"Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do."
--THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LUKE 23:341
"Lord, forgive thy people, they do not know."
--SAHIH AL-BUKHARI, ISTITABE, 5
THE ROCK: ONE
Wase Rock is a double-humped crag that towers eight hundred feet above the green hills of Nigeria's Middle Belt. Wase ("wah-say") means "all-embracing" in Arabic, and it is one of Islam's ninety-nine names for God. Majestic and odd, the freestanding stone is smack in the center of thecountry, which, with 140 million people, is Africa's most populous. It is the largest in the world to be almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims. There are forty-five to fifty million members of each respective faith, but no exact figures, since the Nigerian government deemed questions about religion too dangerous to ask during the most recent census in 2006.1 As in Sudan, fifteen hundred miles to the east, Nigeria's Muslims live predominantly in the desert north, and its Christians, to the swampy south. (There are some important exceptions, including the southwest, where the ethnic Yoruba have adopted both religions.) For the most part, Christianity and Islam meet in the Middle Belt, a two-hundred-mile-wide strip of fertile grassland that lies between the seventh and tenth parallels (from five hundred to seven hundred miles north of the equator) and runs from west to east across most of inland Africa.
This pale grassland belongs to the Sahel, which means "coast" in Arabic. The Sahel forms the coast of a great sand sea: the north's immense Sahara Desert. And the Middle Belt sits on a two-thousand-foot-high plateau of russet tableland; as the ground rises, the air freshens and cools. Depending on the season, the terrain ranges from bone-dry steppe to luxuriant green bush. On most days, a mild breeze blows down from the Middle Belt's knobby escarpments, over the savanna's glossy burr grass, and across a patchwork of small cassava and dairy farms, which produce milk that is an ambrosia of butter, honey, and sun.
The Middle Belt could be an earthly paradise, but it is not. I first arrived there in August 2006, to visit a local Muslim king called the Emir of Wase. As I approached Wase, the plateau became blistered with ruins. Almost every village had been burned to the ground, both the round thatched huts of the Christian farmers and the square mud houses that belonged to Muslim traders and herders. Since 2001, Nigeria's Middle Belt has been torn apart by violence between Christians and Muslims; tens of thousands of people have been killed in religious skirmishes. Almost all of these began over something other than religion--from local elections to fights over land, to mob violence that broke out between Muslims and Christians in reaction to America's invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. Yet these small street fights, infused with deeper hatred, have often given way to massacres in churches, hospitals, and mosques. With each side determined to eradicate the other, the skirmishes have assumed the rhetoric of faith-based genocide; one Christian writer calledNigeria's Muslims "cockroaches," a deliberate reminder of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Blessed with some of the world's richest oil reserves, Nigeria is sub-Saharan Africa's major petroleum producer. It is America's fifth-largest supplier of oil, a factor in the pronouncement by the U.S. assistant secretary of state Johnnie Carson that Nigeria is "undoubtedly the most important country in Sub-Saharan Africa."2 But if Nigeria is one of the continent's wealthiest and most influential powers, it is also one of its most corrupt democracies. Since the end of military rule in 1999, politicians have reportedly embezzled between $4 billion and $8 billion annually.3
Despite the country's vast oil wealth, more than half of Nigerians live on less than one dollar a day, and four out of ten are unemployed. Being a citizen in Nigeria means next to nothing; in many regions, the state offers no electricity, water, or education. Instead, for access to everything from schooling to power lines, many Nigerians turn to religion. Being a Christian or a Muslim, belonging to the local church or mosque, and voting along religious lines has become the way to safeguard seemingly secular rights.
Nigeria's population is also growing at a rate of 2 percent a year--dramatically faster than the global average. This growth is particularly remarkable for Christians; high birth rates and aggressive evangelization over the past century have increased the number of believers from 176,000 to nearly 50 million. When it comes to religious competition, population is an undeniable asset. Due to these staggering numbers of new believers, many African Christians argue that, as the Middle Belt Anglican archbishop Benjamin Kwashi would tell me, God has moved his work to Africa.
To visit the emir, I had borrowed a gold minivan that belonged to a one-armed pastor and an imam, former sworn enemies who had started an interfaith organization in the nearby city of Kaduna. Decals on the rear window read, "PEACE IS DIVINE." The minivan's driver was bald, barrel-chested, and in his mid-forties; Haruna Yakubu had formerly led Muslim gangs in Middle Belt clashes. Now he was seeking to deprogram the young men he had taught to fight in defense of their religion.
Wase lay on the far side of a river of the same name, and the only wayto reach the tiny Muslim kingdom was to cross a narrow, one-lane concrete bridge. As we drove along the devastated floodplain toward Wase, some of the Christian farmers were beginning to rebuild. Tethered awkwardly outside the Christians' huts were muddy white cattle. Before the fighting, the farmers had hardly any cows; they belonged to the Muslim herders. The cattle were war booty.
When we reached the bridge, an orange truck was jackknifed across the lane, listing over the edge. A man in a Mylar suit and a matching peaked hat--like the tin man from The Wizard of Oz--pantomimed a traffic cop, but he was only playing at order. Cars were backed up behind the accident for several miles. The truck's heavy cab dangled off to the right and over the cataract rushing below, like a huge steel creature lowering its exhausted head for a drink. A market had sprung up: among the jam of people and cars, women sold peanuts and blackened corn from tin trays on their heads, the commerce of daily catastrophe. Radio chatter drifted from the open doors of trucks and cars. Nobody knew how long the wait would be--a week, maybe more. It would take a special winch to lift the truck, and it was days away. Until the winch arrived, all travel--to work, to the hospital, to buy clean water from the nearby town (Wase had none)--stopped dead. But the emir was not a man to be kept waiting, so we had to find a way across the bridge. Savvy Yakubu, the minivan's driver, quietly gathered a group of teenage boys hanging around--more than half of Nigeria's population is under eighteen--as I heaved open the van's sliding door and got out to walk. Somehow, the boys managed to lift our gold Toyota van, inch it around the jackknifed truck, and place it safely back onto the rickety bridge.
The emir's earthen castle stood atop a hill about five miles from Wase Rock. The clay forecourt swarmed with courtiers in billowing robes, and the clatter of hooves rang from the royal stable. On days like this one, when the emir was granting an audience, supplicants came from hundreds of miles away to ask his help with school fees or in solving disputes with neighbors. They waited in an octagonal two-story chamber, where a dozen members of the palace guard read the newspaper on the chilly floor. The king's advisor, or waziri, with a pink lace turban set on his head like a bicycle helmet, waited for the emir to summon his visitors, as his grandfather and great-grandfather had done before him. Most royal postsare hereditary, and the emir's bloodline has been a source of loyalty and honor since 1816, when his ancestor founded the kingdom at the base of Wase Rock.
This ancestor, a mysterious figure named Hasan, was a follower, a jihadi, of Nigeria's most famous Islamic reformer and a hero among African Muslims to this day: Uthman dan Fodio, a religious teacher and ethnic Fulani herder who launched a West African jihad in 1802 to purify Islam and promote the education of women. Dan Fodio, like most North African Muslims, was a Sufi. His was the first in a series of holy wars to rage across the center of the continent during the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century. Most of these jihads began as religious rebellions within Islam, uprisings against African kings who the Sufi reformers believed had corrupted the faith. Yet time and again, as Europe's Christian colonial powers arrived in Africa, these holy wars morphed into battles against the infidel West. These jihads, while largely forgotten, represent some of the earliest and bloodiest confrontations of Islam with the West; they drove colonial policy toward Muslims not only in Africa but worldwide. They also laid the groundwork for Islam's opposition to the modern West.
By 1810, seventy-five years before the British would claim Nigeria as their protectorate, Dan Fodio's followers, called his flag bearers, had conquered a large swath of West Africa as their own Islamic empire. The vanquished generally welcomed the flag bearers, who came riding south over the Sahel's high, pleasant plateau, on horses and camels and with Dan Fodio's pennant fluttering before them. When they neared the tenth parallel, the desert air moistened and the ground grew wetter. Here, the notorious tsetse fly belt began, and sleeping sickness killed off the jihadis' horses and camels, effectively halting their religion's southward advance. One of these jihadis, the emir's ancestor, established his kingdom on his favorite grazing land in the shadow of Wase Rock. For thirteen generations, the emir's family has occupied this leaking keep. A place out of time, it feels more like an ancient oasis in Arabia than a palace in modern-day Nigeria; the only objects in the anteroom to signal the passage of two hundred years are the newspapers and a white plastic wall phone that buzzes when the emir is ready to hear petitions.
In his traditional dress of pistachio robes and a gauze turban that tucks under his nose and culminates in two wilting rabbit ears, the Emir of Wase is the only man allowed to wear shoes--gold-buckled loafers--inhis castle. According to custom, his courtiers must sit barefoot on the floor below him. When I first met His Royal Highness Haruna Abdullahi, in 2006, however, he insisted I remain on his level, and sent his chief advisor to fetch my sneakers so we could speak as equals. Fine-boned and elegant, with dark skin and sharp features, the emir, like his ancestors, is an ethnic Fulani, and most of his people are still herders. An erudite man, he seemed bored in his clammy throne room and eager to set aside the usual supplications in order to discuss how his territory had been caught up in a religious conflagration.
For all his ancient trappings, the emir is a modern intellectual and a liberal religious scholar who traveled to Pennsylvania during the 1960s to study at the University of Pittsburgh, earning a doctoral degree in public administration. "I didn't tell anyone I was a prince in Pittsburgh," he said, laughing deeply. He sent a minion to a stack of old papers in the corner of the cold room to root out a copy of his dissertation, the title of which he could not remember and which the courtier never found. Instead, the courtier returned with a slim yellow booklet. Dropping his head, he fell to his knees and offered it to the emir. Together with a local Catholic bishop, the emir had compiled this collection of verses from the Christian Bible and the Quran to try to correct religious misunderstanding.
"These verses command believers to live together peacefully," he said, holding up the small pamphlet and setting it beside him on the antique couch that served as his throne. More than a decade earlier, when his father died at the age of 102, Abdullah had been working as a bank manager in the capital of Abuja. When he ascended the throne in 2001, the crisis had just begun, and from mosque loudspeakers and church pulpits, religious leaders on both sides were using the holy books to call for blood.
The emir, by his own count, had cared for between 350,000 and 400,000 Muslims, many of whom showed up at the palace gates and demanded his protection during the conflict. "I can't tell you how much money I spent on feeding all those people," he said. "Everyone who enters my domain, I have to account for before the Creator." For example, the jackknifed truck on the bridge--"If anyone falls off that bridge today, it's my responsibility," he said. This was his duty as a king, and what his Muslim name, Abdullahi--abd, "servant" or "slave," of Allah--commanded.
"Anytime people come to the palace, I have to open the door. I have no choice," he said. His voice was slightly muffled by gauze. Being a king was exhausting and expensive, and he could not afford to fix his own drippingroof. At the moment, there was a lull in the violence. On both sides, people had lost too much--land, livestock, and loved ones--to keep pummeling one another. No one could afford to keep fighting. This peace had been mandated by money, not mutual religious understanding, and the emir feared it would not last.
He picked up the yellow booklet beside him. In it, he had highlighted (in his native language of Hausa) the Quran's universal messages of coexistence for all of humankind, many of which were revealed to Mohammed early on in his life as God's messenger, when he was forty-something and a wealthy trader living in his Arabian hometown of Mecca.
"Religion is personal; it is in the mind," the emir said, smiling. "The books aren't written in straight language--you need not only to read but to understand." Tapping his college ring against the couch's edge, he relished these kinds of riddles, and seemed more at ease talking about the nature of power and the lessons that God had revealed to the Prophet Mohammed than discussing upcoming elections or the price of rice or the availability of drinking water.
"We know Jesus taught that if someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to the left," he said ruefully. "We know that Mohammed was sacked from his village and stoned at Ta'if, but he quietly left for Medina." In 619, according to the Hadith, the reports of what the Prophet said and did during his lifetime,4 Mohammed traveled to Ta'if, a mountainside town in Arabia about seventy miles southeast of the holy city of Mecca, to invite its people to become Muslims. Instead of welcoming him, the farmers stoned him and drove him, bleeding, out of town. Afterward, the archangel Gabriel--"Gibriel" in Arabic--came to the Prophet and asked him if he wanted revenge against Ta'if. Wiping blood from his face, the Prophet refused, saying, "Lord, forgive thy people, they do not know."5 Mohammed knew about Jesus and his teachings; before his death, he instructed his followers to act as Jesus had, to be willing to die for their faith. Mohammed's words echo Jesus's plea from the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do" (Luke 23:34).
