Inter Faith in Action - Perspectives

Interfaith Relations in Ghana: Faith and Citizenship


Ghana has an estimated population of 20 million, comprising of over 60 different language and ethnic groups. On the religious front, the population is made up of adherents of African traditional religion, Christians, Muslims and more recently, pockets of religions and sects of Eastern origin. Christianity, Traditional religion and Islam are, however, the three dominant religions. According to the 2000 population census, Ghanaians are predominantly Christian, with more than two-thirds (68.8%) of the total population claiming to be Christian. Muslims are the second largest religious group with 15.9% followed by practitioners of Traditional African Religions with 8.5%.

Ghana is divided into ten political administrative regions. The Northern region is home to the largest Muslim community in the whole country (home to over a third of the total Muslim population). The most Islamised ethnic groups in Ghana are the Dagomba, Gonja, Mamprusis, Walas and the Bisa to some extent; all of northern extractions. We also have small proportions of southern ethnic groups like Fantis and Ashantis who are followers of the Ahmadiyya Movement which for that reason is locally known as “Fante or Asante Nkramo”, i.e. Fante or Asante Islam in contradistinction to mainstream Islam patronized by people of northern Ghanaian origin and West African nationals. A number of Gas of the costal area are also found in mainstream Islam.

Celebration and Confrontation
There is a Ghanaian proverb which says "too much meat does not spoil soup". On the whole, this proverb typifies the Ghanaian and indeed African ethno-religious make-up. At all levels, Christians and Muslims mix and do things in common right from the family to national levels. At the national level Ghana has a Catholic President and a Muslim vice who were sworn into office by a lay Methodist Chief Justice. Muslim chiefs in northern Ghana are known to invite Christians to come and plant churches within their domain. Christians and Muslims attend each other’s religious festivals and services. Easter, Christmas, Id ul-fitr and id ul-adha are all national holidays celebrated by all. Muslim and Christian leaders attend and/or deliver goodwill messages at each other’s national conferences, synods and conventions. Muslims ask for and appreciate Christian prayers offered in the name of Jesus! Similarly Muslims offer prayers for political leaders irrespective of their religious affiliation.

That is the good news. The bad news is that Ghana has had her fair share of inter-religious tensions and violence. In the mid 90s inter-religious violence in some key cities like Accra, Takoradi, Kumasi and Tamale were common phenomena. In Accra one source of inter-religious tension has been a controversial traditional ban on noise making, especially drumming for the duration of a month. Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians have always defied the ban claiming it is an infringement on their freedom of worship leading to confrontation and violence with adherents of primal religions and traditional authorities. After a series of interventions and meetings, this issue is now almost resolved with most Christians observing the traditional annual ban on noise making.   

There is a history of tension and violent confrontations between different Muslim groups in Ghana, especially between Ahmadis and mainstream Muslim groups. The bloody confrontations of the early 1930s between Ahmadis and mainstream Sunni Muslims gave way to mutual suspicion, contempt and non-cooperation up until the end of the last century. Now there are attempts on the part of the national leadership to build bridges. A clear sign was December 2006 when the National Chief Imam attended the Ahmadiyya annual convention for the very first time and delivered a goodwill message. Another level of tension is that between indigenous Ghanaian Muslims and other West African nationals over leadership. The latter see themselves as the rightful custodians of the Islamic tradition and resent taking subordinate roles to indigenous Ghanaian Muslims. This has resulted in a number of violent confrontations during Friday prayers leading to the closure of a number of mosques by the authorities.

Between the mid and late 90s there were a number of violent confrontations between missionary minded Muslim groups made up of graduates from Arab universities and the majority traditional Ghanaian Muslim groups. The most notorious of these groups is what is known locally as the Ahl ul-Sunna, a Saudi trained Wahhabi inspired group. They verbally attack and publicly condemn traditional Muslim practices like production of charms and wearing of amulets which they see as mixing Islam with traditional religious practices and as such un-Islamic. The brand of Islam they see as ‘pure’ or ‘orthodox’ is that which is espoused in Saudi Arabia or other parts of the Arab-Muslim world.

