A Christian ethnic cleansing against Muslims in CAR?

I will preface this by saying that I have been an amateur student of conflict in the Central Africa Republic (CAR) for many years now. I’ll tell anyone who listens that the ongoing instability there is a regional threat. Predicting violence in CAR is hardly Sylvia Brown stuff, but even I am taken aback by the turn this conflict seems to be taking.

As a very short background, CAR wasn’t stable during colonialism, and it hasn’t been stable after. They’ve experienced some of the worst African dictators, interspersed with coups and general violence. Up until recenty, the major issue was that the central government simply didn’t have much power- not much manpower, not much firepower, and not much credibility. Unable to raise a military or police force any stronger than the presidential guard, the central government traditionally relied on regional powerbrokers/warlords to keep some level of control outside the capital. This never worked particularly well, and much of the country has been on ongoing battle between displaced soldiers turned road bandits and local militia groups that alternatively join in the maurading.

CAR has also been blessed with a particularly unfortunate set of neighbors, and everyone from warloads from Darfur to Joseph freaking Kony have sauntered in to cause trouble.

Anyway, despite having followed the conflict somewhat closely, I have been pretty shocked at the speed that it’s somehow evolved into a religious confict. I honestly don’t think that was the primary divide just a few years ago. But, then again, a lot of things have changed in religion in the area, and I think that areas that were previously pretty relaxed in terms of religious tension are now joining in on the hate bandwagon.

So, that brings us to today, where we have tens of thousands of Muslims fleeing Christian militias, who claim to be seeking revenge for previous attacks. I’ve seen some new footage that is pretty distrubing- militia members swearing to drive all Muslims from the country of slaughter them. Mosques are being destroyed, and churches offering shelter to Muslims are being persecuted and threatened. The violence occurring is horrific, with rape, torture, and crimes against children becoming common. Much of the Muslim population is fleeing to nearby countries. Recently, a man who fell off of an evacuating truck was immediately murdered by the waiting crowd. It’s bad. And unfortunately, the areas where the refugees are fleeing-- largely remote border regions of Cameroon and Chad-- are ill-equipped to host any kind of refugees, being extremely poor themselves. Adding to the issue is that Muslims traditionally do the bulk of the cattle herding, and their exodus apparently threatens to trigger a massive food crisis.

Does anyone have any thoughts on this conflict? Anyone else following it? And on the other hand, can we finally put to rest the idea that Muslims are uniquely boodthirsty? I don’t know how this conflict turned into a religious one, but this conflict reflects pretty badly on everyone.


Well, I don’t know that many people seriously think that Muslims are uniquely bloodthirsty. But this conflict was, if not religious, at least had a religious dimension from the beginning, because the Séléka was almost entirely Muslim. A lot of the violence now is retaliation against Muslim communities by Christian militias for attacks on Christian communities by disbanded Séléka militias, a lot of which turned to banditry.

And, of course, this isn’t a religious conflict as such…they’re not fighting for religious reasons. But, like in the former Yugoslavia, religion is being used as a tribal identifier.

It seems like a great many, perhaps most, American Christians believe this. Well, they include atheists in there, also.

In the case of CAR, it did not begin as a religious conflict, but very quickly turned into one. Religion is being used as an identifier, but as it has become the issue at hand, it does affect the behavior of those involved, after all, nothing is more important than what God wants.

Also, and this is a crucial point that almost everyone misses… at least secular violence is about something. To an atheist like me, religious conflict is violence over nothing.

First off, religious violence isn’t violence over nothing. It’s just violence over something you don’t think is important. But beyond this, this violence is enormously secular. Muslims aren’t being attacked because they deny Jesus’s divinity or whatever. They’re being attacked because Sekela forces and ex-Sekela forces committed massacres and rapes during the civil war and now people in the areas attacked want vengeance. When you put this on top of the existing land conflicts between Christians and Muslims (Christian communities tend to be farming, Muslim communities, pastoralists), and the bad blodo that’s developed from that, you get violence.

