Religious tolerance is a critical aspect in promoting unity and maintaining harmonious relationships between different religious followers and Ghana has come a long way as a multi-religious society where a myriad of people from different backgrounds live together in mutual respect and tolerance.
Ghana’s constitution provides for freedom of religion, and to practice it freely. Promoting a peaceful coexistence between these religions and their followers is not an easy task. It often needs active participation from its leadership and all relevant stakeholders.
The largest Christianity religion has a population of about 71.3 percent. 19.1 percent practise Islam while traditional African spiritual worshipers and other forms of faith make up about 10 percent of the population.
Often conflicts that arise amongst the religious community are mostly triggered by petty misunderstandings on social and political issues. However, the most dangerous threat to peaceful coexistence comes from inter-faith violence, where members of one faith mobilise to attack other religious minorities at the prompting of extremist clerics or Imams.
Sectarian violence is largely carried out by extremists in these sects as a way to assert their superiority over other doctrines. Most often, such violence involves pockets of clashes between members of the three main sects of Islam within the Zongos – Sunnis, Shias, and Tijanias and this brewing hostility that no one is paying attention to.
Sunni factions regard Shia Muslims as infidels and actively pursue them while Shia religious groups often harass and persecute Tijania and Sunnis. Historically there is an existential theological difference between these sects founded on doctrinal and interpretational differences which have culminated into violent disputes.
Imams of these sects use every opportunity especially on the pulpit to spread hate speech and sectarian propaganda which fosters an atmosphere of intolerance and prejudice.
Sectarian clashes were more common in the early 1990s and 2000s than they are now however violent reaction has been witnessed from followers of either sect over claims that one Islamic scholar from the other side had made provocative statements.
Mostly vigilante attacks by individuals or mobs are organized by members of rival sects who carry out these attacks in the name of their sect.
Such acts of violence and intimidation committed against people of different sects are inconsistent with the tenets of the Islamic faith but the potential for it to be used as a weapon in an already fragile security situation calls for deeper examination to forestall any eventualities.
A crucial component of these sectarian groups is their religious education and there are growing concerns about the influence of foreign organisations in the propagation of specific Islamic doctrines throughout Africa.
Countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt etc provide financial and logistical support through mosque-building and other development projects. This is done in accordance with sectarian beliefs as they enjoy widespread and deeply entrenched support from their members.
It must be noted that sectarian affiliations are deeply felt and people who identify themselves as members are mostly not knowledgeable but active participants in rituals often tied to their identity.
Sectarian violence was rife in Ghana during the early 90s and according to reports intra-Muslim conflict between Shia Muslims and Sunnis in Wa led to the burning down of a Sunni- mosque.
While Animosities between the Tijanis and Sunnis are quite common and resulted in an outbreak of violence in 1995 in Wenchi Zongo, Bono Region. The Shias are not left out of these tensions and in the first five months of 2012 witnessed the first open conflict between them and the Sunnis.
Periodically areas like Asokore Mampong Municipality including Aboabo are monitored as potential hotspots for possible sectarian tension and violence.
There have been recent specific incidents or attacks perpetrated by members of these groups where a Sunni imam’s home at Mamobi was shitbombed for apparently enraging members of the Shia sect in one of his preachings and the tit-for-tat violence continues on an ongoing basis.
A more common occurrence of intra-sectarian violence happens within the family unit and in 2013 one such incident took an ugly turn when a prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Hussain who had a fallout with his nephews Afro and Tawfiq Guni threatened them with death.
He had been their guardian since they lost their father at an early age but the difference in sectarian practices had generated heated disputes between them and had often led to violent quarrels in their home.
Neighbours had raised alarm on what they described as veiled threats to life. Eventually, when they disappeared from the neighbourhood, it was feared that the uncle might have succeeded in carrying out the threat.
Often when some of these incidents happen, victims are afraid to live in their community and find sanctuary in other areas until tensions calm down. However, if they don’t return then the worse is feared.
Sometimes a difference in opinion on the teachings of Islam could trigger an unending feud among scholars and members. One such instance was when Sunni Sheik Ibrahim AbuBakri Tawfiq Anas was warned by security authorities for using certain unprintable language on the National Chief Imam of Ghana Sheikh Usman Nuhu Sharubutu who is a Tijania cleric.
The Sunni imam was reprimanded for his words due to the potential to inflame passions and lead to violent sectarian clashes.
Although the cleric later apologized for his utterances, it doesn’t stop him or others from repeating the same.
Responding to the recent rise in sectarian violence, the Islamic Society For Peace and Cooperation bemoaned the immense hatred that is currently ongoing among Muslims. They explained that people who claim to love Allah and his messenger must adhere to the teachings of the Quran and the sayings of the prophets. He said such behaviours are not Islamic and that clerics should be mindful of their proselytisation.
He said Islam is more predominant in the Zongo communities and some parts of inner cities thus attention should be focused on bringing socio-economic development to consolidate the stability the community enjoys while supporting national development.
He said if care is not taken, in the long run, these actions may threaten to destabilise the country in various ways as these tensions continue to build up underground.
He added that Ghana has a fragile security situation and mixing it with religion worsens an already bad situation.