Fellow Since 2006
Interfaith Mediation Centre (Muslim-Christian Dialogue Forum)
This description of Mohammed Ashafa's work was prepared when Mohammed Ashafa was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006.
James Wuye, a Christian pastor and Imam Mohammed Ashafa, a Muslim cleric, are working together to end violent clashes between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria. Their goal is to achieve peaceful coexistence through inter-faith cooperation and community education.
The New Idea
Pastor Wuye and Imam Ashafa believe the only way religious violence can be reduced or stopped in Nigeria is by having leaders of each faith promote religious teachings of peace and non-violence. Their organization, the Interfaith Mediation Center of the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Forum, deals with the psychology of religious violence and addresses its causes and effects. Wuye and Ashafa are influencing schools, houses of worship, and community centers to prevent violence and intervene when conflicts erupt. Their education and media outreach strategies have afforded them unprecedented, widespread support and legitimacy for their efforts to promote peaceful coexistence.
Nigeria is divided almost equally between Christians and Muslims. Violent clashes frequently occur in communities such as Northern Nigeria, where members of both faiths reside in close proximity. These violent outbursts, often in reaction to international events, such as the Dutch cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Mohammed, or domestic current events, have cost thousands of lives and tremendous losses in Naira. Many Nigerians become refugees in their own country, resulting in a deep-seated hatred and phobia between Muslims and Christians. One of the long-term effects of religious conflict is poverty, especially in the Muslim North where investors have refused to invest. Furthermore, the majority of the merchants in the North are Southern Christians who are leaving the region in droves for fear of attacks; resulting in commodity shortages and rising prices. The religious tension is affecting employment and job placement, as it discourages essential service providers, especially doctors and nurses, predominantly Southerners, from working in the North. Some states in the North have been forced to hire doctors from Eastern Europe and Cuba at three times the cost of local Southern doctors to compensate for the shortfall. The government has reacted to religious tension by sending troops to quell riots and distributing relief materials, but has not taken a proactive role in trying to resolve the underlying conflicts. Many peace-building citizen-sector organizations, especially religious, have tried to forge peace in the north. But most have failed because they lack community support. For instance, many Christian denominations have introduced peace initiatives, but without ecumenical participation across religious groups, they can’t build much momentum. Secular organizations have recorded even less success because they lack legitimacy and a following in a country where religious opinion holds sway. If the relationship between Christians and Muslims is allowed to deteriorate any further, an all-out war may be the result.
Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye have designed a strategy to both prevent religious and political violence and resolve it when it happens. Their early-warning mechanism, developed in 1996, helps communities identify inflammatory situations and provides the means to reduce tensions. For instance, Ashafa and Wuye defused potential violence surrounding the 2006 Dutch cartoon fiasco, which inflamed many communities around the world. Sensing danger, they immediately asked the heads of the Christian Associations of Nigeria to appear on radio and television to publicly condemn the negative depiction of the Prophet Mohammed in the cartoons, and asked the Chief Imams to accept the condemnation and ask for calm. Their tactic of publicly encouraging Muslim and Christian leaders to support each other and sign peace agreements has proven successful in building ties between the two communities and towards their shared goal of mitigating violence. Another early-warning technique is the “deprogramming” of violent youth through Christian and Islamic instruction that emphasizes forgiveness and non-violence. To reverse a “theology of hate” that is often taught to children at home and in school, Ashafa and Wuye set up Peace Clubs in pre-school, primary, secondary, and tertiary institutions. The Peace Clubs have peace-building and peer-mediation components and involve class representatives who mediate conflict between classmates and teach their peers how to resolve conflicts peacefully.Students throughout Nigeria receive religious instruction, and particularly in conflict prone states learn that one religion is superior to others. So in 1998 Ashafa and Wuye developed a curriculum entitled “The Ethical Code for Religious Instructions in Schools” which is now used in schools and by other organizations interested in promoting peace. Coupled with Peace Clubs, the curriculum is reducing religious violence in schools. To date, over 30 schools in the majority Muslim Kaduna state, and primary schools and universities in Plateau, Kano, and Bauchi states have Peace Clubs and peace curricula.They also created “deprogramming” Youth Camps which bring together militant youths from different communities for 5 days of intensive interaction. Camp participants are involved in activities that replace demonization of those of a different faith with the humanization. These militant youth attend skill-building activities such as financial and computer literacy classes. Ashafa and Wuye have also trained youth leaders from across the country to become trainers in their communities.In addition to their preventive work, Ashafa and Wuye also focus on peace building and resolution. Since 1997, they have been training religious leaders of both faiths on conflict mitigation and organizing peace-building workshops for community members. They organize seminars with opinion leaders and elders that encourage dialogue about differing views on politics, society, and law. There are also practical workshops that encourage good governance, legislation, budget tracking, and building bridges between communities and political and religious leaders.Ashafa and Wuye also help communities use peace building methods that may have been forgotten or abandoned. They train women of both faiths to monitor elections and educate their communities on the electoral process. Their