Muslim community infuriated by removal of billboard deemed offensive by Christian community

By Duncan Mlanjira

The controversial billboard that was erected by Islamic Information Bureau at Maselema near Toyota Malawi in Limbe and was removed by Blantyre City Council, has taken a new twist as the Muslim community is infuriated by its removal and is ‘demanding’ for its immediate restoration.

In a letter to Blantyre City Council’s chief executive officer dated Thursday, July 30, the Islamic Information Bureau — through national coordinator Sheikh Ahmed Chienda — says it is appalled by the removal of the billboard by Blantyre City Council which was elected at Maselema opposite Toyota Malawi in Limbe.

Removed Thursday night

“Your decision [to remove the billboard] has been effected in response to the Evangelical Association of Malawi’s letter dated 26th July, 2020 signed by Rev. Dr. Zach Kawalala, which our organisation has seen,” says Sheikh Chienda.

“In the said letter, the Evangelical Association of Malawi had alleged that the billboard in question was offensive to the Christian faith and demanded its immediate removal.

Redone message

“We find your decision unconscionable and illegal in multiple dimensions. For starters, your institution did not accord the Muslim Community through our organisation the opportunity to convey their position in respect of this matter.

“The Blantyre City Council, by virtue of being a neutral party, therefore could not have taken such prejudicious decision on the basis of a concern from one side of the story,” says the Muslim Community.

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However, when contacted after the petition from Evangelical Association of Malawi, Blantyre City Council public relations manager, Anthony Kasunda said action was taken even before the petition was sent to the Assembly.

“We engaged the owner of the billboard to advise the clients to change the message,” he said on Thursday, adding that it was erected without the Assembly’s blessings.

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“Messages on billboards have to be shared with the Council before publication. Messages on boards should not in any way offend other parties or stakeholders,” Kasunda had said.

In reacting to this recent development, Kasunda said the Blantyre City Council has “no further comment on this issue”.

However, the Muslim Community says it is their considered view that claims being made, the billboard did not carry any offensive language as it carried “simply an advancement of the Islamic Jurisprudence which posits that the Holy Qur’an is God’s final revelation”.

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“This, it is not offensive, in our view, to invite those who have never read the Qur’an to do so without coercing them.

“The mention of the Bible in the billboard, therefore, should not in any way be misconstrued as an attack to any Faith since Muslims also believe in the Bible and Jesus as a Messenger of God.

“Christians cannot claim exclusive rights in the Bible,” says the statement.

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The message on the billboards had said: “If you have read the Old Testament and the New Testament now read the Last Testament — The Quran the Ultimate Miracle”.

And in its petition the Evangelical Association of Malawi had said the message “likely to incite religious strife” as “it is deemed offensive to the Christian faith”.

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The petition said the Old Testament and the New Testament are books in the Christian Bible and reference to those books “in such a manner in a country predominantly Christian, even without specifically mentioning the Bible, tantamount to a comparison between the Bible and the Quran”.

“Such an action is unacceptable and a recipe for religious conflict in the country.

“Churches in the City of Blantyre are disturbed with this message displayed on this billboard. We would like to request the City of Blantyre, in the spirit of peace and co-existence, to immediately remove this provocative message on the said billboard by Islamic Information Bureau within the next 7 days.”

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The Muslim Community contends that Blantyre City Council’s decision has also taken them “by surprise on account that instead of inviting the due process of the law as required by law” it has resorted “to disregard the same by destroying the billboard at night before engaging” them.

“We are at pains to understand the motive behind your conduct. It is not out of place, thefore, to infer that your decision to remove the billboard was only orchestrated by malice against the Muslim community.

“Please, note that Muslims are infuriated by your action and, therefore, are commanding you through our organisation to restore the billboard within the next 7 days upon receipt of this letter.

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“Be further advised that if you do not restore the billboard in question within the said 7 days, we shall proceed with any other action that we deem fit against you without any further recourse to you whatsoever,” says the letter from the Muslim community.

After the petition done by Evangelical Association of Malawi, Austin Kakande commented on Facebook that there was nothing dangerous or offensive about this billboard as “some Christian leaders are trying to put it”.

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“In fact, there is nothing wrong for a Christian to read the Quran. I have it myself, and I do read it and it has never poisoned my Christianity,” he said, adding with a question — “does calling Quran a ‘Last Testament’ make the Bible irrelevant?”

Fierce critic of social developments, Onjezani Kenani said the billboard was entirely harmless, saying he has read the Holy Quran and finds inspiration in the surah al-fatihah, surah al-ikhlas and others which he memorized.

