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Africa: The Myth of Faith Clash

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  • Zafar Khan
    Africa: The Myth of Faith Clash Wed. Apr. 16, 2008 By Mustapha Ajbaili Staff Writer
    Message 1 of 1 , May 3, 2008
      Africa: The Myth of Faith Clash
      Wed. Apr. 16, 2008
      By Mustapha Ajbaili
      Staff Writer


      America and Europe claim to set the style of religious
      tolerance for the rest of the world to follow. Africa
      in some parts of it challenges that assumption and the
      wave of negative images the Western media have
      constructed of a continent believed by many scientists
      to be the origin of mankind. Below is an interview
      Muslim Affairs conducted with Dr. Ali A. Mazrui on
      issues of religion, conflict, and democracy in the
      African continent.

      Dr. Ali A. Mazrui is a distinguished Kenyan scholar.
      He is now Albert Schweitzer Professor in the
      Humanities and Director of the Institute of Global
      Cultural Studies at Binghamton University, State
      University of New York. He is also Albert Luthuli
      Professor-at-Large at the University of Jos in
      Nigeria. He is Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large
      Emeritus and Senior Scholar in Africana Studies at
      Cornell University. Dr. Mazrui has also been appointed
      Chancellor of the Jomo Kenyatta University of
      Agriculture and Technology in Kenya — an appointment
      made by Kenya’s Head of State.

      IOL: Certain conflicts in Africa, particularly in
      Sudan and Somalia, would be described as religiously
      motivated, therefore, qualifying to be called
      manifestations of an ongoing clash between Islam and
      the West, according to some observers. What do you
      think about this assumption?
      Mazrui: With regards to Sudan, religious factors are
      found in the north-south conflict, but almost there is
      no religious factor with regard to Darfur; that is the
      conflict where all sides are Muslims, so they are not
      quarrelling about religion. They are quarrelling about
      other matters. But the older conflict which is
      hopefully coming to an end between North and South in
      Sudan maybe includes a religious dimension among
      several other issues.

      In Somalia, the country is overwhelmingly Muslim, and
      they are trying to experiment with an Islamic system
      before Ethiopians intervened. So again there is a
      religious issue there, and again it is one issue
      because Somalis also fight among each others when they
      are all Muslims. So the conflicts are very often clan
      conflicts rather than conflicts between religion and

      In the case of Ethiopia, it is not overwhelmingly
      Christian; It is about half and half, and only because
      Christians are in political control, to some extent,
      that there is tension between Muslims and Christians.

      IOL: If we look at the history of the relationship
      between Islam and Christianity in Africa, is there
      anything that can explain the current conflicts in
      Somalia and Sudan?
      Mazrui: The relations between Islam and Christianity
      are relatively cordial in Africa as compared with the
      relations between them in other regions. So, Africa is
      the only continent where you can have a country with
      90 percent Muslims and yet can elect a Christian
      president as in Senegal, or a country that can have
      half Muslims and half Christians and people share the
      presidency. Tanzania had a Christian president for two
      terms followed by a Muslim president, then a Christian
      president and now a Muslim president. They are not
      fighting over religion; they are sharing power. So, In
      general, in Africa the two religions are very often
      cordial unless they are complicated by other

      In Nigeria, almost all Hausa, in terms of ethnic
      groups, are Muslims and almost all Ibos are
      Christians. Islam enforces Hausa identity, and
      Christianity enforces Ibo identity. Yoruba, which is a
      third group, splits half and half, Muslims and
      Christians. So, in that situation where u have
      ethnicity and tribalism being an additional divide,
      religion then becomes a complicating factor. But where
      there is no ethnic or tribal tension, relation between
      Muslims and Christians in Africa are likely better
      than in most part of the world.

      IOL: Do you think religion plays a major role in
      African politics?

      Mazrui: In some countries yes, but not so much in
      others like Senegal, where a Christian president
      (Léopold Sédar Senghor) was elected president for 20
      years (1960-1980) by the overwhelming Muslim
      population. So that sort of thing will never happen in
      any other region of the world. Different African
      countries, however, have different demographic
      balances with Christians and Muslims and these can get
      along quite well. But when there is tribalism which
      enforces religious divisions, there is the problem.

      IOL: But isn't there a difference between how religion
      affects politics in Africa and how it does so in the
      United States and Europe?

      Mazrui:Yes definitely, As I said in politics, in
      Africa it is possible for people to elect members of
      deferent faiths to be heads of states. The United
      States has never had a Jew for president and only one
      president was a Roman Catholic and all other
      presidents had been protestants. In Africa, there are
      countries with overwhelmingly one religion and have a
      president from another religion. There is an entirely
      different orientation with regard to the relationship
      between religion and state progress; you can not
      imagine a Muslim being elected as president in the
      United States.

