Tabliq vs Pentecostal debates: A shadowy dangerous world

Passersby and bystanders comprise the congregation the preachers address.

Jesus is not Prophet Issa: reads a banner above a crude platform at Clock Tower. The words catch the eye. The trending topic is: What is the name of God: Allah or Jehovah? In Kitooro Central Market, Entebbe Badru Ndasi’s ‘crusades’ begin at 6pm. “How can you say Jesus is God and then, he is the Son of God?” he asks the crowd around his van, adding, “Who is God then?”

It gets worse. “You say Jesus jumped onto a donkey. Was he homosexual?” The crowd laughs. The evangelist supposed to debate with Ndasi is speechless; out of his depth. A few feet away, a woman locking up her salon screams at Ndasi to shut up.

In Nateete, the Imam of Buddo, Sheikh Saad, lets his adherents in on a secret – he has so far used four Bibles as toilet paper. A few months earlier, Umaru Nyanzi, 29, a pharmacy technician, took to the same stage. Nyanzi has been a Christian for 12 years.

He read the Koran in melodious tones to attract attention. Muslims in a nearby mosque came to see who was reciting the verses. When they arrived, Nyanzi shouted, “I’m Umaru, son of Mustafa!” adding, “I thank Jesus for saving me! Now I can eat pork!”

With sticks and stones, the Muslims attempted to lynch him. The Pentecostals surrounded the stage, ready to fight; their numbers deflated the Muslims. Currently, there is a bounty promised to any Muslim bold enough to kill Nyanzi.

Interfaith open-air debates have been the preserve of Clock Tower since 1978, with faith torchbearers such as Apostle Deo Balabyekubo, Pastor Joseph Sserwadda, and Sheikh Kyeswa. Pentecostals left the Muslims to have an open field. However, two years ago, evangelists rejoined the debates with vengeance.

The essence of the debates
Raymond Kazibwe, 30, a lawyer, hosts Akabinkano k’Ebitabo (Battle of the Books) on Kingdom FM. He has been debating with Tabliqhs for 10 years. “We choose a controversial topic. You cannot talk about how to go to heaven. Any fool knows that. The question is; who is the way to heaven – Jesus or Mohammad?

There is a belief that the Bible and the Koran are similar, but each has a different name for God. Are we worshipping the same God? If so, then who is worshiping Him wrongly?”

Another contention is about whether the gospels or the Koran are God’s final revelation to man. Kazibwe, a reverend’s son, is knowledgeable about the Koran, and he weaves easily between English and Arabic. Sheikh Hamza Busuulwa, 33, a carpenter, says the debates are about diluting the gospel of the likes of Nyanzi who leave Islam and ridicule it.

“They think they understand Islam and hinge their preaching on half a verse, tempting weak Muslims to convert.”

Are they satisfying a need?
The debates rarely have a theme and are only hosted on Pentecostal media, where moderators are not neutral. The purpose is not to get converts but to show off one’s knowledge.

“When you urge people to get born-again, Muslims will quote Mark 24:13, which says salvation is at the end (of life),” Kazibwe says, adding, “They will ask why you are in a hurry to get saved.

We have to bring evidence from both books. For Pentecostals, knowledge of the Koran is a must. You can never convert a Muslim unless you speak his language. There is also prestige in speaking Arabic.”
Nyanzi got saved after a pastor explained Surah Al Ahqaf Ayah 9. “He said the Prophet was not the first among God’s messengers, and he did not know what will be done to him and his followers. Those words confused me. I went to my Sheikh and he confirmed the verse. Whenever I tried to pray, I lost heart. Eventually, I got saved. At least, Pentecostals know where they are going.”

Busuulwa is contemptuous. “There is only one God. If you have another one, then He is a sham. We have asked the Bible about the God who sent it and it is silent. In the Old Testament there is a God called Jehovah.

In the New Testament there is Jesus. Who is the real God Christians follow? We are standing between everlasting fire and heaven. That is why the Koran tells us not to let death find us outside Islam.”

The listeners of the debates
Kazibwe contends that their audiences are mostly illiterate and semi-literate passersby. “If you have rats in your house, you do not lock the poison in a cupboard. You put it where you know the rats will pass. We stage debates in busy places from 6pm to 10pm. That is the time poor people walk home after work.”

To start a debate, a Muslim will shout, “Yokaana Essuula Taano!” (John 5). Or, an evangelist can say, “Allaha yuhibbu alttawwabeena wayuhibbu almutatahhireena.” (Surely God loves those who turn to Him in sincere repentance, and He loves those who cleanse themselves). Passersby will stop.

Derogatory language used
Nowadays, there is an element of viciousness in the debates. When the Muslims attacked Nyanzi, he had just read Surah Maryam Ayah 71: There is not one of you but will pass over it (Hell); this is with your Lord; a decree which must be accomplished.

“When I read that Ayah, Muslims get angry,” Nyanzi says, “But why shouldn’t I tell them they are going to hell? When we interpret the Koran, are we abusing them? One day, I prayed swala (salat), interpreting every word to Luganda. Many people got saved.”

The weak breed
This kind of provocative talk drives the sheikhs to anger. In 2009, Apostle Umaru Mulinde and Bruhan Muweesa fought on air at Top TV. Kazibwe, the moderator, was fired.

In 2013, on Kingdom FM, Sheikh Kassim Mulumba punched a convert who had insolently mentioned pork while talking about the Prophet Muhammad. Such was the strength behind the punch that it broke the microphone.