“I found no harm at all reading the book. In any case, this billboard was just an advert — no one was being forced to actually read the Quran.

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“Going as far as forcing the billboard’s removal is an overreaction, and smacks of religious intolerance. I have many Muslim friends who studied Bible Knowledge with us, back in secondary school days.

“This did not convert them to Christianity, just in the same way as my reading the Holy Quran and memorising some surahs did not convert me to Islam.”

Chiku Chinsapo and Wilson Khembo agreed with Kenani, describing the message as harmless and that in theology one is encouraged to read the Bible and the Quaran to appreciate the similarities of religions.

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“Whoever ordered its removal should be held accountable,” Khembo said.

Arafat KB Nkata — a Muslim — said for 14 years, he was made to read the Bible in school.

“A whole subject was created ‘Bible Knowledge’ — I never complained. I did my primary school at St. Theresa Primary School, a full Roman Catholic school.

“Every morning we were made to pray the Roman Catholic way (dzina la Atate, ndi la Mwana ndi la Mzimu Oyera) — I never complained.

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“I have kept 3 Bibles in my house ever since. 1 Bible I bought myself at Claim Mabuku in Blantyre in 2002 while two were donated to me by friends. — I never complained.

“During meetings, our friends pray ‘their way’ and they usually conclude their prayers by saying ‘in Jesus name we pray, Amen’ and in unison we all shout Amen too. — I never complained.

“These few examples of religious tolerance, coexistence, humility, and compromise never in any way changed my religion — I am and still is a Muslim.

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“Now my friends who feel offended by the billboard, just ignore it. Do not read the Quran if you don’t have to. The billboard is not worse than subjecting me to 14 years of Bible Knowledge studies. We endured it. We never complained.

“Imagine if our friends were subjected to study the Quran, not out of their free will, but because they had to pass exams,” Nkata said.

Madalitso Kanyola believes that Muslims have a right to call Quran a last testament, saying: “Who said the Old and New Testaments are the only books we have to read?

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“I have heard Christians despising Quran in their efforts or whatever gatherings they may call, but we have never had an outburst from Muslims — this billboard is not a big deal and has no impact to Christian fraternity.”

But others were of the opinion that if the message was to inspire people to read the Quran, then it should not have referred to other Scriptures.

“[This is] wrong. If Christians were to have erected their own message telling Muslims to read the Bible “as a supplement or whatsoever could spark anger in Muslim community,” one said.

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Andrew Bande opined that in marketing, one shouldn’t mention the name of a competitor in an advert whether positive or negative, saying the message should simply had mentioned the “Holy Book of the Quran without mentioning the Old and New Testament”.

Ndasowa Chitule also agreed saying this was walking a very thin line; “[It is] dangerous to start comparing these religions, not many can understand this from an open mind point of view.

“It’s best to stay away from such seemingly ‘competitive’ advertisements,” he said.

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Rhodrick Junaid Kalumpha, another Muslim gave an example that when Muluzi ascended to power as President in 1994, “scaremongers and bigoted folks said he would Islamize Malawi and that hen in 2014, when Lazarus Chakwera ran for the first time, some Muslims, bigoted, were afraid that when he ascends to power — being a Reverend— he will evangelize Malawi.

“In the run up to the 2020 fresh elections, some overzealous Sheikhs said Chakwera will be against Islam in Malawi. A month after his ascendancy to power, some overzealous bigoted pastors who have nothing better to do are now lending credence to their fellow overzealous bigoted Ulamas.

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“Rev. Dr. Kawalala is one such bigoted overzealous and extremist pastor. He should desist from this nonsense. There is nothing provocative here with this billboard and many of our Christian brothers, who have read both the New and Old Testament, agree.

“In fact, these Christians may not have only read the Holy Bible, but practice it too unlike some of these dodgy, shady men of the cloth.

“Malawi is peaceful. Let it remain peaceful. Don’t tarnish the image of President Rev. Chakwera that people must label him that under his rule the Muslims have been stripped of their rights.”

Clifford Munthali chipped in to say matters of religion should be kept as a secret to one’s self like people do with underwears.

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“It shouldn’t be public. A nation shouldn’t try to be religious but secular. In that way we will live in peace,” he said

This was agreed by Thandie Wa Pulimuheya, who said: “I am of the view that religion should as far as possible remain in the private realm. People just can’t handle it properly. Small actions might escalate very very quickly.”