Religion, poverty and strife: what comes first?

August 6, 2009

An uprising by a radical Islamic sect in northern Nigeria may ostensibly have been about religion, but such bloodletting will recur unless underlying issues of poverty, unemployment and education are addressed.

West African Islam is overwhelmingly moderate and northern Nigeria is home to a powerful political elite, yet militant cleric Mohammed Yusuf was able to establish a cult-like following. Yusuf’s sect, Boko Haram, wanted sharia (Islamic law) more widely applied across Africa’s most populous nation. Its name means “Western education is sinful”.

But the support Yusuf drummed up — from illiterate youths to professionals who quit jobs and families to join him — came as much from frustration with what is seen as a corrupt and self-serving political establishment as from pure religious fervour.

To see an analysis by my colleague Nick Tattersall, click here.


This whole situation — and I have seen frustrated and violent Nigerian youth in other parts of the country when I reported there in the past — is perhaps a classic example of how underlying factors, be they social, economic or even environmental, can exacerbate religious divisions.

It brings to mind a book we wrote and blogged about last year by  historian Philip Jenkins entitled “The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia — and How It Died”.

The Chronology of Christian sufferings under Islam closely mirrors that of Jews in Christian states,” he writes, noting that “Around 1300, the world was changing, and definitely for the worse.”

If we seek a common factor that might explain this simultaneous scapegoating of vulnerable minorities, by far the best candidate is climate change, which was responsible for many economic changes in these years, and increased poverty and desperation across the globe.”

ln places like Nigeria, Pakistan and India — all scenes of current religious tension and strife — it is perhaps no coincidence that climate change is seen uprooting parched rural populations or stoking conflict as people compete for scarce resources like water or cattle. You can see some of our recent coverage of sectarian violence in Pakistan here and here.

Whether or not you accept the climate change link, there is little doubt that there are many regions today that mirror in some ways the “poverty and desperation” of the 14th century world that Jenkins has in mind — and have religious divisions as well.

But some critics of organized religion might argue that this is all backwards and that faith itself — or the faithful in their devotion — are the fuel that fans the flames of frustration and poverty.

What do you think?

(PHOTO:Nigerian security officers stand near burning motorcycles at the demolished house of the Islamic militant leader Mohammed Yusuf in the northern Nigerian city of Maiduguri, August 3, 2009. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye (NIGERIA CONFLICT)


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Imagine no religions. And how much simpler it would be without them to then go in and begin to educate people and help them start climbing out of poverty.

Posted by smellygirl | Report as abusive

Religious killings in India (include pakistan too which historically is India) is due to presence of Christians and Muslims. It has got nothing to do with poverty. It has more to do with thought process that is imparted to Christians and Muslims by irrational, insane books and preachers. Jainis, Sikhs, numerous tribes,
Buddhists, Parsis, Jews, Zoroastrians, sects like Osho have lived in peace in India. Muslims have the habit of living with violence while christians have become a bit reformed but incite violence through their irrational acts of demeaning other religions and Sanatan Dharm. What is true for India is true for entire world… Misery is due to Christianity and Islam.

Posted by Rohit | Report as abusive

Poverty and illiteracy are the breeding grounds for social strife.Religious tensions are due to proslytization concept of Christianity and Islam.While Islam is doing it stridently,Christianity is doing it in a subtle way,under the garb of social service.The central theme of all Religions is the same;unfortunately people who are supposed to propagate by living the way prescribed by their Faith, are misinterpreting for their personal gains.Unless common man understands this, there will be no end to this debate.

Posted by S.V.Ramanan | Report as abusive