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Why Religious Conflict Will Intensify in Africa? – Professor Hussein Solomon

December 4, 2015

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Why Religious Conflict Will Intensify in Africa?

By Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 3 (2015), Number 11 (December 2015)

This past week, Pope Francis conducted a six-day tour of the African continent that took him to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic. The latter, in particular, has been experiencing violent clashes between Muslims and Christians. In this context, the visit by the pontiff to a mosque in the Central African Republic was highly symbolic of the need to reach across the religious divide if sustainable peace is to be achieved on this troubled continent.

What happens in Africa could well define the future trajectory of Muslim-Christian relations globally. What accounts for this prognosis is simple demographics. Between 2010 and 2050, Africa’s share of the world’s population will increase from 12 percent to 20 percent. To put it differently, this continent will experience the fastest demographic growth on the planet. At the same time, in a mere two generations, the majority of the world’s Christians is expected to reside in Africa[1]. Over the same period the number of Muslims globally will grow by a staggering 73 percent[2]. The number of Muslims in Africa, meanwhile is expected to grow by nearly 60 percent from 242.5 million in 2010 to 385.9 million in 2030[3]. The interaction – whether peaceful or conflictual – between these two great faiths on the African continent could increasingly define the interaction between Christianity and Islam globally.

The nature of the interaction between these two faiths is however complicated by environmental variables and the politics of identity. Much of the population growth is taking place in societies where there is a scarcity of resources. Think here of the Sahel.  Growing desertification, has intensified conflict over scarce arable land. The city of Jos in Nigeria, for instance has, witnessed ethno-religious conflict since 2001 which has pitted Christian Berom against Muslim Hausas. At the heart of the conflict is access to fertile land at a time when the population is growing whilst the arable land has been under sustained threat due to the ongoing drought[4]. Over and above the twin impact of environmental variables and religion, Jos also highlights situations where ethnic and regional identities reinforce the underlying religious divide. Add to this the politics of exclusion practised by the Nigerian state, and conflict is all but inevitable. Indeed, most African states have failed miserably at inclusive governance.

Another dimension of the demographic problem is highlighted by Eric Kaufmann in his seminal book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century[5]. He convincingly argued that the fertility rates among non-religious communities is displaying the lowest fertility rates in human history – often less than one child per woman. Conversely, the fertility rates of deeply religious people are several times this. Moreover this holds true across faith communities – Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, or Jew. This is unsurprising given the fact that religious communities emphasise traditional roles for women and all three Abrahamic faiths encourage their adherents to ‘go forth and multiply’[6]. This growing population increase amongst the religious will, according to Kaufmann see greater conflict between deeply religious communities as they contest who speaks for God as well as between the religious people and secular states. Conflict, once again, becomes the norm.

Compounding these issues is what kind of Islam is on the ascendancy. Is it a moderate Islam embracing plural societies and secular states or is it a Salafist Takfiri Islam violent in its rejection of secularism and the proverbial “other”. The fact that there were 27000 terrorist attacks globally since 9/11 (or more than 5 per day) linked to radical Islam clearly demonstrates that radical Islam is on the ascendancy[7]. On the African continent, the fact that there are more than three terrorist attacks per day attributed to Islamists, reinforces this global trend. Under the circumstances, one can only conclude that religious conflict on the African continent will intensify in the coming years.

[1] Christine Mungai, “The future of world religion is African, so what would an `African’ Christianity of Islam look like?” Mail and Guardian. 30 September 2015. Internet: http://mgafrica.com/article/2015-11-30-the-future-of-religion-in-africa. Date accessed: 3 December 2015.

[2] Manasi Gopalkrishnan, “An interview of Dr. Moshe Terdiman on Deutsche Welle (DW) on the Muslim Population by 2050,” Internet: https://muslimsinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/04/08/an-interview-of-dr-moshe-terdiman-on-deutsche-welle-dw-on-the-muslim-population-by-2050. Date accessed: 21 April 2015.

[3] Mungai, op. cit.

[4] Colin Freeman, “Nigeria’s descent into holy war,” The Daily Telegraph, 8 January 2015. Internet: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/new/worldnews/africaandindianocean/nigeria89999758/N. Date accessed: 9 January 2015.

[5] Eric Kaufmann, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century. Profile Books. London, 2010.

[6] Ibid., p. xvi.

[7] Daniel Pipes, “Why the Paris Massacre will have Limited Impact,” op. cit.

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