Direct Christian-Muslim conflicts in Ghana have been few and far in between. Back in the mid 1990s there were isolated instances of Muslim groups attacking Christian preachers or churches for allegedly insulting Islam. These incidents took place in cities like Kumasi and Takoradi. Both in these places, Presbyterian churches were the targets of Muslim fury. In one of the instances, the leadership of both communities met at the national level and resolved to share the cost of repairing the damage caused. In some cases, Muslim groups attacked Christian preachers for provocative preaching and alleged insults against their beliefs. These confrontations have largely subsided and there has hardly been any such Muslim-Christian violence since the beginning of this century. 

Factors Influencing Christian-Muslim Relations
Historical/Colonial Factors: Colonial policies of banning missionaries from ‘Muslim’ areas contributed in widening the divide between Muslims and Christians especially in the areas of education and development. This has resulted in a situation whereby in Ghana Christians who are mostly southerners are generally better educated and the south better developed than Muslims who are generally northerners. This has been a source for stereotypical perceptions and resentment.

British policy of Indirect Rule which led to imposing Muslim rulers over non-Muslim groups especially in British Protectorate of northern Ghana contributed to the legacy of resentment most of which boiled over into open conflicts after independence. In one such conflict in 1994 between the Gonjas and Konkonbas in northern Ghana, a Presbyterian minister was killed in his manse in Salaga while some Churches and Church institutions were attacked by Gonja fighters who are predominantly Muslim. Memories of Muslim slavery in parts of northern Ghana evoke resentment on the part of the victims and reinforce stereotypical views of the other and sense of superiority on the part of the erstwhile raiding parties. All of these tend to negatively impact Muslim-Christian relations in Ghana.

Muslim Dawah and Christian Missions
Ahmadis have a long tradition of polemical public preaching in Ghana. The leadership of the group which for a long time was dominated by Pakistanis, apparently imported polemical preaching from the 19th century Indian sub-continent. Ahmadiyya instituted  public preaching against Christianity and mainstream Islam in Kumasi in the early 1930s. Until then Muslim and Christians simply minded their own business so to speak. Ahmadi anti-mainstream Islamic and anti-Christian preaching provoked bloody confrontations with mainstream Muslims in parts of Ghana. Ahmadis toned down their attacks on mainline Muslims with the appointment of the first Ghanaian leader of the Movement in the mid 1970s focusing their polemics mainly against Christians. In 2004 in Tamale in northern Ghana, the Regional Minister had to warn a Pakistani Ahmadi preacher who constantly attacked Christian practices, beliefs and the Bible on radio.  Other mainstream Sunni groups joined the preaching bandwagon back in the 1980s leading to the proliferation of audio tapes and other literature to win non-Muslims to Islam and to show how wrong Christianity is.

As the pool of Traditional believers from which Christians and Muslim use to fish dries up, the two missionary religions are now fishing from each others ponds. Christian groups have sprung up with the sole aim of converting Muslims to Christianity. The most popular of these ministries is the Converted Muslims’ Christian Association now called the Straight Way Chapel in Kumasi. This ministry was started in the late ‘80s in Kumasi by a convert from Islam and now operates in many parts of the country. Public preaching is conducted by this and similar groups in Muslim dominated neighbourhoods. Muslim converts are paraded in churches and at conventions to give "testimonies" about Islam and their conversion, most of which involve exaggerations and blatant distortions. Many have learnt lessons from the resultant attacks and are now toning down their polemics.

Political Interference and Opportunism.
Even though Ghana is a secular country, it has a long history of politicians manipulating religion for their political ends. The PNDC military government of the 1980s which started out with pro-Communist policies, pulled down the central mosque in Accra to make way for a car park. This evoked anger and curses from the Muslim community both local and abroad. Later on however, especially after the fall of communism, and in the eyes of some Ghanaians, the government seems to have lurched towards Islam and Muslim countries as possible alternative allies. In 1989, certain steps were taken by the Government which were widely viewed by the Christian population as attempts to undermine religious freedom in general and Christianity in particular.

