Rob Crilly: Religious divide in Africa masks deep social problems

THE divide is visible even from space – a band where equatorial greens give way to the browns, reds and yellows of the desert.

But just as the colours on Google Earth show the transition from tropical to arid, so too the transition marks a much more explosive divide: that between Christian and Muslim Africa.

The band passes from east to west, splitting the continent in two, and dividing countries such as Nigeria, Sudan and Kenya by religion – Islam to the north, Christianity in the south.

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The past week has shown the power of that divide. Not for the first time, the two Africas have collided, causing shockwaves felt all around the world.

In Nigeria, at least 3,000 people have fled their homes in the central city of Jos. Mosques, churches and houses were burned during the latest clashes between Christian and Muslim gangs.

So far 149 people have been reported dead. Some 200 people died in similar violence in 2008, dwarfed by the 1,000 victims in 2001. For now an uneasy calm has been imposed, with a 24-hour curfew.

Days earlier, Kenya faced its own sectarian violence.

Security forces using assault rifles and tear gas were called in when Muslims gathered in protest at the country's decision to detain a radical preacher. Among the throng were protesters waving the flag of al-Shabaab, the militant insurgent group that has brought a fragile government in Somalia to its knees.

Things got out of hand when bystanders joined the police lines, hurling stones at the demonstrators.

It is not difficult to imagine an African future dominated by religious conflict. Muslims and Christians both see the region as a battleground for converts.

The Christian churches have seen their flock grow from nine million to almost 200 million in a century.

Missionaries are now exported rather than imported. Africa no longer needs the David Livingstones who first brought the Bible alongside cases of medicine.

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For Christians, disillusioned with the West's secularism, the continent has become a defender of the Church's morals.

Conservative Anglican congregations in the United States have left their local dioceses to follow bishops in Zambia, Nigeria and Uganda, where Church leaders are pushing a bill that would impose the death penalty on homosexuals.

Meanwhile, radical Islam has made inroads among Africa's traditional, moderate Sufism.

The Sudanese government came to power in a 1989 coup that heralded an Islamic cultural revolution. Extremists from around the world – including Osama bin Laden – were welcomed by a regime intent on creating an alternative world order.

Somalia's problems are well known. Beheadings, amputations and stonings are becoming commonplace as al-Shabaab imposes a particularly nasty form of Sharia law in areas under its control.

Neighbouring Kenya is jittery, wondering if its own Muslim population will radicalise in the same way.

It is not a big leap to imagine a looming clash of civilisations.

But just like the patterns observed from space, so the big picture of two faiths meeting head-on misses the local details that undermine the nightmare scenario.

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The truth is that the two religions are not monoliths. Up close there are dozens of different churches, beliefs and creeds. Tensions within each religion – between the evangelists and the Roman Catholics, for example – are just as important as those between the faiths.

Nor was the violence in Nigeria or Kenya ultimately about religion.

In a country like Nigeria, riddled with corruption, poverty and tribal tension, religion is often the glue that holds a people together. When things go wrong, it becomes the way that protest is expressed.

The gangs of thugs roaming Jos with murderous intent were not targeting Christians or Muslims out of religious conviction. Rather they were seeking individuals they believe to enjoy economic, social and political privileges.

The same is true in Kenya, where an impoverished, neglected northern band of herders can feel part of a bigger community – an African ummah.

The past days have shown the power of that feeling: the power of belonging to something bigger than self on a continent where nationhood has a short, shaky history, where borders were drawn in the sand lumping disparate tribes together.

The violence was real and nasty. But to identity the problem as a problem of religion is to miss the local issues – a bit like blaming football hooliganism on disagreements over shirt colour.

• Rob Crilly's book, Saving Darfur, is published by Reportage Press on 9 February.