Muslim Identity at Risk in the Central African Republic
11 Aug 2015
As violence continues in the Central African Republic, a conflict not religious at its roots, an Amnesty International report finds that the Muslim community face threats to their safety, identity, and ability to work.
A report published by Amnesty International in on 31 July 2015, ' Erased Identity: Muslims in Ethnically Cleansed Areas of the Central African Republic,' details many of the different ways in which violence continues, and how many Christians and Antibalaka militiamen are threatening the remaining Muslim population, erasing their identity and economic opportunities within the country.
The ongoing conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) is one of the largest humanitarian disasters globally at the moment. It has continued to simmer largely beneath the surface of international media, political, and humanitarian attention. While not a religious conflict in its origins, the violence across the country evolved from economic and political roots to divide Central Africans into largely Christian and Muslim groups until identification – even if only peripherally – with one or the other was justification for security or death.
Amnesty International interviewed more than 80 people for its report, including private citizens, religious leaders, UN staff, government and NGO personnel, and a lack of security was reported as the biggest problem in the country. The report states that security in the CAR is improving incrementally, but it remains fundamentally unpredictable and precarious. There remains almost nothing to enforce or sustain a lack of violence where it exists, killings continue, harassment remains, and flight into the bush and protected enclaves is still common.
30,000 Central African Muslims are sheltering in enclaves.
The Amnesty report states that at least 6,000 people have been killed by violence in the country since the end of December 2012. Tens of thousands more have been displaced internally and in neighbouring countries. More than 30,000 Central African Muslims are currently sheltering in enclaves in the western third of the country, protected by international forces. Many of those interviewed however stated that regional and international troops are more often seen in their barracks than on patrol, perpetuating insecurity outside the enclaves.
The report states that outside the pockets of protected areas, which are mostly around the capital Bangui, Muslims have reportedly largely disappeared. The government continues to lack the capacity or influence to govern outside the capital, the military remains ineffectual, and international troops largely remain close to Bangui, resulting in a lack of security or government in the rest of the country.
The threats faced by the remaining Central African Muslims are categorised in the report into three categories: physical, identity, and economic.
Muslims used to make up a significant part of the population in the western third of the CAR where Amnesty conducted its research for the report, and approximately 14 per cent nationally. Now however, there are almost none left. Beginning largely in the beginning of 2014 after Antibalaka militias took control of Bangui and pushed ex-Seleka militias out of the west and south regions of the country, Antibalaka militias travelled the country exacting revenge on Muslims for the violence wrought by the Seleka when it was in power. Many Central African Christians saw the Seleka as foreign Muslims, and many – or even all – of the CAR's Muslims as complicit in Seleka violence.
Remaining Muslim communities have negotiated their safety with local antibalaka militias.
Antibalaka militias, composed mostly of Christians and Animists, targeted Muslims, particularly those of Sudanese and Chadian descent and Mbororo tribal herders. Those Muslims who remained in their communities throughout the worst of the violence in 2014 and now, have had to negotiate their safety with community members and local Antibalaka militias. The situation always remains precarious, often needing continuous reaffirmation, support from Christian family and friends, and protection money.
The Amnesty report found that those Muslims who have returned to their communities have faced further threats to their identity and religion. Muslims are largely barred from manifesting or practicing Islam in public. They cannot pray (except in private), cannot wear Muslim clothes traditional to the region, and feel insecure speaking certain dialects in the presence of others, all of which makes violence against them more likely. Instead, it is Antibalaka fighters who are now more likely to wear traditionally Muslim attire. It a trophy and also a humiliating symbol to Muslims.
While religion has become a dividing indicator for Central Africans, loyalties are also very intertwined with tribal and ethnic ties. Those Central Africans, even Muslims, perceived as indigenous to the CAR are much safer than those seen as foreign. Sudanese and Chadians, and also tribal Mbororo herders are perceived as complicit in Seleka violence and foreign to the country, even if they have lived in the CAR for generations. Many feel that Chadian and Sudanese descended Central Africans will never be able to return to rural CAR. On the other hand, those of Senegalese or Malian descent are largely perceived as less complicit in Seleka-era violence and more likely to be spared.
The report also found that many Muslims experienced different treatment depending on familial and friendship ties to Christians within a community. Christians in many cases would negotiate with militia members for the protection of Muslims family members and friends. Amnesty also found that people with Christian mothers were more likely to be considered local, and less likely to be killed. As one Muslim interviewee said, "my Christian relatives like me a lot and kept negotiating with the Antibalaka to save me."
Many of those interviewed reported facing pressure to convert to Christianity.
Many of those interviewed by Amnesty reported facing pressure or outright threats of and actual violence to convert to Christianity. In one example, Muslims from the village of Bania fled from Antibalaka attacks into the forests. Weeks later a village headman and protestant pastor searched for them and said the Antibalaka would hunt them down in they didn't return, but they could only return if they were baptised.
Apart from personal insecurity, Muslims also reported that almost all the country's mosques, more than 400, had been damaged or destroyed by Antibalaka and sectarian violence. Destruction of mosques was a deliberate act of violence against Islam and Muslims as well as a signal by the Antibalaka that Muslims were not welcome to return. Any attempt to repair or rebuild mosques has met with violence in all communities outside the protected enclaves of Bangui.
The continued insecurity in the CAR and violence against Muslims has also impacted their ability to work and earn a living. Antibalaka members have destroyed or taken over many Muslim houses as war booty. This provides economic incentive not to allow Muslims back.
Many Muslims reported to Amnesty that they frequently cannot travel outside their home, adjacent fields and only occasionally beyond their villages without inviting attack. They are only relatively secure among those who know and recognise them. This means they cannot work or travel for work freely, severely debilitating their ability to earn a living. Many Muslims also used to be involved in the diamond trade, most of which is now controlled by Christians or Antibalaka militiamen, cutting Muslims out of the economy.
The Muslims interviewed by Amnesty for this report stated clearly that they continue to face violence and harassment, that the government and international troops and peacekeepers remain unable to project influence or security over the vast majority of the country. Antibalaka militiamen remain the strongest force in many communities and most have not relinquished a desire to see all Muslims leave the country. Muslims stated that they feel their identity and religion is being wiped away through harassment, violence, forced conversions, and Antibalaka appropriation of their property, possessions, professions, and ability to practice their religion. Though there has been some improvement noted in the country, peace and security remains a distant possibility according to the report.
You can read the full report here.
This article summarises an external report, and is not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
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