Author: Yahya Sseremba
What you need to know:
- Following the end of Idi Amin’s government in 1979, the Supreme Council disintegrated, and the private character of religious authority in Islam was fully restored. Now the US Department of State has mounted another attempt to eliminate the private character of religious authority in Islam.
How does the state govern society? Specifically, how does the Ugandan state govern the Muslims? And how is America’s global interest in Islam and Islamic education shaping the ways in which the Ugandan state governs the Muslims?
These are some of the questions that I address in my new book, America and the Production of Islamic Truth in Uganda, published by Routledge.
Before the spread of Islam in Buganda in the 19th Century, spirituality constituted a form of (political) power alongside royal (political) power. These different forms of power checked and reinforced each other. Power was spread over different entities, including society-based entities, rather than being concentrated in one authority.
When Islam came, Kabaka Muteesa I emerged as the imam of Buganda on top of being king of Buganda. Does this mean that Muteesa combined royal and spiritual authority? He attempted with little success.
As Muslim converts gained access to other interpretations of Islam, they started questioning Muteesa’s Islamic credentials and religious authority, including his suitability to lead the prayers. He responded by killing many of them.
In brief, Muteesa’s attempt to combine spiritual and temporal authority achieved little because of the private character of religious authority in Islam. The modern state would seek to eliminate this private character of Islamic religious authority in order to subdue the Muslims.
To begin with, the colonial state crushed society-based forms of power that had hitherto checked royal power and instead created despotic native chiefs in what was known as indirect rule. These included the “Mohammedan chief” Prince Nuhu Mbogo who was given sweeping powers to govern the Muslims.
British colonial agent Frederick Lugard conquered Buganda in 1892 following years of conflicts between the Protestants and Catholics and between the Christians and Muslims. Since he needed stability to govern, he initiated a settlement.
Part of the settlement was to distribute the provinces of Buganda on religious basis. Although the Muslims at the time were in “exile” in Bunyoro, Lugard insisted that they must return and be part of the political community that he was forging in Buganda.
Yet, whereas Lugard included the Muslims in the political community, he excluded them from mainstream political life by forming a distinct domain for them. This domain—the Muslim domain—was composed mainly of the Mohammedan chief, Mohammedan law and Mohammedan homeland (the colonialists used the word “Mohammedan” to mean Muslim or Islamic).
While Lugard allocated most of the provinces to the Protestants, he insisted that these provinces would never constitute a Protestant homeland. The Protestant was a citizen of Uganda, not a member of a Protestant homeland, which never existed.
It was the Catholics and Muslims who were members of their homelands, namely, Buddu and Butambala, respectively. Lugard wanted the Catholic and Muslim identities to be local and parochial in the sense that they would be associated with particular territories in Uganda.
On the other hand, he wanted Protestantism to represent national citizenship identity that transcends any specific territory in Uganda. This was one of the earliest indicators that the colonialists were constructing Uganda as a Protestant nation in which the Catholics and especially the Muslims would live as political minorities.
In short, the colonial state governed the Muslim in three ways:
First, the Muslim was partly governed as a lesser citizen within the Protestant-dominated civil sphere. This sphere was governed directly by the central state under European law.
Second, the Muslim, like many Christians, was governed as a tribesperson subject to ethnic authorities and customary law.
Third, and most importantly, the Muslim was governed separately as a member of the Muslim domain under the Mohammedan chief and Mohammedan law.
Like the customary domain, the Muslim domain was subject to colonial state interference. However, one aspect of the Muslim domain largely escaped the attention of the colonial state, namely, the Islamic “school”, which operated on the kabalaza (veranda) of the mwalimu (teacher).
The mwalimu taught and shaped his pupils without state regulation. This does not mean that he was not accountable to society. The society that gave him its trust reserved the authority to withdraw this trust. The absence of state regulation is not the same as the absence of accountability.
The colonial state only focused on shaping the education of Muslim leaders like Prince Badru Kakungulu. Far from shaping the general Muslim population, the colonial and postcolonial state hoped to co-opt Muslim leaders to control the Muslim population.
President Idi Amin, however, went beyond the politics of co-opting Muslim leaders and created in 1972 a central Muslim authority—Uganda Muslim Supreme Council—through which the state could govern the Muslims.
The Supreme Council centralised Islamic religious authority in theory and considerably in practice. It claimed the authority to produce, confirm and discipline Islamic teachers and preachers.
The state banned all Muslim authorities except the Supreme Council. Also banned were the interpretations of Islam not sanctioned by the Council, including Salafism. The Supreme Council was a new version of the despotic Mohammedan chief that the colonial state invented.
By creating the Supreme Council, President Amin sought to eliminate the private character of religious authority in Islam and replace it with one Muslim authority that the state could regulate.
Following the end of Amin’s government in 1979, the Supreme Council disintegrated, and the private character of religious authority in Islam was fully restored.
