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Discontent Brews in Zanzibar

Islamist sentiment in the Tanzanian archipelago raises tensions as islands hold elections today.

October 30, 2005|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

ZANZIBAR, Tanzania — From a dimly lighted storefront along one of this ancient city's winding stone passageways, Khalid Azan is planning for what he sees as a bright, religious future.

Zanzibar's economy is foundering and complaints about government abuse are on the rise. The ruling party made a mockery of democratic reforms by stealing the last two elections, international observers say. On islands where Muslims make up 99% of the population, Italian tourists flout Islamic mores by roaming the streets in bikinis.

For Azan, the signs all point in one direction: an Islamic Republic of Zanzibar.

"Democracy in Zanzibar has failed," said Azan, a founder of the Islamic Propagation Organization, a growing Islamist group that recently drew thousands to a rally. "Muslims are desperate. They are suffering. The only way for our society to move forward is through an Islamic state."

Bucking Zanzibar's history of religious tolerance and moderation, a small but vocal group of Muslim hard-liners is gaining clout in this tropical paradise, a semiautonomous archipelago that is part of the East African nation of Tanzania.

Muslim clerics who once shunned politics now pepper their Friday sermons with anti-government diatribes and criticism of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq and Israeli policies toward Palestinians.

Islamic fundamentalists have pushed for tougher prison sentences for gay sex and say their next goal is a ban on alcohol and a requirement that female tourists cover their heads in public.

Radicalized by years of perceived marginalization from the Tanzanian government, some younger Muslims in Zanzibar have returned from scholarships in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan with the view that religion is the only force that can rescue the island from what they see as moral decay.

"Young people are more devout than the previous generation," said Othman Maalim, an Islamic studies teacher whose fiery sermons have angered some government officials. "They are coming back to the basic teachings of the Koran."

The issue may come to a head today in local elections. Tanzania, formed in 1964 by the merger of Tanganyika and the islands of Zanzibar, was also scheduled to choose a president, but the voting was delayed until December after the death Wednesday of a senior opposition candidate.

The country's ruling Revolutionary Party of Tanzania, which has won international praise for its democratic and economic policies, is considered a shoo-in on the mainland, where Muslims do not hold the majority.

But most predict the opposition Civic United Front has the edge on Zanzibar and Pemba, the semiautonomous territory's two populated islands.

International observers say the opposition party probably would have won the 1995 and 2000 elections on Zanzibar's islands were it not for government interference, a claim the ruling party denies. Allegations of ballot-tampering five years ago spurred bloody protests in which more than three dozen opposition supporters were killed in clashes with police.

Both sides were bracing for possible violence in the run-up to today's elections. At least two people died and more than 100 were injured in the last several months in brawls involving opposition supporters, government police and gangs of young men allegedly backed by the government.

Zanzibar's president, Amani Abeid Karume, whose father seized control of the islands in a 1964 coup, vowed recently to roll out heavy weapons to crack down on protesters. Karume has been importing security forces, weapons and vehicles from the mainland, where he draws much of his political support.

Opposition leaders are calling for supporters to stay close to polling stations today to prevent ballot-tampering. They threaten massive "Ukrainian-style" demonstrations should the government attempt to steal the vote.

"But we will not carry weapons, and we will not hit back," said Civic United Front presidential candidate Seif Sharif Hamad, who was a member of the ruling party until his reformist tendencies landed him in prison nearly 20 years ago.

Islamists are watching largely from the sidelines, confident that turmoil will help their cause no matter what happens. Conservative religious groups, such as Islamic Propagation and Imams Assn. of Zanzibar, are prohibited from establishing their own political parties, so they've informally thrown their support behind the opposition.

The ruling party has used that perceived endorsement to paint the opposition party as an extremist Muslim group dominated by supporters of Arab sultans who dominated the island and oppressed Africans until the 1964 revolution.

"We believe there is a connection between CUF, the extremist groups and terrorists in general," said Saleh Ferouz, deputy secretary-general of the ruling party.

Hamad dismissed such allegations and accused the ruling party of feeding the extremist tide through its refusal to relinquish power.

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