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Scores Die in Nigerian Fighting

Fighting in Jos, the strife-torn Plateau province in central Nigeria, has killed up to 100 people, reports the Financial Times. As is usually but not inevitably the case, one side in the latest round of bloodshed was Christian, the other side Muslim. Plateau state is where the predominantly Muslim north and the mostly Christian south meet; thousands of people have died in riots and massacres in the strife-torn area.

The FT, following MSM standard usage, calls the latest fighting “communal” rather than religious. This is true as far as it goes. Plateau state like many African regions is multi-ethnic, and there are frequent conflicts between ethnic groups over land tenure and other mostly economic and political issues. Weak institutions and corrupt officials mean that quarrels between groups are generally handled outside of the courts and the legislatures; people fight them out in the streets and the towns.

But while the tensions are not religious in origin (unlike those surrounding Boko Haram, the radical Islamist terror group that is deliberately killing Christians across north and central Nigeria in the effort both to radicalize Muslims in the north and to drive Christians south), burying the religious dimension of the conflict can blind readers to the way that violence in Plateau reverberates across Nigeria and indeed across much of Africa.

The actual fighters are members of the Fulani and Berom groups. Most Fulanis are Muslims, most Beroms are Christian. The two groups have a long history of conflict here and would likely be fighting many of the same battles if they were both Zoroastrian or Buddhist. However, some Muslims and Christians throughout Nigeria identify with their respective co-religionists in this conflict in a way they would not do if it weren’t between Christians and Muslims, and this violence adds to the sense of religious polarization and alienation among millions of people who are neither Fulani nor Berom.

Religious differences turn local conflicts into episodes in a larger and more dangerous narrative, and religious differences between ethnic groups heighten each group’s sense of its own identity and sharpen suspicions of the other. Partly because “responsible” observers fear that harping on the religious element in these conflicts increases the potential for religious conflict to spread, and partly because secular-minded observers often underestimate the role of religious passion in escalating economic disputes into violent confrontations, the press, the NGO world and governments tend to downplay the role religious difference plays in Nigerian life.

That role is large, costly, dangerous and growing; increasingly readers need to understand that role rather than being continuously and repetitively reassured that other factors are at work.

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  • WigWag

    Should the United States refrain from taking sides in the worldwide strife going on between Christians and Muslims especially in the developing world?

    Given the extraordinarily unlikely prospects for the United States to successfully mediate this dispute and given the unlikely prospects for reconciliation between the combatants any time soon, should the U.S. pick a side and support it with military and other resources or should we remain neutral.

    What is the ethical thing to do? What policy most promotes American interests?

    No doubt Professor Mead and others around AI Blog World have thought deeply about this. Their views on the subject would be most interesting.

  • Bart Hall (Kansas, USA)

    Do not overlook the Hausa, especially in the Kano region, and the Igbo (southeast). This is a nasty dynamic, but the chief underlying factor is the vicious militancy of Islam, one particularly horrible manifestation of which in Nigeria is ‘Boko Haram’ meaning ‘westernization’ is ‘prohibited’ for Muslims.

    That’s why more books are translated into Spanish in any given year than have been translated into Arabic in the last THOUSAND years. #FAILED CULTURE.

  • J R Yankovic

    Prescient article well-stated. Of course smugly secular-minded governments and NGOs are inclined to downplay the role of global religion in local disputes. Exactly the sort of cluelessly blind eye one would expect, and one that may prove, in retrospect, to have helped accelerate the politico-militarization of “hot” (culture-hostile YET often business-friendly) religion in many parts of Asia and Africa. “Communal” for now; God help us when it becomes something more.

  • Jim.

    There are fighters coming out of Libya now… is that better or worse than when Gadfly just paid out cash for them to fight for themselves?

    How about Saudi money? Is there any evidence of that?

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