Across much of the African continent religious strife between Muslims and Christians is seemingly rife. The recent bloodshed between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, the decades-long war in Darfur, the opposition between a Muslim north and Christian south in Ivory Coast, are but a few examples. While often these conflicts are simplified as religious wars, Africa experts reveal a more complex picture that has little to do with faith, and much to do with how religion is intertwined with political, economic, and tribal factors.
Mustafa Ali, secretary-general of The African Council of Religious Leaders, based in Kenya, says that while religion is very important to the lives of most Africans, different religions do not necessarily give rise to conflict.
The main religions in Africa are Christianity, Islam, and indigenous Animist beliefs.
According to the Pew report on religious adherence published in April 2010, even the least religious African country, Botswana, at 60 percent, is considerably more religious than Sweden, for example, where only 7–8 percent of people claim to have a religious belief. The most religious country in Africa according to Pew is Senegal where 98 percent of the population say they adhere to some religion.
Despite strong religious beliefs, however, Ali describes a culture of tolerance. “They look at people of other faiths like sisters and brothers. There are many families that are mixed. Something you will hardly find in the Middle East or in Western countries.”
Mariya Nedelcheva, Bulgarian member of the European Parliament and member of the European Union delegation to Africa agrees the conflicts between Muslims and Christians is not explained by faith, but tradition.She says that land is a sacred concept for Africans. From her visits to over 10 countries in Africa, she has learned that it is hard for Africans to accept if other tribes settle on their land or if their land is sold to foreigners. In her opinion, this conflict dates back to colonial times and can easily spark violence.
Nedelcheva gives the example of Sudan, which is in the final stages of the process of separation into two states, the north and the south.
“The next urgent problem will be defining the border between north and south going through the Abyei region. Mostly populated by nomadic tribes, it will be hard to explain to them that from tomorrow they will not be able to lead their cattle from this to that hill, because there is a border there.”
Religious as Political
Bashy Quraishy, chairman of the Advisory Council of the European Network against Racism (ENAR), says that despite some religious conflicts, the truth is “most clashes are based on local issues, political power distribution, and wrong allocation of revenues.”
“There are also local religious leaders, some of whom ignite the fires of hatred, but others try to put out the fire. Media also plays a part by making the small incidents into national problems,” says Quraishy.