Sectarian violence on the rise

Recent violent attacks on religious communities have highlighted the fact that sectarian violence and religious strife is on the rise. Christians have been targeted in Kenya, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, Zanzibar, in Northern Mali following a military coup in 2012 and even in the Central African Republic where Muslim and Christians had been living side by side peacefully. In Myanmar, Buddhists monks are attacking Muslim minorities, often under the eyes of security forces who fail to prevent these human rights violations. Extremist Islamic terrorist groups are targeting moderate Muslim, including in Pakistan and Nigeria The Bahai’s have long been persecuted in Iran, especially under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I could go on.

In many of these countries, Somalia and Nigeria in particular, weak governments are unable to take effective measures against extremist groups. In other cases such as Myanmar and perhaps Pakistan, the state has been accused of failing to prevent violence against Muslim minorities or failing to prosecute perpetrators.

Groups such as Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab, who share similarities to AQIMI, are now moving beyond borders and attacking neighbouring countries. They recruit fighters among young, impoverished and unemployed youths not only locally but also in the diaspora. One of the most disturbing aspects is the presence of foreign fighters from North America and Europe, young people who seem to see no future for themselves and vanish abroad to fight for what they see as bigger cause. In the case of Al-Shabab, some observers say the flow of recruits from the diaspora is bound to decline because the group is a lost legitimacy. Nonetheless, every time there is a large-scale attack such as in Kenya in September or in Algeria last January, foreign fighters are among the attackers. So one can only wonder whether extremists will continue to successfully attract global fighters.

Nigeria – Boko Haram

A “monster” seems to have emerged in Nigeria: Boko Haram. Created twelve years ago, this religious sect used to protest against the establishment. But the movement has grown more violent, more political and more radical. Last week, Boko Haram attacked a college in Yobe State, brutally killing more than 50 students, a lot of them Muslim. Between July 2009 and February 2011, the terrorist group claimed responsibility for 164 suicide attacks, executions and raids against security forces, the UN, prisons and banks. More than 900 people have died, a majority of them Muslim. Amnesty International says Boko Haram, which means “Western education is a sin”, is now targeting schools, killing teachers and students. One consequence of these attacks is that in parts of northern Nigeria “as many as 80% of the students have stopped attending classes and more than a thousand teachers have fled the region.” Parents have been told to send their children to Islamic schools.

Boko Haram wants to set up an Islamic State in North-eastern Nigeria. Last May, the government declared a state of emergency in the three northern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, but Amnesty International argues that the government is not doing enough to stop the attacks. The army has conducted a number of offensive against the extremist group but it only seems to lead the rebels to intimidate and commit reprisal attacks against innocent civilians. It raises questions about the capacity and efficiency of Nigeria’s security forces.

There is a real danger that Nigeria will break apart. One of the most urgent needs is for the government 1) raise the capacity of the security and counter-terrorism forces 2) address the inequalities and poverty in the North considering that the country’s northern states are the least developed. In a region where more than 60% of the population lives under the poverty line and where the central government is seen by many as elitist and corrupted, the population is vulnerable to Boko Haram’s negative influence.



By attacking the Westgate mall on 21 September, Al-Shabab came in the world’s collimator once and for all. According to witnesses the attackers were specifically targeting Christians and telling Muslims to get out of the way. In view of this bloody massacre, analysts wonder whether the group, is getting weaker or stronger, and what ties it has to Al-Qaeda. Al-Shabab (“The Youth” in Arabic) emerged in south-central Somalia, a country that has been stateless for more than two decades, and won the control of most Somalia’s capital in 2006. They were recently ousted from the city by a United Nations-backed force from the African Union but remain in control of rural areas where they have imposed the Sharia law.

Al-Shabaab officially formed an alliance with Al-Qaeda in 2012. But Somali-American journalist Abdi Aynte says that jihadists had already been congregating in Somalia before 2012. Considered by many as a failed state, Somalia had basically become “the best theatre of operations for al-Qaeda.” The raid in Nairobi shows that the alliance leads Al-Shabab not simply to focus on controlling Somalia, but also to move beyond their borders and to attack on symbols of prosperity such as the Westgate Mall. With the internationalization on Al-Shabab, such attacks could happen again.

