God’s Country

Using militias and marketing strategies, Christianity and Islam are competing for believers by promising Nigerians prosperity in this world as well as salvation in the next. A report from the front lines
A MUSLIM NEIGHBORHOOD in ruins, following attacks by Christians in Yelwa.

The Christian Gospel of Prosperity is so powerful that it has spawned a unique Nigerian phenomenon: an Islamic organization called Nasrul-Lahi-il-Fathi (NASFAT). The name is drawn from a verse in the eighth chapter of the Koran: “There is no help except from Allah.” This is the same chapter, “The Spoils of War,” or Al-Anfal, that Saddam Hussein cited to justify his genocide against the Kurds. But NASFAT has no interest in violence. Instead, the organization is based on economic empowerment and prosperity with an Islamic spin. Started with about a dozen members in the 1990s, NASFAT now has 1.2 million members in Nigeria and branches in 25 other countries. The organization has an entrepreneurship program, a clinic, a prison-outreach program, a task force to address HIV/AIDS, a travel agency, and a soft-drink company called Nasmalt, whose profits go to the poor. It even offers matchmaking. Although many conservatives believe that this engagement with the secular world is haram, forbidden, and distinctly un-Islamic, NASFAT argues that it is the only way to survive in the marketplace.

“We are competing for faithfuls,” NASFAT’s executive secretary, Zikrullah Kunle Hassan, said one blistering Sunday last August in Lagos. “Many people now want God. This is happening especially among the youth, that they feel they need to be committed to faith.” Gesturing to the streets choked with more than 100,000 men and women clad in shining white as they came from a prayer service at the Lagos Secretariat Mosque, he explained that NASFAT meets on Sundays so that Muslims have something to do while Christians attend church. “The space on Sunday is usually not dominated by Islam, but other faiths and other values. But when our people come here, they come and drink from the fountain of Islam.”

The prayer ground looked like a fair. Hawkers sold lemons from a wheelbarrow. Small booths offered pretty, scalloped hijabs, embroidered with “NASFAT” in blue. Men sat on prayer mats eating rice, while women attended a lecture on ways to make money that are in keeping with Islam.

NASFAT’s primary mission is to reclaim those values the world sees as Western, but which its members perceive as integral to the success of the global Islamic community, or ummah. Foremost is education. “We know that the West is ahead today because of education,” Hassan said. NASFAT has its own nursery, primary, and secondary schools, as well as the brand-new Fountain University. While many orthodox believers say that this new movement is bi’dah, innovation, and therefore dangerously un-Islamic, NASFAT’s adherents disagree, arguing that they are part of a charismatic Muslim movement that addresses social welfare—and that is on its way to sweeping the world. (They’re also mostly Muslims from Nigeria’s southwest, which means they grew up around Christianity and are more comfortable with its ways.) If every answer to life can be found in the Koran, Hassan said, then questions of how to survive and prosper must be addressed there. When conservative northern clerics kick up a fuss about NASFAT’s growing presence in the communities, NASFAT reaches out to them with gestures like involving community youth in business programs.

PROFIT WITH THE PROPHET: a seminar for women on financial empowerment, hosted by NASFAT, a rising Islamic organization, in Lagos

“To be honest, for us there’s a competition of civilizations, there’s a competition of values, and to me, the roots of the conflict are that we believe all civilizations have collapsed in the face of Western civilization,” he went on. “Communism collapsed. All other values collapsed. Islam remained resistant to Western civilization.” In order to survive, Islam has to address the contemporary needs of its people and compete with the Christian promise of prosperity. As one young member, who joined the organization to get a job through its business network, told me, “There’s nothing you want to achieve that NASFAT can’t help you get, here in this country.” He added, “Success, triumph, and glory are from the Creator.”

