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Christianists and Islamists in Africa: face to face

Posted by Fondation Chirac on 27 January 2010

It was a personal privilege to meet Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye; they are warriors and men of the cloth. They invest as much energy and conviction into disarming Christian and Muslim militia today as they had consecrated in the past to training and encouraging these same militia to fight.

Religion upturns classic conflict typologies

Meeting them also opened my eyes. I thought I knew what caused the conflicts in Nigeria, in Africa in general:

- inappropriate frontiers, interference, and destabilization between neighboring states,

- armed competition for natural resources,

- armed ethnic minorities resisting against the dominant State power of an ethnic majority,

- wars between military dictatorships for power,

- the hardening of Cold War conflicts.

The interactions and effects of reinforcement and appropriation exist amidst these five types of conflicts, as well as the constant possibility of criminalizing conflicts. All these factors contribute to a brutal, complex, yet familiar landscape. According to the Pastor and the Imam, this geopolitical tangle has masked another reality, one that is more discreet because it has long been hidden in the depths of civil society, more difficult to define because it is largely covert, less talked about because it has long been considered a secondary issue by the States. A low intensity, religious based conflict endures between Christian and Muslim militias who both feel mutually threatened. This slowly burning conflict between Christianity and Islam could potentially spread throughout the Sahel; extending across the eastern edge of the continent where successive migrations and influences have resulted in the co-existence of both religions.

Low intensity, religious based conflicts

The type of mobilization discussed by the Imam and the Pastor follows a precise sequence:

- the feeling that the “provocations” inflicted by others remain unpunished by a weak and partial State, determined to look the other way,

- a desire by minority groups to defend themselves,

- the parallel organization of an armed, secret community at the periphery of the official community of faithful,

- the militia’s tactical organization of the territory (training fields, arsenals, surveillance networks, front lines to defend, positions to maintain),

- tension mounts in the society at the thought that others are armed; any incident can lead to conflict,

- desire to make a portion of the territory safe by deporting, destroying, and/or disarming the military structures of the other side. Confronted with the different options – surveillance, defense, demonstration of strength, frontal attacks – factions of the militia eventually diverge, divide, and break off.

A complex pattern that holds true throughout the continent

When listening to the Pastor and the Imam, who have become advocates for disarmament and conflict prevention between « Christianist » and Islamist militia, several things become evident:

- the disparity between what drives the religious force and what mobilizes the militia. Both the Pastor and the Imam describe communities of intense faithful searching for a new authenticity in their faith, looking for a more personal appropriation of the legacy of tradition. This can give rise to not only a temptation for a religious radicalism, but also to changes in affiliation due to the search for a reformed faith: changes in spiritual leaders, brotherhoods, churches. The religious landscape is changing but this change does not provoke political mobilization.

- The misleading overlap of two levels: the majority of the faithful and the religious leaders call for civil peace and harmony but prove to be incapable of controlling military logics of self defense that is implemented undercover of an apparent peace, logic they ignore or tolerate;

- the profound similarities that the Pastor and the Imam acknowledge in the military context of Christian/Muslim confrontations in different African territories;

- the generalized criticism of all the States, presented as corrupt, weak, passive, manipulating…

Civil society, a solution to State failings

This leads us to two possible conclusions:

- the potential for destruction between Christians and Muslims remains intact and constitutes a serious, endogenous threat to peace;

- the State is so discredited that grass-roots initiatives are the only credible entities capable of reducing tensions. International intervention would not be any more efficient. This is why using a purely religious desire for a more authentic faith to call for forgiveness and harmony between militias is perhaps, despite its utopian appearances and inherent risk of excess, one of the more realistic paths.

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