The emir made the point that if both of these men, beaten and bloodied--the incarnations of their respective faiths--asked God to forgive their aggressors, then who were today's religious leaders to advocate holy war? The two religions were deeply linked, the emir said, but leaders did not know of, or else had forgotten, their common bonds. The Quran also tells the story of the Virgin Mary giving birth alone beneath a datetree. When she returns in shame to her family's house, the newborn Jesus speaks: "God is my Lord and your Lord; so serve Him: that is a straight path" (19:36).6
Yet which was the right path: Christianity or Islam? Despite the emir's best intentions, this conflict over whose beliefs were sanctioned by God caught fire as soon as local Muslims and Christians began to see each other as objects of competition and obstacles to survival. And that came down to the economy. "People have no way to get jobs," the emir said. "Children are being taught not to go back to farms; they're not taught to survive practically, but to get white-collar jobs that don't exist." There are more than sixty million jobless Nigerian youth--including many of the boys who carried the minivan over the bridge--a ready army free to man the front lines in any religious conflict. Before elections, or at any opportune moment, the same corrupt politicians embezzling millions of dollars pay these youths to act as righteous and intimidating thugs. The first places destroyed in these battles are places of worship, then banks and cars--the symbols of worldly power to which these young people have no access.
"An educated idle mind can be dangerous," as the emir put it. This maxim could easily refer to the emir himself--trapped in his crumbling castle, his management degree rendered useless by a conflict for which he was not prepared. His grasp on power, however, was more complicated than it looked, and it was tied to the British colonial legacy. Following the Berlin Conference of 1885--known as the Scramble for Africa, when Europe's colonial powers met to divvy up the continent--much of the vast tract of "the Soudan," including the territories of contemporary Nigeria and Sudan, fell to the British. In these territories, Muslim North Africa met the "pagan" black African south. (On medieval Arab maps, this was the beginning of the "Land of the Blacks"--Bilad-as-Sudan--from which Sudan takes its name.) In Nigeria's Muslim north, the British faced some resistance from Dan Fodio's former jihadis, whom they managed to subdue by the early twentieth century. In Nigeria, the British were able to use the system of indirect rule that had proven so successful in India, and that meant bolstering the power of leaders such as Wase's emir.
Spread thin elsewhere by the demands of empire, the British left local leaders--such as the emir--in place to carry out their policies. The emir served as a buffer between the colonialists and the people. These were classic techniques of divide and conquer. Indirect rule also allowed the British to exercise power covertly and to turn Nigerian Muslims against one another. Many such leaders came to be seen as colonial agents, losing their religious legitimacy even as they amassed power and wealth. For the Emir of Wase, colonialism may have diminished his religious legitimacy, yet it had also increased the scope of his worldly power. This was exactly the kind of erosion of traditional authority that sent the citizens of the Middle Belt looking to new leaders, many of them claiming their authority from God.
Indirect rule also extended the emirs' control over other groups whom Islam had not managed to conquer. Chief among them were the hill tribes, the non-Muslim minorities who followed their own indigenous traditions, many venerating spirits as their neighbors did in Sudan. The hill tribes were warriors who faced a constant threat of being enslaved by their more powerful Muslim neighbors. Over centuries, they had fled to the high, dry escarpments of the Middle Belt to protect themselves from slave raiders. But British indirect rule made them the subjects of Muslim kings, such as the Emir of Wase, who sowed a legacy of hatred and mistrust that is still very much alive in the Middle Belt.
Over the past century, most of these non-Muslim minorities have converted to Christianity, many finding within it freedom from the legacy of Muslim oppression. A large number follow a new generation of Pentecostal preachers. Pentecostalism, like Islam, is growing faster worldwide than the global population (both religions at an estimated rate of almost 1.8 percent a year).7 Its members try to encounter the Holy Spirit, as Jesus's disciples did on the feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on them. Because it is spirit-based, Pentecostalism grafts easily onto many indigenous cosmologies, and its practices--such as glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and ecstatic worship--are familiar to its new members. For Muslims who find Christianity's explosive growth threatening, the Pentecostal language of being saved by the Holy Spirit is especially difficult to fathom. The Trinity--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--smacks of polytheism,or shirk; and the idea that God could father a son is blasphemy. Moreover, most Pentecostal pastors preach about overcoming your enemies, which, in Nigeria, has come to mean Muslims.
The emir found such Pentecostal preachers troubling, especially since most demanded believers' money for prayers. "The more you give, the closer you are to God!" he said skeptically. Since successful pastors can earn huge salaries, competition between them can be fierce, and in Nigeria this led them to fight one another. "The Pentecostals are dangerous because they preach against each other," he said. Churches split in two, with each new band of believers erecting a church of its own. In the eyes of those who did not recognize the pattern, the mushrooming of churches did not look like division, but growth. And their rivals' growth led to more Muslim fear, which led to more violence, the emir said. On it went, while the emir, in his castle, was powerless to stop the countryside from burning around him.
THE ROCK: TWO
The temperature drops in the shadow of Wase Rock. A butter-yellow stone church stands flanked by sturdy acacias and surrounded by a web of pebbled cow paths. The church marks the place where, in 1904, two early evangelical Christian missionaries, a thirty-year-old German named Herman Karl Wilhelm Kumm and his thirty-seven-year-old Irish wife, Lucy Kumm (née Guinness), built a handful of grass huts--a station for their new organization, Sudan United Mission. This was the first of fifty they hoped to build across the continent, along the border where Muslim North Africa ended and the Land of the Blacks began. They intended to stop Islam from spreading south among "the border pagans"1--the non-Muslims living along this fault line. By baptizing them as Christians, the Kumms would build a human bulwark against Islam's "winning" Africa.
"The raison d'être of this mission is to attempt to counteract the Mohammedan advance in Central Africa by winning the pagan tribes to the Christian religion," Kumm wrote his supporters in America and London. Not knowing Kumm's true aim, the Emir of Wase's great-grandfather even helped the missionary clear the land. The Kumms modeled their mission on that of David Livingstone, the Scottish Congregationalist missionary and explorer who had bushwhacked across Africa. He fought armed battles against Muslim slave raiders until, infected with malaria and crippled by chronic dysentery, he died in Zambia, in 1873. Livingstone's heart was buried under a mvula tree. His corpse--embalmed, wrapped in calico, canvas, and bark--was shipped to England and buried at Westminster Abbey, where his tombstone is inscribed: "Missionary, Traveller, Philanthropist."
Both Livingstone and the Kumms belonged to a burgeoning global religious movement--one that intended to reach the whole world withthe Gospel. It was rooted in evangelical Christianity, a broad-based movement that had begun in the sermons of early eighteenth-century British and American preachers who called for a return to an egalitarian form of faith uncorrupted by the secular forces of the day. The movement was based on several core tenets that generally hold true today. First, preachers challenged their congregations to have a direct encounter with Jesus Christ through scripture--not through the church and its rites. Each person had to decide to dedicate his or her life to Christ--and, in that decision, to be reborn, or "born again." Second, they averred that the words of scripture were infallible, a term that implies different things for different people. For some, it means that the Bible is literal, word-for-word truth; for others, that the words of the New Testament are more generally inspired by God. Third, many saw it as their duty to reach new believers, a project known as the Great Commission and rooted in Jesus's parting command to his disciples: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19). The evangelical movement, while strong in Britain, was especially popular in North America, and by the 1820s, most American Protestants were calling themselves evangelicals. Today, one in four American adults is an evangelical Christian, and for many, the basic tenets established in the nineteenth century have not changed.2
During the nineteenth century, the advances of the industrial revolution--especially the steamship and telegraph--and the American Civil War, made possible a theological revolution. The tenets of the evangelical movement spread throughout the world. Many American evangelicals, especially Yankees, had hoped that the Civil War would usher in a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth in the United States. Instead, the brash new wealth of the Gilded Age turned Americans toward the Gospel of Wealth as preached by Andrew Carnegie. Frustrated and disillusioned at home, evangelicals turned their attention to reaching the rest of the world with their message of salvation through Jesus Christ.
Some evangelicals believed that it was possible to accelerate Jesus's return by reaching every single person on earth with this message from the Gospel According to Matthew: "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come" (24:14). The Great Commission is often misconstrued as an imperative to convert the whole world. The underlying message is that once the whole world hears the evangelical message, Jesus will return--regardless of whether or not that message is accepted. To most, it's about offering an invitation, not getting an answer.
At the turn of the twentieth century, war, industrialization, and this new theology made evangelicals in America and Britain suddenly determined to "evangelize the world in this generation."3 These were the words of the Reverend Arthur T. Pierson, a now largely forgotten Yankee evangelical who inspired a worldwide movement. As Pierson put it, "[A]ll should go and go to all." With his urging, the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), founded in London in 1844, launched the Student Volunteer Movement. Thousands of young men and women mobilized as missionaries to reach what they believed were the last blank spaces of the map with the Gospel. Preaching to the poor and focusing on building a "healthy mind, spirit and body,"4 these clean-cut, educated young people led Bible study, built health clinics, and introduced organized sports. Their understanding that Christ was Lord offered more than a set of beliefs; it was the cornerstone of a whole way of life.
This worldview, with its emphasis on the language of light and darkness, good and evil, flourished in opposition to an enemy. Islam, many evangelicals believed, was their most formidable foe. The Kumms, for example, were concerned--correctly, it turned out--that the same innovations of the industrial revolution (the steamship and telegraph) that allowed Christian missionaries and explorers to spread the Gospel inland in Africa and Asia also encouraged the spread of Islam. More African Muslims were, for instance, going on hajj, the pilgrimage to the holy Saudi Arabian city of Mecca, spreading Islam more widely on their return home.
The nexus of this conflict lay along the tenth parallel. In June 1910, at the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, twelve hundred Protestant missionaries gathered to chart the greatest crises Christianity was facing. (No Roman Catholics were invited.) The most pressing challenge to their faith--and to the world's future--many argued, was Islam. John Mott, the YMCA's founder, who spoke at the conference, wrote in his 1910 book, The Decisive Hour of Christian Missions:
Two forces are contending for Africa--Christianity and Mohammedanism [Islam]. In many respects the more aggressive is Mohammedanism. It dominates Africa on its western half as far south as 10° N. latitude, and on its eastern half, as far south as 5° N ... . If things continue as they are now tending, Africa may become a Mohammedan continent ... Once received,it is Christianity's most formidable enemy. It permits a laxity of morals, in some cases worse than that of heathendom. It sanctions polygamy. It breeds pride and arrogance, and thus hardens the heart against the Word of God.5
Karl Kumm, the ambitious German evangelist, also spoke at this watershed Edinburgh conference--the first of its kind to bring together more than a thousand Protestants from different denominations. He and his wife, Lucy, stood at the vanguard of this new movement to stop Islam. Lucy, the daughter of a famous Irish evangelical pastor, H. Grattan Guinness, was thirty-three when she and Karl were married on February 3, 1900, at the American Mission Church in Cairo. She was already a writer, and an accomplished evangelist in her own right. Well traveled in the world's roughest corners, she exemplified the power wielded by women missionaries at the beginning of the twentieth century. The evangelical movement, which began as a call to social justice, preached for women's equality at home and in the field, where women performed work as dangerous and unforgiving as that of men. Despite frail health, Lucy toiled among London's garment workers and went on to chronicle their plight and argue for their need of salvation in her book Only a Factory Girl. She had traveled among the world's Hindus in Across India at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century. Her books were not just religious tracts: they were calls for a new Christian world order based on equality and justice. Until the secular human rights movement began after World War II, Christian missionaries were the leading advocates for social change. Christian activists both liberal and conservative were hugely instrumental in bringing to light abuses such as slavery, and they are once again today. Along with her husband, Lucy Kumm turned her attention to fifty to eighty million souls whom she feared faced the threat of Muslim domination in what they, like so many others, called the Land of the Blacks. After reading her tracts, more than twenty young men--members of the YMCA's Student Volunteer Movement--set out for Sudan. Most contracted fever and died in the African mission field, which was called "the White Man's Graveyard."
The Kumms were only two of a number of missionaries in the Middle Belt at the time, and many were not particularly interested in competingwith Islam. Doctors, teachers, and farmers, they brought with them the two Bs--Bible and bicycle--and offered practical solutions to problems of health, agriculture, and eventually education. Their work was the legacy of the mid-nineteenth-century mission strategist Henry Venn, who developed the "Three-Self" indigenous church. Each local community should be self-sustaining, self-governing, and self-propagating, he argued, and Christianity should empower people, offering a way out of oppression.
Kumm, though, was among those who took this to mean liberation from the looming threat of Islam, and he believed he could use people's loathing of their Muslim rulers to his advantage in converting them to Christianity. At first, however, he found that these so-called border pagans had little interest in his divine message. The formidable indigenous traditions that had led people to reject Islam for centuries now galvanized them against this new alien creed. Toiling at the base of the rock without converts, Kumm taught health, hygiene, and horticulture but did little converting. However, he needed money to keep the mission going, since Sudan United Mission, like many at the time, was not linked to any particular Protestant denomination.6 Its success depended on Kumm's entrepreneurial spirit. To prove his plan could succeed, he needed converts. In his memoirs, he describes the watershed night in 1904, when, before leaving for a fund-raising trip in America, he summoned his local workers to the base of Wase Rock. "Boys," he said, "who would like before saying goodbye to me to accept Jesus as his personal savior?"7
No one answered, at first. Then his personal servant, Tom Alyana, a former slave, stepped forward and accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior. Alyana would be the first of what now, a century later, have become millions of followers of Kumm's teachings. Soon after, Kumm and Lucy, now pregnant with their third child, traveled to America to raise money for their mission. In Northfield, Massachusetts, she began to miscarry. Refusing to go to the hospital until she had finished her book about Congo, Our Slave State, Lucy contracted a fever and died.
