Nigeria and Egypt: two flashpoints, two alternate paths, two prospects for the next decade and beyond
On December 25 an attack on a Christian church in Nigeria killed 37, related attacks since have killed another thirty-four and potentially more. Credit has been claimed by Boko Haram, an organization calling for the expulsion of Christians and the expansion of Islamic sharia law in Northern Nigeria. (Boko Haram can be translated as “Western education is a sin.”)
On December 28 the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) released a statement including:
Having reviewed the pattern trend and frequency with which these terror crimes occur, it fits into the profile of Islamic Jihad over the years on the Christian community, which are properly contextualised. It is considered as a declaration of war on Christians and Nigeria as an entity.
The Christian community has found the responses of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs and other Islamic bodies on this matter to be unacceptable and an abdication of their responsibilities over their extremist members. It is on record that most religious, traditional and political leaders in the North have not come out openly to condemn the extremist activities of Boko Haram. We hold them responsible for what is happening, because they have not taken concrete steps to check the excesses of their members.
The Christian community is fast losing confidence in government’s ability to protect our rights to religious liberties and life. The consensus is that the Christian community nationwide would be left with no other option than to respond appropriately if there are any further attacks on our members, churches and properties.
Sectarian conflict is not new to Nigeria. In the past the Christian “response” has included attacks on Muslims. But Bako Haram has increased the stakes by launching what appears to be a sustained and organized anti-Christian campaign that also targets Muslims who reject Boko Haram.
According to the BBC several Islamic leaders who have criticized previous attacks by Boko Haram have been assassinated. Still, last week Alhaji Muhammad Garba, a Muslim political leader from Northern Nigeria, said, “Boko Haram is not recognised by genuine Muslims… Why should such a group be asking Muslims to bomb churches and fight Christians? It is wrong for any group to wage war against other faith. Such people are not true believers of God.”
Boko Haram is seen by some as part of a much wider movement. According to the Daily Telegraph, Boko Haram “is believed to be morphing into a new pan-African jihadist franchise, forging links with both al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb, which operates in the vast Sahara region north of Nigeria, and al-Shebab in Somalia.”
In September the General who leads U.S. Africa Command told the Associated Press that the three movements pose a “significant threat” not only in the areas in which they operate but also to the United States.
Those three organizations have very explicitly and publicly voiced an intent to target Westerners and the U.S. specifically,” Gen Carter Ham said. “I have questions about their ability to do so; I have no question about their intent to do so, and that to me is very worrying… So if left unaddressed, you could have a [terrorist] network that ranges from East Africa through the center” and into the Sahel, an area of north-central Africa south of the Sahara desert, Ham said. To varying degrees, these groups are affiliated with or inspired by al-Qaida’s central organization in Pakistan.
The Nigerian President has declared a State of Emergency in four northern States and mobilized military forces to take action against Boko Haram. According to Radio France, “Hundreds of people fled their homes in Potsikum, north-east Nigeria, Saturday following all-night gun battles between Islamists and the security forces… Residents of the Dogo Tehbo and Dogo Nini areas fled their homes Saturday, telling reporters they feared that soldiers would attack their homes, as they have been accused of doing in Maidiguiri.”
Christmas was welcomed on a different date — and with a different tone — in strife-torn Egypt.
Coptic Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus on January 7. According to Al-Ahram:
Egypt’s majority Muslim population stuck to its word. What had been a promise of solidarity to the weary Coptic community, was honoured, when thousands of Muslims showed up at Coptic Christmas eve mass services in churches around the country and at candle light vigils held outside. (see photo gallery) From the well-known to the unknown, Muslims had offered their bodies as “human shields” for last night’s mass, making a pledge to collectively fight the threat of Islamic militants and towards an Egypt free from sectarian strife.
According to The Guardian:
At the start of the festive celebrations in Egypt, prominent figures from across the political spectrum, including leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and members of the ruling military council, attended Friday night mass at Cairo’s main Coptic cathedral.
The Coptic pope, Shenouda III, commended their presence and appealed for national unity for “the sake of Egypt”.
