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Islam in Swaziland – Dr. Moshe Terdiman

February 14, 2013

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By Moshe Terdiman

RIMA Occasional Papers, Vol. 1 (2013), Number 1 (February 2013)

Introduction

In January 2012, it was reported that Swaziland considered the establishment of the first Islamic bank in the country and already in 2011, its ambassador to Qatar held negotiations with Qatar National Bank, one of the largest banks in the Middle East and North Africa, to be the forerunner for its set up. The main reason for the establishment of such a bank in Swaziland is to attract many private investors and companies from the Middle East to invest in the country. However, as for September 2012, this initiative has not been successful yet, apparently because in 2011, the Qatar Central Bank ordered all Qatar’s conventional banks with Islamic operations to shut it down. Yet, Arab investors have shown interest in establishing Islamic banks in Swaziland, so, there is a good chance that an Islamic bank will be established there in the next few years.[1]

An Islamic bank established in Swaziland will also be able to serve the Muslim community in the country. Little is known about the Muslim community in Swaziland. No research has been conducted on this subject and little is known about this Muslim community. Therefore, this article will discuss the Muslim community in Swaziland, its composition, its relationship with the Christian majority, and how it is perceived by the local media.

This preliminary research is mostly based on news articles from the local Swazi press as well as from local Swazi Muslim websites and other Islamic websites.

The Swazi Muslim Community

According to the CIA Factbook, as for July 2012, Swaziland’s population is estimated to be 1,386,914. The majority of the population, about 97 percent, is ethnically Swazi. About 82 percent of the population adheres to different kinds of Christianity while the Muslims comprise 10 percent of the total population.[2] However, according to the US Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report 2011, the Muslims comprise only 2 percent of the total population.[3]

The Swazi Muslim community is divided into two sections: the local Swazi Muslim community, which is originated in the Sub-Indian Continent and Malawi, and newcomer refugees and immigrants originating from other African countries, such as: Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria, etc.

Islam in Swaziland probably dates back to the colonial period, when, many Muslims settled in the country from other countries under the rule of the British Empire, such as the Sub-Indian continent and South African countries. In 1963, Muslim Malawian workers came to Swaziland to work in the asbestos mines. The Malawian practice of Islam attracted followers, and soon Malawi-Swazi communities took shape in a few small towns. Islam was recognized by the Swazi king as a religion in 1972 and Muslims have since joined the national Good Friday celebrations to pray for him.[4]

According to the US Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report 2011, the constitution provides for freedom of religion and the government generally respects freedom of religion in practice. Yet, according to the same report, “minority religious groups enjoy fewer protections under traditional laws and customs, which include traditional courts and the authority of approximately 360 chiefs. When a religious group’s practices conflict with tradition and culture as defined by chiefs, they may direct community pressure against the group. Before religious groups may erect religious buildings, they must consult with the chiefs and obtain their approval. Portions of the capital are zoned especially for places of worship. Government permission is required for the construction of new religious buildings in urban areas, and permission is required from chiefs in rural areas.”[5]

The first mosque in Swaziland was constructed in 1978 in Ezulwini village, which is located close to Mbabane, Swaziland’s administrative capital, in which reside about 1,200 Muslims. This mosque can accommodate 300 people. Yet, due to the inadequate public transportation facilities, it was difficult for the Muslim residents of Mbabane to reach that mosque. Hence, in 1982, a small mosque was established in Malunge Township, Mbabane. Currently, this mosque can accommodate about 60 people and also serves as madrasa. That mosque was too small for Friday prayers. Therefore, the Muslim residents of Mbabane had to commute to the Ezulwini mosque. Since also the small mosque cannot answer the needs of the ever growing Muslim population, nowadays, the Mbabane Islamic Centre is constructing Masjid-E-Yusuf in Mbabane.[6]

Besides the Mbabane Islamic Centre, there are few other Muslim organizations active in Swaziland. One of them is the Islamic Youth Organization of Swaziland. This organization was established in 1995 and registered in 1996 as a religious NGO. It has been run by volunteers and its main objectives are: education, Islamic education, women’s education, Arabic education, youth and women empowerment, poverty alleviation, HIV/AIDS mitigation, and da’wah. The first Muslim school in Swaziland was initiated in 2003, but has not been completed yet due to lack of funds. Applications for funds have been sent out to many Muslim organizations. The school was due to be opened in 2011.[7]

