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Reading Nigeria's Christian-Muslim violence

Uwem Akpan, Say You're One of ThemRecently over 500 Catholics died at the hands of a Muslim mob in Northern Nigeria. It would be easy to understand the killings simply as an expression of a wider Muslim intolerance of Christians. But comment by local Catholic bishops suggested a broader context.

The Bishop of Jos, where the massacre took place, situated it in a struggle between Muslims and Christians over which religion was more powerful. The Archbishop of Abuja spoke of wider social, economic and tribal roots. In communal fighting in January, too, many people had been killed, the majority Muslim. The present violence may have been planned as a revenge attack, both tribal and religious in character.

Such complex tensions and conflicts are often better understood through literary representation than through analysis. One of the stories in Uwem Akpan's Say You're One of Them (Abacus, 2008) represents the subtle interplay of religious faith, tribal loyalties, traditional religion and group identity in Nigerian society. Akpan is a Jesuit priest, and his confronting stories describe dire situations through the eyes of children.

'Luxurious Hearses' describes a bus trip on which people are fleeing from a massacre of Christians by Muslims in the north of Nigeria. The central character is Jubal, a 16-year-old boy baptised Catholic in the South, but raised a devout Muslim in the North. He had bravely, almost proudly, endured the amputation of his hand for stealing a goat, and had stood by silently as his brother Yusuf, an outspoken Pentecostal Christian, was stoned to death.

During the riot Jubal was falsely denounced as a traitor to Islam by friends who owed him money. He was beaten, but rescued and protected by a Muslim teacher and by Pentecostal Christians whom the teacher was also harbouring. The latter bought a bus ticket for him, advising him to conceal his amputated hand and his religion.

The bus trip was confusing for Jubal. It is interminable for the reader, because it represents a series of desultory conversations, often prompted by scenes of violence shown on the television set. Each exchange is a potential threat to Jubal's life. Different passengers appeal to traditional charms, rosaries, holy water, speaking in tongues, and to democratic process.

Each speaker momentarily wins favour, only to be supplanted by another. The power of Islam is recognised by the pact made not even to mention it.

Each of these interventions calls into question Jubal's certainties as he warms to claims on behalf of religious and political settlements by a traditional tribal chief, a charismatic Christian, a devout Catholic woman and a soldier who had fought and been crazed by service in Liberia. But their behaviour inevitably betrays their rhetoric.

Finally, moved by the destruction of mosques in reprisal attacks in the south of the country, Jubal forgets himself and points to the screen with his damaged arm. He then becomes the centre of attention and unites all the passengers in murderous hatred except the crazed soldier. Both Jubal and the soldier are beaten and killed.

In this climactic scene Akpan's level prose becomes lyrical as he describes Jubal's passage from confusion to certainty about his identity:

'They told him to lift up his cut wrist so that Muhammad would come to his help. He did not argue. He obliged them, raising he stump as straight and as high as he could.'

Knowing full well that these people were not going to spare him, he returned to his God of Islam, the one he truly knew, although this journey had permanently altered his fanatic worldview. He flushed the desire to be a Christian from his soul.

With all he had seen and experienced, he could not forget the sources of Allah's help during his flight. He raised his stump for Mallam Abdullahi and his family, for showing him another way. He raised it to celebrate the Christians who had held a Muslim's prayer mats for him. He raised it for those northerners who had lived their whole lives in the south, who were struggling, like him, with the unsettling prospects of going home for the first time.

He raised his arm for Yusuf, who refused, when the crucial moment came, to abandon his faith; he felt one with him though they belonged to different faiths and worlds now. He saw the stump as the testimony of his desire to follow Allah wherever he led him, of his yearning for oneness with him.

In his extremity Jubal is drawn beyond the level of group identity, where religious and political ideas were located on the bus, to a deeper personal level of a compassionate faith. It suggests that to see the recent killings in Nigeria as simply the expression of the character of Islam or of Christianity would be as dangerously superficial as were the conversations on the bus.

Jubal's story points both to the causes of communal violence and to the level at which it might be resolved. For Christians there is no adequate response other than the heroic call to love one's enemies. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. 

Topic tags: andrew hamilton, massacre, nigeria, christians, muslims



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Existing comments

This conflict in some way mirrors the conflicts that had occurred in Indonesia several years ago, where one Moslem man described that for 400 hundred years Moslems and Christians got on extremely well in a cohesive community, until the sudden eruption of violent conflict.

Then (they only learnt later), there was a third party, intent on stealing the land inhabited by Moslems and Christians, who saw that by pitting the two friendly groups against each other, they could make it appear to be a “religious” or "civil" war, conveniently eliminating a very large part of the local population who were in the way - resulting in a situation which they (the third party), could exploit and then simply “walk in” and take over the coveted lands and to increased personal power.
We learn now that this is (yet again) what is happening in Nigeria.

