Paul Pillar

Religion and Democracy in the Ivory Coast

In the political culture in some parts of Africa, incumbents have a hard time accepting what we in the West generally take to be a central aspect of democracy: that when an incumbent loses an election, he leaves office. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe’s response to a loss was to insist on nothing less than a power-sharing arrangement with the winner of the election, and then to use his thugs to subvert the arrangement. In the Ivory Coast, the response of loser Laurent Gbagbo has been to claim fraud and to use his security forces to stay in place even at the cost of civil war, until he finally was forced out this week with the military help of a United Nations force and the former colonial power, France.

Gbagbo’s flouting of what the international community broadly accepted as a fair win by his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, is all the more regrettable given some of the support he enjoyed in the United States from leaders whom one might think would respect democratic values. Those values, according to a report by Mark Oppenheimer in the New York Times, appear to have taken second place to religious affinity in motivating the support for Gbagbo, who flaunts his Christianity in his speeches. One supporter was Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, who wrote to the secretary of state calling on her to demand new elections. Inhofe shares with Gbagbo involvement in the National Prayer Breakfast, run by the evangelical Christian organization Fellowship. More explicit in pointing to religious identity as his basis for supporting Gbagbo was Pat Robertson, who said on his Christian Broadcasting Network:

The U.N. has said the other guy won. Well, that may be, but the problem is that this is a country now that has been run by a Christian that is going to be into the hands of Muslims. So it’s one more Muslim nation that’s going to be building up that ring of Shariah law around the Middle East.

This sort of religiously based partiality is antithetical to the democratic principles that ought to inform U.S. policy, and that the United States frequently contends does guide its policy. The religiously determined side-taking, even if coming just from some televangelist, also is widely read as representing the dominant views and intentions of the United States and Americans generally. That in turn spells disbelief about assertions of the United States regarding its principles, and it sharpens civilizational divisions that alienate the United States from much of the world and serve no U.S. interests.

Certainly it serves no interest along the fault lines between Muslim and Christian communities, including the line in West Africa that runs through the Ivory Coast (and also through, among others, Nigeria, the most populous African country). A similarly crude sorting out of good guys and bad guys according to religious affiliation also sometimes appears as an American tendency to view Sunnis as (relatively) good Muslims and Shia as the radical, bad Muslims. That view also serves no good interests.

The impact that the Koran-burning pastor had (with some help from Hamid Karzai) on violence in Afghanistan shows another sort of effect of such thinking. But it does not take pyrotechnic Islamophobia to do it. Even more subtle forms of religiously based partiality will do it.

U.S. leaders should use every available opportunity to distance themselves and the nation from any of these religiously driven attitudes, which should have died with the Peace of Westphalia.