The female president wearing a hijab - TAHA KILINÇ

The female president wearing a hijab

On Wednesday, March 17, 2021, West African President of Tanzania John Pombe Magufuli (61) took his last breath. In official statements, it was said that Magufuli, about whom health rumors were spreading like wildfire because he failed to make a public appearance since Feb. 27, had been suffering from “heart problems” for long years now. Stating that they had “lost our brave leader,” Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan declared a 14-day mourning period across the country.

After being elected for the first time in 2015, John P. Magufuli, who started his second five-year term after being re-elected last year, was the most visionary leader Tanzania had seen recently. Even though he carried out a slew of reforms and permanent projects in the fields of infrastructure, transportation and economy, it seems that Magufuli will be remembered for the attitude he adopted towards the Covid-19 outbreak instead.

During the first days the disease had landed on Tanzania’s shores back in March 2020, Magufuli had said, “Coronavirus, which is a devil, cannot survive in the body of Christ... It will burn instantly,” as he called on his people to “pray” in the mosques and churches. After declaring that the country had been completely purged of the virus in June, he claimed that they owed it to prayer and herb-based treatments. On Magufuli’s orders, the Tanzanian government did not release any coronavirus stats, and had outright refused to buy a vaccine. Since Magufuli also mocked preventative measures such as wearing masks against the spread of the virus and abiding by social distancing, such rules were not enforced in Tanzania.

While debates on what exactly caused Magufuli’s imminent death are running wild at home and abroad, allegations that the late leader contracted the coronavirus and was being treated at a hospital in Kenyan capital Nairobi are gaining more ground by the day. (Which is probably what really happened).

Following his death, Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan took his place. Running side by side with Magufuli in the 2015 and 2020 elections, Hassan is not only the first woman to be sworn in as president since the country became independence from England in 1961, she is also the first Muslim president to run the country since Ali H. Mwinyi, who served between 1985 and 1995. With a population close to 60 million, in contrast to the Christian majority, who make up 61 percent of the population, Muslims comprise 35 percent of the whole. Hassan ve Mwinyi are both from Zanzibar, where 99 percent of the Muslim population resides.

Going down in history in more ways that one, after her inauguration ceremony yesterday (Friday), Hassan also became the world’s second president to wear a hijab. The first is Singapore’s president, Halimah Yacob, who has been serving since 2017.

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Watching the developments in the Muslim world from the lens of Turkey, there are generalizations and hopes that, with the inauguration of a Muslim leader into prominent positions such as president, the overall situation of Muslims in the country would improve or that an exemplary strategy with respect to an Islamic policy would be put forth. However, it’s quite the opposite in both Singapore as well as Tanzania:

In Tanzania, Ali H. Mwinyi and Samia Suluhu Hassan were able to become heads of state entirely thanks to the balance of politics within the country. Working in harmony with Christian bosses was the secret of their success. The founding president of Tanzania, Julius K. Nyerere (1922-1999), retired after his 21-year presidency, leaving his seat to Mwinyi. Likewise, John P. Magufuli chose Hassan himself as a political partner.

When we turn our attention toward Singapore, things get even more muddled. In a country where the president wears a hijab, there are myriad bans on the headscarf in various areas. In state institutions and schools, the ban is strictly enforced. In the private sector, there is serious pressure and resistance against Muslim women who want to work wearing the hijab. A fresh case of this came to the fore in the media just a few months ago.

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There is a need for a detailed analysis on the political practices of Muslim politicians who have risen to various levels of state in different corners of the Muslim world in the modern period, the traces they left (or failed to leave) behind and where they stand. Although this subject is generally addressed by evaluating examples such as the Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt), the Ennahda Movement (Tunisia) or the AK Party (Turkey), there are many examples in Tanzania and Singapore. Comparing all these examples by Muslim researchers will be an enlightening initiative that will help people to grasp the pulse of the Muslim world.

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