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
PEACEMAKERS: Imama Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa and Pastor James Movel Wuye of the Interfaith Meditation Centre

Imam Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa is also a former militia leader, from the other side of the river, where he still lives. “We were fighting on either side of town, James and I,” he told me when I first visited his home in August 2006. Ashafa’s life is equally steeped in the history of his people. He comes from a long line of Muslim scholars who were powerful under the caliphate of Usman Dan Fodio, and his story, too, is a tale of oppression and reaction to oppression. “My family had, all its life, struggled against colonialists and missionaries because they watched the colonialists bring Christianity into the hinterlands. I grew up hearing stories of how our land was stolen and our people were crushed.” When Ashafa was a boy, his father refused to let him go to school, because missionaries ran the school. “Missionaries are evil,” he told his son. But Ashafa’s uncle talked his father into it, saying, “Let the boy go to school. Don’t you trust your God?”

At mission school, Ashafa won the prize for best Bible student; he had a gift for memorization. After school, Ashafa would use a slingshot to fling stones at women who were showing their bare arms or backs in the streets. When the religious crisis hit Kaduna in 1987, Ashafa, like James, became a militia leader. The two were enemies. “We planted the seed of genocide, and we used the scripture to do that,” Ashafa said. “In Islam, you must fight in defense of any women, children, or old people—Muslim or not—so as a leader, you create a scenario where this is the only interpretation,” he explained. But Ashafa’s mentor, a Sufi hermit, tried to warn the young man away from violence. “You will not cross the ocean with hate in your heart,” he told Ashafa.

In 1992, Christian militiamen stabbed the hermit to death and threw his body down a well. Ashafa’s only mission became revenge: he was going to kill James. Then, one Friday during a sermon, Ashafa’s imam told the story of when the Prophet Muhammad had gone to preach at Ta’if, a town about 70 miles southeast of Mecca. Bleeding after being stoned and cast out of town, Muhammad was visited by an angel who asked if he’d like those who mistreated him to be destroyed. Muhammad said no. “The imam was talking directly to me,” Ashafa said. During the sermon, he began to cry. Next time he met James, he’d forgiven him entirely. To prove it, he went to visit James’s sick mother in the hospital.

Slowly, the pastor and the imam began to work together, but James was leery. “Ashafa carries the psychological mark. I carry the physical and psychological mark,” he said. “He talks so much. I’m a little miserly with words. So when he uses his energy like that, he sleeps very deeply. There were instances where we shared a room. He’s a very heavy sleeper. You can actually take the pillow off his head and he will just struggle and go back to sleep. More than once, several times, I was tempted to use the pillow to suffocate him. But this restraining force of the deepness of my faith comes ringing through my ears.”

At a Christian conference in Nigeria sponsored by Pat Robertson—one of the most anti-Muslim preachers in the world—a fellow pastor pulled James aside and said, in almost the same words as the Sufi hermit, “You can’t preach Jesus with hate in your heart.” James said, “That was my real turning point. I came back totally de­programmed. I know Pat Robertson might have had another agenda, but I was truly changed.”

For more than a decade now, James and Ashafa have traveled to Nigerian cities and to other countries where Christians and Muslims are fighting. They tell their stories of how they manipulated religious texts to get young people into the streets to shed blood. Both still adhere strictly to the scripture; they just read it more deeply and emphasize different verses.

Nonbelievers may wonder how these “deprogramming” efforts can actually work. But religion is the X factor in conflicts like Nigeria’s, which can’t be reduced just to economics. As Barbara Cooper, the author of Evangelical Christians in the Muslim Sahel, puts it, “Faith matters.”

