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A friend of Paul Nobila Guelbeogo, who was killed in the al Qaeda attack on the Splendid Hotel and Cappuccino restaurant, sits next to a memorial for him at his house in Ouagadougou. (Nabil el Hadad/REUTERS)
A friend of Paul Nobila Guelbeogo, who was killed in the al Qaeda attack on the Splendid Hotel and Cappuccino restaurant, sits next to a memorial for him at his house in Ouagadougou. (Nabil el Hadad/REUTERS)

Burkina Faso attack sparks discord that may threaten religious harmony Add to ...

A few days after the terrorist attack that killed 30 people here, the people of Ouagadougou were outraged by a foreign report: A French television channel had described one of their neighbourhoods as the “Muslim quarter.”

Many people felt insulted and shocked. How could there be a “Muslim quarter” in a country where Muslims and Christians are so deeply integrated? How could anyone imply that the two religions were obliged to live separately?

They are valid questions, and key to the country’s resilience. Unlike many countries around the world, Burkina Faso has managed the extraordinary achievement of connecting its two main religions in a cultural melting pot. Muslims and Christians co-exist within even the same families, and there is widespread tolerance and conviviality between the two faiths.

Despite the Jan. 15 terrorist attack, Burkina Faso’s leaders are convinced that religious extremism will fail to find a foothold here. Their country could even be a model for others.

Yet this achievement might now be under threat.

The pressures on Burkina Faso are intensifying. Islamist radicals have slipped across the frontiers from neighbouring countries such as Mali, where extremism is growing. Even within Burkina Faso, there have been worrisome signs of religious tension since the terrorist attack.

There have been scattered reports of veiled women or bearded men being harassed or verbally attacked for their religious appearance. The reports were sufficient to persuade Burkina Faso’s government to issue a plea to the country. Citizens must “abstain from all acts of verbal and physical aggression against others, which could jeopardize national unity and cohesion,” the government said in an official communiqué on Jan. 17.

“Citizens motivated by an understandable anger are abusing people with big beards, turbans or veils,” the government complained in the statement.

On the Facebook page of a Muslim students’ association, a man named Aboubacar Savadogo reported an incident after the terrorist attack in which a woman was shouted down in a college class because of her veil. Even the teacher participated, he said. “If we don’t stop denigrating each other’s faith, we’ll be encouraging social conflict. This is the time for fraternity and unity against a common enemy.”

The concern over these isolated incidents is a sign of the country’s long-standing tradition of tolerance – a shared value that could help to immunize Burkina Faso against the epidemic of extremism that is spreading in many corners of West Africa.

The people of Burkina Faso are proud of their religious integration. About 60 per cent of the population are Muslims, while about 40 per cent are Christians or followers of traditional religions. Most people have stories of their relatives converting back and forth between religions. Muslims often attend the Christmas celebrations of their friends, while Christians go to the Islamic festivals of their friends.

The country’s foreign minister, Alpha Barry, tells the story of a well-known Muslim dignitary, so pious that he made the pilgrimage to Mecca. His son grew up to become a Catholic priest. “On the day of his ordination, everyone was there, all of his relatives, Muslim and Christian,” the minister said in an interview.

“It illustrates the tolerance that exists in this country. So I don’t see how jihadism or fundamentalism can prosper here. We grow up with the idea of cohabitation between Muslims and Christians and other faiths. Burkina is sufficiently immunized.”

In his opinion, Burkina Faso is the most secular country in West Africa. “It’s the only country where you can see a Christian husband and a Muslim wife and vice-versa,” he said.

“Burkina truly is an exception on this issue. A child who grows up in Burkina doesn’t know the difference between Muslims and Christians. This is rare in Africa. In the same family, the elder son can be Christian and the younger son can be Muslim, and those children go to school together.”

This integration could be seen after the terrorism attack, which killed six Canadian volunteers who had been working for a Catholic mission in the village of Manni. They were mourned by Muslims and Christians alike. People of both faiths came to the village’s Catholic convent to give their condolences.

It still isn’t clear whether the three attackers – all of whom were killed – are from Burkina Faso or a foreign country. But, in this country, they are almost universally regarded as outsiders who violated the basic rules of Islam. “The duty of all Muslims is to lead their lives in compliance with principles that are common to all religions: respect for human life and dignity,” one Islamic leader said at a national memorial service for the victims.

Souleymane Kone, president of an Islamic education centre in Ouagadougou, said he hasn’t met even a single Muslim who supported the terrorist attack. “The type of Islam we have in Burkina Faso is a tolerant and moderate Islam,” he said.

“If you have Catholics or Protestants in your own family, you’re obliged to be tolerant, unless you want to live in isolation. Our social cohesion plays a major role in minimizing extremism and terrorism here.”

While extremism in neighbouring countries is expanding, Burkina Faso is protected by what some call its “social shock absorbers” – not only the close family relations between the two religions, but also their childhood school connections.

At the Catholic schools in villages such as Manni and elsewhere, Muslims are welcome to enroll. Habi Ouattara, a Muslim woman who works as communications director for Burkina Faso’s security minister, said she remembers attending an Adventist school as a child. Nobody cared that she was a Muslim, and she even sang Christian songs and helped organize Christmas activities. “Our people have a deep will to live together,” she said.

Karim Kabore, the 34-year-old director of a private communications agency, converted from Islam to a Protestant evangelical religion when he was a teenager. A few people criticized him, but it was soon forgotten. He has Christians and Muslims among his uncles, too. “There’s no problem,” he said. “It’s just normal. When you talk to someone, you don’t notice their religion, you only notice their personality.”

Today, he teaches Muslim children in his evangelical Protestant school, and his Muslim neighbours helped to pay for his church building because they felt it would be good for the neighbourhood. A Muslim businessman let him use his construction equipment without charge. “It’s my contribution on behalf of God,” he told Mr. Kabore.

While the social and family networks may have vaccinated Burkina Faso against extremism, the effect isn’t necessarily permanent. “It doesn’t mean that the country is completely immune,” said Cynthia Ohayon, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.

One of the biggest sources of tension is the full veil that some Muslim women have begun wearing in Burkina Faso, covering their faces. This often provokes criticism from moderate Muslims here. One fully veiled woman was barred from entering a government building after the Jan. 15 terrorist attack, Mr. Kone said.

Many moderate Muslims see the full veil as dangerous. They say it causes traffic accidents among veiled drivers on the country’s chaotic roads, for example.

But they also see it as a foreign invasion.

“We fought against colonialism, and this is another type of colonialism, and I don’t like it,” said Abdoul Hadi Diabate, a Muslim translator and marketing specialist in Ouagadougou.

He was equally outraged by the French report that a “Muslim quarter” exists in the capital. “We’ve never heard of this before,” he said.

“We reject Muslim or Christian quarters. Wherever you want to live, you live.”

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