Heartbroken, Kumm returned to Nigeria to make a dangerous foray across the continent. Starting out at the base of Wase Rock in 1909, Kumm trekked east for more than one thousand miles, from the British territory of Nigeria, through French-occupied Chad, to British Sudan. Skirting the southern edge of Muslim North Africa, which he called "the Ultima Thule of Africa"--based on a term Greek explorers used for borders of the known world--he would travel along the tenth parallel investigating Islam'sspread, and assessing prospective sites for his missionary forts. The trek was also a grueling public relations junket to raise money for his Sudan United Mission. Kumm's supporters sent him what they could, and he published their letters of encouragement in his newsletter, The Lightbearer. One devotee mailed him a pearl-mounted gold shirt stud and a note: "Perhaps the enclosed could be disposed of for a few shillings (it cost 11/-, and is practically new), it is all I have to give."8 For the trek, Kumm took two hundred African porters and their families along with him, confident that he would convert them to Christianity during leisure hours. The party never stopped walking. Descending from the plateau at the beginning of the rainy season, the members of this bedraggled expedition soon faced a forced wade through the thick tree-lined corridors of gallery forests, and hacked their way through dense bush woven with webs of wet vines. As they traversed chaur, the deep, sandy ravines cut into open savanna, the party fell victim to flash floods. Kumm and his expedition basically swam across Africa.
"All these rivers," he wrote in despair, "terminate in one vast lake, between the 7th and 10th degree north [of the equator]."9 He had hit the sudd--"barrier" in Arabic--the impenetrable swampland that begins along the tenth parallel and, like the tsetse fly, had helped to stop Islam from spreading south in Sudan. Kumm's oxen nearly drowned. His horses died of sleeping sickness. He watched his porters become "walking skeletons." Six had to be carried, and one died of starvation. At last he boarded a steamship, which chugged along the White Nile to the sand-swept colonial capital of Khartoum, where Kumm stopped before sailing back to England. At home in Britain, the popularity of missionaries and colonial adventurers was at its zenith. When Kumm landed at Dover on December 29, 1909, reporters from Reuters, The Daily Telegraph, The Star, and others waited for him on the dock. The next day's headline: "KUMM HAS COME BACK."
One hundred years later, the church Kumm planted at the base of Wase Rock, Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN), has hundreds of outposts in the Middle Belt. Most are small, zinc-roofed buildings that shine like dull nickels against the grassy plateau. And when religious violence breaks out in the region, the contemporary leaders of Kumm's church are often earliest into the fray.
I visited the gated compound of Kumm's church headquarters in Jos, the Middle Belt capital, in August 2006, within days of my visit to the Emir of Wase. The city's red roads were crammed with thousands of signboards--for churches, mosques, and miscellaneous religious organizations vying for customers. In one short stretch, I spied De Last Day Coffin Company, which competed for the attention of a passerby with signs for Living Faith Church and NASFAT, a Muslim tent revival in the vein of a Pentecostal church service. And that was only three. Within sixty seconds (I timed it) we passed Child Evangelical, Christ Resurrection, Apostolic Faith, Mount Olive, Grace Foundation, Christ Embassy, Assemblies of God, Divine Mercy Ministry, Jesus Foundation, World Impact Partners, Christ Pilgrims Welfare Board, Fountain of Praise, Every Night Is a Miracle Ministries, Family Restoration Gospel Ministry, Angels International College, Amazing Grace Private School, and the Great Commission.
At COCIN headquarters, a framed photograph of Karl Kumm hung from a nail in the main office. Here was the pale-eyed hero in profile. With the swept-back locks of a romantic poet, he fixed his gaze beyond the frame. I asked the church's information officer, whom I'll call Pastor J.,10 if he knew what Kumm was supposed to be looking at.
He glanced at the picture and said he wasn't sure. But Kumm's prediction, the pastor added, had come true: the Middle Belt now stood as the last line of defense against Islam's domination of the country, the continent, and the world. As the pastor had written in one of his many books on the subject, Shari'a: The Hidden Agenda: "In a nutshell, the main objective and motive of the Muslims, is TO CRUSH THE CHRISTIANS SOCIALLY, POLITICALLY, AND ECONOMICALLY, OR CONVERT THEM BY FORCE TO ISLAM" (emphasis his).
Pastor J. belonged to one of the hill tribes, the non-Muslim ethnic groups that had fled to the plateau to protect themselves from Muslim raiders, and he carried the air of a wilderness prophet. "The moment they can crush Christianity here, the country will fall," he warned. A short, thickset man with bloodshot eyes, Pastor J. told me that the confrontation between Christianity and Islam foreshadowed Judgment Day. This was a matter of both scripture and geography, he pointed out. The Middle Belt's fault line was a microcosm of a global struggle--a long-standing threat to which the West was just waking up.
"I may sound like a prophet of doom, but I'm thankful for 9/11--if it had not happened, the United States would have been in the dark aboutthe Muslim world," he said, reminding me that, as far as Christians in his congregation were concerned, Nigeria's religious crisis began "a few days before yours," on September 7, 2001. On that Friday, a Christian woman walked through a group of Muslims who were praying with their foreheads to the ground outside a mosque full of worshippers. Her interruption was immediately seen as an act of disrespect, and, within hours, Muslim and Christian mobs were attacking each other in the town of Jos.11 Thousands on both sides were killed, but the world, distracted by events in New York City, paid little attention.
Some people believe that Christian militants sent the woman to walk through the middle of the mosque's Friday prayer--that the act was intended to incite violence. Later that day, in self-defense, said Pastor J., he killed a Muslim man with an axe. He felt no remorse. To him, being a Christian meant being a soldier for Christ. He said, "We teach our members to be alert and to defend themselves--if not, it would be suicide.
"I am ready to die for my faith. All we can do is to prepare our people for martyrdom. Remaining here to fight is the only solution," he added. He paged through the Bible lying open on his desk and fished a thick pair of glasses from his breast pocket to read the story of Jesus being struck by a Roman soldier before being crucified. In this story, Pastor J. said, Jesus never turns the other cheek. Instead, when the soldier slaps him, Jesus demands an explanation: "If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if well, why do you strike Me?" (John 18:23). The pastor believed that Christians had the right to defend themselves. In order not to be crushed, Christians had to outpace Muslims by winning souls faster. He saw the Great Commission as not only a mandate to reach new believers with the Gospel but also a survival strategy.
More than Kumm's legacy, Pastor J.'s thinking reflected a global movement in Christianity and Islam. Both are in the midst of decades-long religious reawakenings--global revivals that, like their namesakes in America and Britain during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, are calls to return to an idealized past. These revivals encompass a breadth of beliefs and points of view--from liberal to conservative. Some conservatives like Pastor J. consider themselves "fundamentalists." The name, which has become a catchword for both Christians and Muslims, comes from the title of twelve pamphlets, called "The Fundamentals," written in 1902 byevangelical leaders who formed the American Bible League to counter the threat that Darwin and modern science posed to their faith. The various authors, who argued that the Bible was God's inspired word, sent the pamphlets to three million readers between 1910 and 1915.12 Since then, the word fundamentalism has been subject to a wide range of interpretations. Yet one hundred years ago, the term outlined what it still does today: a desire to return to a past when religion and its tenets were absolute. These theologies--driven by narratives of good pitted against evil--graft easily to competition over land and resources.
For Christians like Pastor J. who see themselves in theological and worldly conflict with believers of all other stripes, population growth helps to determine their survival. So do large numbers of believers. Religion grows stronger only if it can be practiced, Lamin Sanneh, a Gambian-born Roman Catholic who has written extensively about both Christianity and Islam, explained to me. If the church or the mosque is empty, there is no religion. "For both a Sufi leader and a Pentecostal preacher in Africa, this is a no-brainer," Sanneh said, and scripture supports this idea. God says to his people in Genesis, "Be fruitful and multiply," and many reawakened Christians see their duty to reproduce as a duty to God, as do Muslims. In the chapter of the Quran called "The Bee," God also commands Mohammed, "[Prophet] call [people] to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good teaching" (The Bee 16:125).13 For both, the instruction is clear: by procreation and conversion, spread the faith.
When I returned to the Middle Belt in September 2007, the rainy season had begun. Low white mist shrouded the escarpments and burst open into midday deluges the likes of which I'd never seen. Sheets of blinding rain turned the red roads into cataracts. One morning, before the skies broke open, I walked around Jos searching for the thousands of religious advertisements I had seen along the roadside a year earlier. The local authorities had ordered them removed, I learned; they thought that so much signage intensified religious conflict. I stopped in one Internet café for a quart of vanilla yogurt and picked up a week-old local paper. Through the smudged newsprint I read that a flash flood in a nearby town had driven tens of thousands from their homes and killed scores of others. The death toll was unknown. The town, I read, was Wase.
I left Jos the next morning, in the same borrowed gold minivan with the bald and barrel-chested Haruna Yakubu at the wheel again. After a two-hour drive through a sea of brilliant, rain-fed grass, we reached the Wase River. The bridge was gone, and the gulley between the riverbanks swarmed with young men naked to the waist, flinging heavy white sacks of salt across their backs. They waded up to their chests through blood-colored water, reddened from runoff. On one bank, someone had lashed oil drums together to make small rafts. I left the van and climbed onto one, to be dragged across the river. Even on the open water, the air felt different; the mild breeze of a year earlier had turned to fetid stillness. As the waves hit the empty oil drums, it sounded like something was banging on them from below.
The Wase River had spilled over its bank one Friday in August, about three weeks earlier, and continued to rise. By early evening, the water was neck-high and still climbing. To escape the rising floodwaters, the several thousand people who lived in thirteen villages along the river began to hoisttheir babies into the trees. Children of one and two years old, who could hold on to branches, were hoisted up alone. Mothers climbed up with their infants. By nightfall, the elders estimated, altogether about two thousand babies were hanging from branches. They spent two days without food or water. Some were silent. Others cried from hunger. Below them, in the slick, black water, cows, goats, pigs, and a few human bodies floated past.
"All of our food is gone," Fakcit Alexander, one survivor, told me when I reached what had been her village after the water receded. She was in her early thirties but looked at least fifty. Her short hair was copper-colored from either mud or malnutrition, and her skin was ashen. She walked me around the wrecked village about a mile down the road from Wase Rock's two humps. The mud walls of a school still stood, but nothing else. The village had also lost all its corn, which had been just about ready for harvest. The cornstalks' height had hidden the flash flood's monstrous wave, so no one had time to run, Fakcit said. She led me to a fallen log in a clearing. I looked down and saw that she was barefoot. The flood had taken her shoes. The village gathered around her to listen as we talked. Two men were fixing a bicycle; the others were sipping from gourds filled with home brew. The only thing to do was drink, and they weaved around the village dazed with loss.
Like most of the communities at the edge of town, Fakcit's was Christian--a fact anyone could tell from the potent smell of sour mash fermenting in the sun nearby; most Nigerian Muslims do not drink alcohol. There were other traits that sometimes told Muslim from Christian. Fakcit belonged to one of the historically non-Muslim hill tribes, and although it was a generalization (and sometimes inaccurate), they tended to be shorter and broader than their rivals, the ethnic Fulanis, who looked taller and more angular, like the Emir of Wase. Many carried the spare air of nomads from the arid north, even though they had settled one hundred years ago.
In many of Nigeria's Muslim towns, Christians, like other outsiders, historically had to live outside the city walls, and in some cases they still do. The legacy of being an ethnic minority forced to the edge of town had embittered Fakcit. "The Muslims call us fools," she said. Three years earlier, a Muslim mob killed her father and burned this village to the ground. As the Christians sat gathered around a bicycle, two nomadic herdsmen--willowy Fulanis--walked quietly through the clearing and called greetings to the flood victims. As northern nomads, they were undoubtedlyMuslims, yet when I went to speak to them I noticed a curious marking on one man's face.
His tattooed cheek bore an indigo Coptic cross. I asked him about its origins; he shrugged and smiled. He did not remember receiving the mark as a child, nor did he know the symbol's history. Maybe his nomadic ancestors had once belonged to the ancient Christian kingdoms of Nubia, in northern Sudan. Maybe when the last of the Nubian kingdoms fell to Muslim armies in 1504, his kinsfolk converted to Islam. Maybe over the past five hundred years, his ancestors had migrated here to the southwest, two thousand miles from northern Sudan, bringing their cows and what they carried on their bodies: this symbol of their former faith.
