By Dr. Charles Quist-Adade
Religious Intolerance in Africa
In this paper, I will trace religious conflicts in Africa and propose that some African politicians, like their former colonial masters, have cynically exploited religion in their quest for power. Part of the problem I argue is that Christianity and Islam, the mainstream religions in Africa today were imposed on Africans by outsiders while Africa’s own religions were destroyed through cultural genocide.
Religion and politics are a dangerous mix the world over. Africa is no exception. From Nigeria to Sudan, from the Ivory Coast to the Gambia, and from Egypt to Swaziland, religious conflicts have left in their trail death and destruction. The ongoing Darfur crisis on the Sudan is the latest in the long saga of religious conflicts in Africa. The most notorious religious conflicts are in Nigeria and Sudan. In Nigeria, intermittent clashes between Christians and Moslems in the northern states over Sharia (Islamic fundamentalist laws) crises have claimed the lives of thousands of Christians and Moslems. According to United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, “since 1999, a disturbingly large number of Nigerians; 12,000, if not more; have been killed in sectarian and communal attacks and reprisals between Muslims and Christians.” The most recent examples of this strife, in the city of Jos and in parts of the Bauchi state, have resulted in hundreds if not thousands of deaths as well as 10,000 or more Nigerians displaced. The Sudan conflict, which has been raging for more than two decades and has claimed tens of thousands of lives, was ignited by the dominant Islamic North’s hegemony over the largely Christian South. What makes Africa’s case even most tragic and ironic is that none of the religions that are causing antagonism and wreaking havoc on the continent are indigenous to Africa, at least not in their current forms! The question is why two Nigerians who speak the same language and share the same substrate culture are slaughtering each other in the name of alien religions. The answers are legion. I shall try to explain some of them.
In Africa, a curious conspiracy of factors, including the colonial legacy, geopolitics, machinations of ruthless politicians and pervasive ignorance, accounts for this sad situation. The most important factor, I insist, relates to African political economy, i.e., the intersection of politics and economics in African governance. The so-called tribal-religious wars in Africa are masked economic wars. In other words, religious conflicts are struggles over scarce economic resources and scrambles to control political power. Religion and “tribalism” are mere fronts for deep-seated grievances over economic deprivation. Politics is the concentrated expression of economics, as one social philosopher rightly noted.
The colonizers of Africa employed several methods to conquer, control and rule Africa. Divide and rule was one. The British were the most adept at this. They not only divided African countries along ethnic lines, they also created artificial schisms along religious lines. For example, in the then Gold Coast, now Ghana, the British turned the Moslem north into a labour trove for the Christian south. While southern Ghana was relatively ‘developed’, the north was largely ignored. The few social amenities and infrastructure, such as roads, schools, and hospitals, the British introduced in Ghana were set up almost exclusively in the south.
The introduction of a cash crop economy in Ghana meant that the northern population was turned into hewers of wood and drawers of water for the southerners – a seasonal labor force, migrating southwards to work on the cocoa plantations. With time, the northerners acquired a sort of ethnic specialization; they came to be regarded as ‘labourers.’ With ethnic specialization came negative stereotypes and prejudice. The same pattern was repeated in Nigeria, Sudan, Ivory Coast, and other African countries. The pattern created by British and other European colonizers did not end with the political independence of African countries. With time, the colonial legacy led to a class of relatively well developed, well educated, more urbanized southerners, many of whom worked in the newly established bureaucracies, firms, and businesses. The northerners were mostly drawn into the military and police forces. It is not difficult to understand that in Nigeria, for example, almost all the military coups were plotted by northerners.
The North-South religious divide in Africa is the offshoot of the Islamic-Christian antagonism that dates back to the Crusades. Africa was the staging ground for Arab-European rivalry for centuries. The religious map of Africa today is testimony to this fact, with northern Africa being largely “the spoils” of Arab conquest and Africa south of the Sahara populated largely by Christian “converts.” The introduction of Islam and Christianity into Africa has been described as the beginning of the “cultural genocide” of Africa: the best way to conquer a people is to control their “cultural mind.” Thus Africa’s colonization, partition and neo-colonization were accomplished first through religious and cultural enslavement.
