Saturday, December 4, 2010

Ivory Coast conflict--what does religion have to do with it?

Ivory Coast is in the news. And we keep hearing about the Muslim North and Christian South. Why can't the western media report on Ivory Coast without inventing a religious conflict that doesn't exist?

The BBC says that Ivory Coast has "long been deeply divided along ethnic, religious and economic lines." In the next paragraph, explaining why Alassane Ouattara was excluded from running for president, Ouattara is identified as a Muslim, as if his political exclusion is based on religion.

NPR uses "largely Muslim north" and calls the south "Christian and animist."

The NY Times wrote that "Mr. Ouattara is from the largely Muslim north — which has been a de facto separate country from the Christian south since the 2002 civil war--..."

Back to the BBC--it is unclear to me how Ivory Coast could be divided along religious lines. Muslims live everywhere in the country, particularly in urban centers. In fact, there are more Muslims living in the south (35%) than Christians (33%).

But more importantly, by including religion in every discussion of the conflict, the western press reinforces two stereotypes:

one, that African conflicts are always religious or ethnic in nature,

and two, that Christians and Muslims who live in the same country must inevitably be in conflict.

Ivorians are extremely tolerant about religion. It is the last thing they would go to war over. The people I discuss in this blog are mostly northerners, some of whom live in the south. Some are Christian, some are Muslim. One is an active animist religious leader who has converted to Islam, which bothers no one. Most support Ouattara, but I know both Muslims and animists who support Gbagbo.

It is true that politicians have tried to use ethnicity and religion to divide Ivorians and gain supporters, just as they have used xenophobic, nationalistic, and anti-French rhetoric. But religion as a divisive mechanism has not been terribly successful in Ivory Coast.

Ivorians are deeply divided--not over religion--but over who can hold Ivorian citizenship, vote, and run for office, and who can own land. The references to religion mislead western readers.


  1. I agree with much of this. As an interested party, I have to say that it's generally the news programmes that deal little with Ivory Coast that tend to try to understand things in this way. I'm not saying I've never referred to religious divisions in my reports, but you're right that there are other distinctions that are far more important, and that there is an easy and misleading stereotype of muslim v christian that many fall into.

    I think you'll agree that the religious aspect is nevertheless important, even if not of first importance. You can't deny that there has been plenty of rhetoric not to vote for Ouattara because he is a 'Muslim' (though some say he's actually buddhist). As I remember, Ouattara actually spoke about this a few weeks ago reassuring people that he wouldn't go about building mosques all over the country. Their Voodoo communications campaign team have deliberately made sure that Ouattara has not been seen at high profile at Muslim festivals and the like over the past couple of years.

  2. Thanks for your comment and your reporting. I would say that regional identity comes first in people's minds, then ethnic identity, then religion a distant third for most people. Northerners, whether they live in the north or south, identify as northerners because of the years of exclusion, both real and perceived. Animist and Christian northerners fear and detest Gbagbo and support Ouattara just as strongly as Muslim ones.

    For me, the fact that Ouattara has come to personify the political exclusion northerners feel and the inclusion they seek (this is how I described him in my latest podcast for IL Public Media) is the salient reason northerners vote in a bloc for him and the thing western readers/listeners need to understand. Also the powerful and desperate desire for change!

    I agree about Ado's public profile--they are also very careful to avoid Mandé spokespeople...