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.
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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.

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.

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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