Cameroon: The threat of religious radicalism

Cameroon: The threat of religious radicalism

The emergence of radical religious groups in Cameroon risks destabilising the country's climate of religious tolerance. Traditional Sufi Islam is increasingly being challenged by the rise of stricter Islamic ideology, mostly Wahhabism. Within Christian communities, the rise of Revivalist Churches has ended the monopoly of the Catholic and Protestant Churches. Yet, the religious changes are not perceived as problematic by Cameroonian political and religious authorities, which underestimate their potential for conflict. By INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP.

First published by the International Crisis Group.

In Cameroon, the rise of Christian revivalist (born again) and Muslim fundamentalist movements is rapidly changing the religious landscape and paving the way for religious intolerance. Fundamentalist groups’ emergence, combined with communal tensions, creates a specific risk in the north and increases competition for the leadership of the Muslim community: such competition has already led to local conflicts. Moreover, the various religious groups have negative perceptions of each other. The state and the mainstream religious organisations’ response to the emerging radicalism is limited to the Boko Haram threat and therefore inadequate, and in some cases carries risk. A coherent and comprehensive response has to be implemented by the government and religious organisations to preserve religious tolerance and to avoid the kind of religious violence seen in neighbouring Nigeria and the Central African Republic.

Unlike these two countries, Cameroon has never experienced significant sectarian violence. However, the emergence of radical religious groups risks destabilising its climate of religious tolerance. Traditional Sufi Islam is increasingly being challenged by the rise of stricter Islamic ideology, mostly Wahhabism. The current transformation is mainly promoted by young Cameroonian Muslims from the south, whereas the Sufi Islam of the north, dominated by the Fulani, seems to be on the decline. These southern youths speak Arabic, are often educated in Sudan and the Gulf countries, and are opposed both to Fulani control of the Muslim community and to the ageing religious establishment. Disagreements between Sufi leaders, traditional spiritual leaders and these newcomers are not only theological: the conflict between ‘ancients’ and ‘moderns’ is also a matter of economic and political influence within the Muslim community.

These changes have divided Muslim communities and already degenerated into localised clashes between Islamic groups. Fundamentalist groups’ growth in the north, combined with local communal tensions, is a potential source of conflict. In the south, the competition between Sufi members and Wahhabi-inspired groups over leadership of the Muslim community will increase and could lead to localised violence.

Within Christian communities, the rise of Revivalist Churches has ended the monopoly of the Catholic and Protestant Churches. Most Revivalist Churches have no legal status and are poorly regarded by Catholics. Born again pastors often preach religious intolerance, stay away from interreligious dialogue and are kept out of official religious spheres, although they mostly support the regime.

In the face of these new forms of religious intolerance, interreligious dialogue initiatives are weak, dispersed and only reach a small fraction of the population. Yet, the religious changes are not perceived as problematic by Cameroonian political and religious authorities. They underestimate their potential for conflict as their attention is focused only on Boko Haram. It was only after Boko Haram launched attacks in the far north of the country that the government launched awareness initiatives, but they were late and ineffective, as seen in the harassment and stigmatisation of Kanuri populations from border villages, as well as arrests and arbitrary detentions by the security forces. The religious developments are worrying in the present regional environment as both the Central African Republic and Nigeria are experiencing conflicts with religious dimensions, and the consequences are having an impact on Cameroon.

The struggle against the threat of religious radicalism in Cameroon requires a coherent and comprehensive strategy including a better understanding of the current religious changes, support for a charter on religious tolerance, the creation of representative bodies for the Muslim communities and Revivalist Churches, and the economic and social development of fragile regions. More immediately, the government must improve its monitoring of fundamental proselytisation, support interreligious dialogue and improve communities’ awareness of the dangers of radicalism.


To combat the threat of religious radicalism

To the government of Cameroon:

1. Promote socio-economic development by allocating a third of the triennial emergency programme to the development of the north and by coordinating with the other countries of the Lake Chad Basin to request donor support.

2. Improve populations’ awareness by:

a) Assessing interreligious dialogue initiatives and funding the most effective ones;

b) Avoiding stigmatisation, arbitrary detentions, acts of torture and other human rights violations of populations living close to the border with Nigeria; and

c) Involving organisations of Muslim and Christian women in awareness initiatives.

3. Create a local certification for imams and ulama trained abroad; make sure that only imams with officially recognised training teach in Quranic schools and preach in the mosques; and monitor foreign preachers within the country.

4. Monitor the financing of religious associations and ensure they do not receive funds from fundamentalist organisations.

5. Monitor fundamentalist proselytism sites, including in social media, refugee camps and the Maroua prison in the far north.

6. Create research programmes on religious changes in Cameroon.

To religious leaders and the leadership of religious associations, both Christian and Muslim:

7. Adopt a community approach for religious tolerance with a focus on outreach and communication, as well as further coordinate awareness and interreligious dialogue activities.

To the donors:

8. Support development projects in northern Cameroon and the coordinated initiatives of the regional countries to develop the Lake Chad area.

9. Assess Cameroonian associations promoting interreligious dialogue initiatives, and support the most effective among them.

To reduce divisions within religious communities

To the government of Cameroon:

10. Engage in dialogue with religious leaders and the leadership of religious associations in order to create consensual representative bodies for Revivalist Churches and Muslim communities. Each body should elect its own national representative for a non-extendable one-year term to interact with the authorities.

11. Encourage Muslim and Christian representative bodies to create a religious tolerance charter and have it accepted by all Cameroonian religious groups.

12. Implement a one-year moratorium to enable unauthorised Revivalist Churches to register legally and, once it ends, close unregistered churches and those that have not adhered to the charter for tolerance.

To religious leaders and the leadership of religious associations:

13. Work for a more inclusive Islam by reinforcing dialogue within the Muslim community and by supporting a better representation of the various Islamic and ethnic groups, as well as youth, within the associations, and the implementation of development projects in all the Muslim areas without any preference.

14. Involve Revivalist Churches and the various Islamic groups in interreligious dialogue activities. DM

Photo of Yaounde by Ville Miettinen.


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