The burning of churches and similar violent anti-Christian protests that took place in Niger at the end of last week was not an unexpected reaction to the publication of the latest edition of Charlie Hebdo, which depicted the Prophet Muhammad crying on its cover. A response to the shocking massacre at the magazine’s headquarters in Paris, opinion was split on whether the incendiary publication was an appropriate response to the Islamist attack on free speech.
Niger is a large, landlocked country in the Sahara Desert, 99% of whose population are Muslims. Exposed to the trans-Saharan Arabic trade in the 15th century, Niger’s Islamic roots are extensive and well-anchored. Unlike its troubled neighbour Nigeria, Niger has a very small Christian population (approximately 0.4%) which perhaps explains why the out-of-control Boko Haram has yet to turn its attentions towards Niamey.
Europeans explored Niger as early as the 18th century, although it was not colonised before being incorporated into French West Africa in 1904. It became an overseas territory of France in 1946, as part of concessions granted by Paris in the hope of retaining a vestige of their imperial empire. By 1960 Niger had declared independence and, like many other African nations, it has since undergone a turbulent political development characterised by military coups and short-lived republics.
French colonial oversight was not as strict as in some of its other West African colonies and this perhaps explains the relative failure of the colonial administration’s missionaries and education system to spread Christianity throughout Niger. Well-entrenched Islamic beliefs, heavily influenced by earlier Berber expansion, made Niger more immune to European religious infiltration.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the overwhelming response to the Charlie Hebdo publication has been a negative one in Niger. However, given the relative obscurity of the Christian and non-Islamic populace, the level of violence is concerning. Was this purely an expression of anger? Or do some Muslims see the response to the Charlie Hebdo attack as the beginning of a religious conflict that threatens their very livelihoods and belief systems?
One thing all the governments of Christian-majority countries seem to agree on is the need for Muslim input when trying to tackle Islamic extremism. This is a relieving stance but there certainly needs to be constant reassurance given to moderate Muslims that the increasingly harsh tactics deployed against fundamentalists (which are justified) are not an attack on the principles of the Islamic faith.
Niger is an unlikely setting for a religious war; its neighbour Nigeria, however, is already experiencing one. We surely have to question the laxity of the West in allowing Boko Haram to proceed with its devastation unhindered. The uncompromising nature of the group, and its willingness to operate across national borders, threatens the non-Muslim and moderate Muslim population across the entire regions of West and Central Africa.
Charlie Hebdo had to respond and that response was both poignant and, given the circumstances, restrained. Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou has shown great dignity and pragmatism in the face of violence, stating that:
This attitude must be adopted by other Muslim leaders to explain to their populations that European security initiatives and expressions of free speech are not attacks on Islam.
Many of today’s problems can be blamed on the legacy of colonialism, particularly in Africa. The issue of Islamic extremism, in its present form, cannot be. It is the duty of global leaders, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, to ensure that their people show restraint in their actions and prevent a bloody religious battle which no side could ever win.