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Growth of Violence and Radicalism

14 October 2003

An alarming pattern of discord is emerging across West Africa which runs counter to a history of broadly harmonious relations between Muslims and Christians (except in Nigeria where violence has been frequent).

In Senegal Christians have a growing concern that foundations are being laid for the implementation of shari’a (Islamic law), in a country which, since independence, has had a stoutly secular constitution. In August a church in Dakar was attacked three times in the space of one week. At least two other churches in Dakar have recently been forced to close, by what is feared to be a concerted city-wide effort. One church was stormed on 26 May 2002 by a Muslim mob led by a local politician; they drove out the Christians with knives and stones, and then refused to leave the building.

The ostensible reason given for the attacks on the Bethel church in August was that local Muslims were kept awake by an all-night worship meeting which occurred once a month. However, to attack the church three times resulting in the serious injury of three members seems a hugely disproportionate reaction which suggests not so much a simple problem of noise pollution but rather a classical Islamic understanding of Christians as “dhimmis”, effectively second-class citizens, whose worship should be quiet and unobtrusive. (The shari’a sets no such restrictions on Muslim worship.) The church is now being pressurised by the police to withdraw its complaint to avoid tarnishing Senegal’s image.

Christians are also experiencing problems in the Ivory Coast. The country is regaining a measure of stability after its recent bloody civil war; the mainly Christian south had sided with the government against the rebels of the mainly immigrant Muslim north. A group of lawyers has reported on atrocities committed by both sides, including some violence which was explicitly anti-Christian in its nature. One group of civilians was made to chant “Jesus is good, Jesus is evil” as they were taken by the rebels to be executed. Ivorians anticipate another coup attempt by Muslim rebels.

Muslims (89%) and Christians (4%) in the Gambia have traditionally enjoyed good relations. However in mid-September a group of Muslim students stormed into the offices of a local newspaper. They complained that they were not being allowed to wear the veil at their school and were thus victims of discrimination. This act was unusually aggressive for Gambians and could indicate that radicalism is even spreading here. The country is currently seeing the construction of its first institute to train imams and Islamic scholars; funds have been provided by a Saudi charity, the International Islamic Relief Organisation.