Muslims v. Christians in Islamists’ new war Benny Avni, New York Post, December 27, 2013For the past few Christmases, this column has shined a light on the horrific plight of Christian communities across the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. This year, a Christian majority in a small African nation and Muslims there are waging brutal attacks on each other — but it’s all being fanned by Islamist fanatics from outside the borders.The killing field in question is the Central African Republic, where a year-long civil war has taken a monstrous toll. This month alone, it’s exacted hundreds of deaths. Tens of thousands are being made homeless. Maiming by machete, rape and beatings are routine. There’s no end in sight.
A small former French colony of 4.6 million, the CAR has never really gelled into a functioning country. Bad governance, corruption and endless fighting over resources have caused numerous flare-ups during its 53 years of independence. What’s new this time is that the conflict is being fought along clear religious lines: Muslims against Christians. And that has increased the level of brutality to unprecedented levels.
Comprised of some 15 percent of the country’s population, the CAR’s Muslims live mostly in the diamond-rich northeast. Although they’ve been fairly well off financially (as one UN-based diplomat describes it, “they are merchants and cattle herders, so that means they’re rich”), they’ve been under-represented in the country’s political structure.The war started last December with an attack by Muslims against government loyalists in the north. A loose alliance of Muslim militias, known as the Seleka, then marched on the capital, Bangui, ransacking and killing anything in its path. By March, the Seleka (“alliance”) toppled the government of President Francois Bozize and installed Michel Djotodia as the first Muslim leader of the CAR.The militias were then supposedly disbanded. But the Seleka fighters, which include boy soldiers in their tweens, are keeping their arms. And they continue to pick Christian civilians as random targets for unmentioned horrors.To counter Muslim atrocities, Christians formed their own brutal militias, known as anti-Balaka (“anti-Machete”). They, too, have inflicted unmentionable pain in mosques and on randomly selected Muslim families.The unprecedented atrocities, feelings of discrimination and victimhood and religious zealotry make for a ripe environment for Islamist outsiders that thrive on chaos and religious enmity. Right from the start, the Seleka were beefed up by Islamist fighters from Chad and Sudan. Increasingly, the gangs are now supported by members of Boko Haram, widely recognized as one of Africa’s fiercest rising Salafi terror groups.CAR watchers believe that, more than anyone else, the imported Boko Haram fighters are responsible for the religious tone of the war. After all, Boko Haram made its bones attacking Christians back home, in Nigeria, before it started drawing global attention with such stunts as bombing African shopping malls.The CAR horrors have awakened America’s ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, who won a Pulitzer writing about our responsibilities in preventing modern genocide. Last week, she became the first high-level US official to visit Bangui, where we don’t even have an embassy.Diplomats tell me that Power is quite alone inside President Obama’s inner circle, where, at most, there’s a willingness to lead from behind (very far behind) on the CAR issue. Power has helped administration types find the Central African Republic on the map and to secure an allocation of $100 million in US funds, as well as assets for transporting, equipping and training African Union peacekeepers deployed there. (By comparison, France, the former colonizer, has sent 2,000 troops to the CAR and already suffered casualties.)True, we can’t expect an administration that has all but ignored a war in the heart of the Middle East, that has killed at least 120,000 Syrians and counting, to experience a sudden awakening over a religious flare-up in some obscure African country. But think of it this way: If Boko Haram and fellow Islamist zealots win the war, the CAR could become their next base for global terror.Then there’s the Islamist government of Sudan, which might learn from the use of anti-Christian fervor in the CAR and use similar tactics to ransack its breakaway neighbor, South Sudan. For now, the budding civil war in South Sudan, the world’s newest country, has little to do with religion. But Khartoum would love nothing more than to reincorporate its oil-rich neighbor, and since South Sudan is mostly Christian, why not use religious hatred to help in that effort?Anti-Christian zealotry is a useful tool for Africa’s Islamists, who are on the march. But preventing the spread of religious-fueled wars is an American interest — not just Christmas time, but always.