Jewish Journal


November 2, 2007

‘The New Wars of Religion’


THE four-hour journey through the bush from Kano to Jos in northern Nigeria features many of the staples of African life: checkpoints with greedy soldiers, huge potholes, scrawny children in football shirts drying rice on the road. But it is also a journey along a front-line.

Nigeria, evenly split between Christians and Muslims, is a country where people identify themselves by their religion first and as Nigerians second (see chart 1). Around 20,000 have been killed in God’s name since 1990, estimates Shehu Sani, a local chronicler of religious violence. Kano, the centre of the Islamic north, introduced sharia law seven years ago. Many of the Christians who fled ended up in Jos, the capital of Plateau state, where the Christian south begins. The road between the two towns is dotted with competing churches and mosques.

This is one of many religious battlefields in this part of Africa. Evangelical Christians, backed by American collection-plate money, are surging northwards, clashing with Islamic fundamentalists, backed by Saudi petrodollars, surging southwards. And the Christian-Muslim split is only one form of religious competition in northern Nigeria. Events in Iraq have set Sunnis, who make up most of Nigeria’s Muslims, against the better-organised Shias; about 50 people have died in intra-Muslim violence, reckons Mr Sani. On the Christian side, Catholics are in a more peaceful battle with Protestant evangelists, whose signs promising immediate redemption dominate the roadside. By the time you reach Jos and see a poster proclaiming “the ABC of nourishment”, you are surprised to discover it is for chocolate.


In fact, religious front-lines criss-cross the globe.

Most obviously, Americans and Britons would not be dying in Iraq and Afghanistan had 19 young Muslims not attacked the United States in the name of Allah. The West’s previous great military interventions were to protect Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo from Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croatians. America’s next war could be against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Other conflicts have acquired a new religious edge. In the poisonous war over Palestine, ever more people are claiming God on their side (with some of the most zealous sorts living miles away from the conflict). In Myanmar (Burma) Buddhist monks nearly brought down an evil regime, but in Sri Lanka they have prolonged a bloody conflict with Muslims. If India has an election, a bridge to Sri Lanka supposedly built by the god Ram (and a team of monkeys) may matter as much as a nuclear deal with America.

The Economist, not often a magazine I’d turn to for religious reportage, just published this 18-page special report on “the new wars of religion,” complete with nine stories and a disclaimer that concludes the main article:

First, many numbers in religion are dodgy: most churches inflate their support and many governments do not record religion in their censuses (in Nigeria the best source is health records). Second, in a field where many believers claim to know all the answers, it poses mainly questions. And lastly, given the emotion the subject arouses, the chances are that some of what follows will offend you.

I could hardly discuss all the stories here, but here’s one of the sidebars “Holy Depressing.”

SHEIKH Yazid Khader and Rabbi Yaacov Medan both live in the occupied West Bank. Both are devoutly religious men who feel they have been betrayed by secularists. The sheikh, a local Hamas leader, has just emerged from another bout of Fatah custody (depressing when the rival Palestinians, he says, should both be fighting “the Zionist enemy”). The rabbi, a leader of the settler movement, is still seething about the Israeli government’s forcible ejection of its own settlers from Gaza. Both men are obstacles to any chance of peace in the Middle East.

Not that they see it that way. Both insist that their religions are peaceful ones and each has solutions to the current impasse. Of course Israel should keep its settlements in the West Bank (illegal under international law), argues the rabbi: it is part of the land God gave it. But a system of tunnels could be constructed for the Palestinians to find their way round them. For his part, the sheikh refuses to accept Israel’s right to exist: Palestine is a waqf, land placed by God in Muslim hands for eternity. But if Israel retreats to its 1967 borders, Hamas would generously grant the infidels a hudna or truce, initially for ten years.

If you are concerned about religion’s effect on politics, there is no more discouraging place to visit than the tiny sliver of land that is Israel-Palestine. Forty years ago the trouble there amounted to a territorial dispute between two fairly secular tribes. Religious Zionism—as opposed to the traditional, secular kind—was a fringe movement. Many of the Palestinian leaders were Christians or Marxists. But the six-day war of 1967 set off a chain of sectarian reactions on both sides. Polls show that most people on both sides still want a two-state solution, but many of the growing number determined to stop such an outcome now enlist God on their side of the argument.


They’re right: That will definitely offend some people.

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