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.

The Middle Belt has been the site of some of the most violent religious clashes in Nigeria. Why has religion—as opposed to ethnicity, for example—become such a powerful form of identity there?

The roots of religion’s supremacy over ethnic identity in the Middle Belt, among Christians in particular, are really historic. You had a bunch of disenfranchised smaller ethnic groups, the hill people—many of whom fled from the dominant power of the Hausa Muslim majority in the north to this plateau in the Middle Belt to protect themselves from slave raiders. And they were very isolated. They used the plateau as a form of fortification, and they surrounded themselves with thorn bushes to keep people out. Christianity gave them a sense of collective identity, which also provided vital instruction about health and hygiene. And the association between Christianity and Western education and bureaucracy gave people purchase into a system that they’d never had before. One Christian leader in the Middle Belt told me that his grandfather was able to go from living in one of these isolated communities to becoming a businessman simply by reading the Bible. And to him the Bible was word-for-word true. He said, “Now you in the West are telling us that the Bible is a metaphor, that we’re not to take it as literally true? What system of development is next? What syllabus are you offering in exchange for taking the Bible’s literal truth away from us?”

So Christianity became a unifying identity for some of the Nigerians living in the Middle Belt. Has Nigerian Christianity taken on any distinctive characteristics?

John Voll, a professor of Islamic history at Georgetown, has observed that talking about encounters between Christianity and Islam in Africa is off base. We’re really talking about encounters between the two faiths with Africa. We have to ask continually, "Which Christianity. Which Islam?" These faiths are not simply global monoliths that exist in one place as they do in the other. “Syncretic” is the word people would use to describe a religion that borrows from local traditions as well as global traditions.

About 60 percent of the world’s Christians live in the developing world, which means that for most Africans, Christianity doesn’t feel like something that came from the West. And it didn’t. Take Sudan, for example. The first Christian in what is today Sudan was a royal eunuch who converted on a business trip to Jerusalem in 37 A.D., so the Bible story goes. One of the disciples hopped into his chariot and—wham!—he converted. So where is the West in that? Nowhere. Frequently, people say to me, “The West may have brought the Bible here to us, but then they abandoned it. Now it’s our turn to take faith back to them.”  So, many African Christians feel their faith stands outside the tradition of colonialism. In fact, faith allows them to reject the cultural imperialism of the morally lax West. This is essential to understanding how faith can work as a kind of conservative liberation theology. In particular, look at Pentecostalism’s ability to include spirit-based worship. In Pentecostal traditions, demons and demon possession are real. So is possession by the Holy Spirit. That’s one reason why Pentecostalism has had such explosive growth in Africa: it’s very much in keeping with notions about spirit, which already exist.

Has Islam also taken on traditional African characteristics? Does this create tensions with the global Islamic community?

First, it’s important to remember that 80 percent of the world’s Muslims live outside the Arab world. So Islam in Africa takes many, many forms, especially along the edge of the Muslim world. Many Africans are Sufis, a broad and sometimes syncretic form of the faith patterned by relationships between brotherhoods, or tariqa. Since the late '80s, the reawakening of the faith has led some hardliners to oppose Sufi practices. For example, many kids who go to Islamic schools write on boards called allos to memorize the Koran. The ink they use becomes sacred. Some Sufi teachers—both to make money and because it’s tradition—will sell that ink to people who drink it for certain cures. They are purified by drinking—taking in—the world of God. Now for many reformist Sunnis, that’s haram—forbidden by Islam because it’s not in the stricter traditions. They see the practice as something that needs to be rooted out of society. Sometimes that leads to violence between the reformists and the Sufis who oppose them. Similarly there’s been violence between those who call themselves Shia—some even hang posters of Moqtada al Sadr on their walls—and Sunnis. All of these divisions undermine the arguments that we’re watching a clash only between global monoliths.

As you write in your piece, these nuances and divisions within Christianity and Islam are as important as the opposition between the two faiths.  

We sometimes see a global clash—what Samuel Huntington calls the “bloody” borders of faith—where these two monoliths encounter each other. But the truth behind the occasions of violence is that it’s the weakness and insecurities of those who live at the edge that lead to fighting—not two overarching ideologies battling it out.  Religious identity isn’t fixed. It’s changing all the time, and is affected by many other power struggles—over land, resources, and politics.

Presented by

Justine Isola is an Atlantic staff editor.

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