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Islam, State and Christianity in Angola – Dr. Moshe Terdiman

February 14, 2013


by Moshe Terdiman

Research fellow in the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 1 (2013), Number 2 (February 2013)


The Angolan government has been worried in recent years over the expansion of Islam and its impact on the organization and structures of the Angolan society. On March 31, 2009, Rosa Cruz e Silva, the then Angolan Minister of Culture, addressed the deputies of the sixth commission of the National Assembly, who visited the facilities of the National Institute of Religious Studies, and expressed concern about the growth and increase in the number of followers of Islam in Angola. She said that “our worry has to do with the expansion of Islam and the consequences it may cause to the organization and structure of the Angolan society”.[1]

In the same day, the head of the Angolan National Institute of Religious Studies, Maria de Fatima Republicano Viegas, said that the Angolan Government was concerned about Islam in the country and would investigate the activities of all mosques over concerns that Islamic practices go against cultural norms. The domestic intelligence service (SINFO), charged with compiling a report on mosque activities, started to conduct these investigations. Viegas described Islam as alien to the culture and traditions of the country and claimed that it victimized women who were married to Muslim men.[2]

According to an article, which was written in Arabic by Ahmad Hussein al-Shimi under the title “The Muslims in Angola between Internal Discrimination and Islamic Neglect”, the Muslim community in Angola is categorized as one of the “forgotten Muslim” communities, which is ignored almost totally by the Islamic and Arab media and about which almost nothing has been written.[3]

Little is known about the Muslim community in Angola. Our knowledge of this community derives mostly from a few newspaper articles. No research has been conducted on this subject. Therefore, the aim of this article is to discuss the Angolan Muslim community, its composition, and its relationship with the governmental authorities and with the Christian majority.

This preliminary research is mostly based on news articles, on reports of human rights organizations as well as on Muslim websites and few articles written in Arabic.

The Muslim Community in Angola

There are contradicting reports concerning the number of Muslims in Angola. According to the International Religious Freedom Report 2011, Islam in Angola is a minority religion estimated at 80,000 – 90,000 adherents, composed largely of migrants from West Africa and families of Lebanese origin. However, some sources in the Muslim community put these figures much higher, but there is no way to know what the true number really is.[4] The Muslims comprise between 2 – 2.5 percent of Angola’s overall population, which, as of July 2012, is estimated at 18 million people, most of them Christians.[5]

According to the same report, although the Angolan constitution provides for freedom of religion, the government has not yet legalized or recognized any Islamic group or organization. Indeed, the Angolan government requires religious groups to petition for legal status with the Ministries of Justice and Culture. Without being legalized, religious groups are not allowed to construct schools or churches or mosques. According to the Law on Religion, which was passed in 2004, in order to be registered and legalized, religious groups must provide general background information, have at least 100,000 adult adherents, and be present in 12 of the country’s 18 provinces. However, the Muslim community in particular is affected by this numerical limitation, since many of its adherents are believed to be illegal immigrants and, therefore, do not count towards the legal minimum.[6]

Islam in Angola is a very recent phenomenon. During the colonial era, and until the 1960s, one could not speak of the presence of Muslims in the country. Angola has been a Christian bastion and a predominantly Christian nation because of the advent of the Portuguese on the Angolan coast in the late fifteenth century and their ecumenical enterprises thereafter and because of the fact that the Kongo Kingdom, a part of which encompassed northern Angola, existed as a Christian kingdom for centuries. Therefore, even possible Islamic influence from the Swahili coast of East Africa did not and could not materialize.[7]       

However, in the last decade or so, but especially during the last few years, the Muslim community in Angola has grown significantly and Islamic activities have become more common in major cities. Since the inauguration of the first mosque in Luanda in 1989, called the al-Fatah Mosque, mosques have sprung up in a number of places and Qur’anic schools have been built to provide Islamic instructions and teach Arabic language to adherents. Nowadays, there are 32 mosques throughout Angola, nine of them are located in Luanda.[8]

