The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Update: Another Church Attack in Northern Nigeria

A breaking story on the BBC adds to the urgency of an earlier post today about the religious war gaining momentum in Africa. The latest attack by a gunman on a church in Maiduguri, Nigeria is reported to have killed five people including the pastor of the church.

Meanwhile, the death toll in the Kano attack has been revised upward. At least 16 people are now reported dead and six are in serious condition after a bomb and gun attack on a group of Christians conducting a prayer service. Other reports place the death toll at 20.

Both Maiduguri and Kano have been scenes of previous religious violence as radical Islamic groups claim “credit” for attacks on Christian churches, schools and believers in northern Nigeria.

Nigeria is a major flashpoint for the religious conflict seen across Africa as a surging Christian presence shakes the confidence of traditional Islamic communities and as radical currents in global Islam make themselves felt in sub-Saharan Africa. Since independence, Nigeria’s Christian community has doubled as a proportion of the population (from roughly a fourth of the population to roughly one half) as animists and believers in traditional African religions converted to Christianity. Additionally, some Muslims have converted.

The surge in Christian numbers comes at the same time that the Christian population and the predominantly Christian regions of the country are becoming more prosperous than the mostly Muslim north. Political power is also flowing to the south.

The political instability across sub-Saharan Africa often has religious elements that the mainstream media likes to downplay. This is partly because many secular reporters and some diplomats genuinely don’t understand how important religion is as a force in these countries and partly because of the “Voldemort” problem: if we talk too much about religious violence, there will be more of it.

But the reality is that for many Christians and Muslims in Africa today, religion is at the core of their identities and helps shape their political and social visions. Today those visions are in conflict, not in one or two places but across the breadth of Africa where Islam coming down from the north meets the Christian surge from the south and the coasts.

Americans are far more engaged in this process than most media reports suggest. Close links between Christian groups in Africa and those in the US have recently made the news because of controversies in Africa over homosexuality,  but that is only the tip of an iceberg. Perceptions in the US about the nature of Islam and the relationship between Christianity and Islam are more heavily influenced by religious violence and competition in Africa than the mainstream media realize. When churches are being firebombed, pastors shot, and (as in Sudan for many years), Christians are being rounded up and sold into slavery by warrior bands who claim to fight in the name of Islam, there can be a certain chilling effect on interfaith dialog.

It would be a mistake to overstress the religious conflicts in Africa, but at the moment the US press is in no danger of that. The relationship between Christianity and Islam worldwide is a major factor in America’s world standing; the media needs to do a better job reporting on the conflicts in Africa and in tracing the ways in which that news comes back through religious news agencies and other sources to affect perceptions and views back here in the United States.

The rise of Christianity in Africa does more than create some political issues and conflicts. It also creates new and important areas of communication and influence for democracy promotion, state building and cooperation between the US and other western countries (like Brazil, also a source of Pentecostal missionaries in Africa with many religious ties) and much of Africa. Building on these new ties is one of America’s great international opportunities in the 21st century; the failure of our press to cover the colorful and important story of the Christianization of Black Africa is one of the biggest media failures of our time.

Published on April 29, 2012 7:31 pm
  • Albert

    Would it not be more accurate to call what is happening a “Muslim campaign to exterminate Christians” rather than a “religious war”?

  • Daniel Ehighalua

    The religious question in Nigeria is an oxymoron with very strong political undercurrents. Stricto sensu,the recent upsurge from 2009 has more political undertones, disguised as religion

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Daniel Ehighalua: You could say the same thing about the 30 Years’ War, but religion comes into it somehow.

  • Anthony

    WRM, in “Foreign Policy” there is an article about how media shamefully neglects Africa (How not to write about Africa – Laura Seay). Also, I think irredentism adds to religious cast in African tension; and since independence, the fatal synecdoche -nation/people – has allowed corrupt or incompetent political leaders to conflate their interest with the peoples (an environment ripe for radical currents in global Islam to make itself felt).

  • Cunctator

    No, say it is not so!!! How can adherants of Islam, that religion of peace, be doing such terrible acts. You must be mistaken. Mutilating women, honour killing, beheading “infidels”, suicide bombing — OK, but surely not trying to extinguish Christianity in a country. That’s just not possible.

  • John Burke

    I must say that attributing this latest campaign of murdering Christians to the “rise of Christianity” or the increasing numbers of Christians is a repugnant attempt to cast blame on the victims. Fifty percent of Nigerians are Muslim (only 40 percent are Christian), including overwhelming majorities across the north. These “traditional” Muslim communities have nothing to fear from Christians; there are no armed Christian bands throwing grenades into mosques at Friday prayers. A dozen states in the north have adopted shariah, and militant Muslims aim to expand its reach south. There is no special “Christian” law that applies in southern Christian areas.

    This conflict is one sided. Failure to recognize that blocks any path to policies that might do anything about it.

  • Tom

    I don’t think WRM is doing that–he’s acknowledging that the Muslims have a perspective on this, but I think it’s fairly clear that he sides with the Christians on this one.

  • Jim.

    The Leftist (that is, the mainstream) Media has decided that Christianity ought to be fading from the scene, and anything that contradicts that narrative (the dramatic conversion of Africa, the conversion of increasing numbers of educated East Asians) is to be ignored as, literally, unthinkable.

    Their bias is appalling, but it’s something we’re getting used to. Especially as MSM flagships such as Newsweek (which, in one of its recent Christmas issues, decided to try to convince people that the Bible actually supports homosexuality) are fading from the scene far faster than the Gospels.

    I’m looking forward to that not-so-distant day that African and East Asian missionaries travel to America and Europe to convert the heathen.

  • LJ

    A “Muslim campaign to exterminate Christians” IS a religious war.

  • Kris

    Putting down devout Christians as atavistic hicks is bon ton. Doing so with Africans is most definitely not. If a story leads to a conflict between the two prescriptions, best to simply elide it. (See also California’s Proposition 8. The homophobic bad guys were those theocratic Mormons. Blacks? What do they have to do with this?)

  • Daniel Ehighalua

    @Walter Russell Mead: Most Nigerians are agreed that the quantum attributable to religion is so infinitesimal. In statistical terms, it’s less than 20%. Read Wole Soyinka’s recent treatise http://saharareporters.tumblr.com/post/22093760127/prof-wole-soyinkas-speech-speaking-truth-to-powerful

  • Jim.

    @11 Daniel-

    Fascinating- the one reference to theocrats as th cause of the violence there is balanced with a reference to secular Marxists.

    Marxists making common cause with jihadists? Marxists after oil wealth? Holy war? What exactly is going on there?

  • http://facebook.com Bolaji

    a comment here reads dat muslims are 50% Of nigerias population.dats nt true.in northern nigeria,about 35% Ar xtians. in d niger delta about 85% are xtians.in d eastern part about 93% are xtians. in the west about 70% are xtians.now if u sum it up.about 56%of nigerias’ population are christians.and for what the country is going through please read your bible in john 16 v 2.