Cross tattoo or no, he belonged to the Muslim herders who had come to blows with the Christians in the past several years. Despite Fakcit Alexander's grumbling, the flood seemed to have brought the two groups together--at least for the moment--or else there was simply nothing left to lose, nothing over which to fight. Although the flood had killed most of their cattle, the nomads' most pressing problem was water. For the past several years the land had become so desiccated that the herdsmen had begun to dig boreholes right at the edge of the river, where it was easiest to hit water--and most destructive to the bank. The farmers of Fakcit's village also planted corn right to the water's edge. Overfarming and overgrazing had destroyed the riverbank, so that when the flood came, the bank fell all the faster. This was one way in which human error compounded environmental pressures. Practically, the village was ruined, spent; but Fakcit and her fellow villagers were determined to stay.
"This place is our father's land," Fakcit said. "This place is our place." The flood brought with it plagues of insects and illness, including a malaria outbreak.1 Each of Fakcit's eight children had contracted malaria from sleeping in the open air, even the baby; she pulled a warm, dozing lump from the cloth on her back. "They're covered with bites," she said, tugging the baby's small arm from the cotton folds so I could see the welts. His name was Cheldon, which means, "I am pleading for more from the Creator."
Two thousand babies in the trees--I pictured this as I stood with Fakcit beneath the harsh dazzle of the overcast sky. I pictured the babies later that night, when I was lying on a foam mattress in a cheap hotel nearby. I have pictured those babies again and again; they come up behindmy eyes without bidding, in silhouette, like a woodcut, with an eggplant sky behind them, and greasy water licking at the tree trunks. Seen from a distance, the children would have clung to the limbs like strange fruit--the allusion inescapable--not swinging dead, but alive and grasping branches. According to the local Red Cross representative (one of the emir's courtiers, who carried a clipboard and kept track of the death toll) all of those babies survived. So far, according to the information he'd been able to gather, forty-seven adults had died, but numbers in Nigeria are usually speculative at best.
That afternoon I climbed the hill to the emir's castle for the last time, with a sudden, animal understanding of the difference high ground makes. Although he had been untouched by the flood, the emir was despondent; first the religious fighting, now the flood, and no time in between to recover. Only a few years earlier, he had gathered Muslims and Christians to pray for the end of a terrible drought. That kind of coming together was impossible now. What's more, there was no way to explain that this flood was a result of human action, the emir said, leaning his swaddled head against the fraying throne. Before I arrived he had been listening to a BBC radio program about the perils of the Sahel. "This flood is the first sign of climate change," he said. Yet his people believed such curses came only from God.
Of all seven continents, Africa is believed to be most affected by climate change. Poverty, overfarming, overgrazing, deforestation, and increasingly erratic weather patterns all contribute to the conservative prediction that, if the world's temperature rises as little as two degrees by 2100, as many as 250 million Africans will be left without adequate drinking water.2 In Africa and Asia, the band along the tenth parallel is one of the most ecologically precarious in the world. Here, the inexorable southward spread of North Africa's desert, which occurs in Nigeria at an estimated rate of between a quarter and a half mile each year,3 meets unpredictable rains in the transition zone from Africa's dry north to its wet south.
Before satellite dishes and Skype, weather connected one continent to another. The intertropical convergence zone binds the northern and southern hemispheres by driving both of their high-pressure air currents toward the equator, where atmospheric pressure is lower. This system not only creates the trade winds but also carries carbon dioxide and other pollutantsproduced by the northern hemisphere toward the south. As these compounds travel south, they warm oceans and land, contributing to patterns of flooding and drought.
These equatorial patterns directly affect North America, too. Atlantic hurricanes, such as Katrina, are born in this zone. When the two collide, they form vortexes known as Hadley cells, which move clockwise until they sweep off Cape Verde. Most of these storms dissipate while passing through the doldrums, or "horse latitudes"--named for the practice of sailors in becalmed ships tossing their horses overboard to save precious drinking water. But some do not dissipate, and these eventually strike America's East Coast. This is the pattern Ernest Zebrowski, Jr., in Perils of a Restless Planet: Scientific Perspectives on Natural Disasters, calls the butterfly effect, borrowing the term from chaos theory. The tiniest change to the air currents in Nigeria--caused by a movement as minute as the beat of a butterfly's wings--may create chaos seven thousand miles away in North America.4 A terrible flood season in the catastrophe zone can mean that the United States and Caribbean will face a horrific hurricane season.
The twin plagues of advancing desert (desertification) and flash flooding mean that for the first time in history there may be as many people fleeing from the weather as from war. By 2050, by one estimate, as many as one billion people will be displaced from their homes by environmental factors.5 Every year, an average of ten million people are forced from their homes in the Sahel, according to Professor Norman Myers of Oxford University. 6 These numbers are speculative, and critics point out that it is difficult to determine why people move, and harder still to document such migrations. And no one knows for sure if the changing weather will lead to more or fewer insect-borne illnesses--malaria, yellow fever, dengue, and sleeping sickness. Scientists also disagree as to whether the rising temperature of the ocean, or of the land, will determine the weather's future, and whether floods or deserts will prevail.7
From deluge to desert, there was no balance. In August 2007, I met Dr. Amin al-Amin, an ecologist in his forties and a member of a royal Muslim family from the north. He had started a nongovernmental organization called Nature Trust International, to address the perils of desertification in Nigeria and eight other West African countries. However, al-Amin (which means "the trusted one" in Arabic, one of Mohammed's nicknames) was not simply interested in the environmental aspects of the desert's southern spread; he was concerned with the ensuing social crisis as well.
"The line of latitude ten degrees to the north of the equator across Africa marks the beginning of a fragile ecosystem in terms of climate change, in terms of population growth, in terms of religious conflict," al-Amin told me. He thinks and speaks in terms of latitude, and referred to the tenth parallel as "latitude ten." As the Sahara Desert advances south and leaves former farms and grazing lands consumed by dunes, the northern Muslims must move south with their livestock to survive. Pushing south, the nomads enter settled areas and collide with farming communities, many of which are Christian. Such was the case in Sudan, and also in Nigeria, where for more than a decade al-Amin, along with other scientists, has studied the geographic coordinates of desertification, and the social problems between the two groups, which are fomented by a drastic lack of education and services.
Although the Middle Belt's high plateau is temperate, most of Nigeria is overwhelmingly hot, and even the late summer rainy season offers little relief. The air is just as warm as before, only wetter. On one smothering August afternoon, a few days after I had left the flood-devastated Wase, al-Amin picked me up in his green Mercedes SUV at a hotel in the Nigeriancapital of Abuja--a boring, ordered city architecturally akin to Washington, D.C.--to show me firsthand how the dynamics of environmental migration were interwoven with religion. We were going to drive north of Abuja to visit a community of several hundred children who had migrated south about three hundred miles, from latitude fourteen. Their village to the north could no longer support their farms or grazing for their cows, so everyone was moving south, beginning with the children, al-Amin explained. He shouted over the air conditioner's full-tilt roar. The vehicle was a curious choice for an environmentalist, but not perhaps for the scion of one of Nigeria's Muslim royal families. "My great-grandfather was very close with Uthman dan Fodio," he said, invoking the name of the famous Sufi reformer and Nigerian hero. Al-Amin was wearing a fine-gauge white linen suit, through which he was sweating despite the air-conditioning. Driving made him nervous, he confessed, but he had given his chauffeur the day off so he could lead this tour himself.
We passed a seemingly endless procession of young boys trudging along the roadside carrying gnarled branches on their heads. "Look around. Do you see any trees?" al-Amin asked. For miles, the earth was crimson and treeless. (The boys must have walked for dozens of miles to find those few brittle branches.) Through the smeared window, it looked like a grainy image sent back to earth from a Mars probe. The ground had been stripped of most of its minerals. Thanks to the heat, the equatorial glare, and the punishing rainstorms, all that remained was the iron-rich laterite that reddened the tropical soil.
As we drove, al-Amin recounted a bloody confrontation he had recently had with a group of conservative Muslim scholars over the issue of desertification. According to the Maliki school of Islam--one of the four Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence and the one that most Nigerian Muslims follow--sin, not science, causes the desert's spread. Believing that it is his duty to dispel such misconceptions, al-Amin visits conservative schools, using his royal lineage to gain entry. He lectures scholars on the environmental causes of desertification, and explains that alcohol and fornication do not cause drought. As he puts it, the earth is growing warmer because of man, not God. Not long ago, during one such lecture, a conservative scholar leaped to his feet and told al-Amin to "quit talking nonsense." When al-Amin refused to back down, the audience began to pelt him with stones. With his left ear bleeding, he raced to his car. By the time he was locked safely inside, the crowd had shattered the SUV'swindshield. Undaunted, al-Amin kept returning to the school, and finally convinced the students to take part in a reforestation pilot program.
"I like a bit of thrill," he said. He pulled off the capital's highway and into a warren of shanties slouching against a brick-colored boulder the size of a house. The street was almost empty except for a handful of teenage boys, none older than sixteen. The social problem that most concerned al-Amin involved the millions of itinerant Islamic students--boys between the ages of six and eighteen--whose families sent them to boarding schools for religious education.1 Historically, these wandering students, called al majiri after the name of their schools, worked on their teachers' farms to pay for their educations. Al-Amin had attended one of these Islamic schools, once renowned for Quranic study. (By fifteen, students are supposed to be hafez, meaning they know the Quran by heart; "These days, instead, they are full-blown miscreants," al-Amin said.) Now they were changing--in part because of the weather. Due to desertification, the teachers, like everyone else, were forced to move south and leave their farms behind. The schools now clung to the edge of cities, like the capital, Abuja. With no more farms to feed the boys, the teachers sent them out to beg instead.
"It is a form of slavery," al-Amin said. "They need somewhere to stay and their teacher becomes their only protector. The children are victims because a natural disaster is taking place and it should be up to our government to solve it." But the government did nothing, and, instead, the teachers functioned like Fagins in a modern-day version of Oliver Twist. To educate fellow Muslims about this problem, Nature Trust International had staged a play about a religious teacher whom desertification forced off his farm and into corruption. It caused so much anger in northern Nigeria that the play was banned.
We searched for the community's leaders among the shanties, and found them sitting together in a lean-to (the only one with furniture and a thin carpet). After a few words of introduction in Hausa--I heard al-Amin drop Dan Fodio's name--we were ushered into the school. One hundred children under the age of eight were crammed into a single room. Teenage boys hung around outside. Most had metal begging bowls. "You know of any work?" one asked me. His only job, he explained, was to beg for the teacher in the nearby town. With no other education, soon these six-foot-tall, pimplyteenage boys would be too old--and too intimidating--for begging. They were the same ready youth army about whom the emir had spoken--one more reminder that four out of ten Nigerians are unemployed. We stayed only briefly; it was almost dark, and al-Amin feared what might happen when the sun set and the boys were accountable to no one.
Driving back to Abuja, we got stuck in a "go-slow"--a traffic jam. In the middle of the highway, a large crowd had gathered around a boy of about fourteen. He was fighting with an older, bigger man and both of their faces were streaked with blood. Al-Amin pulled over and pushed through the crowd to ask what was happening. The boy, it turned out, was an itinerant Islamic student from the north. His parents had sent him south to find a teacher (and a way to feed himself). "He has come from latitude sixteen to try to find work," al-Amin shouted in my ear above the fray, but the boy could not pay his one-dollar weekly rent on his bed, so the landlord had beaten him, and the boy, in turn, had attacked the landlord with a razor blade. This kind of thing happened all the time, al-Amin explained, pushing back out through the crowd's hot press and looking down at the lap of his white suit. A splatter of blood had landed on the linen and was drying from red to black.
Nigeria's troubles between Christians and Muslims began in the late 1960s, during the Biafran civil war, when Nigeria's southeast seceded under the banner of Christian emancipation from the Muslim north. The divisions intensified in the 1980s, when the first oil boom collapsed and the ensuing economic downturn led to widespread violence. But it was really the end of military rule in 1999 and the political free-for-all of weak democracy that ignited religious violence. Democracy, paradoxically, fueled the friction between Nigeria's Muslims and Christians. Elections are often violent, and people have voted along religious lines since democracy began.
Over the last decade, local and global events have fed the ongoing skirmishes--the 1999 and 2000 implementation of Islamic law in twelve of Nigeria's thirty-six states; the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan in 2001, during which Nigerian Muslims lashed out at local Christians as scapegoats for the West's attack on an Islamic country; and the 2002 Miss World pageant, when a local Christian reporter named Isioma Daniel angered the Muslim community by writing in one of Nigeria's newspapers that a beauty pageant was no cause for moral concern. "The Muslims thought it was immoral to bring 92 women to Nigeria to ask them to revel in vanity," she wrote in This Day. "What would Mohammed think? In all honesty, he would probably have chosen a wife from one of them." This comment, which millions felt smacked of blasphemy, inflamed Nigerian Muslims, and riots broke out on the streets, killing hundreds. In 2006, more riots, this time triggered by the Danish cartoons that depicted the Prophet Mohammed--an act many believe that Islam forbids--left at least sixteen people dead--more than anywhere else in the world.1 In 2008, in the Middle Belt capital of Jos, several hundred Muslims and Christians were killed in clashes surrounding a local election. At least three hundredmore died in Jos during 2009. Farther northeast, in the town of Maiduguri, a splinter group of al majari youth who called themselves Boko Haram ("Western Education Forbidden") launched local riots over what they vaguely saw as the rising tide of Western influence. Fighting spread to three other states and left seven hundred dead. The flubbed 2009 Christmas Day bombing by a Nigerian-born man momentarily drew international attention to the failing state. Yet the world's focus faltered as, in 2010 and early 2011, fighting between homegrown militants killed hundreds more in the Middle Belt.
