pleasure of the well-off vacationer, and that’s exactly how it seems to the natives of Zanzibar. In 2000, UNESCO designated Stone Town, on the main island, a World Heritage Site, fueling travel to this landscape. Tourism now makes up 52 percent of the GDP of Zanzibar.

While at first glance this might seem a boon to the region’s wealth, in fact, it drains the economy. “Hotels are owned and operated by Western companies, and though a room brings in $300 a night, a hotel worker takes home $100 a month,” explains Keshodkar. The work is seasonal and it attracts men and women from the mainland who compete for jobs. “The economic situation declined dramatically,” adds Keshodkar. “Unemployment rose from 25 percent in 2000 to 34 percent in 2009, and with work shifting away from traditional farming and fishing, now 95 percent of food is imported from the mainland.” Income has dropped substantially, the cost of living has risen, and over 50 percent of the population lives in abject poverty.

Tourism has devastated not only the living wage but cultural values as well--values rooted in privacy and respect. “It has brought forth new practices that lead to marginalization of local traditions,” says Keshodkar. “The best example of this is that in the local Muslim tradition in Zanzibar, both women and men are fully clothed in public, yet tourism brings western women clad in bikinis to the beaches and the village streets. It is an affront to Islamic tradition and long-held ideas of sexuality.” A similar dichotomy exists in the juxtaposition of public bars and the Muslim practice of drinking alcoholic beverages in the privacy of the home. Women’s roles are also traditionally tied to the private sphere, and as they now are forced to find jobs to help support their families, their public presence in the workforce emasculates the role and position of local men.

The Birth of a more Radical approach

“One of the Zanzibari men I spoke with said to me, ‘We’ve become a culture of beggars. We cannot support ourselves economically, and we’ve lost our values,’” Keshodkar shares. “It all comes back to this question of dignity. They have to look for alternative ways to survive, and there are alternative ways, but there is a price to pay.”

In 2012 the NGO Uamsho (meaning awakening) formed and started to bring forth radical political rhetoric to Zanzibar, urging that the region should become independent of its tie to mainland Tanzania. Uamsho, whose leaders had lived in the Gulf and received some funding from the region, was seen as a supporter of al-Qaeda by the ruling government and the U.S. and other countries--though there is no evidence--and was banned in 2013 and its leaders imprisoned, tortured and still in prison without a trial in Tanzania (the United States has not condemned this action).

With the growing influx of mainlanders arriving in Zanzibar in pursuit of economic opportunities in the tourism industry, many of whom are Evangelical Christians, one response by some to curb the imposition of this new Christian influence, who advocate the view that they are on a quest to conquer the “land of the heathens,” has been to burn churches, and Evangelicals have struck back by burning mosques. There have also been a few instances in which bars have been bombed.  These acts of violence can be contextualized within the fire of their frustration over the unwillingness of the corrupt government to take any meaningful action to improve the quality of life of locals, their growing inability to move themselves out of poverty, because that is the only voice left to them. Though these actions are not connected as part of any global movement, such incidences are often linked by authorities as part of a global terrorist network, resulting in further crack down of those who oppose the policies of the state, in turn further limiting the Zanzibaris ability to overcome their growing involuntary immobility and seek a better future.

“The development of the global war on terrorism has created a hegemonic structure,” Keshodkar points out, “Any sense of resistance to the power of the state is considered terrorism and as a result, indigenous rights are often trampled.”

For hope, Keshodkar turns to the photo of graffiti that he took when he was a doctoral student in Zanzibar in 2001. It reads, “We are prepared to fight for peace and prosperity. Leave and let Zanzibar remain the island of peace.” The state has tried to eliminate it says Keshodkar. They’ve white-washed it, put concession stands in front of it, and while the graffiti is no longer there, the message captured in the graffiti more than 15 years ago still resonates in how Zanzibaris situate themselves vis a vis the challenges they increasingly face to survive in their own society.