A Religious World War in the Making?

Has a potential world war in African and east Asia been overlooked by Western media?

December 27, 2002

Has a potential world war in African and east Asia been overlooked by Western media?

Few of Africa's sub-Saharan states have boundaries that coincide neatly with either ethnic or natural realities.


Many ethnic and tribal groupings are scattered over two or more states. And that despite the fact that they retain close cultural and religious links. Thus, an insult against one neighboring faction can easily have international ramifications.

The massacres in the small nation of Rwanda in 1994 detonated a series of wars and interventions that spilled over into the huge territory of the Congo, what was then Zaire.

Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Uganda and Rwanda have all become directly involved in what has been described as Africa's equivalent of the First World War — and several more nations are watching nervously.

Perhaps two million Congolese have died in the conflict. Even so, few Westerners know or care about the slaughter. The reason is mainly because it occurs so far from centers of media activity.

There is also little risk of superpower involvement — and no danger that weapons of mass destruction will be employed. The Congo thus becomes a perpetual war zone reminiscent of Germany during the Thirty Years War.

That analogy should give us pause, because we know in hindsight that Germany would not remain a hapless victim forever — and neither will the growing states of Africa. Let us imagine a near future in which (say) Nigeria, Uganda and the Congo are all substantial and well-armed regional powers.

When Muslims and Christians begin killing each other in another smaller state — in Cameroon, for example — tribal and religious allies in neighboring lands are swiftly drawn in.

Muslim Nigeria demands a cessation of hostilities, and threatens to send in forces. Christian powers respond with their own threats — and the situation escalates, as other major states intervene.

Muslim and Christian alliances face off in a model example of cultural and religious confrontation — what Samuel Huntington has termed a "fault-line war." Meanwhile, each power tries to destabilize its rivals by stirring up sympathetic minorities within enemy states.

Under that logic, Ugandan agents would provoke religious rioting across eastern Nigeria. And Nigerians would reciprocate with terrorist attacks against their rivals.

Matters are further complicated by the presence of refugees expelled from the zone of conflict, who tell atrocity stories and demand vengeance.

As the situation becomes more overtly religious, fundamentalists on each side advocate harder-line positions. Mosques and churches pour forth intemperate propaganda, warning against compromise with the forces of evil.

Worse, religious fundamentalism is sometimes associated with theocratic and authoritarian forms of government.

That is exactly the sort of regime one does not want to be handling delicate international crises. Perhaps the main protagonist nations will themselves be led by religious authorities, by sheikhs or bishops.

Some of the likely winners in the religious economy of the new century are precisely those groups who have a strongly apocalyptic mind set, in which the triumph of righteousness is associated with the vision of a world devastated by fire and plague.

This could be a perilously convenient ideology for a new international order dominated by countries armed to the teeth with nuclear and biological arsenals. The situation could become so sensitive that a global catastrophe could be provoked by the slightest misjudgment — just like 1914.

A similar conflagration might evolve from an Asian struggle between (say) a vigorously Christian Philippines and a resolutely Muslim Indonesia.

This is especially so, if each nation offered clandestine support to secessionist groups in its neighbor's territory.

Open warfare could develop along this eastern fault-line, and could draw in allied religious powers.

Even without the religious factor, this part of the Pacific Rim is going to be one of the major areas of strategic conflict over the next 20 or 30 years.

As the People's Republic of China grows militarily, it will project its power in the China Sea, the vast maritime region bounded by Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Some Chinese maps are already claiming this area as that nation's territorial waters, which is worrying since the China Sea is the primary route for oil supplies to East Asia's leading industrial nations.

Religious-based instability vastly aggravates the potential for great power conflict. This is especially true when — as in Indonesia or Malaysia — anti-Christian violence is directed against ethnic Chinese.

The People's Republic might assume a role as the outraged protector of Chinese people everywhere, intervening to save kith and kin from slaughter by Muslim militias.

The natural protector and patron of Asia's Christian communities in years to come might not be the United States, Britain or Australia — but anti-religious China.

It would be a curious irony if in this eventuality, the Anglo-Saxon powers found themselves on the other side, fighting alongside Muslim states against a pro-Christian intervention.

The scenarios described here are pure fantasy, but the background is anything but speculative. The countries mentioned will all be significant political players, and they will be at the forefront of growth among both Christians and Muslims.

It is conceivable that within a few decades, the two faiths will have agreed on amicable terms of coexistence. But looking at matters as they stand at the start of the 21st century, that happy consummation seems highly unlikely.

Issues of theocracy and religious law, toleration and minority rights, conversion and apostasy should be among the most divisive in domestic and international politics for decades to come.

Adapted from “The Next Christendom” by Philip Jenkins. Copyright 2002 by Philip Jenkins. Used by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.