We should all be extremely worried that modern commentators constantly fail to recognise this usual pattern of conflicts. This failure to do so (especially if we place too much faith in misleading comments by the likes of C.Hitchens, M.Onfray, J.Dawkins, etc, who are so very loose with the truth) will eventually condemn us, too, into repeating the mistakes of history.

We must recognise that it is NOT religion/faith that causes conflict (as almost all main religions teach harmony and peace); but it is the ruthless intent of evil men ruled by greed, arrogance, ego, lust for power who will exploit any situation for their own selfish ends - even if the result is conflict and war.

Annette | 18 March 2010  

Dr Ali Sina was raised a Muslim in Iran. He is now an apostate from Islam. He wrote this in his recent book Understanding Mohammed.

"At first I thought evil is the product of greed. When I read the Quran I came to know it is also the product of evil beliefs. Good people do evil cheerfully and with a clear conscience, when they are under the influence of an evil doctrine. Islam is an evil belief. The evil does not stem from the misinterpretation of Islam’s “holy” scriptures, but from their true understanding and their practice. Muslims do evil to the degree that they follow Islam and emulate their prophet. Once I learned this truth, and I learned it from the very Islamic sources, I thought this is my chance to fulfill my prayer and become an instrument of peace and stand up against Islam and demolish the biggest source of hatred and violence on Earth."

Whatever other factors may be at work in the recent massacres in Nigeria, religion is certainly one of them. Fr Hamilton can quote Christ in a call to break the cycle of violence. It is more problematic for those who follow the example of Mohammed to do likewise.

Patrick James | 18 March 2010  

To Patrick James. This is indeed strange - that Dr Ali Sina was told of this violent interpretation of Islam. My two Moslem friends have been taught by their grandparents to be good to everyone; to be hospitable to the point “you shall not even break a twig of any tree in any country you are in - especially if in a foreign country” - and that this is still the correct interpretation many generations later. "Jihad" was actually always meant to be about self-improvement and not about violence and murder.

I have known and trust my two friends enough to believe them.

Remember, even the Bible keeps being mis-interpreted by people who seem to have a vested interest in spreading dis-information (by carefully ignoring the parts/lessons to the effect of: “you shall NOT behave like mindless idiots any more; THIS is the way that God really wants you to live and the way to peace in the world”).

It seems that the interpretation (of violence) has been fairly recently “manufactured” by evil-doers intent on evil deeds - perhaps to (again and again) wrongly use religion as a pretext. And this is what reporters must be very careful to observe thoroughly lest they mis-report events.

A.O. | 18 March 2010  

A.O. I can fully understand your point of view for it is one that I used to have myself. My views about Islam were challenged and ultimately changed by Ibn Warraq's book "Why I am not a Muslim". Other ex-Muslims that I have also read and found to be extremely informative, apart from Ali Sina, are Walid Shoebat, Hirsi Ali and Wafa Sultan. They all talk of how they know many good Muslim people, people who would not wish ill on any others. It turns out that many of these Muslims are profoundly ignorant of their faith. They read the Koran but they do not understand what it actually means. Many Muslims leave when they discover what the Koran and the ahadith (the saying and deeds of Mohammed) teach.

Contrary to what you say of Dr Sina, he was not told of a violent interpretation of Islam. He went to the very sources of Islam themselves. If you doubt that his interpretation of Islam is accurate, then go to Middle Eastern Media Research Institute on the net. There you will find many clips, with subtitles, of state sponsored imams in "moderate" Middle Eastern countries. They spew forth hatred against Jews and the West. They talk about the mission of jihad being to spread Islam right through the world by force. They talk of stoning adulterers and homosexuals, and beating women. And all the while they will quote from the Koran and the ahadith to show that what they are teaching was what Mohammed himself taught and did.

Patrick James | 18 March 2010  

As an opener, let me agree with the essential point Andrew is making - Such complex tensions and conflicts are often better understood through literary representation than through analysis.

Whether you look at Nigeria, Northern Ireland or the Molluccas region of Indonesia, inter-religious communal strife, often to the extent of war, is rarely about religious teaching or practice. Political, land and property disputes are often bounded by religious lines of demarcation, and religion as a belief system and as a way of life is an immediate victim.

I would caution Patrick James against too readily believing the vitriol of one who converts out of his/her religion. The pendulum phenomenon through which converts are usually more ardent in their new faith than those born into that faith group works both ways. Those who convert out of a religion are equally extreme in their vilification of the faith they left behind.