The International Crisis Group is the go-to website for summaries of emerging atrocities in remote locales. Here is their Central African Republic page: http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/africa/central-africa/central-african-republic.aspx

I see that the UN Security Council authorized deployment of EU troops, use of force, and set a sanctions regime on Jan 28.

The seleka has only been a thing since 2012. The current crisis has simmered as a series of incoherent acts of violence by any just about every type of group you could think of- politicians, militias, foreign adventurers, private security firms, and random bandits.

I do think it’s interesting that this crisis has gone on so long, but now that it has developed a religious perspective, it’s finally warranting international attention. I think previously, the crisis just didn’t have a narrative we could relate to. It wasn’t “sexy.” Now with religion, it is.

As for international intervention, it won’t be effective unless it is large and sustained. The UN has thrown some half-asses interventions before, to basically no effect, largely because they didn’t even try to secure the more remote parts of the country. It’s worth noting that France is and always has been deeply
Involved, and the only reason any government has been able to control Bangui and it’s immediate surroundings (which is as far as the government ever really reaches) is due to French troops. France tends moderate it’s actions, in part because they are trying to be more hands off in Africa in general, and in part because they don’t want to be I. The position of choosing which equally bad guy to support.

The Seleka has only been a thing since 2012 (and technically doesn’t exist anymore), but the UFDR dates back to 2007.

This is a country where a Christian general ousted a president who had been Muslim for a few months when a previous regime required it. That general provoked an alliance of Muslim groups into rebellion, and he systematically killed Muslims whom he deemed to be rebels. The Muslim alliance overthrew him in 2013 and went on reprisals for several months, and now that that government is falling apart and the country is in chaos, Christian groups are engaging in reprisals of their own. This most recent round of violence is certainly the largest, since there’s no government of any kind, but the religious dimension to the conflict goes back a long way.

The notion that it’s only recently become a sectarian conflict is in part due to the quirks of reporting in the West. For instance, Human Rights Watch has been doing vital and courageous reporting on the several cycles of violence for some time, but when Muslim fighters were engaging in reprisals in Christian neighborhoods, they consistently used non-religious terms, describing it as “Seleka” attacking “civilians” (in a country that is 50-80% Christian and Muslims are concentrated in certain regions) or “anti-balaka towns.” Now that the atrocities are running in the opposite direction, HRW describes them as Christians attacking Muslims.

None of this is meant to lessen the horror and criminality of the current Christian violence or to fault the brave and praiseworthy work that HRW is doing. It’s just meant to help explore where our own perceptions may be developing from.

I have to respectfully disagree that we are seeing a quirk of Western reporting somehow not wanting to report on sectarian violence. Indeed, that seems to be the very thing that is making this crisis finally have some international visibility. In any case, I have been following this crisis for several years on a pretty deep level- mostly though project reports and other grey literature from organizations working in the area. And I lived in northern Cameroon from 2006-2008, when large numbers of Central African refugees were coming in to the country along with the bandits that preyed on them. The violent spillover in Cameroon was mostly targeted at Muslim pastoralists, and it was absolutely horrific, and often directed at children (who were kidnapped and often killed in large numbers.)

Religion was always there, as one of the many ways to describe the various groups involved, but it was never the central focus of the conflict, as far as I can tell. Certainly not to the degree that it is today.

I am slightly hopeful that some good will eventually come out of the attention. Something has to change at some point-- CAR can’t remain a pretend-country with no meaningful government forever. But the UN has a historically poor record of doing much good in these situations, and there is aways a risk of another pan-African clusterfuck if too many hands get involved. I’m not sure that whatever it is that will eventually allow peace in CAR is ready yet, though. There just isn’t enough organization really anywhere in the country to picture it.

Completely agree. I see this as the central tragedy of colonialism; the failure to build any institutions to support civil society. It’s the same as we saw in the Congo – the fragility of the country’s political system means that unrest leads not just to violence but to complete and utter chaos.