Until the completion of the school, the Muslim children will have to study in Christian religious schools. Very few Muslim youth graduate from high school. Another option is to send Muslim youth to study Islamic studies and vocational education in South Africa and other countries, but only few parents can afford that. Therefore, there are few Muslim graduates and professionals, especially among the local Swazi Muslims.[8] 

As of July 2011, the Islamic Youth Organization of Swaziland was working on building a community center, which would include a school, a clinic, skills center, youth center and women’s center. After its completion, it will be the first school and center in Swaziland to serve only the Muslim community. The school will also answer another pressing need of the Swazi Muslim community, which is to bring to Swaziland qualified Muslim teachers for Arabic, Qur’an, and the Sciences from elsewhere in the Muslim world so that Muslim youth would be able to qualify for universities both in Swaziland and abroad.[9]

The Islamic Youth Organization of Swaziland has been using the mosques as its bases of operations. It has links to Muslim organizations in neighboring and other African countries, such as: the Muslim Youth Movement of South Africa – Durban, the Islamic Da’wah Movement of South Africa, Southern Africa Da’wah Network, Islamic Call Society – Maputo, Blue Crescent Society – Mauritius, World Assembly of Muslim Youth – South Africa, and the Africa Muslim Youth Congress – Durban.[10]  

The Islamic Youth Organization of Swaziland is headed by Dr. Basheer Shabangu, who happens to have a position with yet another Swazi Muslim organization, the Swaziland Islamic Trust.[11] There is no more information about this organization.

Relationships between the Christian Majority and the Muslim Minority

According to the US Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report 2011, “members of society often viewed non-Christian religious groups with suspicion, especially in rural areas… In general, however, there was broad societal respect for religious freedom.”[12]

This suspicion has been expressed and fomented by the Swazi media. According to Richard Rooney’s article, “Swazi Journalism and the ‘Muslim Threat’”, there is a lot of prejudice towards Muslims in the Swazi media. According to this article, “the Swazi press frames Muslims as warlike people who are plotting against Swaziland and who have no respect to Swazi customs. The religion of Islam is inferior to Christianity, ‘the only true religion’, and Muslims are conniving to force decent Christians in Swaziland to convert to Islam in return for money”.[13]

In order to prove his point, Richard Rooney brings in his article three case studies from 2005. Here, I will deal only with one of them, which concerns the decision to drop Christianity from the draft of the new constitution, which came into effect in 2006, as the official religion of the country. On July 13, 2005, the Times of Swaziland published a front-page article titled “Muslims Are to Blame – Pastor Justice Dlamini”. The Pastor, who was at the time a leader of an evangelical Christian church, said that “it is obvious even to a small child that the Islam community have a strong hand in the removal of this clause. It is therefore clear that the removal of the clause is the means of paving an official platform for the Islamic religion into Swaziland”. He further said that “it is clear that the invasion of the Islamic religion would mark the beginning of violence and terrorism in the country”. This was the opening for a heated debate from above the pages of the Swazi press concerning Islam, the holy war waged by Christianity on Islam and Muslims, and the centrality of Christianity to Swazi life. King Mswati III put an end to the debate by saying that “Christianity needed no special protection because it originated with God”.[14] 

The media coverage of Islam and Muslims has continued to be full of prejudice, ignorance and negativity also as from 2005 onward. For example, on June 16, 2007, the Swazi News newspaper published in its front page the headline “Emazimu” (the siSwati word for cannibals) and a photograph of what supposed to have been cannibals in the Amazon jungle. On page two, the newspaper reported that “Mbabane was ripped by a tense sense of fear. The city has been engulfed by fear that strange beings, or man-eating beings, have descended on the city. Cannibals are feared to be in Mbabane, and the nation has pressed the panic button in fear that their safety cannot be guaranteed anymore. Panicking members of the public have flooded with calls the Royal Swaziland Police Service and His Majesty’s Correctional Services”.[15]