Two candidates stood on opposite sides of the barren soccer field as the people of Yelwa, a town of thirty thousand about an hour north of Wase, lined up to vote. For the past hundred years, Yelwa has been a mostly Muslim trading town. This May morning in 2002 was shaping up to be tense, as the town's Muslim traders milled between the field's iron goalposts. So did their historic enemies: the non-Muslim ethnic groups who were gaining in numbers and political power, and were now Christians. Most belonged to the church that Karl Kumm founded a century ago, the Church of Christ in Nigeria.
As the two groups waited in the heat to be counted, the meeting's tone soured. "You could feel the tension in the air," said Abdullahi Abdullahi, a fifty-five-year-old Muslim lawyer and community leader. A tall, angular man with a space between his two front teeth and shoulders hunched around his ears in perpetual apology, he was helping to direct the crowd that day. The gap in numbers, he said, was painfully easy to see.
"Let's face it, a Christian comes with his one wife; I come with my four. Who do you think has more people?" No one knows what happened first. Someone shouted arna ("infidel") at the Christians. Someone spat the word jihadi at the Muslims. Someone picked up a stone. Chaos ensued, as young people on each side began to throw rocks. The candidates ran for their lives, and mobs set fire to the surrounding houses. "That was the day ethnicity disappeared entirely and the conflict became just about religion," Abdullahi said.
Soon after, the Christians issued an edict that no Christian girl could be seen with a Muslim boy. "We had a problem of intermarriage," Pastor Sunday Wuyep, Abdullahi's community counterpart and the head of Kumm's church, told me when I first visited the town in 2006. "Just because our ladies arestupid and attracted to money," he sighed. Economics lay at the heart of the enmity between the two groups: as merchants and herders, the Muslims were much wealthier than the minority Christians. But Pastor Wuyep, like many others, felt that Muslims were trying to wipe out Christians by converting them through marriage. So he and the other elders decided to punish the women. "If a woman gets caught with a Muslim man," Wuyep said, "she must be forcibly brought back." The decree turned out to be a call to vigilante violence as both Christian and Muslim patrols took to the streets.
Mornings in Yelwa begin with prayer for both Muslims and Christians. One Tuesday morning in February 2004, seventy people were performing their morning devotions at Kumm's church. As the worshippers finished their prayers, they heard gunshots and a call from the loudspeakers of the mosque next door: "Allahu Akhbar, let us go for jihad." "We were terrified," Pastor Wuyep recalled. He had been standing outside the gate as the churchyard swarmed with strangers posing in fatigues as Nigerian soldiers. He stayed near the church gate, but many others fled toward the road behind the church. There, the men dressed as soldiers reassured them that they were safe and herded them back to the church. Then they opened fire.
Pastor Sunday Wuyep fled. The attackers--who were never identified--set the church on fire and killed everyone who tried to escape. They chased the head of the church, Pastor Sampson Bukar, to his house next door and ran him through with the long machetes that are called cutlasses in Nigeria. They set fire to the nursery school and the pastor's house. His burned Peugeot was still in the compound in 2006, though the church had been rebuilt and painted salmon pink. Boys were playing soccer, each wearing one shoe so that everyone could kick the ball. "Seven in my family were killed," Wuyep said in the churchyard. "We call them martyrs." He pointed to a mound of earth not far from where we were sitting. On top was a small wooden cross: it marked the mass grave for the seventy-eight people killed that day.
"This is about religious intolerance," he went on. "Our God is different than the Muslim God ... If he were the same God, we wouldn't fight." For Pastor Wuyep, the clash was grounded in Christian scripture. "It's scriptural, this fight," he said. "The Bible says in Matthew 24, the time will come when they will pursue us in our churches." Wuyep and his followers, like many conservative Christians, believed that Jesus Christ wouldreturn to earth after one thousand years of bloodshed and war. This was the doctrine of premillennialism as foretold in Matthew 24. They believed the chaos of the Tribulation would precede the world's end and herald Christ's return. Because they believed they were living during last days, the Christians found meaning in their suffering, and in their own violence.
A few hundred yards down the road from the church is a cornfield, and in it a row of mounds: more mass graves. Green-and-white signs tally the piles of Muslims buried below: 110, 50, 65, 100, 55, 25, 60, 20, 40, 105. Two months after the church was razed, Christian men and boys surrounded Yelwa. Many were bare-chested; others wore shirts on which they had reportedly pinned white name tags from the Christian Association of Nigeria, an umbrella organization founded in the 1970s to give Christians a unified voice as strong as that of Muslims. Each tag had a number instead of a name: an identification code. They attacked the town. According to Human Rights Watch, 660 Muslims were massacred over the course of the next two days, including the patients in the al-Amin clinic. Twelve mosques and 300 houses went up in flames. Young girls were marched to a nearby Christian town and forced to eat pork and drink alcohol. Many were raped, and 50 were killed.2
Yelwa was still a ghost town in 2006. In block after burned-out block, people camped where their homes had stood. The road was lined with more than a dozen ruined mosques and churches, the rubble hidden by hip-high elephant grass and canary yellow morning glories climbing the old foundations. When I arrived at the home of Abdullahi Abdullahi, the Muslim human rights lawyer, his street was mostly deserted. He stooped on his way out of a low-ceilinged hut. Behind him, I could see the sour faces of a man and woman sitting on the floor by his desk. "Marital dispute," he said.
It was the rainy season, so I waited out the noon deluge in another small lean-to on his compound. Finally, Abdullahi ducked inside, a worn accordion file under his arm. His wife followed, carrying a pot of spaghetti, its steam rising against the cold, wet air. In the beginning, he explained, the conflict in Nigeria had nothing whatsoever to do with religion. "Let me give myself as a case study," Abdullahi said. He went to Christian mission schools and federal college, and never, as a Muslim, had any problem. "Throughout this period, I'd never seen religious segregation, because at that time the societal value system was intact. We were taughtto respect each other's beliefs and customs." But as the population grew and resources shrank, people began to fight over who had come to Yelwa first, and who had arrived more recently as a "settler." Abdullahi held up an old sheet of newsprint on which an editorial's headline read, "We Are All Settlers!" Everyone who lived here came from somewhere else; everyone had settled.
Both sides had perpetrated atrocities, he admitted. "We could not control our own boys." Outside in the courtyard, three of the local "boys"--men, actually--sat against the hut shivering against the cold rain of the plateau in thin, well-pressed shirts. I wanted to know if they thought this was really about religion.
"Any Muslim struggling to protect himself is fighting in a jihad," Lawal, a thirty-nine-year-old headmaster, said. His cheeks were cut deep with three slashes; they looked like a cat's whiskers. He was wearing a purple shirt. "If someone attacks you, you have the right to defend yourself--call it jihad or whatever you want--but this was Christians attacking Muslims," he continued. He believed the Christians were plotting to eliminate the Muslims long before the church attack. "The Christians came in the sense of crusade. By the nature of the attack and the weapons they used, they attacked with a view to eliminating the Muslim community and leveling the town." Crusade, genocide--the goal was to eradicate a community, a people, a religion. Lawal lost everything: his family, his house, his cattle, his job as a headmaster. "There's no justice here; no one has been caught, punished, or arrested, so there's no security."
He leaned forward. "We want what belongs to us: the right to education, the right to practice my religion--"
Abdullahi raised his palm to clarify. No one was stopping Lawal from practicing his religion, Abdullahi explained, but the younger man wouldn't listen. In his mind, Islam was still under attack, and there was no dissuading him.
In 2004, after this spate of massacres, Nigeria declared a state of emergency. But, as the Emir of Wase had said, the fighting really stopped because it was too expensive for either side to continue. Whole communities lay in ruin. Cows, cars, farms, shops--all gone. Since then, Abdullahi has attempted to bring several cases to the government's attention, but as with the church massacre, the government has done little to investigate or to bring those involved to justice.
He handed me a folder with depositions from one such case and wentoutside. About twenty minutes later, Abdullahi returned with two young women, Hamamatu Danladi and Yasira Ibrahim, who had survived the incident detailed in the files. Danladi, rawboned and wrapped tightly in brown batik patterned with cowry shells, met my eye as she stood in the doorway; Ibrahim, with long, upturned lashes and a moon face, did not. Except for the fact that they had pulled the fabric over their heads to cover themselves, there was nothing about them to suggest they were Muslims. More often than not, my attempts to classify people according to skin color or height failed entirely. Abdullahi invited the women in, lowered his head, and left.
During the Christian attack, the two young women and others took shelter in an elder's guarded home. On the second day, the Christian militia arrived at the house. They were covered in red and blue paint and were wearing those numbered white name tags. The Christians first killed the guards, then chose from among the women. These two and others were marched toward the Christian village. "They were killing children on the road," Danladi said. Outside the elementary school, her abductor grabbed hold of two Muslim boys she knew, nine and ten years old. Along with other men, he took a machete to them until they were in pieces, then stuffed the pieces in a rubber tire and set it on fire.
When Danladi and Ibrahim reached their captors' village, they were forced to go against their faith by drinking alcohol, eating pork and dog meat. Although she was visibly pregnant, Danladi said that her abductor raped her for four days. After a month, the police fetched her and Ibrahim from the Christian village and took them to the camp where most of the town's Muslim residents had fled. There, the two young women were reunited with their husbands. They never discussed what happened in the bush.
"The Christians don't want us here because they don't like our religion," Danladi said. "Do you really think they took you because of your religion?" I asked. The women looked at each other. "In Islamic history, there are times when believers and nonbelievers have fought," Danladi said. "What happened here is part of this clash." After the clash, she explained, their leaders foretold of a time of poverty and suffering. "That's what's happening now." Soon, the world's end would arrive, and every person on earth would adopt the one true faith. "According to our ulamas [teachers], there is no way that the whole world will not be Muslim."
Later, I looked up Matthew 24, the verses that Pastor Wuyep hadcited, in a soft-bound black leather copy of the King James Bible--a gift to me from the American evangelist Franklin Graham, after I traveled with him to Sudan in December 2003. Down the rice-paper page, where Jesus's words were printed in red to show that they were absolute and unerring, one verse caught my eye: "But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days!" (Matthew 24:19). I thought of Hamamatu Danladi. After her rape, she told me, she didn't give birth for four more months, which meant she had carried her child for more than a year.
A year later, in August 2007, I returned to Yelwa to be sure I'd understood her story. This time, I carried along a digital recorder. It must have switched on in my pocket, because later that night, as I went through the audio files after the interview, I heard the sound of my flip-flops approaching her house, then her at the door gleeful, shouting in an unknown tongue. I treasure this recording: she sounds so joyful, in spite of the horror I had asked her to recall.
When we sat down to talk, I asked her to tell me again how long she had carried the baby in her womb. She repeated the story: she had carried him for more than a year. And even though he had spent more than a year inside her, he was born healthy. Maybe, she thought, he simply refused to come into this world during such tribulation.
At the time of the Yelwa massacre of Muslims in May 2004, Archbishop Peter Akinola was president of the Christian Association of Nigeria. He has since lost his bid for another term, but as head of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, he is still the leader of eighteen million Anglicans. He was also a colleague of my father's, Frank Griswold, when, from 1997 to 2006, he was the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, which has about two million members and is part of a larger network of churches called the Anglican Communion. Three years before I met Akinola, the diocese of New Hampshire had consecrated an open homosexual, the Right Reverend Gene V. Robinson, as bishop, an act without precedent in the Anglican Communion. This raised a hue and cry among Americans and Africans alike. Robinson's election was so contentious that my father--whose job it was, as presiding bishop, to consecrate new bishops--had to wear a bulletproof vest under his cassock at the service. The election also antagonized Archbishop Akinola, who saw in it more evidence that the profligateWest was willing to abandon its biblical faith and leave African Christians, already in peril among Muslims, to defend themselves against the sins of the West. Denouncing Gene Robinson's election as "satanic,"3 Akinola suddenly stood at a distance from my father.
When I arrived in the capital of Abuja to see the archbishop, his office door was locked. Its complicated buzzing-in system was malfunctioning, and he was trapped inside. Finally, after several minutes, the buzzing stopped and I could hear a man behind the door rise and come across the floor. The archbishop, in a powder blue pantsuit and a darker blue crushed velvet hat, opened the door.
"My views on Islam are well known: I have nothing more to say," he said, eyeing me. I imagine what he saw was an American bishop's daughter. But he did have more to say. The fact is, I was asking about the threat Islam posed to Christianity, and this was the great question of his life. Once he began to answer, he grew expansive, even voluble, as he tried to pull the scales off the eyes of a Western reporter. Archbishop Akinola, who is sixty-six, is Yoruba, a member of an ethnic group from southwestern Nigeria, where Christians and Muslims coexist peacefully. But his understanding of Islam was forged by his experience in the north, where he watched the persecution of a Christian minority. He has repeatedly spoken critically about Islam and liberal Western Christians, and he was wary of my motives in asking him to comment. For Akinola, the relationship between liberal Protestants and Islam is straightforward: if Western Christians abandon conservative morals, then the global Church will be weakened in its struggle against Islam.
