Current events have seen no shortage of religiously affiliated headlines: “Muslim headscarves banned in France,” “China attempts to annihilate Buddhism,” and more recently, “Religious riots kill hundreds in Nigeria.” Clearly the media has a penchant for categorising problems under the title of religion. However, rarely is a religious conflict due solely to differences in religion. Often a social, economic or political problem is hidden under the guise of religion. Such is the case in Jos, where the Archbishop Benjamin Kwashi stated,
“What seems to be a recurring decimal is that over time, those who have in the past used violence to settle political issues, economic issues, social matters, intertribal disagreements, or any issue for that matter, now continue to use that same path of violence and cover it up with religion.”1
Unfortunately, the Muslim and Christian people in villages near the city of Jos, Nigeria have not been spared the ugly outcomes of this trend.
In sporadic violence since 1994, villages near Jos have existed in a climate of ethnic, social, and religious tension leaving more than 2,000 dead. The villages in the area are divided into Muslim and Christian camps, with each party vying for majority power in the region. The first riot in 1994 was followed by a five-day killing spree in 2001, after which violence erupted again in 2008. Interestingly enough, the savagery and bloodshed has usually occurred near the time of an election. Now, in 2010, we are witnessing brutality in direct relation to that of two years prior, where a man who had returned to build his ravaged home was said to be attacked, sparking the violence anew. In the two months, the Christian tribes attacked the Muslim villages, and the Muslim tribes retaliated by causing bloodshed throughout mainly Christian villages.
Despite the relative remoteness of Jos, the horrific details of the bloodshed are readily available through the internet and make grim reading. Indeed, these reports, especially those written with the support of eye witnesses, open one’s eyes to the despair of the mother who has lost her four-day-old baby to the point of a machete, and to the anger of a people who have lost so many of their own that they cannot tolerate the presence of a journalist from a faith that is “against” their own.
This disguising of prevailing social, economic and political problems under the banner of religion is, however, not the preserve of Jos or even Nigeria, but is apparent the world over. Whether it is the extremists of Pakistan, Indonesia or Egypt the underlying motive of all who attack and usurp the rights of other faiths is normally a greater struggle for dominance and the assertion of control – often at the expense of basic human rights.
In some cases, as in Jos, this surfaces in violent attacks whereas in others actions are more subtle and unseen, yet both are equally devastating for those on the receiving end. This use, or more accurately misuse, of religion as a platform to score political points is also an aspect noticeable in western politics. In Europe, the moves to ban the burqa and minarets have fed off religious differences that have been used to polarise public opinion resulting in discrimination against religious groups – with the main target being Islam at present.
Such discrimination will inevitably lead to greater frustration that will inevitably result in greater divisions in society. In this respect Jos provides a glimpse of what happens when such frustrations are exploited and eventually spill over into the streets. A far better course of action would be to engage the religious leadership and for the leadership to engage its own following in dialogue so that the religion and religious institutions can play the positive role for the social and common good. All religions have a common message of peace, so why not capitalise on that noble foundation to build harmonious and cohesive societies? The struggle for peace was every prophet’s mission and there are many historical examples from India to Andalusia (Spain) that show that where people use their religious principles to advance the cause of individual and collective peace, societies have flourished. It is relevant to note that on religious and social peace the Holy Qur’an states:
“… For each of you We prescribed a clear spiritual Law and a manifest way in secular matters. And if Allah had enforced His will, He would have made you all one people, but He wishes to try you by that which He has given you. Vie, then, with one another in good works. To Allah shall you all return; then will He inform you of that wherein you differed.” (Ch.5:V.49)
Thus religious difference is not a barrier to peace. Rather, it can and should be a catalyst, with a clear reminder that for all our actions we are ultimately accountable to God. We pray that mankind can benefit from the wisdom of the Qur’anic instruction to vie with each other in good works, for it certainly seems to be a powerful antidote to the malaise engulfing Jos and many other regions in the world today.
1. Open letter dated 21 January 2010, http://www.anglicandioceseofjos.org/UPDATE17.html Last accessed, 4 April 2010