In the following week, on June 23, 2007, the same newspaper revealed that these cannibals were a visiting group of Muslims from Pakistan and there was no need to panic. Yet, the article included also the following sentence: “obviously, confused by a group of at least 15 men with beards and of foreign origin it was easy for everyone to refer to the group of cannibals”.[16]      

Another expression of this suspicion and ignorance about Islam and Muslims was the Kentucky Fried Chicken halal controversy, which broke out in July 2010, when Kentucky Fried Chicken officially announced that its meat was halal. As a result, some of its Christian customers were agitated because of the ignorance concerning the true meaning of halal.[17]

For example, Pastor Zipho Mhlanga of the Latter Harvest Church in Manzini said that making the Kentucky Fried Chicken halal is tantamount to imposing the religion of Islam on people. He said that “the worst thing is that the meat is eaten by all people, whether Christian or Muslim. Why is there a need to make it halaal. Our understanding is that they are selling to the market not just to the Muslims”. He further said that “Christians also have to establish their own businesses so they would not have to argue over such issues”.[18]

Pastor Joseph Mudzingwa of the Seventh Day Adventist said that “though we do have a scripture that talks about not eating food sacrificed to idols, Christians should check their conscience because nowadays most meat has been proclaimed halaal. When one walks into a supermarket he finds that most of the meat on offer is halaal. This is why I say Christians should not take the issue lightly”.[19]

The Times of Swaziland looked into the issue and found out that in 2008, the Swaziland Halaal Authority asked Kentucky Fried Chicken to check the status of its fried chicken regarding the halal regulations since the Swazi Muslims would like to buy its fried chicken, but they would not be able to do so if it is not halal. In June 2010, Kentucky Fried Chicken obtained a certificate that its fried chicken is halal.[20]

The press has not been the only channel covering the so called “Muslim threat”. Swazi television, radio, and blogs have also covered this subject using the same motifs as used in the press.

It should be mentioned in this context that not only Muslims have been treated with suspicion, prejudice and dehumanization by the Swazi media, but also Asian immigrants have been treated in the same manner. For instance, on June 28, 2008, Fanyana Mabuza wrote in his column in the Weekend Observer newspaper that “Swaziland was being overwhelmed by hoards of fellows, some of scary extraction that you tend to wonder whether they do not ‘feed’ on human flesh. Some resemble scarecrows… You would swear they’re siblings to the Star Wars’ Darth Vader or the Swamp Thing”. He warned the readers that “Swazi lawmakers had to move real fast on this Eastern invasion, before they dilute our progeny and ultimately our identity and what else we have”.[21]

Conclusion

The majority of the population in Swaziland is Christian and ethnically Swazi. Their ethnicity, traditional culture and religion are central in their self definition as Swazis. The Swazis, as can be seen in the abovementioned examples taken from the Swazi press, have failed to accept “otherness” and feel superior over the “other”. This feeling of superiority has been constantly threatened by the potential power of the “other”, whether numerical, social, political, or economic. Thus, one can see from the abovementioned examples taken from the Swazi press how the “Muslim threat” has been constructed in terms of numerical, economic, and social power.  

Therefore, there is a lot of discrimination towards non-Christians and foreigners, including Muslim immigrants or refugees from nearby African countries, such as Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and Mozambique. These foreigners are treated with a lot of distrust in Swazi society. This discrimination extends across all social classes. In this respect, the Swazi media are a mirror to the Swazi society at large.

Yet, Islam is penetrating Christian Swaziland by way of Islamic banking, Muslim and Arab investments, Muslim immigrants, mosques, and soon maybe Islamic education. As a result, the Swazi Muslim community has been growing and might continue to do so in the face of discrimination and suspicion.

To sum up, these developments make the Swazi Muslim community a very interesting and unique case in Africa of a Muslim community, which resides in a predominantly Christian state that does not welcome any foreigners or foreign influences. The Swazi Muslim community and its relationship with the ethnically Swazi majority is worthy of further research.    


[17] See on-line at:

2 Comments
  1. salamoalikom

  2. Raufu M.O. permalink

    A good insight to the muslim community of Swaziland. The work shows a better future socio-economic and educational development in Swaziland if this minority group can be more accomodated and understood in the true spirit of friendship.

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