Think of religious conflict and Africa is unlikely to come to mind. Yet Africa is host to one of the world's longest contiguous religious fault lines, running from the Horn of Africa in the east to the Gold Coast in the west. Muslims predominate to the north, Christians and animists to the south. In recent years pressure all along this divide has been growing.
Religious tension in Africa is particularly perilous because it could easily spawn civil wars and new crises. But it is important to remember that civil wars are not inevitable if governments take the right action and seek and receive international help. The civil war in Sudan pits the Arab Islamic fundamentalist government against the African populations in the country's south. Ethiopia and Eritrea have each faced growing friction between their nearly evenly divided Christian and Muslim populations. The Sudanese government, despite its assurances of cooperation with the U.S. in the war on terrorism, also continues to sponsor militias attempting to destabilize Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda.
In central Africa, Chad, to the north of the fault-line, was instrumental in the March coup that deposed the democratically elected government in Central African Republic, south of the line.
In the west, the epicenter of concern is the deepening division between Christians and Muslims in northern Nigeria. Ivory Coast was effectively split along religious lines in the aftermath of its insurgency. North-south divisions have also contributed to tribal clashes in Ghana and Cameroon. Adding to these woes are the growing links with Al Qaeda: from the terrorist attacks in Kenya and Tanzania to diamond smuggling in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Muslim leaders in some of the affected countries speak of a radicalization of their youth. This has come about through exposure to more militant brands of Islam that have been propagated by a proliferation of Islamic schools in recent years. Both the message and funds for disseminating it originate from abroad, part of a concerted global campaign by Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia to institutionalize their ultraconservative and exclusionary version of Islam. Billions of dollars have been spent sponsoring Islamic schools in this effort.
What is evolving, therefore, is less a religious war than a growing generational rift within Muslim communities. Young people are stridently asserting that Islamic rules take precedence over civil law. Elders, who have long managed to celebrate Islamic cultural and religious traditions in harmony with their neighbors and the state, urge moderation.
Weak governments and resource-poor societies make effective dry wood in this combustible environment. Inaccessible educational systems make the free schooling offered by the Islamic schools highly attractive. Widespread public corruption and political, economic and social inequities fuel a call for justice that dogmatic ideology seems to answer. Governments that have attempted to appease the agitators by blurring the lines between secular and Islamic law have only spurred on young radicals.
Religious strife can be avoided if governments of the affected states are given help. Funding for education needs to be increased. Religious organizations should be registered and monitored to ensure they are operating within their mandates. Accounting for the source of all revenues should become the norm.
International mediation of local conflicts could help restart dialogue in communities that have been polarized. Peacekeeping works: The French probably prevented another conflict in West Africa with their timely deployment of 3,000 troops to Ivory Coast.
Religious and civil law need to be kept separate. Doing otherwise only further empowers the unelected, giving them authority over citizens of other faiths, or alternate interpretations of the same faith.
Independent media, and radio in particular, are vital in exposing Africa to the outside world. Radical ideologies thrive in the absence of alternative voices.
Risks stemming from escalating religious tensions in Africa are not going away. Increased international action now can help ratchet down this risk before it becomes a much more intractable and costly problem.
The writer is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of a forthcoming book on democracy and development.