studies have shown a sharp decline in rigging and violence at polls where the women operate.The pair offers trauma counseling for those who have suffered losses at the hands of religious violence and trains religious and community leaders to assist those affected by violence. Ashafa and Wuye use scriptures from their two holy books to help people deal with suffering and tragedy. They also force men to deal with the ramifications of trauma; challenging African notions that men should not show emotion. Media outreach is their main approach to spreading their work beyond the areas where they operate directly. Both clerics have television shows dedicated to preaching the tenets of their respective faiths as well as peaceful co-existence. They are featured in a documentary on conflict resolution which was showcased at the UN headquarters, at the House of Commons in the UK, and in Washington DC. This was made into a case study by the Tanenbaum Center of Interreligious Understanding. The Center comprises a Secretariat of 14 people (7 Muslims and 7 Christians) with joint deputyships, coordinators, and program managers. Ashafa and Wuye have a rotating portfolio of responsibilities and enjoy an equitable division of labor. The sensitive nature of their work requires participation of both the Imam and Pastor in the programming the Center offers. Due to the dangerous nature of their work, they have succession plans in place for appointed deputies to assume executive leadership positions should anything debilitating happen to them. They have set up offices in three states in Nigeria, two in the North and one in the East, and have partnerships with various religious groups in other areas. To ensure widespread impact, Wuye and Ashafa set up committees and advisory councils made up of religious and community leaders to monitor peace-building efforts and provide feedback, using a hotline to report religious violence nationwide. At least two people (1 Muslim and 1 Christian) from each of Nigeria’s 36 states are trained in conflict resolution (with more staff in conflict-prone states) and stay in close communication with the Center’s headquarters in Kaduna state. Their work has also spread beyond Nigeria to Northern Ghana, Burundi and Kenya. Their Center is sustained through support from international donor and religious organizations, and local and regional governments in Nigeria. Ashafa and Wuye want to bring peace to all nations plagued by religious violence. They have assisted organizations in Northern Ireland, Rwanda, and Native American communities in the United States. They also work with Muslim and Christian entities in conflict areas outside of Nigeria. They have partnered in Sudan with the New Sudan Islamic Council and the New Sudan Church Council and in Kenya with the Kenyan Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs and the Kenyan Council of Churches. Their goal is to work with organizations in the Niger Delta region, Middle East peace groups, and are building an office with the African Union staffed with Muslim and Christian practitioners. Their next steps include the construction of an Interfaith Peace Village, with land donated by the Kaduna state government. They are planning to host a summit on peace and religious harmony which will convene religious leaders and peace practitioners from across Africa. Because they believe peace building without development is ineffective, they have organized Muslim and Christian women rice farmers to work together as an effective peace building and income generation scheme.
The son of an Islamic scholar from a long line of Muslim clerics dating back 13 generations, Mohammed Ashafa grew up in a conservative family that espoused Islamic socio-cultural values and held deep suspicion for all things Western and Christian. As a young man and the eldest son, he followed the family vocation and became an Imam. To promote his family tradition of Islamic custodianship, Ashafa joined a fanatical Islamic group committed to completely Islamizing the North and chasing away all non-Muslims from the region. Ashafa became the leader of this militant group and also the Secretary General of the Muslim Youth Councils. The Muslim Youth Councils incited great violence in the North, which resulted in the Christians creating their own counter organization, the Youth Christian Association of Nigeria, led by Pastor Wuye. Born in Kaduna State, Pastor Wuye, an Assemblies of God Pastor, was the son of a soldier who served in the Biafran War. From a young age, Wuye was fascinated by battle and war games. In the 1980s and 1990s he was involved in militant Christian activities and served as Secretary General of the Kaduna State chapter of the Youth Christian Association of Nigeria, an umbrella organization for all Christian groups in Nigeria for 8 years. He recounts that his “hatred for the Muslims had no limits”. He hated seeing people being intimidated and abused, so when Muslims were blamed for inciting a violent conflict in Kaduna, he immediately volunteered to lead a reprisal attack. He lost his right arm during one of the battles against Ashafa’s militant group in Kaduna; increasing his vengeance and deep hatred for Muslims in general and Ashafa in particular.Ashafa also experienced loss at the hands of Pastor Wuye. In one of the violent clashes between Muslim Youth Councils and Youth Christian Association of Nigeria, two cousins and Ashafa’s spiritual mentor died while fighting Pastor Wuye’s Christian group. For years, both Ashafa and Wuye vowed to avenge the deaths and injuries of their loved ones by killing each other. However, a chance meeting in 1995 brought the two clerics together and through intermediaries and months of soul searching, both leaders decided to lay down their arms and work together to end the destructive violence plaguing their country. This chance meeting and Imam’s extension of the olive branch to Wuye led to the formation of the Interfaith Mediation Center of the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Forum.Their collective work in peace building began in 1997, and they have since managed to spread their messages of conflict-resolution to all corners of the globe. Their work has earned them numerous accolades including the Peace Activist Award of the Tanenbaum Center of Interreligious Understanding; a joint Honorary Doctorate degree in Philosophy bestowed upon them in Kolkata, India; a Heroes of Peace Award from Burundi; Search for Common Ground on Interfaith Cooperation Award USA; and the Bremen Peace Award from the Threshold Foundation on interreligious reconciliation, among others.