Now the US Department of State has mounted another attempt to eliminate the private character of religious authority in Islam by bringing the mechanisms of Islamic truth production, especially the madrasa, under state domination.
Hired by the US Department of State to “reform” Islamic education, the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy says madrasa education contains extremist ideas and produces violent graduates. These ideas allegedly come from foreign sources in the form of Salafi literature.
Such war-on-terror narratives recycle the old culturalist assumptions of colonial anthropology, which proceed from the myth that the politics of “primitive” peoples like the Muslims are conditioned by culture or religion.
In these narratives, religion is portrayed not only as the opposite of reason but also as a fixed body of orthodoxy that shapes the believers but the believers do not shape it.
The Ugandan Muslim is thus assumed to have no role in the making of Salafism; rather it is Salafism, which is presumably imported as if it was a container of textile, that makes the Ugandan Muslim and drives him to kill.
Such pathetic assumptions inform the bigoted research that the drivers of the war on terror have conducted on Islamic schools.
Whereas a few local Muslims have participated in the said research, their participation is limited to data collection. The local Muslims have no role in formulating the research question, which is the foundation of research.
Political, ideological and prejudiced, the research question in this American pseudo-research is designed to generate predetermined conclusions that would justify certain state interventions in Muslim life and Islamic education. The research question proceeds from the pervasive myth that religion causes violence as if religion exists in a political vacuum!
Yet, such myths privileged by the US Department of State are shared by the Ugandan government, which explains why the Kampala regime is receptive to America’s prescriptions for madrasa reform.
State-Muslim relations in Uganda have been complicated since colonial times because African states were founded on religious and ethnic polarisation. The failure to address this divisive colonial legacy has produced much violence, including a Muslim rebellion in the 1990s.
To further harm State-Muslim relations, the current Ugandan regime has participated overzealously in America’s destructive war on terror. As its legitimacy withered, the regime found it useful to prove to the Americans that it was indispensable for countering Islamism locally and regionally.
In the process, the regime has propagated half-true narratives depicting the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels as an exclusively Muslim group behind the assassinations and other violent acts in recent years.
Accordingly, the state habitually arrests and tortures Muslims in big numbers—even if it cannot produce evidence to convict them in the courts of law—and targets Islamic schools with impunity.
The manner in which official narratives associate Islam with violence is surprising. These narratives exceptionalise the violence of Muslim actors in a country whose entire history is punctuated by violence. Museveni’s government alone, which came to power in 1986 after a long bloody rebellion, has fought at least 24 rebel groups of different stripes.
Instead of contextualizing the violence of Muslim actors in the broader violence prevalent in Uganda and elsewhere by examining the concrete circumstances that keep on producing instability, the said narratives simply rehearse the childish tales that have been used to demonize Islam for long.
Yet, my point is not to refute such contemptible explanations of political violence. Rather, my book is interested in two questions.
First, what kind of discourse does the counterterrorism project produce about the madrasa? Second, what purpose does this discourse serve?
The purpose of this discourse is partly evident in America’s prescriptions for Islamic education reform. The US Department of State has hired two organisations, including the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD), to implement its prescriptions.
Like its clients in Washington, the ICRD understands the relationship between Islam and political violence in such a simple-minded manner that it has compiled a list of Qur’an verses that purportedly drive Muslims to kill Americans. There is no contextualisation in its narratives—just empty culture talk.
It is not surprising that the ICRD has one universal template for Islamic education reform that it peddles from one country to another with minor modification.
Among the many controversial reforms that the Americans prescribe is the homogenisation of the different madrasah curricula into one curriculum and the creation of a single authority that would control all Islamic schools.
The authority in question is not any of the known Muslim authorities. Rather, it would include “stakeholders” from government, civil society and the Muslim community.
But the prescribed reforms have met opposition from the Muslims, and it remains to be seen how much Washington can successfully impose.
Two points merit attention. First, Ugandan Muslims have been reforming the madrasa over time, and they are open to further reform. Why, then, are they opposed to America’s reform project?
The problem is that the Americans are not interested in joining the conversation on madrasa reform that is already taking place in the local Muslim community. Instead, they prefer to define the problem unilaterally and impose solutions unilaterally.
When the Americans talk about local Muslim participation, they mean participation in collecting data or implementing imported solutions.
Second, the problem of America’s prescriptions is a manifestation of the problem of the modern state, which seeks to dominate society completely.
Regardless of whether it is secular or Islamic, liberal or non-liberal, capitalist or socialist, the modern state is determined to impose itself on all aspects of society, including religious life.
The current organisation of the madrasa under different society-based Muslim authorities is an opportunity for scholars interested in imagining alternative modes of governance away from the domineering modern state that legislates about everything and forces its laws on every bit of human life.
Yet, far from simply seeking to bring religion under state domination, the American-driven madrasa reform package presents Islam as a threat that the state must contain to protect society. This Islamophobic racism must be rejected.