Religion has always represented the essence of a people. In Africa, religion is synonymous with tradition and is inextricably linked with culture. Even in the so-called advanced Western industrialized countries that claim to have separated the state from religion, religious beliefs are, in fact, the central fulcrum around which moral and legal laws revolve.
Thus when a people’s religion is destroyed, their traditions die and culture atrophies. In his book, Africa and the World, Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois described the destruction of African culture in graphic terms: “…The old religion was held up for ridicule, the old culture and ethical standards degraded or disappeared, and gradually all over Africa spread the inferiority complex, the fear of colour, the worship of white skin, the imitation of white ways of doing and thinking, whether good, bad, or indifferent.”
“By the end of the nineteenth century,” Du Bois continues, “the degradation of Africa was as complete as organized human means could make it. Chieftains, representing a thousand years of thriving human culture, were decked out in second-hand London top-hats, while Europe snickered.” African American historian, Dr. John Henrik Clarke was equally incisive in his analysis of the cultural warfare on African culture by the European colonizers. He noted that in the 15th and 16th centuries, Europeans not only colonized most of the world, they also colonized most of the information regarding the world. Part of the war on the cultures of non-European people was the colonization of imagery, especially the image of God. Most of the people in Asia and in Africa under European domination dared not address God in a language of their own creation or look at God in the image created by their own imagination.
Dr. Clarke therefore called on African scholars to pay proper academic attention to the impact of the rise of Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries on the mind of the non-European world. Europe’s greatest achievement during this period, Dr. Clarke acknowledged, was not the enslavement and the military conquest of most of the world, but the conquest of the minds of most of the people of the world.
European conquest of the non-European world was achieved not by mere brute force or “brawn power” but largely by “brain power,” he observed. He wrote: “By the end of the 19th century, Europe effectively controlled or influenced most of the geography and people of the earth. In spite of the military advantage, the Europeans mainly having guns and their victims mainly without guns, there still were not enough Europeans in the world to have effectively taken over most of the world. What they did not achieve militarily, they achieved through propaganda. He called this achievement the manifestation of the ‘evil genius’ of Europe.”
Dr. Clarke continued: “When Europe found itself and shook off the lethargy of the Middle Age, after the disaster of the Crusades, they began to propagate false concepts that reverberate to this day.” The most damaging of these concepts are:
• That the world was waiting in darkness for the Europeans to bring the light of culture and civilization. As a matter of fact, in most cases, the truth was the contrary. The Europeans put out more light and destroyed more civilizations and cultures than they built. • Another European concept that is still with us, doing its maximum damage, is that the European concept of god is the only concept worthy of serous religious attention. In most of the world where the Europeans expanded, especially in Africa, they deprived the people of the right to call on God in a language of their creation and to look at God through their own imagination. They inferred or said outright that no figure that did not resemble a European could be god or the representative of god.
• The European concept that the invader and conqueror is a civilizer. Conquerors are never benevolent. In nearly all cases they spread their way of life at the expense of the conquered people.
• The myth of the European as discoverer is still with us more than 500-years after Christopher Columbus’ alleged discovery of America. This is one of the most prevailing myths in history, because Christopher Columbus discovered absolutely nothing. Conversely, he did help to set in motion a pattern of European expansion, slavery and exploitation that left its scar on most of mankind.
Dr. Clarke emphatically called on Africans to “regain their self-confidence and the image of God that they had originally conceived him or her to be.” And the late Afro-Guyanese historian, Walter Rodney made the same point when he wrote that: “What we need is confidence in ourselves, so that as Africans we can be conscious, united, independent and creative. A knowledge of African achievements in art, education, religion, politics, agriculture, medicine, science and the mining of metals can help us gain the necessary confidence which has been removed by slavery and colonialism.”