Hassan (formerly Stephen) Kyeyune, 43, a businessman converted from Catholicism to Islam 22 years ago.
“Because we debate on Pentecostal media, moderators bring illiterate converts to insult Islam. I liken it to a child who, after a few days in school, wants to teach the parent the alphabet. Islam is above knowledge; that is why these debates are unwelcome in Islamic media.”

One name keeps coming up in these interviews: Ivan Bushaija. He hosts Ani Yawubwa? (Who was misled?) on Top TV.

“Ivan has written books that insult Islam,” Kyeyune says, adding, “He heads the Pentecostal debaters and funds them. He decides which Muslim debates on radio or TV; and he chooses weak, unemployed Muslims, whom he pays ‘transport’.

Muslims do not have an association, and even if we did, he can easily have us arrested. Whenever I’m in studio with him, someone has to stand between us.”

Down a dangerous path
Surah An-Nisa, Ayah 89 says: They wish that you reject faith, as they have rejected, and thus that you all become equal. So take not Auliya’ (friends) from them, till they emigrate in the Way of Allah. But if they turn back (from Islam), take them and kill them wherever you find them, and take neither Auliya’ nor helpers from them.

When I ask Nyanzi if he worries about the bounty on him, he brushes me off. “Thank God, Uganda is not under Sharia.

I used to fear until (Pastor Umaru) Mulinde strengthened me. However, Muslims tell me that the day a Muslim takes state power will be my last. In January, while preaching in Iganga, the Muslim DPC and LC3 chairperson stopped me, yet a week earlier, they had allowed Muslims to preach in the same place.”

Surviving a mob
In March 2016, after a long day at the Supreme Court helping Amama Mbabazi’s defence team, Kazibwe, drove towards Nansana. At about 8.30pm he reached Yesu Amala. On the makeshift stage, a Muslim was reading from Acts 15 about circumcision. Kazibwe parked and got onto the stage.

“I began debating in Arabic. People shouted, ‘Allahu Akbar!’ A man showed up in front of me with a gun. When he cocked it, I took off into the crowd.”

Kazibwe gives hints about being armed and flaunts his Rwandan heritage like a badge of honour. “Whenever I go on stage, I tell 20 friends to be on the alert to rescue me, although, God is the best protector.”
Busuulwa rubbishes the claim that Muslims threaten Pentecostals.

“How many Muslims have guns? We could have killed Balabyekubo! (Tabliqhs allege Balabyekubo publically stepped in the Koran in 1995). In September 2016, Balokole organised a debate in Kasana, Luweero.

As a sheikh was speaking, a policeman ordered him to leave. (Police only offer security at debates organised by Pentecostals). I asked the policeman what authority he was using. He got angry and shouted at us. The Balokole were silent. He cocked his gun but I told him we would die together. After we roughed him up, other officers took his gun away.”

Doubting each other
Busuulwa claims Ivan Bushaija comes to radio and TV studios with a pistol. “Can you imagine? A preacher walking with a pistol? He warned me, on air, that the government has machinery to deal with Islam. Ivan is a security operative masquerading as an evangelist.”
Kyeyune blames Muslim preachers for not strategising to fight what he calls a campaign against Islam. “We are like a fangless snake. Someone says Allah is a djinn and life goes on normally? I don’t know if Ivan is armed, but he is probably a spy. I have known him for long but…I do not want to say things that will cause me problems.”

UCC take
Schedule Four of the Uganda Communication Act 2013 lists minimum standards broadcasters should adhere to, which include not promoting violence and prejudice. Fred Otunnu, director corporate affairs, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), says, “We hold broadcasters responsible. We wrote to those stations to stop those programmes. They agreed that the onus is on them to host people who do not use abusive language. After the agreement, we allowed them to continue. If violations are going on, we will invoke the law. However, no one has yet complained.”

Quick take

Why are you pushing these debates?
I need converts and I need to enlighten people. I have studied Islam and I want to expose it as a religion that promotes Arabic culture.

Do you fear for your life?
No, the gospel provokes because it is the truth. Besides, Muslims also cannot preach without reading the Bible.

How big is your association?
We have believers all over Uganda. In Kampala, we are one million Pentecostal debaters. Some Muslims believe if they kill one of us, Islam will stand. Islam will never stand in Uganda.

Who funds you?
God. We do not get a single coin from State House.

Are you armed?
There is nothing wrong with having a firearm. Why would a Muslim be hurt if someone has a firearm if he is not firing at them? I have been in these debates for 13 years and I have never fought with any Muslim. However, we have one gun that comes from heaven.

Do you have bodyguards?
Anyone can have bodyguards. Where it is necessary, I have them. And it can be necessary any time, depending on what God tells me.

Are you a security operative?
I’m a spiritual security operative and I can recruit anyone. I can spiritually stop what guns cannot stop. Look, no one is above the law. This government is led by sane people. When you decide to dance with monkeys, expect their tails to brush against you. Muslims do not even make 20 per cent of the population. They say these debates will one day explode, but they will explode when Islam is done. In my opinion, it is done. Unlike before, we can debate, shake hands, and move on. In every Muslim family, there are Christians. We can know what they plan before they implement it. We believe that if Islam weakens, terrorism will decrease. We are taking away the uncouth backward thinking that is the basis of Islam.

-Ivan Bushaija, IT specialist and evangelist