Nobody is sure how it started. Perhaps Christian activists sent text messages warning that Muslims were trying to poison them. Maybe Muslims tried to storm a church. Whatever the cause, the consequence this past January was mayhem for the Nigerian city of Jos. Muslim-Christian rioting killed up to 500 people before the government intervened with its customary heavy hand.


The most striking point about these battles was that nobody found them striking. In Jos, as in countless other regions across Africa and Asia, violence between Christians and Muslims can erupt at any time, with the potential to detonate riots, civil wars, and persecutions. While these events are poorly reported in the West, they matter profoundly. All the attention in the Global War on Terror focuses on regions in which the U.S. is engaged militarily, but another war is raging across whole continents, one that will ultimately shape the strategic future. Uncomfortably for American policymakers, it is a war of religions and beliefs—a battle not for hearts and minds but for souls.

This is not to argue for an irreconcilable Clash of Civilizations, still less a struggle between Christian good and Muslim evil. In any African country divided between the two faiths—and that includes most lands south of the Sahara—day-to-day interfaith relations are remarkably good. Many families are amicably divided between Christians and Muslims and take great care to avoid sources of conflict. Business or political meetings commonly begin with prayers, and it is no great matter whether a pastor or a mullah leads them.


Yet over the past century, the spread of new religious forms worldwide has created the potential for violence wherever a surging Christianity meets an unyielding Islam. Riots such as those in Jos are one result; terrorism is another. Generally, Muslims have been the aggressors in recent conflicts, but Christians have their own sectarian mobs and militias.

However blame is apportioned, the two faiths have been at daggers drawn, often literally, for decades. As Eliza Griswold discusses in her forthcoming book, The Tenth Parallel, you can trace the fault by following the latitude line of ten degrees North. (Jos, conveniently, stands almost exactly at ten degrees.) A tectonic plate of religious and cultural confrontation runs across West and Northwest Africa, through Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. A decade ago, Indonesia witnessed some of the worst fighting, as Muslim militias launched bloody assaults on that nation’s Christian minority, some 25 million strong. For decades, the overwhelmingly Christian Philippines has suffered constant insurgency from a ruthless armed movement concentrated in the Muslim south. Mob attacks and pogroms have raged in Malaysia. In Africa, the Sudan is probably the best-known theater of mass martyrdom, while Nigeria remains deeply polarized. And that is not to mention ongoing killings in countries like Uganda and Kenya.


Humanitarian concerns apart, there are plenty of reasons for the West to be deeply worried about these conflicts. Nigeria has almost 160 million people and by 2050 is expected to have 300 million, making it one of the world’s most populous nations. If it ever escapes from its present political horrors, it will be the obvious leader of sub-Saharan Africa. Nigeria also matters enormously in terms of natural resources. It is the third largest source of U.S. crude-oil imports, ahead of Saudi Arabia. Other up-and-coming oil suppliers in West and Central Africa are also among the religiously divided nations. Meanwhile Indonesia, with 240 million people, is already a population giant, and unlike Nigeria, it seems set for serious economic development in the coming decade.


If such massive countries ever became monolithically Muslim, that would be significant enough for the West, especially because these states wield such cultural influence over their neighbors. But if they fell into the hands of a radical form of Wahhabi or Salafist Islam, that would be an epochal catastrophe. Conversely, imagine a world in which Christians predominated in these influential Global South nations. That would decisively shift the world’s balance of forces in pro-Western directions.


The relationship between Christianity and Islam poses a challenge for at least half of the 20 nations expected to have the world’s largest populations by 2050. By present projections, three of these future mega-states—Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Tanzania—will be almost equally divided between the two faiths. In several others, like the Congo, the Philippines, Russia, and Uganda, predominantly Christian nations will have Muslim minorities of 10 percent or more. Mainly Muslim states will coexist with comparable Christian sub-populations in Indonesia, Egypt, and the Sudan. In all of these places, if relations between the faiths do not improve over the next 40 years, prospects for civil order are terrifying. The world’s roster of failed states would have several new members.