In the words of Mohamadou Kane, when religion dies, tradition can no longer find the energy to enable it resist the various assaults of the innovative and contesting forces that brew within it. This is precisely why some have argued that the invasion of foreign religions – principally Christianity and Islam -- is tantamount to a cultural genocide. The two religions have robbed Africa of the “assertive forces” that used to regulate and affirm the African people’s identity.
As Professor Daniel Mangera notes, the cultural genocide of Africa began in the seventh-eighth century AD, when the Arabs forced Islam and slave trade on Africans. The Arabs were followed by their arch rivals, the Europeans, in the 15th century. Under the pretext of checkmating Arabic slave trade and saving African heathens, the Europeans introduced Christianity to the continent. Professor Mangera further points out that Africa’s indigenous religions, unlike their Christian and Islamic counterparts, were not proselytizing and never led Africans to use force to convert or impose their beliefs on others. According to another African scholar, Professor Ali Mazrui, of the three principal religious legacies of Africa – indigenous, Islamic and Christian – the most tolerant is the indigenous tradition.
Africa did not have religious wars prior to the introduction of Christianity and Islam. This is because indigenous African religions (and therefore cultures) were neither universalistic – seeking to conquer the whole of the human race – nor competitive – in bitter rivalry against other creeds. The grant designs of Christianity and Islam, the two most universalistic religions in the world, have always been to convert the entire world according to their images. The crusades and jihads that tore apart Europe and other areas of the world for centuries testify to the incredible thirst for conquest and domination that has characterized both the Christian and Islamic creeds. For instance, the Bible’s Old Testament prods Christians to embark on imperialistic conquests of other nations and even to incite racist sentiments in the following lines: When the Lord your God brings you into the land which you are entering to occupy and drives out many nations before you (…), when the Lord delivers them into your power and you defeat them, you must put them to death (…). (…) you must not intermarry with them, neither giving your daughters to their sons nor taking their daughters for your sons. (Old Testament, Deuteronomy, 7: 1-3) Africans, unlike the Arabs and Europeans, developed community religions that left so much freedom of association to individuals that most of the religious practices remained community-based, familial or even individual, and did not, in most cases, expand beyond village, ethnic or tribal constituencies. When they did expand, indigenous African religions did so, more in the form of borrowings than of cultural impositions.
Sadly, Africans abandoned their tolerant tradition and instead embraced religions of intolerance that now turn them against one another. Africans abandoned their own gods and embraced false gods. They bought into the nonsense peddled by European missionaries that their religions were heathenish and that they did not know God until the Europeans introduced the concept to them! Regrettably, the deadly religious clashes in Nigeria, the Christian-Islamic war in Sudan, the North-South schism that led to the civil war in the Ivory Coast, plus numerous other religion inspired conflicts in Africa today, are damning testimony to the fact that Africans have now integrated the cultural aggression and intolerance characteristic of Western and Arab holy warriors and missionaries.
A Mau Mau commentary on European missionary activities in Africa could not emphasize Africa’s cultural void and religious vacuum better: “They asked us to close our eyes in prayers, and when we opened our eyes, our gold and other treasures were gone.” In fact, it is not only our gold and other treasures that disappeared; our culture disappeared as well!
The main point remains, however, that the so-called religious wars in Africa are mere excuses for sorting out economic and political injustices. Otherwise why should a seemingly innocuous opinion by an ordinary journalist about a hypothetical reaction of the Prophet Mohammed to the Miss World pageant in Nigeria lead to a bloodbath between Christian and Moslem Nigerians?
About the author: Dr. Charles Quist-Adade a Sociology professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, British Columbia in Canada. He teaches race and ethnicity, sociology of religion globalization, social justice, among others. He is the author of In the Shadows of the Kremlin and the White House: Africa’s Media Image from Communism to Post-Communism (University Press of America, 2001).