CAR: Brave reporting marred by misuse of religious categories

by - 15th January 2014

Once again, a fearless and graphic report by a top BBC world affairs correspondent is otherwise marred by a casual grasp of religion.

The Central African Republic, perhaps one of the least known of Africa’s troubled states, is bubbling up into the nation’s awareness at last thanks largely to the advocacy efforts of NGOs like Open Doors. It’s clear from reports that traditionally cooperative religious leaders of both major faiths – Muslim and Christian – are struggling to prevent full-scale civil war.  It is said that 20,000 Muslim militants from neighbouring Sudan and Chad were recruited by the nation’s first Muslim President who took power in a coup.  These malign religious supremacists exacerbated the instability caused by the coup, committing rape and murder with impunity, targeting Christian villages. It has been so atrocious that some have become not unnaturally unhinged by it – as the BBC’s latest report by Paul Wood sickeningly demonstrates.

So to describe what’s happening as ‘sectarian’ somewhat stretches the lexicon.  It had me reaching for my dictionary.  Isn’t a sect a breakaway group from a main denomination or faith?  Isn’t sectarianism what we had in Northern Ireland? – intra-religious fighting, not actual war between faiths?  Isn’t sectarianism originally arguments about theology within a faith, segué-ing into arguments about political goals and arrangements? 

To call the CAR’s horrors ‘sectarianism’ belittles what’s being reported; belittles what’s at stake; and demeans good relationships that mirabile dictu, actually can exist between faiths.  It serves in fact merely as a vaguely religious alternative to ‘tribalism’ – itself a racist and ignorant put-down of anything negative that happens in Africa.  In this case, a ‘Well, what do you expect of religious people’ kind of put-down.  Countries may have strained inter-religious relations, but there are all too often malign outsiders whose interest it is to make them worse.  Then it all feeds into the wretched stereotyping that acts like a self-fulfilling prophesy.

What has struck me – and I’m going to hear more on this for myself at SOAS tonight – is how courageous and far-seeing have been the efforts of clerics and imams precisely to hold the line against externally-stoked war.  France’s Le Monde seems to get it.  Why can’t the Beeb?

The blurb for tonight’s event at SOAS sums it up: Even after his brief arrest, Rev Guérékoyamé has not stopped working for peace and reconciliation, travelling the country with the Catholic Archbishop and the President of CAR’s Islamic Conference, prompting ‘Le Monde’ to dub them ‘the three saints of Bangui’. As Rev. Guérékoyamé says: “Why try to create a religious conflict when there’s no conflict between the country’s religious leaders? I admit that some Sudanese and Chadian imams have come here saying something different, but [the Catholic] Archbishop and I have always held the same line as all the country’s imams”.

* Since I got in touch with him, Wood who has more guts and credibility than most, has amended the website. 

Follow him – and get there tonight if you can.