Violence is the byproduct of religion plus politics, not religion alone. Even if one could imagine a world without religion, one can hardly imagine a world without politics. The striving for power surely deserves as much credit for the recent riots in Jos, Nigeria, as does the dogma of competing faith groups. Yet, all too often, news reports explain violence in terms of faith clashes.
In Jos, where I lived for many childhood years, rival groups burned churches and mosques over the weekend. Perhaps as many as 300 residents were killed.
Associated Press identified Jos as a city “situated in Nigeria’s ‘middle belt,’ where members of hundreds of ethnic groups commingle in a band of fertile and hotly contested land separating the Muslim north from the predominantly Christian south.”
“The fighting began as clashes between supporters of the region’s two main political parties after the first local election in Jos in more than a decade,” AP reported. “But the violence expanded along ethnic and religious fault lines, with Hausas [a predominantly Muslim ethnic group] and members of Christian ethnic groups doing battle.”
Missing from the early AP and other reports was that the clash between the People’s Democratic Party and the All Nigerian Peoples Party was more complicated than simply another clash along Muslim-Christian lines.
The head of the PDP is the president of Nigeria, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, a Muslim and former governor of a predominantly Muslim state in northern Nigeria. Nevertheless, BBC News refers to his party as a “mostly Christian-backed governing party.”
Yar’Adua won the presidential election with the backing of former president Olusegun Obasanjo, long identified as a Baptist Christian.
On the other hand, the All Nigerian Peoples Party “is considered a predominantly Muslim party,” according to Al Jazeera.
ANPP is a conservative political party drawing its support from northern Nigeria, which is overwhelmingly Muslim. Its presidential candidate in 2003 and 2007 was Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim and member of the Fulani ethnic group.
A former military ruler of Africa’s most populous nation, Buhari comes from the state of Katsina in the northernmost section of Nigeria ”the very same state where Yar’Adua was governor.
However, ANPP’s chairman is Edwin Ume-ezeoke, who is identified as a Christian.
Those realities create a texture that is far more complex than the easier narrative of Muslims vs. Christians. That storyline, applied to the Jos conflict, isn’t fiction, but it’s incomplete.
As people who believe that discernment and wisdom are high virtues, Christians must consider these Christian vs. Muslim narratives carefully. Inevitably, we first assign blame to Muslims. We forget too easily the theological truth about the universality of human sinfulness, and brand our faith as the one without fault, the one that “didn’t start it.”
In a post-9/11 global culture, we must guard against a simplistic truth that births distortion, fosters prejudice and triggers violence.
Yes, religion is a root-contributor to violence. Christians and Muslims do provoke one another. Islam and Christianity are used to justifying armed clashes. They don’t bear the blame alone, however. Other social, economic and ideological forces deserve some credit, too.
Next time we hear news reports citing religion as the source of a fight, let’s immediately ask: What are the other untold factors?
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.