- CoptsIslamic IssuesReports
- November 4, 2007
- 14 minutes read
In God’s name
THE four-hour journey through the bush from Kano to Jos in northern Nigeria features many of the staples of African life: checkpoints with greedy soldiers, huge potholes, scrawny children in football shirts drying rice on the road. But it is also a journey along a front-line.
Nigeria, evenly split between Christians and Muslims, is a country where people identify themselves by their religion first and as Nigerians second (see chart 1). Around 20,000 have been killed in God”s name since 1990, estimates Shehu Sani, a local chronicler of religious violence. Kano, the centre of the Islamic north, introduced sharia law seven years ago. Many of the Christians who fled ended up in Jos, the capital of Plateau state, where the Christian south begins. The road between the two towns is dotted with competing churches and mosques.
This is one of many religious battlefields in this part of Africa. Evangelical Christians, backed by American collection-plate money, are surging northwards, clashing with Islamic fundamentalists, backed by Saudi petrodollars, surging southwards. And the Christian-Muslim split is only one form of religious competition in northern Nigeria. Events in Iraq have set Sunnis, who make up most of Nigeria”s Muslims, against the better-organised Shias; about 50 people have died in intra-Muslim violence, reckons Mr Sani. On the Christian side, Catholics are in a more peaceful battle with Protestant evangelists, whose signs promising immediate redemption dominate the roadside. By the time you reach Jos and see a poster proclaiming “the ABC of nourishment”, you are surprised to discover it is for chocolate.
Recently Christians have been returning to Kano, partly because sharia law (which in any case applies only to Muslims) has been introduced sympathetically. None of the bloodier sentences has been carried out. Indeed, the election in April was settled in a reassuringly secular way—with the local political barons swapping cash and ballot papers in the bungalow of the Prince Hotel.
Yet it would not take much for things to boil over again. The Muslim north resents the Christian south”s hogging of Nigeria”s oil money. When earlier this year the shadowy “Black Taliban” struck a police station in Kano, around 20 militants were killed. In September Muslim youths set shops on fire after rumours that a Christian teacher in the area had drawn a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. And the missionaries are still pushing provocatively north. Salihu Garba, a prominent Muslim convert to Christianity (who has survived various assassination attempts), claims that the Evangelical Church of West Africa now has 157 churches in Kano state—double the number five years ago.
The journey from Kano to Jos may seem a trip back in time. In fact, religious front-lines criss-cross the globe.
Most obviously, Americans and Britons would not be dying in Iraq and Afghanistan had 19 young Muslims not attacked the United States in the name of Allah. The West”s previous great military interventions were to protect Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo from Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croatians. America”s next war could be against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Other conflicts have acquired a new religious edge. In the poisonous war over Palestine, ever more people are claiming God on their side (with some of the most zealous sorts living miles away from the conflict). In Myanmar (Burma) Buddhist monks nearly brought down an evil regime, but in Sri Lanka they have prolonged a bloody conflict with Muslims. If India has an election, a bridge to Sri Lanka supposedly built by the god Ram (and a team of monkeys) may matter as much as a nuclear deal with America.
Formerly communist countries are also getting hooked again on the opium of the people. Russia”s secret police, the KGB, hounded religion: its successor, the FSB, has its own Orthodox church opposite its headquarters. In the Polish parliament the speaker crosses himself before taking his seat. Some of China”s technocrats think that Confucianism, which Mao condemned as “feudal”, is useful social glue in their fast-changing country. But they brutally repressed a Buddhist sect, the Falun Gong, and they are worried that Christian churchgoers may already outnumber Communist Party members.
In Western politics, too, religion has forced itself back into the public square. The American president begins each day on his knees and each cabinet meeting with a prayer. The easiest way to tell a Republican from a Democrat is to ask how often he or she goes to church. And although European liberals sneer about American theocracy, American conservatives claim that secular, childless Europe is turning into Eurabia.
Many secular intellectuals think that the real “clash of civilisations” is not between different religions but between superstition and modernity. A succession of bestselling books have torn into religion—Sam Harris”s “The End of Faith”, Richard Dawkins”s “The God Delusion” and Christopher Hitchens”s “God is not Great—How Religion Poisons Everything”. This counterattack already shows a religious intensity. Mr Dawkins has set up an organisation to help atheists around the world.