Muslim affairs are generally governed by the Supreme Council of Angolan Muslims, based in Luanda. According to the Islamic Finder website, the Supreme Council of Angolan Muslims “was set up to take care of Muslim affairs in Angola”.[9]

The Muslim community is predominantly made up of foreigners, especially businessmen and migrants from West Africa — mainly from Mali, Nigeria, and Senegal – who comprise about 80 percent of the Angolan Muslim community, and Lebanon.[10]

Historically, in Angola’s diamond provinces, Muslims have been mainly West African immigrants and illegal immigrants from the DRC who have become Muslims while working in the DRC’s diamond areas. Thus, for example, Al-Khudur Abd al-Baqi, a researcher specializing in the Muslim minorities in Africa, wrote that Islam in Angola started in 1960. These first Muslims resided in what was known then as Belgian Congo, which is Zaire now, after fleeing Angola because the Portuguese authorities forced them to work in forced labor. While in Belgian Congo, these refugees were exposed and converted to Islam. Then, they fled back to Angola following the hostilities and the secession of Katanga from the newly independent Republic of Congo in 1960. Later, during the long struggle for independence from Portuguese rule between the years 1961-1975, many Angolans had to flee to the neighboring country of Zaire, where some of them converted into Islam. After Angola won its independence in 1975, these refugees returned to Angola, where they have remained Muslims.[11]

It has been suspected that some Muslims in Angola’s diamond provinces have become channels of investment for terrorist networks seeking to purchase diamonds from illegal miners, known as garimpeiros. Diamond sales reached approximately $1.1 billion in 2006. Despite increased corporate ownership of diamond fields, much production is currently in the hands of the garimpeiros. The Angolan government is making an increased effort to register and license prospectors. It has established an export certification scheme to identify legitimate production and sales.[12]

Apart from the diamond trade, many younger Angolans have been attracted to Islam by the economic success and social status of the migrant Muslim businessmen. These newly converts to Islam, who live mostly in the eastern part of the country — where they work in agriculture — or in the cities, are very poor. Therefore, the promise of solidarity can be a powerful lure to impoverished people. Despite a fast-growing economy largely due to its oil boom, which makes Angola the energy security of both the United States and China and the source of stability for all of South-Central Africa, it ranks in the bottom 10% of most socioeconomic indicators. It is still recovering from 27 years of nearly continuous warfare. Corruption and mismanagement are persistent problems. Despite abundant natural resources and rising per capita GDP, Angola was ranked 157 out of 179 countries on the 2008 UN Development Program’s Human Development Index. Subsistence agriculture sustains one-third of the population.[13]

Some Angolans have converted to Islam as a result of active proselytizing by Muslim organizations such as the Associacao Islamica de Desenvolvimento de Angola (Association of the Development of Islam in Angola, AIDA), and the Africa Muslim Agency, which is a primarily Kuwait-sponsored aid and Da’wah organization based in Kuwait. Other Angolans had come in contact with Islam while being refugees in neighboring states with a strong Islamic pretence. The new Muslim communities attract young Angolan converts, among them young Angolan females who follow Islamic dress codes. There is also an evidence of a new marriage pattern emerging, namely between Muslim men and Angolan women who convert to Islam, opening related questions on the eventual political or economic aspects involved.[14]

The Associacao Islamica de Desenvolvimento de Angola, or the Association of the Development of Islam in Angola, is the primary proselytizing organization in the country. Its founder and Vice President is Famar Drame. On May 5, 2006, Famar Drame published in Mathaba Religious News an article titled “Appeal to Muslims for Islamic Propagation in Angola”, in which he described the then current situation of the Muslims in Angola and asked for an external help in propagating Islam in the country and in “instilling and educating our children with Islamic values and knowledge”. According to this article, the Association of the Development of Islam in Angola is the first and only Islamic organization recognized and active in the country. By May 2006, the association succeeded to establish three Islamic schools. The Angolan Government authorized the association to build a mosque and a school attached to it in order to teach Islamic knowledge, Arabic and Portuguese. This school has a capacity of 560 students. The second school consists of five classrooms and each class has the capacity of 35 students for morning and evening classes. 175 students participate in both the morning and evening classes. The third school consists of 580 students, of whom 70 are orphans. Therefore, this school is a day as well as a boarding school.[15]

