Eugene Henderson, Express (London), August 11, 2013
When 18-year-olds Katie Gee and Kirstie Trup volunteered to work as teachers, they were told how to behave and how they should dress while visiting an island where at least 95 per cent of the population is Muslim.
What they failed to realise is that months of growing tension has left Zanzibar a very different destination to the one portrayed in the brochures.
Religious intolerance has become commonplace with attacks on both Muslim and Catholic leaders, including the fatal shooting of a priest on Christmas Day.
Like much of east Africa, Zanzibar is going through a torrid time. In a region where Al Qaeda in Kenya merges into the equally dangerous Al Shabaab in Somalia, there are concerns that a brand of radical Islam is gaining a foothold there.
However, police hunting the two men on a motorbike who targeted the girls insist they are keeping an open mind over the motive for the attack.
Many on the island believe those responsible are linked to an extremist group that wants to impose Sharia law.
The rise of The Awakening, or Uamsho in the island’s native Swahili, has been meteoric. It is also believed wealthy outsiders from the Gulf states or Iran are backing it.
Led by Sheikh Farid Hadi Ahmad, who is in jail awaiting trial, it has emerged as the new political voice on an island which is no stranger to political upheaval. Arab traders have lived on the island, which has been a melting pot of races and religions since as far back as the ninth century.
In 1890, more than a decade after the once lucrative slave trade was abolished, the British declared the island a protectorate and it stayed that way until it gained independence in 1963.
However, in 1964, during a bloody revolution, the African majority, many of them descendants of slaves, overthrew the minority Arab ruling elite.
After a republic was established, an act of union with Tanganyika on the mainland was signed giving semi-autonomy to Zanzibar and forming the United Republic of Tanzania.
Political tensions persisted for more than four decades, with elections marred by rioting, top right, but in 2010 it was hoped the formation of the Zanzibar Government of National Unity would finally bring the unrest to an end. It succeeded in ending party clashes but left a political vacuum which Uamsho is exploiting.
Formed as a religious charity, it is now demanding independence.
“We don’t need a new constitution…we need our freedom,” Sheikh Hadi Ahmad said in a speech last year.
He has accused the country’s rulers of betraying Zanzibar and claims prostitution, drugs and alcohol are all corruptions exported from Tanzania.
Uamsho’s agenda includes a code of conduct for the tourists who account for 80 per cent of foreign currency earnings, draconian limits on alcohol and private hotel beaches to prevent visitors corrupting locals.
Last year Tanzania’s prime minister Mizengo Pinda told the National Assembly: “Unfortunately Uamsho has lost direction and is propagating hatred among the people in Zanzibar.”
One opponent claims the rhetoric has left many Zanzibaris feeling that Uamsho “speaks for them”.
In October last year, when Sheikh Hadi Ahmad went missing for four days, his supporters rampaged in the streets and the clashes left two people dead. He claimed to have been kidnapped by the security forces.
Now he is one of 10 Muslim clerics in jail, accused of conspiracy to instigate violence.
Catholic, Anglican and Pentecostal church leaders have all expressed growing fears among their followers about the safety of their lives and property, especially church buildings. Despite government crackdowns and propaganda aimed at undermining Uamsho, there seems to be no signs of its support waning.
In the mosques Imams praise the “freedom fighters” of Al Shabaab. In the wake of last week’s attack, police issued a warrant for the arrest of Islamist preacher Sheikh Ponda Issa, in the belief his teaching may have inspired the outrage.
In such a climate, many religious leaders are convinced fundamentalists are behind the attack on the girls.
Moderate Muslim cleric Sheikh Fadhil Soraga, who suffered horrific burns to his face and arms in an acid attack nine months ago, said: “Of course this was Uamsho.
“Just 10 days ago they were saying they were planning something. This attack, which all Muslims must condemn, is their work.”
Seven suspects were detained in the hours after the attack on a street in the capital Stone Town on Wednesday and a £4,000 reward is now being offered for information.
Dr Jan-Georg Deutsch, of Oxford University, said Uamsho and Sheik Hadi Ahmad were primarily a grouping articulating the social tensions of the unemployed and many disenfranchised youth.
“They do not have a definite programme,” he said. “That is their strength. Yes, there are religious and political tensions, but above all there are social tensions arising out of the inability and lack of will by the government to do something about rampant youth unemployment, government corruption, a failing education system and a non-functioning health sector.
“I would say these two young women were selected as victims because they had the prospect of having a life that most youths in Zanzibar could not even dream of.”
The teenagers, who were volunteers for the charity Art in Tanzania, were in the final week of their trip. Police said it was the first time foreigners had been attacked in this way.
Katie revealed, however, that she had been attacked last month by a Muslim woman who hit her because she was singing in the street during the fasting month of Ramadan.
There were claims that a man standing near the girls could have been the intended target.
However, Katie’s mother Nicky said: “They weren’t going for the man. They were going up and down the road, they were going for tourists.”
The teenagers arrived back in Britain on Friday and were taken to the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London to receive treatment for their burns.