Part of that secular fury, especially in Europe, comes from exasperation. After all, it has been a canon of progressive thought since the Enlightenment that modernity—that heady combination of science, learning and democracy—would kill religion. Plainly, this has not happened. Numbers about religious observance are notoriously untrustworthy, but most of them seem to indicate that any drift towards secularism has been halted, and some show religion to be on the increase. The proportion of people attached to the world”s four biggest religions—Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism—rose from 67% in 1900 to 73% in 2005 and may reach 80% by 2050 (see chart 2).
Moreover, from a secularist point of view, the wrong sorts of religion are flourishing, and in the wrong places. In general, it is the tougher versions of religion that are doing best—the sort that claim Adam and Eve met 6,003 years ago. Some of the new converts are from the ranks of the underprivileged (Pentecostalism has spread rapidly in the favelas of Brazil), but many are not. American evangelicals tend to be well-educated and well-off. In India and Turkey religious parties have been driven by the up-and-coming bourgeoisie.
With modernity now religion”s friend, an eternal subject has become fashionable. Father Richard John Neuhaus points out that when he founded his Centre for Religion and Society in 1984, there were only four centres of religion and public life in America; now, he thinks, there are more than 200. Religious people are getting more vocal in all sorts of fields, including business. Religion is also cropping up in economics. Niall Ferguson, a Scottish historian, re-examined Max Weber”s theory of the Protestant work ethic to explain why Europeans work less than Americans.
The garden of Eden
Philip Jenkins, one of America”s best scholars of religion, claims that when historians look back at this century, they will probably see religion as “the prime animating and destructive force in human affairs, guiding attitudes to political liberty and obligation, concepts of nationhood and, of course, conflicts and wars.” If the first seven years are anything to go by, Mr Jenkins may well turn out to be right.
What has changed? The main protagonists are oddly unhelpful in providing explanations. Believers usually produce some version of “you can”t repress the truth for ever.” Sociologists point out that outside western Europe most people have always been religious. Peter Berger, the dean of the subject, chides journalists for investigating the religious rule, not the secular exception: “Rather than studying American evangelicals and Islamic mullahs, you should look at Swedes and New England college professors.”
Yet even if underlying piety has not changed that much, religion”s role in public life plainly has. Only ten years ago, most academics and politicians would have dismissed Mr Jenkins”s claim about religion being central to politics as weird.
After all, for much of the 20th century religion was banished from politics. For most elites, God had been undone by Darwin, dismissed by Marx, deconstructed by Freud. Stalin forcibly ejected Him, but in much of western Europe there was no need for force: religion had been on the slide for centuries. In Britain the “long withdrawing roar” of Anglicanism that Matthew Arnold lamented faded to a distant echo in the 20th century.
In America the number of churchgoers stayed high, but evangelical Christians retreated from politics, embarrassed by the failure of prohibition and the Scopes Monkey trial (in which creationists were mocked). In 1960 Jack Kennedy assured the country that his Catholicism would not pollute his politics. In 1966 Time magazine famously ran a cover asking “Is God dead?”; three years later man reached the moon, metaphorically conquering the heavens.
For modernising post-colonial leaders in the developing world, secularism and progress were indivisible. “The fez”, said Kemal Ataturk, “sat upon our heads as a sign of ignorance and fanaticism.” In India Jawaharlal Nehru wished to make “a clean sweep” of organised religion: “almost always it seems to stand for blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition and exploitation and the preservation of vested interests.” In Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser, the champion of Arab nationalism, clamped down on the Muslim Brotherhood. Africa”s new rulers nationalised the Christian mission schools that had taught them. Even “the Jewish state” deemed religion a distraction: after Israel”s founding in 1948 the secular David Ben-Gurion agreed that rabbinical law would prevail in matters such as marriage and divorce partly because he assumed the Orthodox would melt away.
In retrospect, the turning point came long before Osama bin Laden declared his jihad on Jews and Crusaders. For Timothy Shah, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York who is writing a book on secularism, the symbolic turning point was the six-day war of 1967. It marked a crushing defeat for secular pan-Arabism; meanwhile Israel”s “miraculous” triumph gave God a stronger voice in its politics, emboldening the settler movement. In the same year a Hindu nationalist party won 9.4% of the vote in India.