"When you have this attack on Christians in Yelwa, and there are no arrests, Christians become dhimmi, the status within Islam that allows Christians and Jews to be seen as second-class citizens. You are subject to the Muslims. You have no rights."
When I asked if the men wearing name tags that read, "Christian Association of Nigeria," had been sent to Yelwa before the massacre of Muslims, the archbishop grinned. "No comment," he said. "No Christian would pray for violence, but it would be utterly naïve to sweep this issue of Islam under the carpet." He went on: "I'm not out to combat anybody. I'm only doing what the Holy Spirit tells me to do. I'm living my faith, practicing and preaching that Jesus Christ is the one and only way to God, and they respect me for it. They know where we stand. I've said before: let no Muslim think they have the monopoly on violence."
Akinola was more interested in talking about the West than about Nigeria. "People are thinking that Islam is an issue in Africa and Asia, but you in the West are sitting on explosives," he said. "What Islam failed to accomplish by the sword in the eighth century, it's trying to do by immigration so that Muslims become citizens and demand their rights. A Muslim man has four wives; the wives have four or five children each. This is how they turned Christians into a minority in North Africa," he asserted.
The archbishop believed that he and his fellow Christians living at the periphery of Muslim North Africa knew the future that awaited the West. "The West has thrown God out, and Islam is filling that vacuum for you, and now your Christian heritage is being destroyed. You people are so afraid of being accused of being Islamophobic. Consequently everyone recedes and says nothing. Over the years, Christians have been so naïve--avoiding politics, economics, and the military because they're dirty business. The missionaries taught that. Dress in tatters. Wear your bedroom slippers. Be poor. But Christians are beginning to wake up to the fact that money isn't evil, the love of money is, and it isn't wrong to have some of it. Neither is politics."
MODERN SAINTS AND MARTYRS
Standing in his pajamas at the foot of the living room stairs, the seven-year-old boy struggled to remember his father's cell phone number. When he tipped his head up to me politely, I noticed that his mouth was scarred with white lines that looked like someone had sewn stitches through his lips. I was looking for his father, the Middle Belt's Anglican archbishop. Benjamin Kwashi came up repeatedly as both a victim of religious violence and, like his boss, Peter Akinola, as an outspoken critic of the liberal West. Apparently Kwashi had forgotten our appointment on this Saturday morning in July 2006. When I arrived at the locked gate, two ferocious dogs speckled with mange bared their yellow teeth and barked. I yelled for someone to call off the dogs, but there was no answer, so I darted past them, sprinted down the driveway, and pushed open the front door. It seemed at first that no one was home, until I heard a pair of small feet thump down the stairs.
The sound reminded me of my own feet on the back steps of a Philadelphia rectory twenty years earlier, in the days before people locked their doors in the suburbs. On Saturday mornings, with my parents out somewhere on church business, people would wander into the rectory looking for help. I was left, like this boy, to solve grown-up crises. I stood there, sorry I'd come, until the boy eventually remembered his father's number, his scarred mouth twisted into a lopsided smile.
"As a result of persecution, we have become more evangelistic," Archbishop Kwashi said. I found him at the church office, in shorts and a T-shirt, catching up on e-mail. "If you die in Christ, you go to heaven." On the bookshelf behind him: The Purpose-Driven Life and Body by God: The Owner's Manual for Maximized Living, a diet book created by missionary chiropractors planting churches around the world. Also Modern Saints and Martyrs, in which Baroness Caroline Cox, a seventy-three-year-oldconservative British parliamentarian, writes about Kwashi. (Cox started Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, or HART, which works on behalf of persecuted Christians worldwide. A baroness since the early eighties, when she was appointed to the House of Lords, Cox is a compelling and controversial figure who melds a hard-line Christian worldview with the language of human rights. She has spoken at Laura and George W. Bush's church in Midland, Texas, and has been criticized for perpetuating a misunderstanding of Sudan's war as a crusade against Christians. She has bought the freedom of an alleged 2,281 Sudanese slaves since the 1990s.)1 All of these books on the archbishop's shelf were practical manuals for living according to a twenty-first-century life: from weight loss to career advancement to the necessary role of martyr.
About five months earlier, on February 13, 2006, while Bishop Kwashi was away in London, a group of Muslim men broke into his house, knocked his nineteen-year-old son unconscious, and blinded his wife. "They also broke my seven-year-old's mouth," he said, explaining the scars I had seen on the boy. "That's what we face every day. I've been running from Muslim persecution since I was a teenager."
This was why the archbishop kept attack dogs at his house. His son's experience and mine were nothing alike at all. To Kwashi, the violence against his family was evidence that Christians needed defending. His house and church in the Muslim north were also torched during the eighties--a direct result, he believed, of Christianity's growth among Muslims. "In Nigeria both sides are growing, and that growth engenders competition," he said. On one hand, it was a religious and political zero-sum game: gains for one side implied losses for the other. But for many, devoting one's life to God had little to do with self-interest. For men like Kwashi, believing even required a willingness to die. Behind him, a text screensaver slid across his computer's idling monitor: "For whoever desires to save his life shall lose it ..." It was Matthew 16:25, a verse used as a call for contemporary martyrdom.
"For Christians, God has moved his work to Africa," he said.
Kwashi understood that Christians who had not felt Islam's pressure along this particular fault line might feel differently; he understood how his anger played into his conservative worldview, but that didn't change his opinion about what he saw as a global conflict playing out locally here in Nigeria.
"I have lost so many friends, and that makes me hang on to and sharpenmy faith and believe even more strongly in my Bible and that it is true because I am being persecuted for it," he said. Scripture provided Kwashi a defense against Islam, as it had since missionaries arrived among the non-Muslim hill tribes two hundred years earlier. The Bible, along with guides to health and hygiene, also served as a practical guide to a new way of life--a syllabus. One popular slogan was "Our Faith and Our Farm." "Any shift away from the Bible is to strip me naked of my way to develop," Kwashi said. "I don't have the luxury of relativism that the West does."
Here was the split between the Global South and the West. Beginning in the sixties, Western mainline Protestants moved away from a strict interpretation of scripture. And as many Christians in Asia and Africa told it, over the past several decades the Westerners had left the job of spreading the Gospel to them. This shift, according to the bishop, is where America, in particular, went wrong.
"All the battles of the West are fought in Africa, from communism on," Kwashi said. Now, in the aftermath of the cold war, the proxy war between Islam and the West is playing itself out again in Africa. "The Islamic world wants to counter the Christian West. They don't understand that Christianity isn't the West. The Church is just a scapegoat for the West, and nobody wants to come to its help." What he saw as a chasm between frontline states such as Nigeria and the West was widening. African Christianity and most liberal Western traditions were at a stalemate over not just sexuality; gay bishops simply topped the growing catalog of moral and scriptural divergences between more progressive Western Christians and believers along the tenth parallel. "We are facing the threats of both America and Islam," he said.
THE GOD OF PROSPERITY
Democracy, as Nigerians told me repeatedly, is one numbers game; religion is another. Growing a church or a mosque can be a competitive business. To be viable in the twenty-first century, each has to prove that it can offer members something in response to their devotion--a phenomenon that is neither new nor limited to Nigeria. Yet Nigeria's religious marketplace is unique in that it's openly aggressive.
Church is no staid ritual in Nigeria; it is a carnival. One Friday night, I went to the Redeemed Christian Church of Christ at an all-night church ground with three hundred thousand other people. The figure is larger than the number of Quakers in America--the equivalent of an entire American denomination worshipping at the edge of Lagos. With no traffic, the church ground is an hour's drive from Lagos. The choir was a phalanx of thousands of young people sitting under a tent, and I wandered among them, swallowed by the rush of their voices. Most attendees would spend the night dozing in their chairs or buying peanuts and soda and tapes and T-shirts and a host of other amusements. The service started at eight. Around midnight, I left to face hours of traffic and the sizable risk of a carjacking by the bandits who freely roamed the highways, picking off tired churchgoers.
These huge services began during the oil boom of the 1970s, which brought a mass migration of people into cities looking for work. The boom's collapse also spurred the growth of the Pentecostal "gospel of prosperity," with its emphasis on good health and getting rich--or surviving a downturn--and of the African Initiated Churches, or AICs, which began about one hundred years ago, when several charismatic African prophets successfully converted tens of millions of people to Christianity. Today, AIC members account for one quarter of Africa's almost five hundred million Christians.
One bustling Pentecostal hub, Canaanland, the 565-acre headquarters of the Living Faith Church, has three banks, a bakery, and its own university, Covenant, the sister school of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Canaanland is located about an hour and a half north of the city of Lagos, which, with an estimated population of twelve million, is projected to become the world's twelfth-largest city by 2020. With another three hundred thousand people worshipping at a single service at the Canaanland headquarters alone and three hundred branches across the country, Living Faith is one of Nigeria's megachurches, and the dapper bishop David Oyedepo is its prophet. The bishop, whose shaved pate glistens above deep-set eyes and dazzling teeth, never wanted to be a pastor: his interest was in escaping poverty, he told me. "When God made me a pastor, I wept. I hated poverty in the Church. How can the children of God live as rats?"
Bishop Oyedepo built Canaanland to preach the gospel of prosperity. As he said, "If God is truly a father, there is no father that wants his children to be beggars. He wants them to prosper." In the parking lot at Canaanland, beyond the massive complex of refreshingly clean toilets, flapping banners promise: "WHATSOEVER YOU ASK IN MY NAME, HE SHALL GIVE YOU" and "BY HIS STRIPES HE GIVES US BLESSINGS."
When it comes to gaining followers, Archbishop Akinola's Anglican Church is more threatened by the rise of Pentecostalism than by Islam. (This is one of the growing fissures between older and newer Christian groups that reveal deepening divides within Christianity.) Akinola finds its teachings suspect, since they are engendered by a focus on spirits and by the promise of worldly goods. Christianity means being willing to suffer and die for your beliefs, he argues. "When you preach prosperity and not suffering, any Christianity devoid of the cross is a pseudo-religion."
But Bishop Oyedepo's followers say that those who criticize don't understand what's happening in Africa. "There's a kind of revolution going on in Africa," said Prince Famous Izedonmi, a professor at Covenant University. I met him in the college cafeteria, where he overheard me asking my tour guide questions. The professor was a Muslim prince who converted to Christianity as a child to cure himself of migraine headaches. He was also the head of the university's Accounting and Taxation Department and director of its Center for Entrepreneurial Development Studies. "Americatolerates God. Africa celebrates God. We're called 'the continent of darkness, ' but that's when you appreciate the light. Jesus is the light."
When I asked how this came back to money, he clucked at me. "God isn't against wealth. Revelations talks about streets paved with gold. Look at how Jesus dressed." Since the soldiers cast lots for Christ's clothes, they were clearly expensive. In Canaanland, clothes matter: the pastors are flashily dressed and drive fast cars as a sign of God's favor. They draw their salaries from sizable weekly contributions. On Sundays at some Nigerian Pentecostal churches, armored bank trucks reportedly idle in church parking lots, and believers hand over cash, cell phones, and cars during the service--all in the belief that if they give to God, God will make them rich.
To see Pentecostalism as simply a get-rich-quick scheme is to miss its real relevance for Nigeria--and America. In many ways, Pentecostalism has updated Max Weber's Protestant work ethic for the twenty-first century. Pentecostals profess not to drink, gamble, or engage in extramarital sex, so all that formerly illicit energy and cash can go into either business or education. Covenant has been voted the best private university in Nigeria by Nigeria's National Universities Commission. Education is an essential element of the prosperity message; so is hard work. "Abraham was a workaholic," Professor Famous Izedonmi said. "He worked sixteen or seventeen hours a day."
During my first visit to Covenant in the summer of 2006, school was not in session, so I poked around the empty labs until I ran into a lone student, Mchenson Ugwu, twenty-two, studying mechanical engineering in hopes of getting a job in the oil industry. Ugwu was born again in 2004. "Once in a while I backslide and have to rededicate my life to Christ," he said. "That's how it works: backslide, rededicate." For him, salvation had very little to do with the next world; it was all about this one. "Because he owns everything here on Earth, if you make God your father, beginning and end, he'll keep you up. Our bishop is the perfect example. He tells us he hasn't been poor in twenty-five years, and God takes him from one level to the next."
Later, when the bishop was ready to meet me, I was led across his red shag carpet to a white fountain tinkling in the corner of his office. He wanted to define the Covenant curriculum, which was based on a term he'd coined: the Total Man concept. "The problem with the African man is that he sees himself as poor, and others see him as poor," the bishopsaid. He walked over to his desk and handed me a stack of his books--he's written sixty--including one of the bestsellers: Understanding Financial Prosperity. The cover features Nigerian banknotes, naira. The back cover reads, "I am not a preacher of prosperity, I am a Prophet. God spoke specifically to me while I was away in America for a meeting, 'Get down home and make My people rich!'"