Why the hostility? What are Christians and Muslims fighting about in Nigeria and Malaysia, Uganda and the Philippines? Western readers will think back to Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, a richly provocative idea. But the notion of a world divided among vast religious-cultural blocs assumes that these units remain fairly constant, so that tension occurs only along their periphery. Yet cultural blocs change dramatically within their borders as well, and we are presently living through a dizzying era of shifting boundaries.


Look at those rapidly growing countries and think of how these burgeoning Christian heartlands might have struck an observer in 1914. Why are Christians so numerous in Africa and Asia? Did the past century witness a global religious revolution? The answer, of course, is yes, however dimly Westerners may be aware of it. Muslims have certainly seen the trend. One factor driving Islamic militancy in many nations is the sense that Christianity is growing. Outside of the West, evangelism and conversion are two of the most sensitive issues in the modern world.


Christianity, which a century ago was overwhelmingly the religion of Europe and the Americas, has undertaken a historic advance into Africa and Asia. In 1900, Africa had just 10 million Christians, representing around 10 percent of the continental population. By 2000, that figure had swollen to over 360 million, or 46 percent of the population. Over the course of the 20th century, millions of Africans transferred their allegiance from traditional primal faiths to one of the two great world religions, Christianity or Islam—but they demonstrated an overwhelming preference for the former. Around 40 percent of Africa’s population became Christian, compared to just 10 percent who chose Islam. As Muslims had earlier far outnumbered Christians, the result was to transform a massive Muslim majority into a reasonably equal confessional balance. Africa today is about 47 percent Christian, 45 percent Muslim, and some 8 percent followers of primal religions.


To appreciate this transformation, consider Nigeria. In 1900, the lands that would become that nation were about 28 percent Muslim and 1 percent Christian. Confident in their numbers, Muslims did not need even to think about Christians as rivals. For Muslims, the pagan population represented an inferior state of being, peoples to be ruled and, often, enslaved. One day in the future, the heathens might join the modern religious world, but it would be the world of Islam. But then things went wrong. By 1970, Muslims had increased their share of the population to 45 percent. But that 1 percent Christian minority had expanded incredibly, also to 45 percent. A land that seemed firmly under Muslim hegemony was suddenly split down the middle.


The question now was just how much further Christian numbers could grow. If you extrapolate recent Christian growth into the near future, no Muslim majority seems safe, even in a place like Nigeria, where some polls in recent years have suggested an outright Christian majority. (More conservative estimates register around 46 percent.) Even nonpolitical Muslims worry: might their grandchildren be kaffirs? Worse, these newer Christians are not like the minority communities familiar in a Middle Eastern context, groups like the Egyptian Copts, who of necessity were politically quietist: the new African believers are dynamic and expansionist. The most successful follow energetic Pentecostal and evangelical forms of faith rather than the sober liturgical habits of older groupings.


The new believers draw on Western, and specifically American, forms of evangelism, marketing their faith through videos and DVDs. They organize crusades and mass meetings for prayer and healing that can draw 2 million believers together in a single venue. For nervous Muslims, the Christian threat was epitomized by the legendary “Jesus” video, originally a British film biography produced in 1979, but subsequently promoted around the world. As a weapon of mass instruction, it has few equals. Christians in Jos or Jakarta would approach Muslims and offer to show them a really interesting film about the prophet Jesus. Many accepted the invitation, and some then decided to follow the Christian way rather than the path of Islam.


Christianity also attracted independent-minded women. In traditional societies, conversion occurred when the head of a clan or family accepted a new religion and brought his kin with him. Now, when a patriarch accepted Islam, youngsters demurred, preferring to seek personal salvation in Christianity. And inconceivably, women even refused to accept arranged marriages to suitable Muslim men. Religious splits became family feuds, escalating the potential for malice and retaliation.


Few Asian countries have seen anything like the Christian growth that characterizes Africa, but here, too, religious change generates social tensions. In lands like Indonesia and Malaysia, Christianity has been associated above all with minority communities, especially the Chinese, whom majority Muslim groups hate and fear for being rich, clannish, and arrogant. Economic crises, such as the Asian financial crash of 1997-98, bring ethnic conflicts, which bear a religious coloring.