By the end of the 1970s this counter-revolution was in full swing. America had elected its first proudly born-again Christian, Jimmy Carter; Jerry Falwell had founded the Moral Majority; Iran had replaced the worldly shah with Ayatollah Khomeini; Zia ul Haq was busy Islamising Pakistan; Buddhism had been formally granted the foremost place in Sri Lanka”s constitution; and an anti-communist Pole had become head of the Catholic church.
What caused this shift? Believers inevitably see a populist revolt against the overreach of elitist secularism—be it America”s Supreme Court legalising pornography or Indira Gandhi harrying Hindus. From a more secular viewpoint, John Lewis Gaddis, a Yale historian, points out that much religious politics dates back to the 1970s, a time when more worldly “isms” seemed to fail. By then, the Soviet Union”s evils had made a mockery of Marxism, and capitalism had also hit some buffers (the oil shocks, hyperinflation). More generally, politicians” ability to solve problems such as crime or unemployment was questioned: faith in government tumbled just about everywhere in the 1970s—and has stayed low since.
But why has religion”s power seemed to keep on increasing? The first reason is a series of reactions and counter-reactions. Fundamentalist Islam, for instance, has helped spur radical Judaism and Hinduism, which in turn have reinforced the mullahs” fervour. Hamas owes much to Israel”s settlers. Without Falwell, Messrs Hitchens and Dawkins would have smaller royalties.
Second, the latest form of modernity—globalisation—has propelled religion forward. For traditionalists, faith has acted as a barrier against change. For prosperous suburbanites, faith has become something of a lifestyle coach. It is no accident that America”s bestselling religious book is called “The Purpose Driven Life”.
A hitch for the Hitch
Whatever the exact cause, two groups of people in particular have struggled to come to terms with this new world. The first is politicians, especially practitioners of foreign policy. Realpolitik does not easily cope with the irrational. For instance, religion does not appear in the index of “Diplomacy”, Henry Kissinger”s 900-page masterpiece on statesmanship (a mistake, admits the former secretary of state, who now sees some “depressing similarities” with 17th-century Europe).
Mr Kissinger is not alone. Before September 11th 2001, most “big books” (with the exception of Samuel Huntington”s “Clash of Civilisations”) predicted a secular end to history. The Economist was so confident of the Almighty”s demise that we published His obituary in our millennium issue. Madeleine Albright recalls a meeting at the State Department about Northern Ireland in the late 1990s when a diplomat asked despairingly: “Who would believe that we would be dealing with a religious conflict near the end of the 20th century?”
September 11th has changed that. A decade ago, a proposal by the CIA to study religion was vetoed as “mere sociology”; that would not happen now. But mistakes are still made. When America went into Iraq, people worried about George Bush”s God-directed foreign policy; in fact it would have helped if Donald Rumsfeld et al had understood more about religion—especially the difference between Shias and Sunnis. “Everywhere we look, we have religious problems,” admits one (born-again) member of the Bush team. “And it is not just Islam. There are the Orthodox in Russia, Hindu nationalism in India, Christians in China…the list is long.”
The other group struggling to deal with religion”s role in public life are liberals. When religious belief is plainly unreasonable—for instance, when schools teach creationism—it is easy to fight. But in many disputes there are liberal answers on both sides. Those who are embracing religion nowadays are doing so out of choice. Is it liberal to stop a British Airways worker from wearing a crucifix? Whose rights are being infringed when a majority of people on a Turkish bus ask the driver to stop so they can pray?
A schism in Western liberalism that dates back to its two founding revolutions seems to have reopened. In France, where the Catholic church was the sole faith, the revolutionnaires detested God as a crucial part of the ancien régime: politics, they declared, henceforth would be protected from this evil. By contrast, America”s Founding Fathers, used to many competing faiths, took a more benign view. They divided church from state not least to protect the former from the latter.
This special report is an attempt to tease out these conflicts. It comes with three health warnings. First, many numbers in religion are dodgy: most churches inflate their support and many governments do not record religion in their censuses (in Nigeria the best source is health records). Second, in a field where many believers claim to know all the answers, it poses mainly questions. And lastly, given the emotion the subject arouses, the chances are that some of what follows will offend you.