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Christian and Muslim Beliefs in Africa: Lessons for U.S. Foreign Policy

5 years ago
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If I told you there was a part of the world where large populations of Christians and Muslims say they are getting along pretty well, where majorities would like to make the Bible or the Quran the law of the land, and where most people believe they are living in a generation that will experience profound religious change, would you call that fiction?

Let's admit it: Most Americans tend to think that they and their neighbors represent "normal." And assume that other peoples they share important qualities with – across town or across the hemisphere – are pretty much like they are.

But a new report issued by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life offers yet more proof that, for all our similarities with other folks, Americans are not the measure of the world. The report is titled "Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa."

It's a remarkable piece of work. It represents face-to-face interviews with over 25,000 people speaking more than 60 languages or dialects in 19 countries, including some places where polling is not nearly as commonplace as it is in the U.S. The survey covers about 75 percent of the sub-Saharan population.

The pollsters claim the samples are mostly representative, just like the political polls we see so often here. But instead of politics, this multi-nation poll – taken between December 2008 and April 2009 – was an attempt to plumb the religious beliefs of most of the continent. And to measure how members of one faith felt about members of the other.

You can read it all for yourself here. I suggest there are at least three takeaways for Americans:

First, we are still trying to figure out how to live with a relatively tiny Muslim minority, while most of the nations surveyed here have much larger Muslim populations. Maybe there are lessons for us.

Second, insofar as U.S. foreign policy is applied to the enormous land mass and huge population of sub-Saharan Africa, we'd best understand who we're dealing with. Because they aren't all so much like us.

And finally, even if all you're interested in is Christianity, this is an unusually detailed look at a big part of the "Global South" where the growing majority of Christians now live, and is therefore a window into where Christianity is headed.

With the caveats that any poll is dependent on the honesty of those surveyed and that the influence of religion on behavior may be less that we think, here are some of the more interesting results.

The nations surveyed were Botswana, Cameroon, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

"On social issues, Christians and Muslims alike express very strong opposition to abortion, prostitution, suicide and homosexual behavior, with nine-in-ten or more in many countries calling these practices morally wrong. Large majorities in nearly every country express opposition to sex between unmarried people, and substantial numbers (roughly four-in-ten or more) in every country say that AIDS is God's punishment for immoral sexual behavior."

(Question for the audience: What are the implications of that last result on public health efforts in this region? Discuss.)

More than three-quarters of the population in nearly every country surveyed say that religion is very important in their lives. By comparison, 57 percent of adults in the United States say this – and the U.S. number is the highest by far among major industrialized nations other than Brazil.

The pollsters found a seemingly paradoxical attitude toward Western culture: "Majorities in nearly every country surveyed say Western music, movies and television have hurt morality in their nation. At the same time, however, majorities in most countries say they personally like Western entertainment."

Another seeming paradox: While large majorities in every country survey expressed strong support for democracy, significant percentages also said they would like to see religious law hold sway. "In 13 of 16 countries with a sufficient number of Christians to analyze, half or more of Christians favor making the Bible the official law of the land. And in 12 of 15 countries where analysis of the Muslim population is possible, half or more of Muslims favor establishing sharia, or Islamic law, in their countries."

(Question for the audience: What does that mean for American foreign policy toward the region? Discuss.)

Here's another result that made me sit up and take notice: Compared with the United States, this a region filled with what I'd call millennialists. Strictly speaking, that word is correctly applied to Christians who figure Jesus is on his way back soon. But Islam also has an analogous vision of a world transformed by its faith.

The survey indicates that "at least half of Christians in every country with large enough samples of Christians to analyze believe that Jesus will return to earth during their lifetimes. And at least half of Muslims in 10 of the 15 countries with large enough Muslim populations to analyze say they believe that the caliphate, the golden era of Islamic rule, will be re-established in their lifetime."

By comparison, about 20 percent of American Christians say they think Jesus is coming back in their lifetime.

(Question for the audience: Does a population holding a belief that God is going to profoundly change the world in their lifetimes act differently than a population that does not have such an expectation? Discuss. )

Some other interesting items:

Neither the Christianity nor the Islam practiced in this region is quite the same as what you'd find elsewhere.