First came an attempt to ban all broadcast of Christian gospel music over the national radio and television. Then followed the taking control over administration and replacing ‘religious instruction’ with ‘cultural studies’ in the curriculum of Christian Mission schools. Other measures included the enactment of an infamous ‘Religious Registration Law’ requiring all religious groups in the country to register with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism under conditions viewed by the mainline Christian leadership as dubious. These policies have long been reversed.

At the time that Christians were feeling they were coming under undue pressure from the government, a policy of positive discrimination was adopted towards Muslim Missionary schools, popularly referred to in Ghana as ‘English/Arabic school’. The Government provided financial, personnel and material support for these schools. It permitted and in fact paid for the teaching of Arabic in the schools which in the eyes of Ghanaian Christians and Muslims alike is inextricably linked to the promotion and propagation of Islam. The Government also declared Idd-ul-Fitr and Idd ul-adha as national holidays. These policies are all still operative.

All these developments raised a sense of concern amongst most Ghanaian Christians. Since the change of government in 2001, most of the leadership of major Protestant denominations are viewed by Muslims and wider Ghanaian society as sympathetic if not openly supportive of the ruling party. The leadership of these churches who were once constant critics of the PNDC/NDC government in the 90s have become less critical of the present ruling party, the New Patriotic Party or NPP. Both leading political parties are vying for Muslim votes with the NDC portraying itself and generally viewed as the party with the largest Muslim/northern following. In other not to be outdone the ruling NPP government continues the tradition of government using tax-payers money to subsidise Muslim pilgrimage and is building a huge mosque for Muslims in Accra. Party politics may therefore have build bridges between ordinary Muslims and Christians but it has also opened up new frontlines of polarization in Ghanaian society. 

External Factors: Muslim countries tend to export their own rivalries into Ghanaian Muslim community by supporting and funding different Muslim groups. This is especially so with Saudi Arabia, Libya and Iran who compete at funding rival Muslim groups. Ghanaians felt the reverberations of the Impact of 9/11 and subsequent US led invasion of Iraq. Churches were threatened in Tamale but tension was diffused through personal contact with the local Chief Imam who condemned the threats in strong terms in the mosque and on the local FM stations. In October 2006 there were reports in the Ghanaian media of al-Qaida tapes in circulation in the capital, Accra. The National Chief Imam issued a strong statement publicly condemning such videos.  

Family, ethnic and other bonds
There are numerous "inter-faith households" and members of same ethnic groups adhering to different religious persuasions. In such cases, bonds of family and ethnicity are stronger than religious affiliations and serve to neutralize religious animosities and in fact build interfaith bridges. There are instances where relatives of the Christian and primal religious traditions are called upon to contribute money for Muslim relatives to perform the pilgrimage in Mecca. Muslims attend ordination services involving Christian relations, friends or neighbors. Annual traditional festivals which are now a common feature of the Ghanaian religious calendar afford Christian, Muslim and their traditional counterparts of the various ethnic groups the opportunities for solidarity, renewal of ties and contribution towards developmental projects. 

In Ghana, when we talk of people of different religions, especially Muslims, we are not talking about a community of immigrants or illegal immigrants or historical invaders and colonizers as in other places like the West, North Africa, Sudan or even Northern Nigeria. Muslims in Ghana are close relations and have always been full fledged citizens. Muslims and Christians work together very closely in various political parties. In most cases, party political loyalties override those of denominational or sectarian religious considerations. Hence it is common to find Muslims and Christians who share a lot in common in politics than they do with their co-religionists. As a result, though it has become an unspoken norm in Ghana to share the highest offices of president and vice-president between Christians and Muslims, many Muslims will vote for two Christians standing on the platform of a particular political party rather than an all Muslim ticket on a rival political platform! It can therefore be said that in Ghana Muslims and Christians don’t have a luxury to tolerate one another. We actually literally celebrate each other! 

