Co-Existence, Conflict and Collaboration
by Ian Linden
faith leaders signing the declaration: "We the undersigned,
commit to the faiths Act initiative to help save lives from
malaria. We agree to work together to combat this
preventable disease in Sierra Leone."
One of the laments I used to hear in Nigeria and Malawi in the 1970s was that colonialism had imported its religious divisions into Africa. There was an obvious truth in the accusation. Africa today is home to enormous religious diversity. There was also the historical reality. for a typical example, the British in the north of Nigeria banned the Church Missionary Society from the great walled city of Kano. A prudent move but an 'extramural' sabon gari, strangers' quarter, was born, a sprawling enclave outside the Muslim city. The idea of a Muslim 'North' and Christian 'South' was reinforced under indirect rule and lives to haunt Nigeria today. Sudan suffers from the same problem.
The north of Nigeria has had its fair share of 'religious' conflict, though intermarriage and families at ease with religious diversity in the 'South' are no less a reality worthy of note. Much of the 'religious' conflict was nothing of the sort and derived from a variety of causes, not least politicians manipulating people's religious identities for their own ends. Christianity exported the full gamut of its denominations, and more after the third wave of Pentecostal missionary activity from the 1960s. Malawi got its dose of Celtic versus Rangers when the Catholics met the Church of Scotland in the usual religious scramble for Africa. Mangochi, near the lakeshore, remains a strongly Muslim area linked formerly to trading routes to the coast; and religious difference remains a temptation for politicians wanting to exploit regionalism. Sierra Leone today has three different Methodist denominations tracing their origins back to John Wesley, though they seem to get on well together.
When the Wars of Religion in 17th. century Europe are considered, Africa has got off lightly when it comes to the divisive potential of religion. Religion as the primary cause of major conflict is not that common. It might not appear that way. The other face of religious diversity in Africa gets less press coverage but should be highlighted.
The Nigerian film on the 'The Pastor and the Imam', the refusal of two men of different faiths to succumb to mob pressures and their way of working together for peace, highlights the spontaneity of religious responses to conflicts that have been 'religionized' for political ends. By 'religionized' I mean conflicts rooted in economic, social and political issues giving birth to mobs and gangs who burn down mosques and churches, and loot houses. In Sierra Leone, on the other hand, it was a brutal civil war fought over diamonds that forged a strong bond between the religious leaders, led by Sheikh Abubakar Conteh, as they tried to bring the rebels from the forest into a ceasefire.
The challenges of contemporary life in many African countries provide a challenge to religious leaders to consolidate their resources in interfaith action and to contribute to their resolution. The theme of such interfaith work is not scriptural reasoning but shared action: a dynamic of hands to hearts to heads, a very practical approach to interfaith relations. That this does not happen as much as it might has very little to do with religious difference and a great deal to do with the difficulty in organising collaborative planned action in an African context. Many places have three months of the year washed out by heavy rains creating havoc on dirt roads. Intermittent electricity works its own havoc with email and internet. Mobile phones work well but the costs mount up for the many on very low incomes.
Hands to hearts to heads is incidentally the theme of the Tony Blair faith foundation's faiths Act programme. By working together friendships are formed and these lead to discussion between friends about religious differences. Scriptural reasoning comes at the end not at the beginning.
This programme has two strands: an international campaign to promote the Millennium Development Goals as the object of concerted interfaith action, led by faiths Act fellows who work in interfaith pairs for a year, and planning of health action with religious leaders in Africa. Both of these strands focus on the elimination of malaria deaths, the latter in a national programme in Sierra Leone in partnership with the Inter-religious Council and the Ministry of Health. The Centre for Interfaith Action against Poverty in Washington is working along similar lines with NIfAA, the Nigerian Interfaith Action Association, on the much larger terrain of Nigeria's states and population of 145 million. We have been sharing our insights and materials.
This is the complex context in which the question of religious freedom rarely occupies centre stage and becomes more of a marginal issue. Religions in Africa form a patchwork of coexistence, conflict and collaboration that makes all generalisations dangerous. In sub-Saharan Africa, traditions of consensus in village life, and the strength of the extended family, in most cases override tendencies towards religious division. The sufi tariqa is a key feature of religious life particularly in urban areas and it has generated a spirituality that has resisted foreign influences dictating what is the 'correct' form of Islam. When things fall apart, tribe, ethnicity and clan remain the more powerful as Rwanda tragically illustrated in 1994.
Religious freedom is of course far more than freedom of worship. Sub-Saharan Africa illustrates a wide range of freedoms for faith communities to participate in the life of society and the nation. In the realm of education and health this is of vital importance and has marked the history of post-independence Africa - even if governments do not fund religious schools. The response of faith communities to the HIV/AIDS pandemic has been both holistic and outstanding: from dealing with stigma to care of orphans, education and preventative treatment There remain perennial problems of minority rights such as the persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses based, to some extent, on their refusal to vote and recognise African political parties and governments. Life for the Christian Churches in the north of Sudan has been far from easy. Cameroon and Eritrea rank very low on most measurements of religious freedom. But in several countries Catholic bishops preach against condom use, undermining government health messages, without repercussions. African 'spirit' churches - the so-called 'Independent Churches' - grow up like mushrooms without registration or interference. Senegal, whose government is one of Africa's great champions of interfaith dialogue and action, has one of the world's most successful turuq, the Muridiyya - which incidentally exerts strong influence on government. This all says a great deal about the integration of religion, faith and governance in the lives of African people and their governments. The different faith communities with their competent, and often successful, education and health work might be seen as a threat to the political parties in power, stealing their thunder, not integrated into government planning. And such fears might end up with some attempt at repression. True, African governments do worry about unaccountable action by faith communities, think that they have funding sources that they are keeping hidden, and would like voters to appreciate their own efforts more. But on the whole they retain good relations with religious leaders. There are not many faith communities in sub-Saharan Africa who could put hand on heart and describe themselves as singled out and persecuted. Not even in centres of mis-governance on an epic scale such as Zimbabwe.
So does the rest of the world have something to learn from Africa on religious freedom? Clearly not from Kaduna in 2000 where understandable fear of the introduction of Shari'a huddud provisions sparked a demonstration which led to Christian- Muslim conflict on an unprecedented scale. The final result was a process of 'religious cleansing' in the town. But more generally in West Africa as Muslims opt for Christian schools - when they are the 'best' schools (Gambia) - and bishops and imams work together on a national anti-malaria programme (Sierra Leone Nigeria, Mozambique) - the answer has to be 'yes'.
The danger lies not so much in the persecution of religious minorities, though that is a danger, but in their neglect. Scarce resources are inequitably distributed regionally, or thought to be so, and given to particular religious groups, and not others. This can be a problem no less for international donors who often have a default position that favours the larger mainstream Christian denominations, or if from the Arab world, favour Muslim groups sharing a particular perspective and set of attitudes. The greatest danger is that, in a situation with very limited resources, unscrupulous politicians will play the 'religious card' and encourage persecution of minorities with disastrous consequences for social harmony.
The bottom line on religious freedom in Africa, as elsewhere, is that religious minorities experience complete equality as citizens of their country. If this is not to be the equality of poverty and deprivation, the religious leaders of Africa need to be supported in collaborative efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. This cannot just be left to governments. It is a tangible expression of the compassionate core of Christianity and Islam in Africa.
Professor Ian Linden is Director of Policy at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation www.tonyblairfaithfoundation.org