Due to this state of affairs, the Angolan Muslim minority has been facing three main ongoing challenges to its existence: the lack of contact with the rest of the Arab and Muslim world, which has not shown much interest in its affairs and well being; Christian Missionaries and organizations proselytizing Christianity among the Muslims, especially the local Angolan converts to Islam; and the lack of Islamic organizations to handle the affairs of the Muslim community and to protect its rights vis-à-vis the Angolan authorities and the Christian majority.[16]

Attitudes of the Angolan Authorities and the Local Christian Church towards Islam

Public attitudes toward Islam have been generally negative. Cultural differences between Angolan and Muslim West African immigrants have been the basis for negative views toward Islam, as was the perceived link between Islam and illegal immigration.[17]

The Angolan authorities too have treated Muslim migrant workers from West African countries with suspicion. Since the September 11 attacks, there has been a deliberate attempt to link Muslims with terrorism. It has become a matter of routine at Luanda airport for security officers to detain Muslims arriving from Sahelian countries. Most of these people have been small-scale traders. Angolan security officials have increasingly been linking a number of Muslim businesses in the country with international terrorism, insinuating that those companies launder money for terrorist operations and are also allegedly involved in the trafficking of arms and drugs. There have also been allegations that senior government officials and some leaders of the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) were in cahoots with the Muslims in their alleged nefarious activities.[18]

As a result, on January 26, 2006, Angolan police invaded a number of mosques in several areas of Luanda, ordered the Muslims to leave and confiscated their equipment. Muslims have also been banned from holding religious services. The mosques were then locked with chain without giving any explanation whatsoever. During these operations, the police were accompanied by officials of the local administration as well as those from the Ministry of Culture. Lisboa dos Santos, the director of the National Institute for Religious Affairs, on whose orders the police acted, defended the action by saying that the law that allows people to congregate for religious purposes “does not apply to Islam since Islam is illegal” in the country.[19]

After encountering difficulties in 2006, Muslim leaders reported that the government permitted mosques to operate freely. Yet, Asma Jahangir, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Religion and Belief and a special investigator for the UN Human Rights Council, who visited Angola at the invitation of the country’s government on November 20, 2007, criticized in her report the lack of opportunity for detained Muslims to worship in detention centers and noted occasional anti-Muslim rhetoric taken by government officials in media interviews.[20]

Jahangir, who chairs the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said that the Muslim community had not been officially recognized and that the Angolan authorities had temporarily closed down some mosques in 2006. Jahangir said that several government actors had expressed concerns to her about the presence of Muslims in Angola and that the country was affected by the global trend of associating them with militant and criminal activity. “I was told that most of the illegal migrants in the country are Muslims and that they are involved in counterfeiting of money and money laundering, but we were provided with no evidence of this,” she said in the report. She further said that “the government is obliged to promote tolerance, and I would hope that unsubstantiated statements by officials will not be made to the detriment of any religious community”. Jahangir also visited two immigration centers in Angola’s capital, Luanda. She said that conditions at one, with only five detainees, were good. But those at the second were “deplorable” — 95 percent of the 165 people detained were Muslims with no access to an imam or religious books and their dietary needs were not being met.[21]

It seems like the situation of the Muslim in Angola has not experienced any change since 2006 and nowadays they still complain that they are not able to practice Islam freely because the Angolan government does not recognize Islam and selectively intervenes to close mosques, schools, or community centers. For example, according to the International Religious Freedom Report 2011, on November 16, 2011, the local authorities in Cacuaco, Luanda Province, arrived and forcibly tore down a large tent being used as a mosque, without any explanation. In the following month, a Muslim group in Malange Province began construction of a large and permanent mosque on land they had purchased near their small and temporary mosque after their application for the building hadn’t been met with any answer whatsoever. Yet, also in this case, the local authorities destroyed the foundation without any explanation. Therefore, during the last year, the US government “encouraged the [Angolan] government to permit practitioners of Islam to worship freely and build mosques in the country’s communities”, but, as for now, to no avail.[22]

