Philip Jenkins: The Real Showdown Between Christians and Muslims is in Africa





[Philip Jenkins is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University.]

...The most striking point about these battles was that nobody found them striking. In Jos, as in countless other regions across Africa and Asia, violence between Christians and Muslims can erupt at any time, with the potential to detonate riots, civil wars, and persecutions. While these events are poorly reported in the West, they matter profoundly. All the attention in the Global War on Terror focuses on regions in which the U.S. is engaged militarily, but another war is raging across whole continents, one that will ultimately shape the strategic future. Uncomfortably for American policymakers, it is a war of religions and beliefs—a battle not for hearts and minds but for souls....

Yet over the past century, the spread of new religious forms worldwide has created the potential for violence wherever a surging Christianity meets an unyielding Islam. Riots such as those in Jos are one result; terrorism is another. Generally, Muslims have been the aggressors in recent conflicts, but Christians have their own sectarian mobs and militias.

However blame is apportioned, the two faiths have been at daggers drawn, often literally, for decades. As Eliza Griswold discusses in her forthcoming book, The Tenth Parallel, you can trace the fault by following the latitude line of ten degrees North. (Jos, conveniently, stands almost exactly at ten degrees.) A tectonic plate of religious and cultural confrontation runs across West and Northwest Africa, through Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. A decade ago, Indonesia witnessed some of the worst fighting, as Muslim militias launched bloody assaults on that nation’s Christian minority, some 25 million strong. For decades, the overwhelmingly Christian Philippines has suffered constant insurgency from a ruthless armed movement concentrated in the Muslim south. Mob attacks and pogroms have raged in Malaysia. In Africa, the Sudan is probably the best-known theater of mass martyrdom, while Nigeria remains deeply polarized. And that is not to mention ongoing killings in countries like Uganda and Kenya....

To appreciate this transformation, consider Nigeria. In 1900, the lands that would become that nation were about 28 percent Muslim and 1 percent Christian. Confident in their numbers, Muslims did not need even to think about Christians as rivals. For Muslims, the pagan population represented an inferior state of being, peoples to be ruled and, often, enslaved. One day in the future, the heathens might join the modern religious world, but it would be the world of Islam. But then things went wrong. By 1970, Muslims had increased their share of the population to 45 percent. But that 1 percent Christian minority had expanded incredibly, also to 45 percent. A land that seemed firmly under Muslim hegemony was suddenly split down the middle....

This was the package of nightmares that faced Muslim communities from the 1970s onward, at exactly the time that a new countermovement, quite as radical in its own way, emerged from the Middle East. The key date was 1979, the year of the Iranian Revolution, but also of the radical coup against the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The Saudi regime survived that assault but in a chastened mood. Anxious to prevent a repeat performance, the Saudis made their devil’s bargain with the Islamists: go and do what you like around the world, and we will bankroll you, but stay out of our own beloved kingdom. That was the point at which Gulf oil money began rolling around the Muslim world, funding mosques and madrassas following the hardest of Islamist lines. By the end of 1979, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, sparking a war that would become a vehicle for training jihadis worldwide.

The outcome was a new and highly militant form of Islam, impatient with old-style moderate forms of faith and fanatically opposed to Christian incursions into continents seen as Muslim realms. For these militants, the growth of Christianity was proof of the failure of the old Muslim regimes. In the words of radical theorist Sayyid Qutb, these regimes had shown themselves infidels at heart, and it was up to true Muslims to condemn them as such (takfir) and remove themselves spiritually (make hijra) to a new and purer activism. In 1989, a revolutionary Islamist regime took power in the Sudan. The same year, at Abuja in Nigeria, a conference on Islam in Africa outlined a program for successful Islamization. That event entered Christian folklore, and one does not have to travel far on the continent to hear claims of all manner of secret plans to destroy Christianity across Africa and create a caliphate. If Islamists denounce the Christians as tools of America, Christians everywhere see the hand of Riyadh....

This culture clash, so crucial to the fate of whole continents, has not impinged on the American consciousness. Stunningly, the crying need for interfaith peace in Africa and Asia featured not at all in Barack Obama’s much-touted speech in Cairo last June. Of course, American options are limited. The more that Western nations try to interfere directly in defense of Christians, the easier it is for Muslims to portray their enemies as imperialist agents. That is not a counsel of despair. American administrations can achieve something by pressuring allegedly friendly regimes like the Saudis to stop sponsoring anti-Christian propaganda across the Global South. But ultimately, resolving this conflict will depend on Africans and Asians themselves—if only Washington and Riyadh can refrain from pouring fuel on the hostilities.



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