April 15, 2010
Islam, Christianity and Africa: A beacon of faiths
In almost any discussion of religion and Africa, stereotypes recur. Depending on where they have been, outsiders portray the continent either as an arena of looming conflict between rival faiths--or else as a happy-go-lucky world where different beliefs can easily co-exist, sometimes in the same person's head.
Neither notion is completely true nor completely false, according to a survey of religion in sub-Saharan Africa by the Pew Research Centre, a polling outfit based in Washington, DC. After interviewing 25,000 people in 19 countries, the pollsters found that in certain ways Africa's Christians and Muslims view one another with respect. Most Muslims saw Christians as tolerant, honest, and decent to women; in most countries, a majority of Christians returned the compliment. But many Christians (among the countries surveyed, the median level was 43%) saw in Islam a potential for violence; fewer Muslims (the median was 20%) saw Christianity in a similar light. In almost all countries where Muslims are at least 10% of the population they seem more concerned about extremism among their co-religionists than among Christians. In a few mainly Christian countries, including South Africa, people were worried by Christian extremism.
One bit of conventional wisdom does hold water. Whatever their affiliation, Africans have a deep sense of the spiritual. The share of people who described religion as "very important" in their lives ranged from 98% in Senegal to 69% in Botswana. That compares with 57% of Americans, 25% of Germans and 8% of Swedes. In countries with a substantial Christian presence, at least half the Christians thought Jesus Christ would return in their lifetime. The share of Muslims hoping to see the caliphate--a global Islamic realm--restored in their lifetime was almost as high.
But for all the fervour that these answers suggest, belief in a world religion does not exclude nostalgia for older ways. Many people in both main monotheistic camps felt they could combine their faith with elements of traditional African religions. In Mali, Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania more than half the respondents believed that sacrifices to ancestors or spirits could ward off harm. Meanwhile, switching between Islam and Christianity seems rare--bar in Uganda, where a third of respondents who were raised Muslim are now Christian.