The local Christian Church has also regarded the rapid expansion of Islam in the country with suspicion and fear. According to Rev. Luis Mguimbi, the General Secretary of the Council of Christian Churches of Angola, one of the biggest challenges currently facing the Angolan church is the rapid expansion of Islam in the country since 2002, when Angola allowed other religious groups to come to the country. In a country where approximately 40% of the population is Catholic and around 39% is Protestant, a lot of Angolans are currently converting to Islam. According to Rev. Nguimbi, this occurs for three basic reasons: Islam offers money, which is supplied by big Arab corporations; Muslims are able to offer jobs, since they are gradually controlling many of the local businesses; and Muslims are more liberal than the churches, especially because they allow men to have up to five women. Rev. Nguimbi also affirmed that in the economic and political scene of Angola, Islam is becoming the “boss of the country”. Six years ago, in 2006, the Council issued a declaration about the influence of Islam in the country, in which it asked the Angolan government to be careful and to be aware of that reality. As of 2010, the Council was not interested in a dialogue with Islam. Rev. Nguimbi said that “our priority is now to consolidate the Christian family before engaging in any dialogue. Not only is Islam one of the greatest challenges the church faces at this moment, but one that could cause another war in the country”.[23]

Indeed, on September 1, 2008, a Muslim mob attacked the Christian community in the town of Andulo. The school-age daughter of a deacon at one of the churches was decapitated. Forty Christians were assaulted or tortured. The mob burned three church buildings. They also went to Christians’ houses to intimidate them or destroyed items of property. Stones were thrown at the headquarters of a local Christian project, causing some damage. An Angolan Christian leader said that the local police were unable to stop the attack and fled the scene.[24]

This was the first case of riots between Muslims and Christians in Angola. During the last four years no other riots between the followers of the two religions have been reported or documented. Yet, it seems like the ever-growing suspicious attitude of Angolan Christians towards Muslims might bring with it the possibility of the eruption of more religious riots.

Furthermore, it is not clear whether the Angolan Muslims are really allied with al-Qaeda or not. It might be that al-Qaeda has been setting its sights on destabilizing Angola in order to disrupt its supply of oil to the West and to China and to control the Angolan diamond industry, but until now no activity of al-Qaeda in the country has been ascertained. Yet, al-Qaeda might take advantage of the suspicious attitude by which the Christians treat the Muslims in Angola in order to recruit Muslims into their ranks. If al-Qaeda can triumph in Angola, it can continue its plans to wage economic warfare against the West as well as seize a major income producing resource for its own ends.

To sum up, not much if anything is known in mostly Christian Angola about Islam, which is a newly coming religion to the country. This lack of knowledge makes the Christians afraid of the Muslims, especially since many of them are foreigners who arrive from abroad. Thus, the fear of foreigners entering the country in large quantities together with the Christian fear of Islam, about which they know only a little mostly about its connection to terrorism, make the life of the ever-growing Muslim population more and more difficult. This religious and social tension might provoke riots between Christians and Muslims in the future.

Despite all the challenges it is facing, the Angolan Muslim community has been continuing to grow, mostly of economic reasons. Since Islam in Angola is a new phenomenon, case studies on Muslims in Angola are still at their inception, and apart from this first article on the subject, more profound analysis still needs to be done.

[7] See on-line at: See Oyebade, Adebayo O. Culture and Customs of Angola, Westport: Greenwood Press, 2007, pp. 45 – 46.

One Comment
  1. A very interesting and insightful article. It’s sad to hear that children are once again put in the firing line for choices that adults make for them…how will we integrate them into our adult histories when so much of their hurt is at our hands.

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