Africa: The Myth of Faith Clash
Wed. Apr. 16, 2008
By Mustapha Ajbaili
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
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 Kenyas 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
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
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
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
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
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.