Too Busy To Burn

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LAGOS, Nigeria—Leo Igwe is a lonely man. In this overwhelmingly religious country, he is a rare creature. Leo is a proud, “out,” practicing atheist.

This is no small feat in a country where people answer the question, “How are you?” with, “I thank God.” Leo’s outspokenness has made him well-known but largely disliked in his home town on the northern outskirts of Lagos. It has also put his life in danger.

“I get death threats all the time,” Leo told me when I first met him several months ago. “What can I do? I believe what I believe.”

Death threats over religious matters are taken seriously in Nigeria, a country with a long and troubled history of religious violence. Particularly in the country’s “middle belt,” between its predominantly Muslim north and mostly Christian south, religious violence is easily triggered and dangerously volatile.

In 2002, several hundred people were killed after a perceived insult to Islam during a Miss World beauty pageant being held in Nigeria. In 2006, an additional 200 people were killed in several Nigerian cities after anger erupted in the wake of the publication of Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.

Late last year, the number of dead from religious fighting climbed by around 300 after local government elections sparked mob violence, shootings, and the burning of churches and mosques in the central city of Jos, a city populated by roughly similar numbers of Christians and Muslims.

I traveled to Jos to report on the conflict. Nearly everyone I spoke with held deep-seated animosity toward followers of the other religion. Archbishops, imams, and—most disturbing—children spoke with disdain, distrust, and outright dislike for their Muslim or Christian counterparts.

Lagos had no such incidents during any of the controversies mentioned above. This city never does.

There is crime in Lagos. Bank robberies, muggings, and con schemes are common. Religious violence is relatively unknown here, however. People of every conceivable religion and ethnicity, from every corner of West Africa, come to work in Lagos. So why don’t they bring their ethnic and religious baggage with them?

One possibility is that Christians and Muslims often intermarry in Lagos, a rare event in most other regions of the country.

Rotimi Farawe is a court official and a devout Muslim. I met him at the central mosque, where he prays daily.

“I’m an Alhaji,” he said, referring to his pilgrimage to Mecca. “I married a Catholic woman who goes to church every Sunday, and she’s still in my house. She goes to church; I go to mosque. It works out.”

Their five children have attended a Methodist school and a Quranic school.

Another reason may be government intervention and a strong inter-religious council. Lagos state forbids two religious buildings from being built side-by-side. When a conflict arose recently over a church’s desire to expand on a plot next to a mosque, the issue was quickly taken to the council and settled amicably.

But the real reason may also be the simplest: Lagosians are too busy.

In the search for work, money, and advancement, there seems to be no time for religious violence in Lagos. Churches and mosques espouse a healthy desire for wealth in most of the country, but Lagos is the physical embodiment of that desire, and people have far too much to do.

I asked one of the religious leaders at Lagos’ central mosque why Lagos remained peaceful.

“We’re too busy,” he said.

I asked a banker friend why Lagos didn’t experience the same troubles as other cities.

“We’re too busy trying to make money,” he said.

Churches in Lagos are particularly good at urging their followers to strike it rich.

I recently visited the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministry, perhaps the most aggressive church in a city filled with them. Sermons are loud, sweaty affairs in which worshipers spend most of the four-hour service on their feet, eyes closed, yelling and swaying with the band. Church memorabilia is sold in small kiosks for blocks in all directions. Books, tapes, T-shirts, perfume, foodstuffs, household goods, DVDs. A movie poster reads: Tears of the Barren. A bumper sticker: “Don’t Test Me—My Lord Is a Vengeful Fire.” A newspaper headline: “Obama in Phone Talks With Pastor: Please Pray for Me.”

Three of us lingered in the vestibule, waiting to see the general overseer: a large woman fidgeting with her purse, a sad middle-aged man staring out the window, and me. When the secretary came out to usher the fidgety woman into the office, she paused and looked at me.

“Are you a pastor?” she asked.

No. Not a pastor.

“Because you look like a pastor.”

I assured the woman I was not a pastor. (I decided not to tell her that I had played a priest in a Nigerian movie once.) Whether it was my beard or the color of my skin that gave her this impression, it certainly was not my shabby clothes. In Lagos, most Christian leaders dress like Wall Street CEOs. And their churches are everywhere. Big and small, well-known or obscure, you can’t walk for long in any Lagos neighborhood without seeing church signboards or posters offering redemption, successful marriages, and sexual potency. Most often, they promise wealth.

The quest for money is by no means limited to the Mountain of Fire.

A TV ad for the Holy Ghost Congress promises, “Abundance, exceeding greatness, and success,” all thinly veiled euphemisms for making money.

Nigerians don’t do anything halfway, and their religious fervor is no exception. The nation has provided several slumping Christian denominations with their fastest-growing population bases.

The Anglican Church of Nigeria is the second-largest Anglican branch in the world, behind only the Church of England. Roman Catholic Cardinal Francis Arinze, a Nigerian, was on the shortlist to succeed Pope John Paul II in 2005. The Catholic Church is growing faster in Africa than anywhere else, and some of its biggest parishes are in Nigeria. The same is true for the Baptists and the Pentecostal movement. A recent all-night Christian-music event attracted more than 300,000 people to downtown Lagos.

At a recent event at the biggest Catholic church in Lagos, this same spirit of cupidity was on full display. The church required its parish members to bring in animals to be slaughtered for a feast or to contribute an equal amount in cash. One of the wealthier parishioners brought in a prized cow worth several thousand dollars. The congregation oohed and aahed. Another parishioner, also quite rich, wouldn’t be outdone, so he pledged to bring in a cow worth even more. More sounds of approval, none as loud as those from church leaders. The parishioners who did not donate, or who donated small amounts, were shunned.

I still find the overt materialism surrounding the religious world of Lagos off-putting, especially when pastors drive Mercedes-Benzes past parishioners on their way home to shanty towns. But after walking through countless burned-down homes and stepping around charred bodies in the smoldering aftermath of the religious fighting in Jos last December, the striving for money doesn’t seem so bad after all.