Pastor James sent me on a tour of Kaduna with one of his employees, Haruna Yakubu, a former Islamic militant who now works as a youth coordinator for the Interfaith Mediation Centre, which the pair of religious allies founded. Yakubu took me to see the poured-cement skeleton of the fire-ravaged Alafia Oluwa Baptist Church. “The Baptists want to sell it,” Yakubu said, as we climbed out of the pastor’s aging Mercedes. The cross and spire had been sheared off, but the walls and heavy cement Romanesque arches were still standing. They now enclosed a large grassy field; a cow was tethered to a tree. I walked toward the narthex, but Yakubu stopped me. It stank of human excrement. “The locals have turned it into a toilet,” he said, uncomfortably. On the wall, through a hole blasted into the cement, someone had painted a picture of a naked woman, a penis with “Pastor S—” written on it pointed between her spread legs. “We’re trying to convince the Baptists to come back, but they don’t want to.” I could see why. I couldn’t imagine a more desecrated place. In 2007, the Christians sold it after all. When Yakubu and I drove by a year after our first visit, the word masalaci, which means “mosque,” had been spray-painted across it in red.

We drove in silence. Yakubu looked out of the car’s smeared window at the colonial-era ash trees lining the broad road toward the polo ground. “Our religious leaders are some of our most dangerous people,” he said. “They preach that they want us to go back to Medina, but we can’t go back to Medina.” Medina, the city in which Muhammad led an army and a state, has different connotations than Mecca, the city of his youth. In the Koran, the verses from Medina speak frequently of war and violence, unlike the ones from Mecca. “Even the Prophet lived with Christians; why can’t we? If we call ourselves true Muslims, why can’t we do that?” said Yakubu.

Along the road, red-eyed boys sold jerricans of petrol. Nigeria is the United States’ fifth-largest supplier of oil, but because of corruption and mismanagement, it imports much of its gasoline. During price hikes and shortages, these young hawkers appear by the roadside. Such boys are the first to join the fighting; their gas cans become weapons. Usually someone’s paying them. In the north, there are millions of these jobless and school-less young men. For the price of a meal, they form a ready army.

One Friday before afternoon prayer, I visited Imam Ashafa at home. He’d already solved three neighborhood disputes that morning. Two smiling old men wearing dark glasses sat on his green sectional couch. Both were blind, and the imam had started a foundation to help them. His two young wives, Fatima and Aisha, both disarmingly warm and very attractive, served tea on top of a tin canister. “I like pretty women,” the imam told me later. The room was stuffy: the windows were shut and the green-and-white striped curtains drawn in purdah. On one closed door, a bumper sticker read Combat AIDS with Shari’a. The method was clear: abstinence. The imam and the pastor share the same conservative moral values, which has also helped them to find common ground.

Frequently, the problems each confronted weren’t divisions between Christians and Muslims, but arguments within his own side. One of Ashafa’s greatest challenges is to manage Kaduna’s growing list of Muslim groups at odds with each other. The self-proclaimed Shia of northern Nigeria are closely tied to Iran. They’re engaged in a cold war—which sometimes heats up—with a radical group of Sunnis. Some Sunni hardliners, in turn, rail against what they see as the “corrupt” Islam practiced by Nigeria’s Sufi majority. As among the Christians, the divisions between the Muslims continue to deepen—a splintering that undermines any facile notions of a global clash of two monoliths. Still, the imam is frequently accused of being a sellout because he associates with Christians. He identifies himself very much as a fundamentalist and sees himself as one who emulates Muhammad. Although he and Pastor James don’t discuss it, he also proselytizes among Christians. “I want James to die as a Muslim, and he wants me to die as a Christian. My Islam is proselytizing. It’s about bringing the whole world to Islam,” he told me that day.

Such missionary zeal drives both men, infusing their struggle to rise above their history of conflict with the same undercurrent of competitive tension that runs across the Middle Belt and the continent. As Pastor James told me at his office, Peace Hall, in Kaduna, he still believes strongly in absolute and exclusive salvation mandated by the gospel: “Jesus said, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life.’” He still challenges Christians to rely on the strict and literal word, and he’s still uncompromising on fundamental issues of Christianity. “We see same-sex marriages in the United States as signs of end times: it’s Sodom and Gomorrah,” he told me. “But I also want to say you can believe what you want to believe. We have to find a space for coexistence.”

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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