In different societies, then, booming Christianity came to be associated with a variety of perils: the breakup of traditional communities, individualism, women’s independence, and everything associated with “the West”—libertarianism, sexual explicitness, and cultural aggression. When the Pentecostal movement reached full force, all these trends began to look like a juggernaut that might overwhelm familiar cultures. From an Islamic viewpoint, these things might be troubling enough if they were happening on the traditional Muslim-Christian frontier—say in the Mediterranean—but suddenly Christian expansion was accelerating in what should have been dependable Muslim territory.


This was the package of nightmares that faced Muslim communities from the 1970s onward, at exactly the time that a new countermovement, quite as radical in its own way, emerged from the Middle East. The key date was 1979, the year of the Iranian Revolution, but also of the radical coup against the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The Saudi regime survived that assault but in a chastened mood. Anxious to prevent a repeat performance, the Saudis made their devil’s bargain with the Islamists: go and do what you like around the world, and we will bankroll you, but stay out of our own beloved kingdom. That was the point at which Gulf oil money began rolling around the Muslim world, funding mosques and madrassas following the hardest of Islamist lines. By the end of 1979, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, sparking a war that would become a vehicle for training jihadis worldwide.

The outcome was a new and highly militant form of Islam, impatient with old-style moderate forms of faith and fanatically opposed to Christian incursions into continents seen as Muslim realms. For these militants, the growth of Christianity was proof of the failure of the old Muslim regimes. In the words of radical theorist Sayyid Qutb, these regimes had shown themselves infidels at heart, and it was up to true Muslims to condemn them as such (takfir) and remove themselves spiritually (make hijra) to a new and purer activism. In 1989, a revolutionary Islamist regime took power in the Sudan. The same year, at Abuja in Nigeria, a conference on Islam in Africa outlined a program for successful Islamization. That event entered Christian folklore, and one does not have to travel far on the continent to hear claims of all manner of secret plans to destroy Christianity across Africa and create a caliphate. If Islamists denounce the Christians as tools of America, Christians everywhere see the hand of Riyadh.

In many countries, Islamist sects formed militias, some affiliated with the nascent al-Qaeda. In 1993, for instance, Indonesian extremists formed the terrorist organization Jemaah Islamiyah, which would be responsible for the 2002 bombings that killed 200 in Bali. One of the deadliest anti-Christian groups in West Africa has been the al-Qaeda-linked “Nigerian Taliban,” known to themselves as the muhajiroun—those who make hijra.


When we see interfaith battles in Africa or Asia, we are generally not witnessing activism by al-Qaeda militants directed from some secret terrorist mission control, but we do find movements driven by exactly the same grievances that motivate bin Laden’s associates—above all, we see the same central fear of Christian expansion. For Muslims, whether political dissidents or actual Islamists, the world is evidently engaged in a culture war, a war of faiths, and groups like al-Qaeda are only one small and sensationalized portion of that. Christians likewise know the stakes. Educated African believers look back with trepidation at the great Christian churches that flourished in the northern regions of the continent 1,500 years ago, churches that would be snuffed out under Islamic rule. They are determined not to let that disaster be repeated.

This culture clash, so crucial to the fate of whole continents, has not impinged on the American consciousness. Stunningly, the crying need for interfaith peace in Africa and Asia featured not at all in Barack Obama’s much-touted speech in Cairo last June. Of course, American options are limited. The more that Western nations try to interfere directly in defense of Christians, the easier it is for Muslims to portray their enemies as imperialist agents. That is not a counsel of despair. American administrations can achieve something by pressuring allegedly friendly regimes like the Saudis to stop sponsoring anti-Christian propaganda across the Global South. But ultimately, resolving this conflict will depend on Africans and Asians themselves—if only Washington and Riyadh can refrain from pouring fuel on the hostilities.

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Philip Jenkins is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University.

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