Acid Attack in Zanzibar

In Islamic Tanzania, ignorance isn't always bliss.

[](/sites/default/files/uploads/2013/08/Acid-attack-main-2143899.jpg)“In Zanzibar, as in most idyllic, exotic tourist destinations, it’s difficult to imagine anything bad ever happening.” So began an article at the Daily Beast about the recent acid attack on two 18-year-old British girls in Stone Town on the island of Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania.

Yes, Tanzania – that idyllic, exotic land where hundreds die every year from mob violence and lynchings, where spousal battery is permitted, where 30% of teenage girls experience sexual violence, where women are murdered because they are suspected of being witches (a “growing trend,” according to one human-rights report, with the number of such killings increasing “from 579 in 2010 to 642 in 2011”), and where the arms and legs of albino children are chopped off by people who think they will bring power and wealth. (In 2011, a 16-year-old girl was “attacked by three masked assailants who invaded her bedroom. The daughter’s father tried to rescue her but the gangs disappeared with his daughter’s arm.”)

It should be added that Tanzania proper, where Christianity is the dominant religion, is a bastion of liberalism compared to the island of Zanzibar, which is mostly Muslim: on the mainland, the maximum penalty for committing a homosexual act is five years in prison, while in Zanzibar it can land you behind bars for up to 25 years.

This is the idyllic, exotic place to which Katie Gee and Kirstie Trup, both from affluent London neighborhoods, traveled earlier this summer to spend three weeks teaching at a Catholic school as volunteers for something called Art in Tanzania. How much, one wonders, did they – or their parents – know about what they were getting into? One thing’s clear: the organization’s website, which is plainly designed to lure volunteers, contains absolutely nothing that might wise up a clueless reader about the less felicitous aspects of life in Tanzania. The site describes its volunteer locations as follows: Bahari Beach is “an idyllic coastal location” where volunteers live in a house that’s “a 10 minute walk from the beach”; Karatu, near the N’gorongoro conservation area, is “the ideal place for volunteers and interns who love wildlife”; Butti is a Masai village where volunteers “stay in traditional Masai huts and observe Masai cultural practices”; Moshi, in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, offers “one of the most stunning backdrops in the whole of Africa” and a “vibrant town centre”; in Serengeti, which offers the opportunity to go on safari, “you will be surrounded by wildlife in your front yard.” Finally, there’s Zanzibar, where volunteers can “chill out in the world famous beach resorts” and enjoy “Stone Town’s atmospheric labyrinth of streets.” Katie Gee and Kirstie Trup were walking down one of those streets when two young men on a moped rode past them and threw acid in their faces.

The website of I-to-I, the volunteer-abroad outfit through which the girls apparently discovered this opportunity, doesn’t mention the dodgy sides of Zanzibar, either. It, too, gushes over the island, calling it a “sun drenched,” “wonderful” place with “amazing beaches,” “winding alleyways, bustling bazaars, mosques,” “excitingly exotic island dishes,” and a “rich cultural heritage.”

Apparently the girls did get some warnings about “appropriate behavior” in Zanzibar. Both Gee and Trup, who are Jewish, had reportedly “been careful not to reveal jewelry emblematic of their faith. They had also been given the usual Art in Tanzania orientation “advising them to cover up, not take photos of Zanzibaris without first asking, and when out during Ramadan…not eat in front of locals who are fasting.” But it seems unlikely that, amid all the tripe they were fed about Zanzibar’s “rich cultural heritage,” Gee and Trup were informed that among the elements of that culture are, for example, the murder of suspected witches (usually old women with red eyes) and an exceedingly tolerant attitude toward wife-beating. Nor, one suspects, were they told about the seething hostility of Muslims in Zanzibar toward the Christians next door and on the mainland. And how much did they really know, going in, about Islamic attitudes toward Jews? I would bet not much at all. The Daily Beast quoted a British anthropologist familiar with Zanzibar as saying that when locals there “start interacting with foreigners, especially young and from the U.K., it is nearly always nasty, sexually charged, and never straightforward.” And the Daily Mail provided this charming detail about Zanzibar’s culture: “Threats of acid attacks are not uncommon on the island. Tourists rebuffing touts offering cheap goods are often told: ‘For 500 shillings I can destroy your face.’” You’d certainly never know any of this from the glowing promotional copy at the Art in Tanzania and I-to-I websites.

