Michael Gerson writes about a dinner he had with the Sultan of Sokoto, His Eminence Alhaji Muhammad Sa’adu Abubakar III, and Dr. John Onaiyekan, the Catholic archbishop of Abuja, during which they discussed the nature of religious conflict in Nigeria, and the future of interfaith dialogue:
The two leaders are often forced to act as theological firemen, putting out the sparks of local conflict in Nigeria before they blaze. “When people start fighting,” explains the archbishop, “it is rarely for religious reasons.” The immediate causes have ranged from local politics to an altercation over a parking space. Police overreaction often makes things worse. But disorder can quickly take on religious overtones, requiring the leaders to intervene with traditional rulers and local religious leaders to keep the peace.
Both the sultan and the archbishop blame broad social challenges for Nigeria’s tinderbox atmosphere—frustration with government, poverty in the midst of plenty, even the unreliable electrical grid. But they also see what the sultan calls a “religious intensification”—Pentecostals, gathered in camp meetings of hundreds of thousands, predicting the end times; Wahhabi Muslim influence from the Middle East; the advent of the Nigerian Taliban, imported, the leaders argue, from places such as Chad and Niger.
What is the long-term response to these religious tensions? Both leaders are dismissive of yet more interfaith “dialogue” (though they practice it well). “Discussion clarifies our differences, and we already know what those are,” says the archbishop. Instead they are proposing the ecumenism of action—building confidence and trust between their communities by cooperating against a common enemy.
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