When I returned to Canaanland in September 2007, the vice-provost arranged for me to meet the student council. Two dozen young men and women gathered behind U-shaped desks to answer questions about their faith and their school. They were so quiet and respectful it was more like facing a corporate board than a group of college kids. (In Pentecostal parlance, they called themselves kings and queens.) For a large number--and this was the student council--prosperity didn't mean just future success, it meant any future at all. Many had left other schools due to the scourge of gangs--called cults in Nigeria--which, as they told me in horrifying detail, frequently involved initiation rights of rape, theft, and murder. One student council member, who asked not to be named, claimed that he had broken into his math professor's home and watched in horror as a fellow cult member raped the professor's wife. Here, they were as safe from harm as they were from harming others.
The Christian gospel of prosperity is so powerful it has spawned a unique Nigerian phenomenon: an Islamic organization called Nasrul-Lahi-il-Fathi (NASFAT). The name comes from a verse in the eighth chapter of the Quran, "The Spoils of War," or al-Anfal, and it reads, "There is no help except from Allah." The kind of help NASFAT offers begins very much with this world. The organization is based on economic empowerment and prosperity, with an Islamic spin. Started with about a dozen members in the 1990s, NASFAT now has 1.2 million members in Nigeria and branches in twenty-five other countries. The organization has an entrepreneurship program, a clinic, a prison-outreach program, a task force to address HIV/AIDS, a travel agency, and a soft drink company called Nasmalt, whose profits go to the poor. It even offers a matchmaking service. NASFAT is not modeled after Islamic charities such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which provides Islamic-based social services to its clients and propagates a conservative form of Islam. It is the opposite: a way for Islam to engage with the West on its own terms. As splits within Christianity areshaping the future of the faith, so is splintering within Islam. Most conservatives loathe NASFAT and believe that this engagement with the secular world is haram, "forbidden," and distinctly un-Islamic. Yet faced with the encroachment of Christianity, NASFAT argues that the only way to survive in the religious marketplace is by playing the same game.
"We are competing for faithfuls," said NASFAT's executive secretary, Zikrullah Kunle Hassan, one blistering Sunday in September 2007. "Many people now want God. This is happening especially among the youth, that they feel they need to be committed to faith." Gesturing to the streets choked with more than a hundred thousand men and women in white as they came from a prayer service at the Lagos Secretariat Mosque, he explained that NASFAT meets on Sundays so that Muslims have something to do while Christians attend church. "The space on Sunday is usually not dominated by Islam, but other faiths and other values. But when our people come here, they come and drink from the fountain of Islam."
The prayer ground looked like a fairground--just like the Pentecostal churches did. Everyone among the throngs of thousands was clad in white, and except for the women's eyelet head scarves and the men's small white hats, there would have been no way to tell if this was a gathering of Christians or Muslims. Hawkers sold lemons from a wheelbarrow. Small booths offered those pretty, scalloped hijabs, embroidered with "NASFAT" in blue. Men sat on prayer mats eating rice, while women attended a lecture on ways to make money in keeping with Islam. NASFAT's primary mission is to reclaim those values the world sees as Western but that its members perceive as integral to the success of the global Islamic community, the Ummah. Foremost is education. "We know that the West is ahead today because of education," Hassan said. NASFAT has its own nursery, primary and secondary schools, and Fountain University. While many orthodox believers say that this new movement is bidah, "innovation," and therefore dangerously un-Islamic, NASFAT's adherents disagree, arguing that they are part of a charismatic Muslim movement that addresses social welfare--and is on its way to sweeping the world. This is a form of African Islam, again, born out of interface with the West, and also African Christianity. Unlike many conservative social welfare organizations, its aim is not to retreat into a seventh-century world, but to engage, engage, engage.
If the answer to every issue in life can be found in the Quran, Hassan said, then questions about how to survive and prosper must be addressedin the holy text. When conservative northern clerics kick up a fuss about NASFAT's growing presence in the communities, NASFAT reaches out to them with gestures such as involving community youth in business programs.
"To be honest, for us there's a competition of civilizations, there's a competition of values, and to me, the roots of the conflict are that we believe all civilizations have collapsed in the face of Western civilization," he said. "Communism collapsed. All other values collapsed. Islam remained resistant to Western civilization."
In order to survive, Islam has to address the contemporary needs of its people and compete with the Christian promise of prosperity. As one young member, who joined the organization to get a job through its business network, told me, "There's nothing you want to achieve that NASFAT can't help you get here in this country." He added, "Success, triumph, and glory are from the Creator."
"Prosperity gospel is more a symptom than the disease," said Father Matthew Hassan Kukah, the Roman Catholic author of Religion, Politics and Power in Northern Nigeria. In his view, Nigerians' resorting to religion to achieve prosperity is a natural response to their corrupt political landscape and the absence of any civil government. Again, when the nation fails, you turn to God. "You can buy a car and insure it," he continued. "You don't need a priest to pray over the car, to bless your house to keep robbers away ... Here, there's no guarantee. God is being called upon to police a lot of areas of our lives."
Many Muslims share this point of view. Take the ongoing effort to implement Islamic law in northern Nigeria. Ideally, Islamic law is based on the tenets that God revealed to Mohammed, and that were later committed to paper by Mohammed's followers. Yet, over the centuries, four different schools of Islamic jurisprudence have interpreted what the Islamic code actually says. In other words, there's no such thing as a single form of Sharia. In Nigeria, on a practical level, Sharia, with its promise of local justice, seems to offer an end to the corruption that bedevils the people. And given that many Nigerians associate that corruption with the failure of Western-style democracy in Africa, "to reinstate the Sharia ... is not only good religion, it is supremely sound politics," argues Murray Last, an emeritus professor at University College London. Not only hasWestern-style democracy failed Nigeria, some Islamic leaders believe, but it also is a weapon the rapacious West uses to keep down developing nations.
Some have broadened this argument to include their suspicions that Western vaccines are a form of cultural subjugation--and of population control. For eight months during 2003 and 2004, many Nigerian Muslims believed the West was using the polio vaccine as a weapon against their religion. The northern state of Kano, among others, refused to allow the World Health Organization to vaccinate their children because they believed the vaccine would sterilize them. In August 2006, I met Dhetti Mohammad, a local Kano doctor who had led the ban. Dhetti, whose own children had been vaccinated years earlier, argued that because population was a source of strength among the world's Muslims, the West wanted to curb Islam's growth. The UN was designed to safeguard the West's global hegemony, he asserted, and that meant eliminating Muslims. To a Westerner like me, this seemed hysterical, and yet his argument mobilized tens of millions of people not to vaccinate their children. The campaign resulted in a devastating impact on the United Nations campaign to eradicate polio--cases of polio were diagnosed in nine African countries that had earlier been declared polio-free.
"In a developing world, people want to make other people slaves, second-class citizens--call it slavery, call it neocolonialism," Khalid Amiyu, a magnetic imam in his thirties, told me in 2006. Amiyu led prayers at a local mosque in the Middle Belt capital of Jos, and I met him at his home. "I've been an imam for twenty years. You think I can be a slave, I can be emasculated? No, no, I cannot! We are so obsessed with the white man. We think whatever he does is the solution for us. Maybe this democracy isn't right for us."
Islam, he argued, defends the greater good by fighting back against the destructive and corrupting power of the West, which, once again, Amiyu asserts, is undermining the power of Islam through a new imperialism. Amiyu lives in a small cement house in Jos--its windows barred and the path outside laced with blue rivulets of fresh sewage--in an all-Muslim ghetto about one hundred yards up a steep hill so slick it has its own name: tudun fera, or "peeled hill," because the earth has been slickened by people struggling up it. At the top of the hill, a group of Mormon missionaries have built a church hewn in polished stone.
"With the money those Christians have spent here, they could havecured malaria," Amiyu said. "Religion is losing its grip in the West, so they come to Africa and sow bigotry here." He added, "Why, if they accept that their own people don't want to be Christians, do they come here to convert Africa?" He led me through the house to the tap in an open courtyard and turned on the water: a thin yellow trickle. "We haven't had water in a week, and when it comes, it gives rashes." Because the neighborhood was a Muslim island in a larger Christian community, the government didn't attend to the Muslims' needs, Amiyu said. They had only occasional electricity, no sewage system, no clean water. But this local injustice reflected the global order's larger inequality. "When there is perceived injustice, the conflict will continue, and so far, there has been no justice at all."
Northern Nigeria has one of Africa's oldest and most devout Islamic communities, which was galvanized, like many others, in the 1980s by the global Islamic reawakening that followed the Iranian Revolution. In the eyes of many Muslims around the world, the Shah of Iran's 1979 overthrow initiated a moment of global Islamic resurgence. The shah's defeat was the West's defeat. Many Nigerian Muslims traveled to the Middle East to learn about their heritage. These revivals, however, quickly led to a growing debate over what it means to be a legitimate believer. Among Nigerian Muslims, as in other places, the pressures of religious renewal are creating splinters within Islam.
Beginning in the 1980s, many young Nigerian Muslims went to the Arab world to study, and returned preaching the tenets of a more conservative Islam; other students went to Iran, where they began to follow Shiite Islam. The Shia, who make up just over one-tenth of the world's Muslims--163 million--believe only the Prophet Mohammed's blood descendants can be Islam's legitimate rulers. In Nigeria, however, being Shia means mostly whatever you want it to. A group of young intellectuals (only a few of whom have studied in Iran), the Nigerian Shia hang posters of faraway firebrands, such as Ayatollah Khomeini and now Iraq's Muqtada al-Sadr, on their mud walls. To most of them, being Shia means being, above all, a revolutionary committed to social justice. In another context, they might be coffeehouse Marxists; in this one, they are determined to cast off class hierarchies and improve the quality of life in their communities. At least, these are the dreams they discuss when they sit around and talk, which, as jobless Nigerian men, they do quite a lot, over bottomless cups of weak tea.
The fragmenting ideologies among Nigerian Muslims sometimes turnviolent. For decades now, different Islamic groups have competed for authority in the religious marketplace that dominates daily life. Predictably, the young, hard-line Sunnis and the self-described Shia often view one another as enemies. Both, however, also oppose the predominant Sufi traditions of most North Africans. Since Sufi practice is influenced from place to place by local traditions, this new generation of globalized Sunnis and Shias tend to view Sufi devotion as corrupted and "un-Islamic." Furthermore, Sufi brotherhoods are usually based on traditional class hierarchies, which the young Shia, who preach a radical social justice, vehemently oppose. From Sunni to Sufi to Shia, religious reawakening is further dividing Muslims in Nigeria.
Despite a huge outcry from local Christians and Western human rights groups, the implementation of Sharia, currently on the books in the northernmost third of Nigeria, has had very little practical impact. The criminal codes of the hudud, the harshest punishments allowed by Islamic law, have proven, for the most part, impossible to implement. This is perhaps the greatest lesson: that people will idealize religious law until they have experienced the limits of its application. Northern Nigerians have now seen that Sharia has not stanched the corruption they face every day. In fact, many of the politicians who backed Islamic law have been linked to massive corruption; these include its biggest advocate, the former governor of Zamfara state, who is rumored to have paid a man to let the state amputate his hand.
"RACES AND TRIBES"
"When the West sneezes, Africa catches a cold." I first heard this expression from a Nigerian pastor named James Movel Wuye, who works alongside his former mortal enemy, Imam Muhammed Nurayn Ashafa, to bring about a change of consciousness in the way Nigeria's Muslims and Christians view one another. During the eighties and nineties, the two leaders taught thousands of young people to kill, and now they "reprogram" them to tolerate each other's differences. Tolerance is a word of which both are wary, since to them, it smacks of a moral relativism to which they do not subscribe. To them, it suggests they should tolerate heresy and falsehood. Each strictly adheres to the tenets of his respective faith and unabashedly calls himself a fundamentalist. The imam's followers lopped off the pastor's arm with a machete more than a decade ago. Now they are partners in an effort to foster amity among the Nigerian youth they once taught to fight in the name of their respective religions. The reason, first and foremost, is to ensure their mutual survival, since fighting has cost each community so much.
The two men travel to religious conflict zones all over the world--they have visited the World Trade Center site together several times--but they still live in the Nigerian city of Kaduna, which means "crocodile" and is named for the river that runs through its center, dividing north and south. The tenth parallel also runs through the town, which is in many ways a microcosm of Nigeria: its population of one and a half million people is split in half between Muslims and Christians. The Muslim neighborhoods--nicknamed Baghdad and Afghanistan--are on the north side of town. The Christian ones--called Haifa, Jerusalem, and, inexplicably, Television--are on the south side. The inhabitants name the neighborhoods themselves. It is one more way to claim a place in a global religiousorder. Over the past twenty years, many of the city's churches and mosques have been burned down, and thousands of residents have been killed.
