Jesus for Zanzibar: Narratives of Pentecostal Belonging, Islam, and Nation

Hans Olsson

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis (monograph)


This study addresses the presence of religious difference in the Muslim-dominated cultural setting of Zanzibar, a context in which, in 2012, Christian minorities became targets in violent events directed against representations of the politically contested Union with Mainland Tanzania. As the attacked churches are primarily attended by people of non-island origins and the incidents were blamed on local Muslim-revival groups, the events posed questions about the political significance produced at the intersection of religious belonging, ethnonational origins, and Union politics.
Based on ethnographic research carried out in Zanzibar in 2012 the study addresses the relationship between religious belonging and sociopolitical contestations through the lens of a relatively new, but growing, religious agent: Zanzibar’s largest Pentecostal church, the City Christian Center (CCC). The theoretical approach taken analyzes the CCC relationally, utilizing a value-based perspective to position the church in terms of different cultural productions that prioritize Zanzibar’s current role and future part in the United Republic of Tanzania. After situating current tensions in the historical formation of Zanzibar as distinct from Mainland Tanzania, analysis addresses how Pentecostal belonging is shaped in relation to Zanzibar by assessing different implications of becoming a Christian. Chapter Three deals with the relationship between mainland migrants and Zanzibar society from the perspective of Pentecostals’ search for better lives, and posits Christian belonging as a discursive practice addressing a precarious way of life in the Zanzibar social sphere. Chapter Four looks more closely at the relationship between members and church and the role communal ties play in managing local challenges and maintaining a life in salvation, noting that, contrary to much earlier research on Pentecostal Christianity, the CCC demonstrates a situation in which salvation is framed as a social rather than individual value. Chapter Five addresses the context of violence in 2012 more deeply by examining how the CCC “goes” and “makes” itself public: that is, makes its voice heard and its profile visible in the public sphere. Important to this goal is the role of spiritual activities, and the meaning attributed to violence by framing it as engagement in a war against evil. Contrasted with Muslim views on public Christian discourse, the aim of creating a new social order inherent in the spiritual politics argues for the CCC’s active role in the production of social tensions. Chapter Six further demonstrates the political significance of such engagements by discussing the CCC’s position with regards the contested political structure of the Union. This transforms the CCC from an example of a Christian minority in a Muslim social setting to that of a representative of Zanzibar’s senior, and increasingly Christian, mainland partner in the Union. The chapter then analyses, from the perspective of the CCC, how Christian expansion conflates with the Union as a joint force for liberating Zanzibar from its Arab and Muslim past and argues that the sense of political responsibility detectable in the CCC’s practices helps explain how Christian belonging merges with national citizenship and the duties to uphold the nation. It suggests that the members of the CCC engage in reproducing already-present distinctions between the Zanzibar islands and Mainland Tanzania through their Christian belonging. Consequently, they share discourses on Christian growth with groups of Muslim Zanzibari in which increased Christian belonging as perceived as a signifier of social change in Zanzibar, although, contrary to Zanzibari politics of belonging which sees Christian expansion in negative terms, the CCC views this as a positive development. The case of the CCC exemplifies a context-specific form of Christian belonging that capitalizes on, and creates meaning out of, ambient political tensions wherein religious identity is a factor. In doing so, its members also make the process of becoming a Christian an act of consolidating distinctions between a Muslim Zanzibar and a Christian Mainland.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Centre for Theology and Religious Studies
  • Vähäkangas, Mika, Supervisor
Award date2016 Dec 9
ISBN (Print)978-91-88473-12-7
Publication statusPublished - 2016 Oct 26

Bibliographical note

Defence details
Date: 2016-12-09
Time: 13:00
Place: C121, LUX, Helgonavägen 3, Lund
External reviewer(s)
Name: Martha Frederiks
Title: professor
Affiliation: Universiteit Utrecht, Nederländerna

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Humanities


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