Cameroon, which is concerned about the spillover from Nigeria's Boko Haram Islamist insurgency and recruitment by the group of young Cameroonians, has been a staunch ally of Nigeria in the fight against the insurgency. A new report by the International Crisis Group, Cameroon: The Threat of Religious Radicalism, explores evolving religious dynamics that are increasing the prominence of fundamentalist and radical groups which have, in Cameroon's neighbours, contributed directly to increased religious tensions and violence.
Conflicts affecting Cameroon's neighbours, Nigeria and the Central African Republic (CAR), have left large refugee populations sheltering in the country (there are currently approximately 14,960 Nigerian and 198,890 Central African refugees in Cameroon). This increases the potential for clashes. Cameroon is now also the logistical headquarters for the African Union Standby Force, and hosts some 300 American soldiers in anti-Boko Haram training and advisory roles, which makes the growing religiously-inspired volatility of the country particularly concerning.
The report investigates rising trends of Salafism, including what it labels 'Wahhabism,' imported from Saudi Arabia, other Gulf countries, Egypt, Sudan, and Nigeria. These trends have grown in influence as the traditional Tijaniyya Sufi traditions and religious leaders' influence has waned. At least 10 per cent of Cameroonian Muslims are now believed to be Wahhabi, a dramatic increase from only a few decades ago. The term 'Wahhabi' is widely used without negaitve connotations in Cameroon, and most often indicates a connection with Saudi Arabia rather than an ideological agreement with the eighteenth century cleric Ibn al-Wahhab. Simultaneous to the growth in Wahhabi and Salafi trends has been a growth in Pentecostal churches, partly through – mostly German – evangelism and partly through domestic growth. Each year since 1991, dozens of revivalist churches have been established that are at times aggressively evangelistic and antagonistic to Catholicism and Islam in the country.
Ahmadou Ahidjo, Cameroon's president between 1960 and 1982, encouraged the entrenchment of traditional Islamic hegemony of the Tijaniyya Sufi brotherhood, and encouraged closer ties with Gulf countries, sending many young men to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as Egypt and Sudan on scholarships. These countries in turn generously funded the establishment of mosques, madrasas, hospitals, and NGOs. These institutions began the cultural infiltration of Gulf Islamist ideologies – namely Salafism and Wahhabism – in the country while undermining the traditional Sufi leadership. The report highlights Wahhabi-run madrasas, mosques, and informal and unregulated preachers as central venues of increasing radicalism among Cameroonian Muslims. The report also discusses the role of prisons – especially since the escalation of the fight against Boko Haram, which has increased the number of arbitrary arrests, and refugee camps.
There is growing mutual ignorance and antagonism between Christians and Muslims.
The growth of both Muslim and Christian fundamentalism coincided with an economic downturn and government retrenchment and, in 1993, a religious freedom law that greatly reduced government oversight over places of worship and the teachings of religious leaders. The Tijani leadership lost much of its governing mandate to the religious freedom law, and a significant amount of authority among Muslims when it supported the Christian Paul Biya in his bid for the presidency in 1992. The religious freedom law, and the accession of a Christian to the presidency, also created an umbrella of tolerance for the proliferation of informal revivalist churches and sects. The report indicates doctrinal rigidity of Catholicism in the country and the Catholic Church's failure to respond to the increasing economic woes of its congregants led to increased disaffection among Catholics, causing many to abandon the historic Christian leadership for the growing Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal churches.
Cameroonian Salafis find a sense of superiority by claiming to practice "authentic Islam."
Wahhabi preachers and Wahhabi-led mosques flourished by offering social services the government no longer provided. Additionally, there is an ethnic dimension to this proliferation of Gulf ideology; the Islamic community in the country has traditionally been led by Fulanis whose stronghold is in the north. Many Muslim converts are southern and resent Fulani dominance of Islamic leadership. Growing Wahhabi influence in the country offers an opportunity for non-Fulani Muslims to escape the shadow of Fulani hegemony, and because of Wahhabi ideological claims of being the only correct form of Islam, a sense of superiority over Sufis. According to the report, many now "pride themselves on practicing authentic Islam and collaborating directly with the 'source of Islam' [Saudi Arabia]." The report found increasing friction between the different strands of Islam in the country, particularly manifesting as tensions over the leadership of mosques. Throughout the 2000s, clashes erupted between Wahhabis and Tijanis over mosque imams, especially central mosques in larger urban areas.
The ICG report also found intra-Christian tensions, including Christian revivalist churches demonising the Catholic Church and clergy. The Pope, the report states, is described as a "masonic grand-master in league with the Devil." Preachers state that Catholics are "doomed to damnation." Catholic leaders in turn reportedly disdain the new revival churches, considering them 'sects,' and their leadership to be "religious entrepreneurs and swindlers without religious training." This antagonism and disdain has created a tense environment of distrust among Cameroonian Christians.
Alongside the intra-religious dynamics in Cameroon, the report investigates relations between Muslims and Christians, finding worrying trends of growing mutual ignorance and antagonism. Muslims largely do not differentiate between Catholics and revivalists. The dynamics of religious change ongoing in Cameroon are not unique to the country, however these dynamics have elsewhere resulted in conflict, including in neighbouring Nigeria. That, combined with the simultaneous refugee influx from Nigeria and the CAR, the absence of a coherent strategy to address Cameroon's religious multiplicity – and increasing religious radicalisation and antagonism – makes the country particularly vulnerable to religious volatility and potentially violence.
You can read the full International Crisis Group report here.