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.

In Nigeria, the issue of  “indigeneship” seems to be a key source of tension between Christians and Muslims. Can you say more about the meaning and history of this concept in Nigeria and elaborate on its implications?

The Nigerian constitution only poorly defines it, but in short, indigeneship is designed to mean that you have the most rights in the place you call home, wherever that may be. It doesn’t really work though. Instead, whoever holds political power controls the right to indigeneship because they can make the rules. Abdullahi Abdullahi, a Muslim human rights lawyer, has brought a case in front of the Nigerian Supreme Court to challenge the constitutionality of the whole system.

I’ve read that part of the problem is that some groups cannot trace their roots to any one area. Is this part of the issue in Yelwa?

Absolutely. In fact, as Abdullahi would say, we’re all refugees from somewhere. Yelwa is a predominantly Muslim pocket within what’s now a larger Christian area. Both sides claim that they were there first.

And that’s exactly where religion enters into it. “There are no Christians on this map,” Abdullahi said once, showing me a map. And true, there were all those small pockets of Tarok and Goemai, small subsets of ethnicities. In isolated pockets, those ethnicities had no power over anybody, but when they came together and used Christianity as their shared identity, they were able to establish dominance over the Islamic groups that were there. And the Christians say, “We’re all Christians. We don’t know where you came from, but we’ve been here forever.” So that’s a perfect example of how a group uses religion to gain power over another group.

Do you see the implementation of sharia as a slippery slope when it comes to merging religion and politics?

There’s no such thing as one simple code of sharia. It has within it a very strict criminal code that we think of as sharia, but is really called hudud, which involves harsher punishments like stoning and beheading. But sharia is also about protecting the rights of those under it, like widows and orphans, and protecting property rights.

The question of sharia has, from the beginning, been misunderstood both by those who wanted to implement it and a West that fears it. In Nigeria, it largely was used as an electoral bid: "You guys are going to get sharia, no more corruption." Well, there’s still just as much corruption. And as such, the popular support of sharia has dropped off. That’s not interpreted as a failure of sharia but as a failure of those who wanted to implement it in the first place. It turns out that the very same government officials who were pushing it so hard are among the most corrupt.

When I read the more dogmatic comments made in your piece, I’m even more impressed by the work Pastor James and Imam Ashafa of the Interfaith Mediation Centre are doing to “deprogram” Christians and Muslims who have adopted the view that their faiths are irreconcilably opposed. What challenges do they face, and what have they accomplished?

They face many challenges. The Imam’s two wives talk about how people approach them now and tell them that their husband sold out to the Christians and he’s not a true Muslim, so why should they believe him? Pastor James has to face people who say, “Hey, man, what are you doing? You’re selling out our people.” So there’s still very much the idea that in working together each is risking the power of his own group. People are afraid that peace or an end to competition will cost them. And that’s something James and Ashafa have to work against all the time.

One successful example of deprogramming that I’ve seen myself involves a group that the Interfaith Mediation Centre calls its Youth Paramilitary Organization. The Christians and Muslims in the group were formerly on the streets fighting. Today, they don’t have any weapons, but they share a commitment to discipline and coming together. Sometimes they go to parades and march together. This effort may seem to us somewhat minor at a distance, but these are the boys who picked up jerry cans for a little bit of money from local politicians and went after each other. By having grassroots connections their violence is diffused.

Most of the individuals whose voices you capture in the piece identify as either Christian or Muslim. Did you worry about subjectivity or bias when reconstructing specific events or framing general trends based on their accounts?

This story, essentially, is about subjectivity—you could call that "perspective" or "worldview" or "bias," even—and how that informs what actually happens between human beings. One of the reasons I’m writing about the 10th parallel is that I don’t think we in the largely secular West really understand how present God is in the daily lives of people in the rest of the world.  I think we really need to get that, because this isn’t just happening “out there somewhere.” We’re learning that we’re all connected, and this means in our worldviews, too. As Barbara Cooper, the author of Evangelical Christians in the Muslim Sahel said, faith matters. It doesn’t all boil down to political economy. Religion, or worldview, as I write in the piece, is an X factor. Peter Berger also writes about a secular bias—about how those who don’t count themselves as religious are always looking for “root causes” under religious conflict. Well, sometimes religion, or worldview and its symbols, are the root causes, as uncomfortable as that might make us feel.

Did your sources ever ask you about your own beliefs?

Every single time I sit down with someone to talk about his or her beliefs, that person asks about mine, and I answer whatever questions they might have. An interview is an exchange, really, and perspective and subjectivity doesn’t go one way. Someone recently called me a translator—and I think that rings true. My job is to translate one side to another—conservative to liberal, religious to secular and back again. This is what all reporters do in different ways, whether they’re writing about Google or God.

Do you have any predictions for the future? Will flashpoints continue to emerge or do you see signs that give you hope that an end to violence is in sight? 

You know, I’m no great speculator. Like most of us, I’m more comfortable looking back than looking forward. But I do have to say, in some places I’m hopeful. And because I’m generally a cynic, I take this hope pretty seriously. I don’t think we’re headed for global religious meltdown—in part because I’ve watched many of these small-scale conflicts burn themselves out where the two faiths meet. They simply cost too much.

Justine Isola is an Atlantic staff editor.
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