And in the three Abrahamic faiths, we all must be careful against too literal a reading of our respective Sacred Scripture and too literal application of the Traditions (Hadith for Islam and Talmud for Judaism).

With literal reading and literal application, one can find great evil in all three Abrahamic faiths.

Ian Fraser | 18 March 2010  

Thank goodness for Ian Fraser's comments! A voice of reason.

The 'Islam bashing' of Patrick James is really way over the top. I challenge you, Mr Patrick James, to declare your agenda here. I have read any number of postings from yourself that support the behaviours of the Israelis in Occupied Palsetine. You have presented as a true Zionist apologist. How can you say as you do in such blanket terms about a religion followed by hundreds of millions of individual human beings? In my personal experience of Muslims down the many decades I have found Islam to be truly a religion of peace!

DAVID A HICKS | 18 March 2010  

Great book review - draws out the common threads of such conflict, which include such corresponding and complementary passions, beliefs and raw need. Art & Literature must balance and help shape rational and irrational analysis. Sounds like they do in Akpan's book.

Barry B | 19 March 2010  

David A Hicks, I'll state my agenda just as Dr Sina did. It's to be an instrument of peace. But peace is never brought about but ignoring unpleasant facts about a religion, regardless of how many people follow it.

Rather than accuse me of "Islam bashing" why don't you do some research? Go to the sources of Islam. Then read the works of ex-Muslims. If you think you know better than them, then there is no point in me exchanging any more words or views with you.

You accuse me of being a true Zionist apologist based on my postings here. Generally I am sympathetic to Israel. That does not mean that I claim to know all the ins and outs of the Palestinian question. Nor would I ever say that Israel is blameless in all its dealings. Which nation is?

However, the brutality of Hamas and Fatah is something which is beyond question. The testimony of Mosab Hassan Yousef, a convert from Islam to Christianity is again a great eye-opener to what these people are capable of.

As long as the Palestinians are led by those who openly advocate the destruction of Israel and terrorise their own people, there is no chance of peace.

Patrick James | 19 March 2010  

Would you be able to expand on what you mean by, "Such complex tensions and conflicts are often better understood through literary representation than through analysis."

I know that a literary presentation can be a powerful means of representing a situation, but why would it be superior to a straight analysis of the current situation in Nigeria?

Timothy Scully | 19 March 2010  

The topic of jihad has been raised here and whether Islam is a religion of peace. I offer the following contribution. It is taken from an online Arabic magazine. It was written by a Muslim.

Moheet - Iman al-Khashab, 13 Mar 2010

"The Muslims were initially commanded to fight only those who fought against them. However, later they were commanded to fight not only those who fought against them but also those who did not, in order to establish the word of Allah. This was a requirement so long as the Muslims had sufficient power, were prepared, and had a state ruled by the Prophet of Allah (PBUH). The purpose of jihad is not simply to gain authority, or expand the kingdom, or get money, or kill people. The purpose of jihad is to establish the word of Allah. For if the infidels accept the call of Islam and return to their Creator, they will not be attacked. But if they rebel they must be fought so that their wickedness and infidelity may cease, and they may receive their punishment, although their punishment with Allah will be so much more severe and horrible in the fire of hell, for they are infidels and polytheists, who despise the worship of Almighty Allah."

Is this man an Islam-basher? Or may it just be...?

Joseph Lanigan | 19 March 2010  

Timothy, both analysis and literary representation of fraught situations are important, but what is at issue is understanding. Analysis pulls out aspects of situations, abstracts them, studies particular relations between them. It can never do justice to the subtlety, complexity, shifts and multiplicity of relationships in any situation. Good literary representation can evoke these complexities and allow the reader to weigh as well as name them.

Good analysis helps us to see the parts and partial relationships. Good literary representation enables us to intuit a whole. The more we attend to both, of course, the better.

There are, of course, particular risks in analysis of conflict. It is easy for analysts to take sides, and to privilege evidence that favours their own side. That results in a partial and a partisan view which is the enemy of understanding.

Andy Hamilton | 19 March 2010  

Incidents like these are not isolated cases. It is no longer a surprise to me after I have read the book "UNDERSTANDING MUHAMMAD: A Psychobiography of Allah's Prophet" by Dr. Ali Sina.


You can discuss about these violences until the end of humanity but you'll never know why until you read this book. I was shocked but at the same time was glad the truth finally has the chance to surface (after 1400 years), thanks to the internet. Because without the internet, no sane person would dare write it, let alone publish it. Bookstores would never dare stock it. But the internet has empowered humanity to give us this long awaited truth. I think all good Muslims and the whole world want to know abot it. Governments around the world must read it, for the sake of humanity.

Tony | 18 March 2011  

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