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Advance of Islam in Africa

Tuesday, September 4, 2001 | Tag Cloud Tags:

by Geoff Stamp
April 20, 2001

Islam is exploding across sub-Saharan Africa at a rate even statisticians are having difficulty quantifying, and its growth, fueled by seemingly limitless funding from petroleum sales, is impacting the economy of the region, the political outlook, and other faiths.

Where a growing Islam can cohabit with other religions and tolerate non-Muslims in its midst, there would appear to be little, if any, problem for the Christian church.

Where it encounters an equally evangelistic attitude from indigenous churches or mission workers, Islam can be intolerant, aggressive and ultimately violent.

A practical example is when a son or daughter in a Muslim household converts to Christianity. Instead of practicing an often-stated respect for Christians -- that Christ was a prophet and He and His teachings are respected in the Qur'an, Islam's holy book -- the head of the household sometimes pursues his offspring to the point of death.

The least the converted son can expect is to be publicly repudiated and to lose contact with family, support from relatives, and any identity that links him to the family. Almost without exception, male converts to Christianity from an Islamic background have testified to this public rejection, which is often accompanied with beatings.


Islam, however, is more than a religion: It is a legal, political and social system. The Muslim laws enshrined in their legal system, or sharia, leave little room for interpretation as to the place of the non-Muslim in society and in law. There is no voice for a non-Muslim in a sharia court. A non-Muslim should not own land or occupy a position higher than any Muslim. These "rules" and others like them reduce Christians and other religious adherents to second-class citizenship.

If successful, the Islam sweeping across sub-Saharan Africa will create a block of countries united in faith, law and leadership on a scale not seen since the Soviet Union and communism. It would also give the Gulf States -- which are providing most of the funding -- a considerable advantage when dealing with the West and the rest of the world.

That's arguably a big "if," but not one to be casually dismissed.

How ironic it is that Islam's dramatic growth in sub-Saharan Africa is largely funded by the West's consumption of petroleum and petrol-related products. Until the West can free itself from this dependency, it would seem powerless to respond, at least in the human and religious rights arena.


Anyone doubting the rising power of Islam in this part of Africa should research the numerous projects, including clinics, schools, village wells and farming assistance, that have been funded across the northern countries of sub-Saharan Africa over the past 10 years. It is not possible to travel west from Khartoum, Sudan, to Nouakchott, Mauritania, without encountering evidence of a vigorously resurgent Islam.

In Chad, driving along the road from N'djamena to Moundou, one visitor lost count of the new mosques that have sprung up in village after village, some with fewer than 50 houses. The mosques were well built, not far from the road and brightly painted. They were meant to be a visible sign that the village has accepted Islam. Sometimes there was a sign written in Arabic and erected in front of the village that said, "This is an Islamic village."

One village had a well-established church. Had the Christians gone over to Islam? Yes, some of them, a Christian said, but maybe they would come back.

"You see, the people are so poor that the opportunity of some free grain or the gift of a yoke of oxen is just too much to refuse," one of the church elders explained, apologetically.

Indeed, the poverty is obvious and always on the increase. Islam offers a ray of hope in a world where quality of life is rarely considered. Men are given the opportunity of starting businesses in Mali or Niger with a loan from a Muslim bank. When they cannot repay the loan, they are simply asked, if they are a Christian, to become a good Muslim and reject their former faith.

Muslim businesses and businessmen are prospering. They encourage the more fortunate person to help those who are struggling. If it is done in the name of Islam, then it will bring the doer favor.

Young people of various religions are being tempted with offers of education abroad. Many are being sent to Muslim universities in the Gulf. Arabic is being promoted as the language every Muslim should speak and read. In Chad this year, the University of N'djamena is offering 50 first-year teaching positions to anyone who can speak Arabic and French. The teaching profession is incredulous: This is 10 times the number of places they normally reserve for scientists or mathematicians or other specialized subjects.

The Chadian government is keen to see Arabic used more and more, and Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Ghadaffi supports this policy. Ghadaffi has gone on record to say that Chadians are originally descended from the Arabs, and the authorities are trying their best to make Arabic mandatory as the education medium. But they will have to wait until there are sufficient teachers able to teach their subjects in Arabic and sufficient students fluent enough in Arabic to learn.


In Mali, there was a significant meeting of Muslim leaders, politicians and religious figures earlier this year in the capital, Bamako. The meeting, which repeatedly asserted the need for an Islamic state, ended with a call to arms and a jihad to rid the country of the "infidels."

"They will stop at nothing until Mali -- still a secular nation -- is declared Islamic and sharia law has been implemented," commented a church leader. "Now, if you want to rise in government, you have to set aside your Christian faith or become a Muslim. There is no promotion for practicing Christians, and those still left in power are being replaced with Muslims."

In addition to the many mosques that are being built throughout Mali -- often near Christian churches or in animist-dominated areas -- dojos, or martial arts centers, have been set up in the mosques.

