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Christians and Muslims in Africa

6 August 2010

Ralph Peters, a columnist for the New York Post, foresees a Christianist backlash against Islamist violence against Christians in Africa, and notes that Christianity is growing faster than Islam in Africa. Christian backlash brews in Africa against Islamists–Ralph Peters –

Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, the old mysticism of folk religion glides easily into charismatic Christianity, but collides head-on with the intolerance of Wahhabism.

When I reached West Africa in later travels, it struck me that Islam never managed to penetrate the forests — and not for lack of trying.

Forests, as we know from fairy tales, are the abode of magic — for which Sunni Islam has no space. Africans can interpret Jesus as the greatest of conjurers, a worker of miracles, a miracle himself. Wahhabism, with its barracks regulations, can’t compete.

There are several things of interest here.

One is that Islam was advancing southward from the Sahara when Christian missionaries arrived on the West African coast — along with slave traders. While the East African coast was dominated by Muslim slave traders, the West African coast was dominated by slave traders from “Christian” Europe. And if the Christian missionaries had arrived 30-40 years later they would probably have found West Africa solidly Islamic.

The second one is that at the time Western missionaries arrived in West Africa (or anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa for that matter) Western Europe had just experienced the Enlightenment, and so Western culture was linked with moderrnity, while African culture was premodern. But Western Protestant missionaries brought the Bible, which they translated into local languages. The Bible is a premodern book, and and spoke to Africans more directly than it did to the Western missionaries, and the result was thousands of African Independent Churches, which reinterpreted Christianity to fit bach into a premodern culture.

But that has been changing again, with the rise of Neopentecostal Churches (the ones mentioned in the article). Africa is now switching to modernity, and the Neopentecotals are becoming the agents of Westernization/modernization. And they are reproducing, in a slightly different form, one the of things that hit Early Modern Europe — witchhunts.

See, for example this article on child witches in Nigeria.

The article quoted first indicates that the Christian “crusade” against Islamists is likely to come from the same source is the “crusades” against child “witches”.

For more background, see my article on Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery.

Just as Islam has Islamists and Hinduism has Hindutva, so Christianity has Christianists who seek to promote their faith by force and violence. Actually what they seek to promote is not so much faith, but the ascendancy and hegemony of a particulat group of people, who are often defined ethnically, politicially, culturally or economically as much as they are religiously.

They generally gain influence where people stand to gain politically or economically, or where they fear that they will lose politically or economically, and where religion becomes an easy mark of difference.

In Cape Town, as a result of apartheid, most of the Muslims live in the former “coloured” areas of the city, and these areas were also the ones plagued by criminal gangs.

People got fed up with this, and formed an organization called PAGAD – People Against Gangsterism and Drugs.

While it originally had people of several different faiths, it grew mainly in the Muslim community, and was supported by several imams, but then it began to get violent and became a vigilante group, and its members were thought to be responsible for assassinating some prominent gang leaders.

There were then rumours that the group had attracted the attention of militant Islamists from the Middle East, who thought that they could use it for their own purposes, and a terrorist bomb in a restaurant was linked to PAGAD, at least in public perception. At that point it seemed that PAGAD was almost indistinguishable from a criminal gang itself. That’s the problem when you try to fight fire with fire.

Ralph Peters seem to think that if Christians start doing the same thing, it wouldn’t be a bad idea.

It sounds to me more like hair of the dog that bit you.

There is another way.

Back in 1999, when Nato began their bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, thousands of Albanian-speaking people fled from Kosovo to Albania. When the bombing started, some lost their homes in the bombing itself. But for many more the Serbian army drove them from their homes in revenge for the bombing. And no doubt some left for fear of one or the other or both those things. Within a couple of weeks there were something like a million refugees in Albania. And in Albania, members of the Orthodox Church were giving aid to the refugees, and, in the case of those with newborn babies, taking them into their homes, regardless of whether they were Orthodox, Catholic or Muslim. The Serb forces in Kosovo, which had driven many from their homes, were perceived as Orthodox, but here were Orthodox Christians in Albania caring for the refugees.

In South Africa we have many refugees from Somalia, which has been torn by civil war for a decade or more. And how are they treated? Mobs of xenophobes burn down their shops and houses. Instead of the “crusade” envisaged by Ralph Peters, a little bit of Christian love might go a long way towards improving things.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 6 August 2010 5:55 pm

    Ralph is a sharp guy but I don’t think he fully understands religion in Africa. I lived in Tanzania and saw Christians and Muslims working together to help Rwandan refugees, I saw Christians and Muslims living side-by-side, happily. There are bad apples in every barrel but, in general, both communities exhibit the compassion their religions urge them to show.

    In Africa, tribalism is far more dangerous than any religion. Religion is generally the label the West or the media tacks on to keep track of people.

  2. 6 August 2010 8:38 pm

    I observed the Yugoslavia phenomenon reaping rewards in Cambodia. Today there are hundreds of indigenous Churches in Cambodia where there were (close to) none before.

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