Washington is very worried. Not only has it given millions to the UN-backed African force but last weekend, the U.S. carried out a raid on the home of a senior leader of al-Shabab in Somalia (and failed to capture him). Just hours later a similar operation was carried out in Libya against the al-Qaida leader Anas al-Libi, this time with positive results. The rarity of such dangerous operations shows a regain of determination following the massacre in Kenya. “Those members of al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations literally can run but they can’t hide.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Again, one of the main problems here is rampant poverty, unemployment and a long history of corrupt or non-existent governments. As analyst Richard Dowden states “Al Qaeda feeds on despair rather than hope.”  The current Somali government is only on-year old and it will take years for the country to reconstruct – if the transitional regime is willing to take its responsibilities.



On September 22 a militant group called Jundullah (Soldiers of God) claimed responsibility for an attack on the All Saints Church in Peshawar, which killed 85 worshippers. This is not the first attack on Pakistan’s Christian community but it is certainly the worst. Jundullah is believed to be one of about 150 semi-linked militant groups currently active in Pakistan. Motives for these attacks seem to vary depending on the attacker but they are often linked to grievances against the West, including the war in neighboring Afghanistan, deadly US drone strikes attacks in Pakistan, the withdrawal of the army from their tribal areas, and/or the application of Islamic a radical version of Islamic law.

The Paskistani Christian communities has called for protection but the government is suspected doing little to hold perpetrators of attacks accountable. Not unlike other minorities in Pakistan, Christians have long been discriminated against and are seen as second-class citizens. Cecil Shane Chaudhry, the executive director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace, says the attack “is a new dimension, a new direction to attack the Christian community at large.” But Muslim are being persecuted as well.  Sunni militant groups Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan have attacked Shiite Muslims. In 2012 close to 400 Pakistanis died in sectarian violence, many of them Shiite Muslims. In 2013, 300 have already died in three major attacks. Again the government has done little to investigate the killings, leading analysts to accuse it not only of incompetence but also of complicity.


I have previously mentioned the plight of Muslim minorities in Burma.  The Rohingya in Rakhine state, who are considered by many as illegal migrants from Bangladesh (even tough many of them have been there for decades), have been the target of assaults for more than a year. Deadly riots have already killed 200 people since June 2012. Extremist Buddhist monks have been attacking Muslim homes and shops, burning them to the ground. The ultra-nationalist 969 Movement is responsible for inciting violence but the government has also been unwilling to prevent the violence from growing fiercer. President Thein Sein visited Rakhine at the beginning of the month but stayed mostly silent about what some human rights groups have described as ethnic cleansing. Worse, in the past Thein Sein has been know to call for the removal of the Rohingya. Last week the speaker of the Lower house praised ethnic Rakhine people for safeguarding Myanmar’s “national sovereignty, territorial integrity, culture, traditions, customs and religion.” Violence is now spreading to other regions such as Mandalay region, Kachin and Shan state, and the pattern is often similar: a trigger event, armed organizers wearing red-color headbands and inciting violence, angry mobs, security services standing by. In the past Burma has engaged in democratic reform and Francis Wade suggests that anti-Muslim violence may be a tactic used by the military elite and/or politicians to reassert control: “help manufacture a threat, and jump in to save the day.”



This is a lesser-known case. The Christian minority of semi-autonomous and largely Muslim Zanzibar (1%) used to live in peace but in recent months several churches have been set on fire and attacks against Christians have increased. In February, Father Evarist Mushi was gunned down, two teenage Britons volunteering at a nursery school had acid thrown at them in August and last month Reverend Joseph Anselmo Mwagambwa was badly hurt in an acid attack. The Christian community blames a local religious social movement called Uamsho (Awakening, in Swahili), which promotes Islam on the archipelago and recently acquired a new political focus. Like other radical Islamist movement such as Boko Haram, MUJAO and Al-Shabab, Uamsho has expressed dissent to western-style government and society. The relationship between Christians and Muslim also started to crumble when the government engaged in a process of constitutional review and the emergence of new demands for independence from Tanzania. Like other extremist movements, Uamsho finds recruits among the impoverished and unemployed youths of Zanzibar. The group is certainly one to watch out for: a raid in Tanzania led to the arrest of 11 suspects who are allegedly linked to Al-Shabab – this would be the first a link is established between the two movements.




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