Interviews March 2008

One Nation, Under Gods

Eliza Griswold, author of "God's Country," talks about the forces driving religious conflict in Nigeria and what the rivalry between Christians and Muslims could mean for Africa's most populous country.

Erase for a moment the images of Nigeria that may come to your mind—of burning garbage dumps in sprawling Lagos or unemployed young men brandishing jerry cans in the Niger Delta. Picture instead 100,000 white-clad believers flowing out of a mosque on any given Sunday, or a megachurch filled with 300,000 worshipers at an annual Pentecostal convocation. As Eliza Griswold reports in her March Atlantic article, “God’s Country,” Nigeria is a country suffused with faith—a force that has become a powerful and divisive form of identity.

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Photos and narration by Seamus Murphy. Produced in conjunction with PBS's Frontline/World.

Audio: The Contest for Africa
Hear Eliza Griswold speaking with Lisa Mullins of Public Radio International's "The World" about the clash between Islam and Christianity along Nigeria's Middle Belt.

Slideshow: Nigeria—A Struggle for Souls and Survival

Griswold has written about conflict and human rights for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The New Republic, among other publications. In 2006 she visited Nigeria, hoping to learn more about how the forces of globalization are influencing the formation of local identities—particularly religious identities—in a country that is almost evenly split between Muslims and Christians.

Neither Islam nor Christianity is new to Nigeria. Islam was introduced to West Africa as early as the eighth century by traders and jihadis as they traversed the Sahara. Islam’s spread in Nigeria culminated in the establishment of a 19th-century caliphate that ruled several states in the north. As for Christianity, by the time the British managed to unify and colonize the country in the beginning of the 20th century, Christian missionaries had already begun making inroads in the countryside. Since then, evangelization and the spread of Pentecostalism and African Initiated Churches have increased the number of Christians in Nigeria from 1 percent of the population a century ago to some 40 percent now.

In recent years, violence between Muslims and Christians has erupted in an area of central Nigeria known as the Middle Belt, where the north’s majority Muslim population meets the south’s majority Christian population. The city of Kaduna has witnessed some of the most devastating of the small-scale conflicts that have killed thousands. Residents of the city estimate that clashes between Christians and Muslims in the spring of 2000 took the lives of nearly 5,000 people and displaced many others. And in 2002, Christians-Muslim violence in the town of Yelwa, described by Griswold in her piece, left hundreds dead, and dozens of churches and mosques ruined.

Griswold makes clear that the underlying causes of this conflict are complex. The flames of Nigerian violence, she emphasizes, are fanned by a number of secular factors: climate change has brought the two faiths into closer physical proximity, while high birthrates have intensified their competition over scarce resources. At the same time, the rampant corruption plaguing the Nigerian government has left members of both religions grasping for order and accountability. “Outbreaks of violence,” she writes, “result not simply from a clash between two powerful religious monoliths, but from tensions at the most vulnerable edges where they meet—zones of desperation and official neglect where faith becomes a rallying cry in the struggle for land, water, and work.”

But Griswold warns against attributing Nigeria’s struggles only to secular causes and thereby whitewashing the religious issues at hand. In a region that is divided nearly evenly between the cross and the crescent, religious discord is not simply a manifestation of unrest but is truly a part of the problem. As one church leader in Yelwa put it, “Our God is different than the Muslim God … If he were the same God, we wouldn’t fight.” And as a young Muslim woman who was abducted and raped by Christian militants observed, “The Christians don’t want us here [in Yelwa] because they don’t like our religion.”

Fortunately, Nigeria’s intensely religious character can sometimes be a source of harmony as well as conflict. In the course of her reporting, Griswold encountered religious leaders on both sides of the divide who have dedicated themselves to fostering peace in the name of their respective religions. As Pastor James Movel Wuye, a former Christian militia leader who now works jointly with a Muslim imam toward fostering peace, told her, “We have to find a space for coexistence.”

I interviewed Eliza Griswold by phone and e-mail in January.

—Justine Isola

You’ve reported from all over the world, particularly on issues of security and human rights. What drew you to Nigeria and to this story?

This story is part of a larger book project I’m working on, which is an examination of the border—roughly between the equator and the line of latitude about 700 miles to the north of it—called the 10th parallel. In Africa and Asia, this is the zone where the explosive growth of Christianity in what’s called the Global South meets the southern edge of the Muslim world. In Africa, this meeting point is particularly dramatic because of geography: it’s the border between dry land to the north and Sub-Saharan Africa to the south. For the past four years, I’ve been traveling within this zone on two continents in six countries, examining up close what happens when Christianity and Islam meet, and what role faith plays in relationships between people. The book, which will be published next year, is mostly a book of ideas explored through the characters who live and die in this zone. The voices are particular to individuals, but they also speak to the larger questions of globalized religious identity.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by "globalized religious identity?"

Sure. It’s really a way of saying that globalization has a massive impact on people’s personal and shared worldviews, or religion. The reality is that the current religious renewal in both Christianity and Islam today is a direct result of globalization. As Peter Berger, the director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University, recently wrote, most of our smartest thinkers, à la Nietzche, thought modernity would kill God, but exactly the opposite is happening. So how do we account for this? Well, in many different ways. I’ll just talk about a couple of them especially prevalent in Africa.

Today as nations become increasingly irrelevant, religious identity becomes one of the next-greatest means by which people stake their claim as to who they are as an individual and as part of a group. This is especially true in places where national borders, which were superimposed by the colonialists scrambling for resources, have never really worked in the first place. When national identity breaks down under the pressure of globalization, other collectives become more important. In many cases, this is religion.

This is also happening here in the United States, with megachurches. But it’s especially pronounced in the developing world. Those of us who report outside of America, are seeing more and more religious awakenings patterning people’s daily lives in ways that are hard for many of us at home to understand. Perceived slurs and slights, or massive conflagrations—like the war in Iraq, or the situation in Israel and Palestine—have a profound impact on how people hold onto their religious and cultural identity. One example: during the war in Lebanon several summers ago, I was in Kano, a town in northern Nigeria. If you wanted to watch the news, you watched either blonde Hala Gorani on CNN or marching music videos on Hezbollah TV. While we in the West may see the difference between those two options as a cultural or political divide, that’s not how it appears to a great deal of the world. It appears as a religious divide.

Does that mean we’ve stumbled into on overly simplified notion of the "great clash"? No. It just means that on an individual level, religion is becoming more intimate and essential, and on a community level, religious identity plays a significant role in worldview and social identity. This is on the increase without question.

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Justine Isola is an Atlantic staff editor.

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