For instance, "half or more of the population believes that sacrifices to ancestors or spirits can protect them from harm. In addition, roughly a quarter or more of the population in 11 countries say they believe in the protective power of juju (charms or amulets), shrines and other sacred objects." That's true even though far less than 10 percent of those surveyed said they follow traditional African religions.

Christianity in this region is more Pentecostal in approach and leans more toward the "prosperity gospel" than you'd find in the United States. "More than half of Christians in all but three countries express the belief that God will grant wealth and health to believers who have enough faith; the exceptions are the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea Bissau and Tanzania, where roughly one third of Christians believe in the prosperity gospel."

And yet: "Large numbers of Christians – including at least half in every country surveyed and nearly nine-in-ten people in Nigeria and Liberia – say they believe the Bible is the word of God and should be taken literally, word for word. Most Muslims adopt a similar view of the Quran, including roughly nine-in-ten or more Muslims in Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana."

How to reconcile the literalism with the accommodation of practices that seem outside the text? 'Tis a puzzlement, admits Alan Cooperman, associate director for research for the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. People, he says, are complicated.

"I don't know how people reconcile these things or even if they see them as a problem to be reconciled."

On the other hand, this may be less of a conflict than it looks, says Gregory Smith, senior researcher for the forum.

"To say that one believes in the Bible as literally true is not the same thing as knowing what is in the Bible, word for word on every page."

With a nod to my Politics Daily WomanUp colleagues, here's a somewhat troubling response to a question about the mutilation of girls sometimes called "female circumcision":

"The practice of female circumcision (also known as female genital cutting) is most common in the predominantly Muslim countries of Mali and Djibouti (where 79% and 59% of Muslim parents, respectively, say they have had their daughters circumcised). And in Chad, Guinea Bissau, Liberia and Ghana more Muslims than Christians say they have had a daughter circumcised. However, the practice is not very common in predominantly Muslim Senegal (4%). In Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya, Christians are about as likely as Muslims to say they have had a daughter circumcised. And in Nigeria and Uganda, more Christians than Muslims say they have had a daughter circumcised (16% of Christians vs. 11% of Muslims in Nigeria, 15% vs. 6% in Uganda)."

So what do Christians and Muslims in Sub-Saharan Africa think of each other? It's not simple. On the one hand, there's some evidence of tolerance:

"Muslims tend to view Christians as tolerant, honest and respectful of women. Similarly, in most countries half or more of Christians say Muslims are honest, devout and respectful of women. In roughly half of the countries, majorities also say they trust people who have religious values different than their own."

On the other hand, there are tensions:

"In 10 countries, upwards of four-in-ten Christians associate the term 'violent' with Muslims. This includes roughly six-in-ten or more Christians in Cameroon (57%), Ghana (61%) and Chad (70%). By contrast, less than three-in-ten Muslims in most countries surveyed say they see Christians as violent."

And there's this:

"Substantial minorities (20% or more of the population) in many countries consider violence in defense of one's religion to be sometimes or often justified."

How substantial? For Christians, 55 percent in Guinea Bissau agreed. In Botswana, 37 percent. In Liberia 32 percent. In Nigeria, 19 percent. For Muslims, 58 percent in the Congo agree, 49 percent in Djibouti, 48 percent in Guinea Bissau, and 26 percent in Nigeria.

And there's this: "In every country that has a substantial Muslim population, roughly one-in-five or more Muslims favor the death penalty for people who leave Islam."

Which leaves us where? Maybe the best lesson for U.S. foreign policy is that nothing having to do with religious identity is simple. Which may be a valuable insight after the last decade or so.

I'll end on an upbeat note. I think most Americans would be unsurprised by the evidence of tension, but they would be surprised by the broad evidence of tolerance. The average American's impression of much of this region likely hasn't changed much since the time when "darkest Africa" was considered an acceptable description. Mostly we hear about tragedies, disasters and assassinations, leaving the sense that this is an irredeemably unhappy land. But that's not true for the people who live there, the survey says.

"Among the publics surveyed in sub-Saharan Africa, the median expressing optimism about the future is 76%, which is considerably higher than the median for Western Europe (41%), the Middle East (48%), Eastern Europe (49%), North America (54%) and South America (59%). For the most part, a similar proportion of Muslims and Christians report progress in their lives and optimism about the future."

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