Christian responses to the Muslim presence
It is fair to say Ghanaians Christians are not adequately prepared to respond to the challenge of the Muslim presence. Until very recently, very few seminaries taught Islam as a small part of comparative religion. The notion of a Muslim amongst the majority of southern Ghanaian Christians is that of a dirty, illiterate watchman from the north or uncouth bunch of strangers living in the dirtiest and filthiest part of the city known as zongos. These perceptions, however, have more to do with ethnic prejudices southerners generally harbour and express towards northerners than with religious ones. To such Christians of southern extraction, the Muslim presence has little or no relevance let alone consequence to them. It must be said, though, that in the wake of 9/11 and the recent shari’ah related violence in Nigeria is awakening some of the Christian leaders from their deep slumber on Christian-Muslim issues.

Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians on their part generally see Muslims purely as objects of evangelism. As far as this group of Christians are concerned, the only legitimate relationship a Christian can have with a Muslim is in the area of evangelism. The study of Islam to such Christians is always geared at looking for the "weaknesses" in order to prove to Muslims that there is no salvation in Islam.

There are however those who are seriously seeking to promote a better understanding of Islam and trying to creatively address the Muslim presence. The Christian Council of Ghana has an Interfaith Desk which seeks to organise seminars on Islam for Christians. Response to this approach is still very low key but set to pick up in momentum. If Ghanaians are to live to the proverb that ‘too much meat does not spoil soup’ then more needs to be done by injecting some intellectual dialogue into the dialogue of life for the latter on its own has proven in many instances to be very fragile.

It is in this connection that the Presbyterian Church of Ghana officially took a decision during the last General Assembly to establish an Interfaith Research and Resource Centre with the aim of informing and equipping the Church to respond biblically and intellectually to the Muslim presence. The Centre which takes off formally in September 2007 will work in partnership with all mainline protestant and Pentecostal denominations to organise seminars on interfaith issues, run short certificate courses on Islam and Interfaith Relations for Christians, facilitate Christian-Muslim dialogue sessions on issues of common interest and concern as well as initiate an academic programme of study on Islam and Interfaith Relations through the Akrofi-Christaller Institute.

Factors that undermine a sense of citizenship:
In Ghana like in all African countries there are multiple layers of identity labels. These include the clan, ethnic, religious and national. The concept of the Nation State is the new arrival on the market-shelve of multiple identities. The nation state of Ghana is therefore having to compete with the older identity categories for the loyalty of Ghanaians. The competition has been complicated and in some cases undermined by the fact that the nation state is an artificial and arbitrary creation of outsiders, Western European colonial masters. The artificial lines called ‘boundaries’ have split ethnic communities into different countries. In these situations the choice of citizenship or faith in the nation Ghana is pitted against that of ethnic identity which is no respecter of national boundaries. In these cases the sense of citizenship always suffers.

Another undermining factor is the failure on part of state to earn the trust and confidence of citizens. Lack of good governance, local grievances of injustices and regional feelings of neglect in national development are all contributory factors. In the last month in Ghana, northern Ghanaians have organised number of demonstrations against the state for neglecting their areas and a group has recently emerged putting together a legal case against the British government seeking compensation for been responsible for the historical neglect of the north. Tied to lack of good governance is the issue of endemic corruption of state structures. Overwhelming majority of Ghanaians have little or no faith at all in the judicial system and security agencies of the state. The tendency therefore is for people to fall back on their ethnic and religious groupings, take the law into their own hands, and seek justice the form and way they know best.

Concluding Remarks
In my estimation therefore, the issue of citizenship is not a lack of trust between different faith communities, certainly not necessarily mutual mistrust between Muslims and Christians. It is lack of confidence and faith on the part of both Muslims and Christians in the state. Two things are needed in my judgement. First is a common unifying factor at the national level. In Ghana, the national football team, the Black Stars, and now the personality of Kofi Annan, immediate past UN Secretary General, seems to be the only strong unifying factors that is able to bring Ghanaians together. Secondly, Christians and Muslims need to unlock themselves from the secular-democracy versus shariacracy debate and together explore ways of fashioning more credible political and judicial systems that can compete with the older identity categories for the faith and confidence of the citizens. I don’t think we can do this successfully unless and until African Muslim and Christians are prepared and permitted to take responsibility for their respective faith traditions to which they are the majority adherents compared to the historic centres of the Christian and Islamic traditions.