Religion, poverty and strife: what comes first?
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)