"Prosperity Gospel is more a symptom than the disease,” Father Matthew Hassan Kukah, the Roman Catholic author of Religion, Politics and Power in Northern Nigeria, told me in his office above a Catholic church in the city of Kaduna, at the northern edge of the Middle Belt. To his mind, Nigerians’ resort to religion to achieve prosperity was a natural response to their corrupt political landscape and the absence of any civil government. “You can buy a car and insure it,” he continued. “You don’t need a priest to pray over the car, to bless your house to keep robbers away … Here, there’s no guarantee. God is being called upon to police a lot of areas of our lives.” This need for God’s protection isn’t only individual, but collective and political, given the collapse of the state.

Many Muslims share that point of view. Take, for example, the ongoing effort to implement sharia, or Islamic law, in northern Nigeria, which came to fruition in 1999. On a practical level, sharia, with its promise of moral justice at the local level, seems to offer an end to the corruption that bedevils the people. And given that many Nigerians associate that corruption with the failure of Western-style democracy in Africa, “to reinstate the sharia … is not only good religion, it is supremely sound politics,” argues Murray Last, an emeritus professor at University College London.

Yet despite a huge outcry from Christians and the West, the implementation of sharia, which is currently on the books in 12 of Nigeria’s 36 states, has had very little practical impact. The harsh criminal punishments spelled out in the hudud have proven, for the most part, impossible to implement. And northern Nigerians have now seen that sharia has not stanched the corruption they face every day. In fact, many of the politicians who backed sharia have been linked to massive corruption; these include the biggest advocate, the former governor of Zamfara state, who is even rumored to have paid a man to let the state amputate his hand for stealing livestock.

So if religion has proven not to safeguard the car, not to cure malaria, not even to stop politicians from stuffing ballot boxes, is it worth fighting and dying for? Popular disillusionment is one reason why Father Kukah believes that Nigeria’s religious mayhem is an isolated stage in its development of plural stability. Paradoxically, this progression is clearest in Kaduna, formerly one of the most intense flash points, where Kukah lives. Over the past 20 years, many of the city’s churches and mosques have been burned down, and thousands of residents have been killed in battles fueled by religion. Kaduna, whose name means “crocodile,” is a microcosm of Nigeria: its population of 1.5 million people is divided in half between Muslims and Christians. The split isn’t just demographic; it’s geographic. The city’s Muslim neighborhoods—nicknamed Baghdad and Afghanistan—are on the north side of town. The Christian ones—called Television, Haifa, and Jerusalem—are on the south side. The Kaduna River separates them.

Pastor James Movel Wuye was born in Kaduna into an ethnic minority called Gbagyi. Historically, his people were aboriginal warriors who fought off Hausa Muslim slave raiders before the arrival of the British, who actually made things worse. “They were merciless, the Muslims who were ruling over us,” he said. His people still call the Hausa Muslims ajei, which means “those who trouble us.” Pastor James’s father was a soldier, and when James and the other barracks boys played war, their imagined enemies were their Hausa oppressors. As a teenager, James rebelled: he drank and smoked, and he wooed a long list of girlfriends. He also joined the Christian Association of Nigeria and, at 27, became general secretary of the Youth Wing. In 1987, the Middle Belt exploded. When fighting between Christians and Muslims reached Kaduna, Pastor James became the head of a Christian militia. “We took an oath of secrecy,” he said. “We carried pictures of those [of us] who’d been killed. We were martyrs: we felt that we were dying in defense of the Church.” The war, like the faith itself, became a struggle for liberation.

James incited violence by relying on the literal, inspired word of scripture. “I used to say, ‘We’ve been beaten on both cheeks, there’s no other cheek to turn,’” he said. “I used Luke 22:36: as Jesus said to the disciples the night before his crucifixion, ‘And if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.’” When the pastor was 32, a fight broke out between Christians and Muslims over control of a market. “That day, we were outnumbered,” he said. “Twenty of my friends were killed. I passed out, so I don’t know exactly what happened.” When he woke up, his right arm was gone, sliced off with a machete.

Presented by

Eliza Griswold, a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of Wideawake Field (2007), is working on a book about Christianity and Islam, The Tenth Parallel.

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