"Why is this going on if there is not some purpose behind it in the future? Are they expecting a lot of fighting?" the church leader asked. "We know, from Muslims who have become converted, that some Muslims are gearing up for all-out war against the churches."

In neighboring Niger last November, Muslims reacted violently to the international fashion show held in the capital, Niamey. They targeted places or businesses known to have Western support and attacked a mission station. Some recipients of Muslim anger were local churches, several of which were burned. Few could find more than a tenuous link between the churches and the corruption of the West that had fired up Islamic disapproval.

"All they need is the slightest excuse to attack the churches, kill, burn and destroy," said one church leader. "I am sure that we can expect a similar sort of persecution as what is happening in Nigeria. There the authorities are even joining with the rioters in destroying the property of Christians and chasing them away."

The local population does not view these as isolated incidents. Like a lid being pushed up on a pot of boiling liquid, Christians maintain that these are signs of seething hatred and anger simmering underneath, a resentment of the moral degradation of the Western world and a sense of separateness that marks the Islamic world. There is danger that the Muslim extremists who see themselves on a mission of purification could spark violence at a moment's notice.

"The world had best look at what is happening in Nigeria. The churches had better take warning. Hundreds of churches have been burnt, hundreds of Christians have been killed, and the government has done nothing. It will be the same here," said one Malian church leader.


Where evangelistic Islam encounters evangelistic Christianity, there is bound to be confrontation, disagreement, hurt and violence. Even more sinister are the claims of some that special jihad troops are in training; that special agents are being sent to spy on pastors who have been singled out, to gather evidence against the churches, to provoke trouble wherever possible and to find an excuse to raise a mob against the Christian community.

The provocateurs are often foreigners who have moved into the area. They maintain close connections with the local Islamic leaders and the imam (Muslim religious leader). They also have a far greater knowledge of the Qur'an and have been educated abroad, some in Saudi Arabia, some in special colleges in Senegal.

The provocateurs are known as "integrists" in French, fundamentalists or fanatics in English. They have been quietly infiltrating suburbs and regions targeted for Islamic conquest, and they seem to be bent on the destruction of active churches and their members.

There is fear among church leaders, not so much because of the threat of aggressive Islam, but because they are so limited in what they can do.

"We know that evangelizing, sharing the biblical message of salvation with Muslims, is the best thing we can do, and the most effective weapon we have against militant Islam," said one church leader. "Our resources, however, are severely restricted. This is how the Western churches can help us: By linking with us and offering prayer and financial support for our work, they will help us to reach our Muslim brothers and sisters."

He added, "We have difficulties raising the bus fare to evacuate a threatened convert to somewhere safe. We find it hard to buy medicines to cure our own people. We even have trouble burying our dead. Is it any wonder that some Muslims cannot take us seriously?"

Another church leader pointed out, "It takes them one week to build a new mosque for a village of a few families, whereas we have been trying for 15 years to finish constructing our church for hundreds of members."

Some churches are regularly holding evangelistic campaigns, organizing special prayer and Scripture study sessions, and some are even teaching their members about the Qur'an. But they are the exceptions: Across the whole sub-Saharan region of Africa, for every church that is involved in outreach activity, there seem to be two or three that prefer to restrict their worship to the confines of the church compound.

"Some churches seem to be afraid of the consequences of speaking openly and evangelizing," the church leader explained. "But we should show no fear. After all, if we believe that our God can and will protect us and we are fulfilling the Great Commission of Jesus, who can oppose God's work?

"The churches have a problem of solidarity. There are many divisions, jealousies, petty grievances going back sometimes for decades. Why can we not be a force to be reckoned with, crossing national boundaries, linking with each Christian community in every country?" he asked. "The Muslims seems to benefit from such a worldwide solidarity while we throw away our witness on quarrels and disagreements."


One Christian leader, a former Muslim, believes that courage and perseverance will bring about the respect of the Muslim community.

"They have to see Christianity at work," he said, "and they will not see that unless there is true Christian witness in their midst. It is no use separating the converts from their families forever. Of course, they need protection when the family is angry at their conversion, but we must do everything we can to bring about reconciliation. I believe it is possible if we show them love and respect. Just like Paul's admonition to the slaves in his letter to the Ephesians. The greatest testimony to the gospel is the way we live it in Christ's love."

On one Sunday in Bamako, a group of Americans went to work after a local church service administering basic medical procedures and medicines. They represented 12 different churches in the state of Michigan, and they were of all ages, linking up with the local Youth for Christ organization to help people in the community.

The local people had come to Niamakoro Christian and Missionary Alliance Church -- Christians, Muslims and animists -- to get help with their ailments, receive expensive medicines for asthma, treatments for skin irritations and infections, and to obtain a free diagnosis from the trained doctors.

The visitors were enjoying their work. Despite a temperature of 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit), the people mixed together, the Christians relishing the opportunity to share their faith with others. It was like a party, a confusion of people mixing harmoniously together.

"It was a picture of what could happen if the Christians continue to live and share the gospel without fear," a visitor said.
Copyright 2001, Compass News Direct. Used with Permission.

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