When I first arrived in downtown Kaduna in 2006, I climbed five flights of stairs in a nondescript office building--the elevator did not work, as there was no electricity that day--to track down their Christian-Muslim Interfaith Mediation Centre. Outside, a small plastic plaque read, "Peace Hall." Inside, Pastor James, a middle-aged man less than five and a half feet tall, had a terrible cold. Before he blew his nose, he wrapped toilet tissue around his bare right forearm, which did not move. It was made of hard plastic.
The pastor belongs to an ethnic minority called Gbagyi--some of Karl Kumm's "border pagans." Before they became Christians, they were aboriginal warriors who fought off Hausa Muslim slave raiders. The arrival of the British actually made things worse, as indirect rule strengthened Muslim dominion over the pastor's people--much as Karl Kumm and other missionaries had feared it would.
"They were merciless, the Muslims who were ruling over us," the pastor said. His people still call the Hausa Muslims ajei, which means "those who trouble us." Pastor James grew up in a military barracks--his father was a soldier--and when he and the other barracks boys played war, their imagined enemies were their Hausa oppressors. As a teenager, Pastor James smoked cigarettes and wooed a long list of girlfriends. He also joined the Christian Association of Nigeria and, at twenty-seven, became general secretary of its Youth Wing. In 1987, the Middle Belt exploded. When fighting between Christians and Muslims reached Kaduna, Pastor James became the leader of the Christian militia. "We took an oath of secrecy," he said. "We carried pictures of those who had been killed. We were martyrs: we felt that we were dying in defense of the Church." The war, like the faith itself, became a struggle for liberation.
"I used to say, 'We've been beaten on both cheeks, there's no other cheek to turn,'" he said, teaching others to justify bloodshed by relying on the literal, inspired word of scripture. Once it was the call to violence couched in self-defense. "I used Luke 22:36--as Jesus said to the disciples the night before his crucifixion, 'And if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.'" When the pastor was thirty-two, a fight broke out between Christians and Muslims over control of a market. "That day, we were outnumbered," he said. "Twenty of my friends were killed. Ipassed out, so I don't know exactly what happened." When he woke up, his right arm was gone, sliced off with a machete.
To understand Kaduna's faith-based battle lines, I had to see them, Pastor James said, so he summoned an employee. This was the first time I met Haruna Yakubu, the former Islamic militant who now works as the center's youth coordinator, and who would drive me around the Middle Belt in the minivan. That first afternoon, Yakubu drove me through the former colonial city, where neem trees line the old roads like ghosts of the bygone British. The colonial polo fields were worn bare but still in use. Mostly wealthy Muslim horsemen play there--others do aerobics in the bleachers. American-style fitness, its own imprint of empire, has also arrived.
Yakubu first took me to see the concrete skeleton of the fire-ravaged Alafia Oluwa Baptist Church. "The Baptists want to sell it," he said, as we climbed out of the car. The cross and spire had been sheared off, but the walls and heavy concrete Romanesque arches were still standing. They now enclosed a large grassy field; a cow was tethered to a nearby tree. I walked toward the narthex, but Yakubu stopped me. It stank of human shit. "The locals have turned it into a toilet," he said, uncomfortably. On the wall, through a hole blasted into the cement, I could see someone had painted a picture of a naked woman, a penis with "Pastor S" written on it pointed between her spread legs. "We're trying to convince the Baptists to come back, but they don't want to." In 2007, the Christians sold the church to the Muslims after all. When Yakubu and I passed by the next year, the word masalaci, which means "mosque," had been spray-painted across it in red.
We drove in silence through the neighborhood known as Afghanistan. Yakubu said, "Our religious leaders are some of our most dangerous people. They preach that they want us to go back to Medina, but we can't go back to Medina." Here was a contemporary struggle for Islam's soul: whether believers should cling most tightly to their history in Medina, the city from which believers battled for their right to self-determination, or whether God's message to Mohammed in Mecca--more inclusive and universal--reflected the future of the faith.
"Even the Prophet lived with Christians; why can't we? If we call ourselves true Muslims, why can't we do that?" Yakubu said. Along the road, red-eyed boys sold jerry cans of petrol. Although Nigeria is flooded withoil, corruption and mismanagement force the country to import much of its gasoline. During price hikes and shortages, these young hawkers appear by the roadside; their gas cans become weapons.
Pastor James's former enemy, Imam Muhammed Nurayn Ashafa, lives on the Muslim side of the river. One Friday morning before afternoon prayer, I went to visit him at home. By the time I arrived, he had already resolved three neighborhood disputes. Two smiling old men in dark glasses sat on his green sectional couch. They were blind, and Ashafa had started a foundation to help them. His two young wives, Fatima and Aisha--both named for the Prophet's wives--served tea on top of a tin canister. The windows were shut, and the green-and-white striped curtains drawn in purdah. On one closed door, a bumper sticker read, "Combat AIDS with Shari'a." The method was clear: abstinence. The imam and the pastor share the same conservative moral values, which has also helped them to find common ground. Ashafa, tall and narrow, his beard grizzled, grew up equally as steeped in the history of his people. He comes from a long line of Muslim scholars who were powerful under the caliphate of Uthman dan Fodio, and his story, too, is a tale of oppression and reaction to oppression.
"My family had, all its life, struggled against colonialists and missionaries because they watched the colonialists bring Christianity into the hinterlands. I grew up hearing stories of how our land was stolen and our people were crushed." When Ashafa was a boy, since missionaries ran the local school, his father refused to let him go. "Missionaries are evil," he told his son. But Ashafa's uncle talked his father into it, saying, "Let the boy go to school. Don't you trust your God?"
At mission school, Ashafa won the prize for best Bible student. (He had a gift for memorization.) After school, with his slingshot, he flung stones at women showing their bare arms or backs in the streets. When the religious crisis hit Kaduna in 1987, he became the equivalent of Pastor James on the Muslim side.
"We planted the seed of genocide, and we used the scripture to do that," Ashafa said. "In Islam, you must fight in defense of any women, children, or old people--Muslim or not--so, as a leader, you create a scenario where this is the only interpretation," he explained. His mentor, a Sufi hermit, tried to warn the young man away from violence, tellingAshafa, "You will not cross the ocean with hate in your heart." In 1992, Christian militiamen stabbed the hermit to death and threw his body down a well. Ashafa vowed to kill Pastor James, and revenge became his only mission, until one Friday, his local imam gave a sermon on the story of the Prophet Mohammed's journey to the Arabian town of Ta'if. When Ashafa heard that the Prophet said to the angel Gabriel, "My Lord, forgive my people; they do not know what they are doing," he wept. "The imam was talking directly to me," he said. He knew he had to forgive Pastor James. He went to visit the pastor's sick mother in the hospital, and although Pastor James remained leery, the two men began to work together, talking to the communities they'd formerly incited to violence, bringing the young people together to speak to one another, working out an early-warning system so that local religious leaders from different sides called one another when they heard rumors such as "they're killing our brothers across town."
One of Ashafa's greatest challenges is to manage Kaduna's Muslim groups when they clash over methods of devotion. Sufi mystics gather to pray and sometimes play music: half chant, half steel drum, amplified, in the streets. (They're hired to come sing outside a house when a baby is born, for instance.) Sunni hard-liners oppose the Sufi majority as un-Islamic, and claim that these rituals are influenced by African tribalism, not traditional faith. Everyone fears the self-proclaimed Shia, who, thanks in part to Hezbollah's popular satellite TV station, have sharpened their revolutionary sensibilities over the past few years. These religious rifts in Kaduna are local and global; many mirror the tensions of the larger Islamic world. The imam tries to stay neutral, but is frequently accused of being a sellout because he associates with Christians. He identifies himself very much as a fundamentalist and sees himself as one who emulates Mohammed. Although he and Pastor James don't discuss it, he also proselytizes among Christians. "I want James to die as a Muslim, and he wants me to die as a Christian. My Islam is proselytizing. It's about bringing the whole world to Islam."
Sometimes their human differences creep into their religious missions. "Ashafa carries the psychological mark. I carry the physical and psychological mark," Pastor James told me. "He talks so much. I'm a little miserly with words. So when he uses his energy like that, he sleeps very deeply.There were instances where we shared a room. He's a very heavy sleeper. You can actually take the pillow off his head and he will just go back to sleep. More than once, several times, I was tempted to use the pillow to suffocate him. But this restraining force of the deepness of my faith comes ringing through my ears."
James's transformation came in the mid-nineties, at a Christian conference in Nigeria sponsored by Pat Robertson, one of the most vocally anti-Muslim preachers in the world. A fellow pastor pulled James aside and said, in almost the same words as the Sufi hermit, "You can't preach Jesus with hate in your heart." James said, "That was my real turning point. I came back totally deprogrammed. I know Pat Robertson might have had another agenda, but I was truly changed." At one of Kaduna's local television stations, James hosts a TV show about Jesus Christ in Hausa, the language of local Muslims. The station broadcasts both Muslim and Christian programs. When I visited, the studio was little more than a plywood shed, with two oilcloth backdrops hanging on the wall. One was of Mecca lit up at night, and all white except for the black stone kaaba in the center. On the other, an airbrushed image of a luscious desert island shimmered. This was the Christian backdrop--a different version of earthly paradise. James took his seat in front of a palm tree and opened the Bible. It was after ten at night, and as he preached, his wife, Elizabeth, nodded off on the other side of the shed, in front of Mecca. I marveled at James's devotion and thought of the people--some of whom would be Muslims--watching him on their crackling, generator-powered television sets for miles around.
For James and Ashafa, their "deprogramming efforts" include reading scripture aloud with former fighters. At first, I did not believe that such a simple practice could actually work. As an outsider, I doubted that words on the page, no matter the color, could make a substantive difference as to how people viewed one another. But along the tenth parallel, the Bible and the Quran play an integral part in peoples' daily lives. Scripture often provides a more practical rule of law than the government does. It lays out a social and moral code for human interaction. It gives meaning to suffering and poverty. It offers a group identity through which followers can secure their worldly needs, and, finally, find some certainty about the hereafter, about Providence.
Yet time and again people's professions of their beliefs, like James and Ashafa's work with former militants, baffled me. They were ultimatelymysterious, and could not be explained away by self-interest, or anything else of this world. As Barbara Cooper, who began her career as a Marxist historian and is the author of Evangelical Christians in the Muslim Sahel, put it to me simply, "Faith is the X factor."
The imam and the pastor now travel the world telling their story. I caught up with them in New York before Thanksgiving 2006, and they wanted to return to Ground Zero, where they had been in 2003 after receiving another peace award. We took an elevator into the pit where the base of Tower Two had been.
"What a tremendous act of ego," the imam said, as he peered through wire mesh into the wreckage. "Ask him where the cross is," he instructed me, pointing to a policeman standing nearby. I had not been back to the site since reporting there in September 2001, and had no idea what he meant.
"What cross?" I asked.
"The cross, the iron cross," he said. "He'll know what I mean."
I spoke to the policeman, and we took the escalator back up to the street and walked north two blocks until we reached the two sections of broken girder welded into the form of a thirty-foot cross. "God bless our fallen brothers" had been scratched into the steel many times over. For a few moments, no one said anything.
"It symbolizes that God is with the American people," the imam said, "and that the American people have to return to God."
"Where did you hear that?" I asked. "Last time I was here a young guy told me that," he said, watching me reach for my notebook. "No, not a young guy, say, an elder." He looked up at the cross. "Just say 'an anonymous American citizen.'"
The imam loved his stories, and both men were aware--especially here in the rich belly of America--that their calling was also their business. This was not the case in Nigeria, where they worked tirelessly to quell fights between neighbors and families without any chance of gain. I had watched the pastor puzzle for hours over how to distribute an environmentally friendly stove that burned almost no wood. (Buying wood currently costs as much as one dollar a day in the deforested north, so the stoves, as well as being environmentally sound, would save people money, and potentially keep them from fighting over land.) Dealing with thestoves was just as important as dealing with scripture. The pastor and the imam also understood too well how a fight between the neighborhoods Baghdad and Jerusalem over electricity could quickly envelop the city, or the country. In Nigeria, they were saints; here ... well, here they seemed like businessmen. So what--weren't they, too, allowed to have more than one identity?
I hailed a yellow cab and we all piled in. As the taxi rattled over the cobbled streets of lower Manhattan, the pastor and the imam traded verses from the Bible and the Quran, competing good-naturedly for my attention. However, this was no parlor game: it was their most earnest attempt to understand each other, since scripture, more than any other element, determined who each man was. God created people poles apart, Ashafa mused, so that, through contrast, they could understand each other. At least that's what the Quran says; he quoted: "People, We created you all from a single man and woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should recognize one another" (The Private Rooms 49:13). "The Bible says almost the same thing," Pastor James interrupted, citing Acts 17:26: "From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth ..." This, Pastor James clarified, did not mean that all religions were the same, as liberal Westerners tried to assert. Mutual understanding could not mean denying exclusive salvation. "Jesus said, 'I am the way and the truth and the life,'" he repeated. For both these men, homosexuality was anathema. "We see same-sex marriages in the United States as signs of end times: it's Sodom and Gomorrah," James told me. "But I also want to say you can believe what you want to believe. We have to find a space for coexistence."