He said: “For the first time in the history of the cathedral, it is packed with all types of Islamist leaders in Egypt. They all agree … on the stability of this country, and in loving it and working for it, and to work with the Copts as one hand for the sake of Egypt.”
The call for unity follows an escalation in violence against the Christian minority, an estimated 10% of Egypt’s 85 million people, over the past year.
In October at least 25 Christians were killed by Egyptian military and para-military forces. Violence against Christians in Egypt has escalated since the opening of the Arab Spring.
There are advocates of violence in Egypt. There are many voices for reconciliation in Nigeria. Which alternative will emerge stronger is not clear. Some level of sectarian violence will persist.
In any case, near-term prospects for Muslim-Christian conflict in Nigeria and Egypt — and in much of northeast Africa, central Asia, southern Philippines, and in many pockets of urban Europe — are trending higher. Dozens, likely hundreds, will be killed in an effort to preserve someone’s narcissistic sense of God. So-called Muslims will specifically target Christians. So-called Christians will specifically target Muslims.
This is a different dynamic than has marked the last decade.
Al-Qaeda has mostly been trying to reform Islam. AQ has used “Crusaders” as an anvil against which to sharpen its sword of intra-Islamic transformation. The Taliban are mostly religiously motivated Pashtuns who are most concerned about preserving communal values. Wahhabis are principally concerned about purity of Islamic practice. The Shia clerical establishment can be preoccupied with differentiation from Sunnis, a mind-set mirrored by Wahhabis.
Monday in his remarks to the Vatican diplomatic corps Pope Benedict XVI specifically called out his concern for violence against Christians in Nigeria and elsewhere. On January 2, Open Doors — “serving persecuted Christians worldwide” — announced, “Islamic-majority countries top 2o12 watch list.” There is increasing concern, clamor and sympathy for Christians under attack.
Accusations of Christian attacks on Muslims are as abundant. Tuesday a Muslim mosque and school in mostly-Christian southern Nigeria was attacked. At least five were killed.
I do not have a neatly packaged policy prescription. I doubt anything the United States government can do will have more than glancing influence. Not adding fuel to the fire would be helpful. Containing or resolving the conflict depends mostly on those people of good will standing athwart the sectarian fault lines.
As important as US policy is probably the behavior of Americans who identify with those on one side or the other of the fault lines.
This is complicated enough that I feel justified drawing on another’s complicated diagnosis. Here’s how Martin Buber describes our embrace of self and otherness and its implications.
The It-world hangs together in space and time.
The You-world does not hang together in space and time.
The individual You must become an It when the event of relation has run its course.
The individual It can become a You by entering into the event of relation.
These are the two basic privileges of the It-world. They induce man to consider the It-world as the world in which one has to live and also can live comfortably — and that even offers us all sorts of stimulations and excitements, activities and knowledge. In this firm and wholesome chronicle the You-moments appear as queer lyric-dramatic episodes. Their spell may be seductive, but they pull us dangerously to extremes, loosening the well-tried structure, leaving behind more doubt than satisfaction, shaking up our security — altogether uncanny, altogether indispensable. Since one must after all return into “the world,” why not stay in it in the first place? Why not call to order that which confronts us and send it home into objectivity? And when one cannot get around saying You, perhaps to one’s father, wife, companion — why not say You and mean It? After all, producing the sound “You” with one’s vocal cords does not by any means entail speaking the uncanny basic word. Even whispering an amorous You with one’s soul is hardly dangerous as long as in all seriousness one means nothing but experiencing and using.
One cannot live in the pure present: it would consume us if care were not taken that it is overcome quickly and thoroughly. But in pure past one can live; in fact, only there can a life be arranged. One only has to fill every moment with experiencing and using, and it ceases to burn.
And in all the seriousness of truth, listen: without It a human being cannot live. But whoever lives only with that is not human.
(Martin Buber, Ich und Du, as translated by Walter Thompson)
For anything resembling our current It-world to truly hold together, Christians and Muslims (and others as well) will need to more often relate as You’s rather than It’s.
There is also a simpler — and even less likely — solution. Another Buber quote suggests the way: “The atheist staring from his attic window is often nearer to God than the believer caught up in his own false image of God.”