The girls’ parents don’t appear to have been terribly well informed about Zanzibar’s culture, either. Yes, they knew enough to realize that there’s a Muslim dress code; parents of both girls made sure to inform the media that their daughters had respected it. “The girls weren’t doing anything wrong,” Trup’s father assured reporters. “They were fully covered and had long sleeves on.” Gee’s mother agreed: “They were dressed appropriately.” These parents seem utterly innocent of the fact that Muslim social codes encompass a lot more than rules about attire. “This whole thing is unexplained,” Gee’s mother said. “It’s difficult to think of someone doing something so evil.” Well, not so difficult if you spend a few minutes skimming through a Tanzanian human-rights report or reading about the latest jihadist barbarities in sun-drenched Zanzibar. Did even these girls’ parents know how much irrational anti-Jewish bile is poured out daily in the media and mosques of the Islamic world?

This is certainly not to criticize the girls. Or even their parents. It’s not even to single out Art in Tanzania and I-to-I for their shameless whitewashing of Zanzibar. After all, they’re selling a product. Caveat emptor. What we’re looking at here is a systematic educational failure. Western teachers and journalists, among others, haven’t done their jobs. They’ve soft-pedaled the truth about Islam and they’ve rebranded primitive, dangerous Third World countries as “exotic” and culturally rich lands where the only social problems are the consequences of Western colonialism. As a result, 18-year-old Jewish girls from England who’ve presumably received good educations and who are about to attend university can head off to a place like Zanzibar with stars in their eyes.

So starry-eyed was Gee about Zanzibar, in fact, that she’d stayed on even after an incident that a more clued-in foreigner might have taken as a warning to get out while the getting was good: a couple of weeks before the acid attack, she and Trup had been walking through Stone Town singing when a Muslim lady came over to them, shouting, and hit Gee in the face – a punishment, the woman made clear, for the offense of singing during Ramadan. That wasn’t all: a friend of the girls said that “they felt uneasy being in public” in Zanzibar because “people would stare or say things to them.” Also, there had been some kind of unpleasantness with a shopkeeper.

Yet even the girls’ friend calls the singing-during-Ramadan assault an “isolated incident.” That curious phrase keeps recurring in reports about the girls’ experiences. Zanzibar police insisted that the acid attack was an “isolated incident.” A BBC story (which painted such a sunny picture of the island’s crime situation, of interactions between locals and tourists, and of Muslim-infidel relations that one wondered if it was dictated by the Zimbabwe tourist office) led with the claim that the acid attack had “shocked many on the Tanzanian island who believe it is an isolated incident.” But it seems absurd to conclude at this point that there was anything “isolated” about it. At last word Zimbabwean police had taken into custody a Muslim preacher, Sheikh Issa Ponda Issa, who has ties to an jihadist group called Uamsho, which “wants Zanzibar’s independence from Tanzania and Sharia law on the island,” and which specializes in – guess what? – acid attacks. Not long before the attack on the girls, Uamsho dropped “crudely-printed anti-Christian leaflets…around Zanzibar” and warned that it was planning some act of unspeakable mischief. An insufficiently radical Muslim cleric who was the victim of a recent acid attack by Uamsho had no doubt that the group was behind the attack on the girls; nor did a local Catholic priest whose predecessor was murdered earlier this year, probably also by Uamsho. “They want to make the islands only Muslim,” said the priest, “and first they wanted to scare Tanzanian Christians, and now they want to scare tourists, who they see as all Christians as well.” Far from being the victims of some random act of cruelty, then, it would seem likely that Katie Gee and Kirstie Trup were targets of jihad. They thought they were in a tranquil island paradise, when in reality they were on a jihadist battlefield.

Teach your children well.

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