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Another Take on Muslim-Christian Violence in Africa – Professor Hussein Solomon

April 15, 2017

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Another Take on Muslim-Christian Violence in Africa

By Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 5 (2017), Number 6 (April 2017)

Despite lecturing political science at the University of the Free State, I do occasionally give lectures on Islam to students in our Faculty of Theology. This prompted an earnest theology student who aims to become a priest to seek me out. The young man came to my office and apologized but he explained that I was the only Muslim he knew and he wanted to know why Muslims hated Christians so much. He referred to the horrific twin bombings of Coptic Christian Churches in Tanta and Alexandria in Egypt on Palm Sunday which left scores dead and many more seriously injured. These bombings were claimed by Islamic State and of course their brutal attempt to annihilate the proverbial other also extends to their targeting of Shia Muslims and Yazidis.

The earnest theology student wanted to know if we were witnessing the realization of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. If such a clash, I responded, is supposed to occur between Muslims and non-Muslims then the fact that more Muslims are being killed by Islamist terrorists undermines such a thesis. Consider, for instance, the large number of Sufi shrines desecrated by the likes of Boko Haram and Al Shabaab and the fact that their adherents have been declared as apostates and therefore worthy to be killed.

Moreover, it is northern Nigeria, not Egypt, which scored the highest in the world for the most number of Christians killed. In 2015 more than half of the 7,000 Christians killed globally were killed in northern Nigeria. In 2016, the number of Christians killed in northern Nigeria jumped by a further 62%. Do these figures constitute evidence for a clash of these two Abrahamic faiths? I do not believe so. Human Rights Watch, for instance, conducted an exhaustive survey on the victims of Boko Haram violence and Corinne Dufka, a senior researcher for the organization is of the opinion that Boko Haram is targeting and killing people in northern Nigerian based on their religion and ethnicity. Nigeria, unfortunately, has numerous mutually reinforcing identity markers: regional, linguistic, ethnic, and religious. These differences are exacerbated by local and state governments which differentially confer rights on people in a given area based on these identity markers.

Reality is infinitely more complicated than newspaper reports would suggest. The city of Jos in Plateau State in Nigeria has experienced repeated violence between Muslims and Christians. Dig beneath the surface and there is a far more complex reality. It is fundamentally a land dispute between ethnic groups who also happen to belong to different faiths. Interestingly, residents of Jos are more aware of this complexity of the conflict than many analysts. Commenting on the origins of the conflict, Mohamed Yakuba stated, “It is the Berom who cause the problem, trying to get their land back”. Another Jos resident from the opposite side, TomaDavou, also speaking on the origins of the conflict argued, “The Hausas want to push us out, and although it is about land occupation, they say it is religious so that they can get the sympathy of Saudi Arabia and Al Qaeda”.

The issue of land is indeed central given creeping desertification and growing food insecurity across most of West Africa and the Sahel. Consider the following statistic in northern Nigeria: more than 1500 farmers were attacked by Hausa-Fulani herdsmen. The fact that the former were Christian and the latter Muslim is of secondary importance to the quest for land and food security.

This is why repeated initiatives at interfaith dialogue have failed across Africa. We keep misdiagnosing the problem. Peace initiatives, attempts at mediation and interfaith dialogue without also examining the context in which such religious polarization exists will not mitigate the problem. Policy makers need to embrace holistic longer-term solutions if they are to promote religious tolerance and respect for pluralism.

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