      IOL: Do you think some big powers, such as the United
      States, China, and Europe, exploit religious and
      ethnic differences in some parts of Africa to advance
      their political and economic interests?
      Mazrui:Certainly with regard to China vs. the West,
      there is a new form of rivalry. The old cold war was
      primarily ideological, this one is resource rivalry.
      Chinese on one side and Westerners on the other are
      concerned about comparative advantage with regard to
      access to Africa's resources, including Sudanese oil.
      China is for some reason regarded as responsible for
      not restraining Sudan and that is often unjust charge
      against China. So, some of the local problems, like
      the problem of Darfur, become internationalized
      because they are used as part of the international
      rivalry between big powers.

      The United States decided to regard the conflict in
      Darfur as a case of genocide and it is only the United
      States that has taken that position; It is not a
      United Nations position and it is not a majority
      position in the world. To describe it as a genocide,
      you have a good deal of special type of emotions and
      you aggravate the tensions between those who want to
      protect the people of Darfur and those who want to
      protect the sovereignty of Sudan. So, in those
      situations the local and the global intermingle.

      IOL: How can you explain the current Media disregard
      of the crisis in Somalia as opposed to that in Darfur?

      Mazrui:Darfur has been dramatized by describing it as
      a genocide and having a situation where there is a
      particular government that can be held accountable,
      whereas in Somalia there hasn't been much with a
      government that has been struggling to have an
      ensemble of institutions on and off.

      Second, Westerners argue that Somalia is pretty close
      to being Africa's Afghanistan and therefore
      sufficiently anarchic and chaotic to be hospitable for
      al-Qaeda, because they are watching very carefully in
      case it comes to what they regard as breeding
      terrorists. But politics is a matter of perception
      rather than a matter of fact.

      IOL:Can the international disregard of Somalia be
      attributed to the assumption the United States and
      other big powers have less interests in Somalia than
      they have in Darfur.

      Mazrui: Somalia is very strategic and it is well
      located near the Middle East, but it is a very poor
      country and the United States does not want it to fall
      into the wrong hands.

      IOL: Now I would like to ask about the issue of
      democracy in Africa. Some parts of Africa, like Kenya
      and Zimbabwe, have had relatively free and
      competitive elections, yet those defeated would not
      step down. What is wrong with the democratic process
      in Africa?

      Mazrui: In Kenya parliamentary elections, one powerful
      Kenyan after another was defeated and lost their seats
      including vice president of Kenya at the time. So it
      looked as if the elections were transparent and open
      until you go to the presidency and then trouble
      begins. In Zimbabwe, there is a similar type of
      situation. Mugabe has lost the majority in parliament
      and then you have all this stalemate waiting to see
      how the vote went with regard to the presidency.

      Unfortunately, although we have made progress in
      Africa by having competitive elections of the
      presidency the progress is not great enough to lead to
      a full acceptance of defeat at least in some
      countries. There had been countries where elections
      defeated incumbents as in Zambia and then somebody
      else succeeds. Similar thing happened in Malawi in the
      past; incumbent was defeated and somebody else
      succeeded. So it has happened before, but usually
      those who are in power are a bit reluctant to let go
      and it is very sad.

      I still think there is progress because African
      presidents before would not even allow rivals in
      competitive elections and so the presidency was never
      competed for. For quite awhile in Kenya President Jomo
      Kenyatta never really had a rival when he was alive,
      and then for nearly two decades there has never been
      challenge from election to election. Now it is
      challenging, but there has not being learned how to
      accept defeat.

      IOL: Some observers would say that the violence
      following the Kenyan elections sent shock waves to
      other African regimes to beware the consequences of
      any attempts to hold into power against the will of
      their people. Now the regime in Zimbabwe does not seem
      to care about the Kenyan experience. Do you think
      other regimes would follow Zimbabwe in that step?

      Mazrui: Well, never these countries have experienced a
      situation where someone who is in the presidency was
      defeated and goes out. It has happened in other parts
      of Africa like Senegal, where Abdou Diouf was defeated
      and he stepped down but it has never happened in
      Eastern Africa.

      We are struggling within uncharted territory, and in
      southern Africa it did happen. In Zambia the president
      was defeated and stepped out of power, so Mugabe
      should have followed that example.

      Mustapha Ajbaili is a staff writer and assistant
      editor for the Muslim Affairs page of IslamOnline.net.
      He holds a BA degree in journalism and is now studying
      for a master's degree in journalism and mass
      communication at the American University in Cairo.
      Click here to reach him.

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