Nigeria, Sudan, and the Challenges of Violent Religious Intolerance

As the recent abductions by Nigeria's Boko Haram and the surge of violence in Iraq have reminded us, non-state groups can threaten religious freedom and other basic human rights at least as much as governments. In this week's conversation, we ask scholars to examine the significant trends in non-state threats to religious freedom and explore the most effective ways that governments and societies can respond.

By: Eric Patterson

The recent attacks and abductions by Nigeria’s Boko Haram, self-justified by claims of religious legitimacy, remind us of the strange intersection of faith, security, and religious freedom. In the Boko Haram instance, the group’s very name means a rejection of Western education, and thus Boko Haram purposefully identifies itself as against all of the Western philosophical impulses of the last two hundred years—including religious freedom and other fundamental human rights.

As a non-state actor, Boko Haram brings to our attention two international trends that threaten religious freedom. The first is violent intolerance against members of one’s own faith tradition. The second trend, recently making headlines from Sudan, is the intersection of religious intolerance and social marginalization. Both trends are deadly.

Outsiders seem to think that Boko Haram only attacks Christians. This is simply not true. Despite two decades of sectarian violence in Nigeria between Muslims and Christians (usually between ethnic groups over water, land, or patronage rather than actual religious issues), Boko Haram has recently taken violence to a new, grotesque levels, often targeting fellow Sunni Muslims. This is a “shock and awe” approach to sideline critics and traditional centers of authority, whether it be local imams or Nigeria’s influential Muslim Sultan of Sokoto . We have seen this violent intolerance against one’s own religious community elsewhere, most notably in the Middle East and Central Asia. This trend is alarming because if rival groups try to out-extreme and out-violence one another (political scientists call it “out-bidding”) to prove their fidelity to the “pure faith,” it can only result in a disastrous downward spiraling bloodbath as illustrated in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.

The second worrying trend is the intersection of religious intolerance with social marginalization. In other words, it is dangerous to be a woman or minority and be a member of a religious out-group. Sudan provides a recent case in point.

Mariam Yehya Ibrahim has made international headlines as a Christian in Sudan, charged with apostasy for not adhering to the faith of her biological father (a Muslim). She has been sentenced with the death penalty, despite international outcry and the pleading of her husband. What is happening here is layered: as a woman, Ibrahim is already a second-class citizen in sharia-ruled Sudan. Her faith makes her vulnerable within society and from the government. Women’s advocates can point to similar cases around the world, the most famous being that of Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi , denounced by her neighbors after a minor village tiff. In short, when one is a woman or an ethnic minority, belonging to or converting to another faith makes one infinitely more vulnerable—a sort of geometric progression of alienness within the society and thus in danger of intense societal and governmental pressure.

How to respond? Of course, the majority of such violence occurs in areas of the greater Muslim world, but such intolerance is possible elsewhere, most notably parts of India and the Far East. Some would have us throw up our hands in the air and say it is impossible to make a difference on behalf of these individuals. Nevertheless, there are a few things that can be done. People of faith can pray. Civil society and governments can call on these societies to live up to the promises they have made under international covenants such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which is a binding version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). When appropriate, sanctions should be imposed of various kinds until all citizens in those countries are secure under the basic rule of law.

Most importantly, weak governments who nonetheless have some goodwill (like Abuja) can be supported from the outside when appropriate, such as through training of domestic law enforcement. Finally, governments facing violent extremists, like Boko Haram or Al-Qaeda affiliates, should amplify authentic, influential local religious actors to counter the narrative of religiously-inspired violence.

Eric Patterson is a research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. He also serves as dean of the School of Government at Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA.

This piece was originally authored on June 23, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.   

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/6/28/nigeria-sudan-and-the-challenges-of-violent-religious-intolerance