Posted by: Titus Presler | April 20, 2011

“Communal” describes religio-political violence in Kaduna, Nigeria

Trying to sort out the religious and the political elements of the violence in Kaduna in northern Nigeria that has followed that nation’s presidential election didn’t work out well – in a classic sense – in yesterday’s BBC interview with Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye, the two local leaders and former deadly rivals who later reconciled and founded the Interfaith Mediation Centre in Kaduna.

I say “classic sense” because the interviewer asked them the classic misleading question: “Is this conflict, which has pitted Muslims and Christians against each other, with much loss of life and property, truly a religious conflict or is it really political?” (not an exact quote, but close enough, from memory, and the question itself is not reproduced on the podcast).

The two religious leaders responded in a predictable and equally misleading way.  “This is a pure political issue,” said Imam Ashafa.  Pastor Wuye used the striking phrase, “conflict entrepreneurs in the guise of religion” to describe the political actors he believes are using religion to turn people against each other.  Said Ashafa, “You can sell anything in the name of religion.”  The BBC’s synopsis of the interview states simply: “An imam and a pastor from the Nigerian city of Kaduna say the violence in the north is not a religious but a political issue.”

The responses were predicable because the commitment that Ashafah and Wuye have made to interfaith reconciliation compels them, when faced with an either-or analytical choice between religious and political sources of violence, to background the religious and foreground the political.  They do not want to imply that Christians and Muslims are engaged in religious conflict for religious reasons, for that would raise the specter of the conflict being irreconcilable either theologically in the abstract or practically between Muslim and Christian adherents.

The interviewer did ask a natural followup question: “If it’s primarily about politics, why are churches being targeted, why are Christians being targeted” – and, equally, mosques and Muslims being targeted?”  Here the responses were similar, that political leaders are using religion to manipulate their followers and that religious leaders are likewise manipulating religion to manipulate their followers.  When the interviewer asked whether the events indicated that the efforts of Ashafa and Wuye through the Kaduna Interfaith Mediation Centre had failed, Wuye characteristically and inspirationally talked not politics but religion, citing “the strength in our [shared] spirituality.”

A natural analytical question here is: If religion is so powerful, how can an analysis be credible when it presents religion as the hapless victim of forces presented as so much more powerful?  How can a factor that the analysis itself recognizes to be so powerful that it can be used to whip up violence be, on the other hand, only a passive object and not an active subject in such conflicts?  The answer is that religion in the form of identity, belief and loyalty is fully as much a factor in such conflicts as are politics and economics.

In short, both asking an either-or question between politics and religion and trying to answer it in either-or terms end up being futile because neither the question nor the answer speaks to the fullness of the situation.  Recognizing that a conflict between communities has religious dimensions does not signify a myopic view that the conflict is exclusively religious, for inevitably there are social, economic and ethnic factors alongside the religious.  Equally, sidelining the religious aspect as minor rarely fits the facts.

In Nigeria, the current spate of violence has followed the re-election of a southerner who is a Christian to the national presidency.  The political issue therefore is obvious, as are the economic rivalries between northern and southern Nigeria.  Yet the religious dimension is very real, both because the division is along the lines between the religious communities and because members and worship places of the other community are targeted.

“Communal” is a term commonly used by journalists and academics in India to describe multi-dimensional conflicts between communities of different religious loyalties, and there it refers primarily to Hindu-Muslim conflict.  “Communal” as a descriptor acknowledges that identities are multi-layered and motives are complex and rarely singular.  “Communal” recognizes the messiness of the interactions between communities and relinquishes the illusion that religion can be sequestered and isolated from the political, social and economic environment in which it flourishes.

“Communal” is a helpful term for conflicts not only in south Asia but in Israel-Palestine, Ireland, the Balkans, Sudan – and Nigeria.

Postscript – actually a prescript: It was a pleasure hosting Ashafa and Wuye at the opening conference, “Reconciliation at the Roundtable: God’s Call in the 21st Century,” of the Desmond Tutu Center at General Seminary in New York over the 9/11 anniversary in September 2007.  Together they presented an inspiring workshop, “The Imam and the Pastor: Christian-Muslim Reconciliation in Nigeria.”  Here is the introduction from the conference program (in which I, again, had recourse to the usefulness of the term “communal”):

Northern Nigeria has been a flashpoint of communal violence between Christians and Muslims in today’s world, and Kaduna State has been the epicenter of this conflict in Africa’s most populous country.  Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pentecostal Pastor James Wuye renounced the violence of the rival groups they led to engage the difficult path of personal and communal reconciliation.  In 1995 they founded the Interfaith Mediation Centre, which has mediated dozens of local conflicts and borne fruit in the Kaduna Peace Declaration of 2002.  Their work is featured in the film The Imam and the Pastor (2006), and in the groundbreaking case study book Peacemakers in Action: Profiles of Religion in Conflict Resolution (Tanenbaum Center and Cambridge University Press, 2007).

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