ACCRA, Ghana — Ghanaians wear their faith on their sleeves — and on car windows, storefront signs, t-shirts, and just about anywhere else one could conceivably affix a religious message. In the capital Accra, there is the “Jesus is Alive Wheel Alignment and Tyre Balancing” shop. Near the Ivorian border, one can find “Jesus Jesus Enterprise.” Common messages include, “Everything by God” and “God Time is the Best.”
Such public professions of faith are not limited to the Christian majority. Muslims, who constitute almost 18 percent of the population, drive cars with stickers declaring “Allah is 1” and “Ya-Allah 01.”
But while these messages suggest a heated competition for souls among Ghana’s diverse religious communities, their relationships with one another are anything but. On the contrary, this most outwardly of religious West African countries is considered a model of interfaith tolerance and cooperation in the region.
Christians and Muslims host their counterparts for major festivals like Easter and Eid. Churches and mosques offer social services to people of all faiths. One of Ghana’s two major political parties, the New Patriotic Party (NPP) has adhered to a tradition in recent decades of having a Muslim running mate alongside a Christian presidential candidate.
Former President John Agyekum Kufuor responded to a recent controversy over whether a Muslim could ever be elected president tartly. “I don’t know how it could get into anybody’s mind to say that a Muslim could not be the president of Ghana,” he said.
Media reports on West Africa often conjure images of Christian-Muslim conflict. Violent inter-religious clashes have long plagued nearby Nigeria. The Islamist terror group Boko Haram has waged a relentless campaign of bombings and kidnappings in that country’s north with the stated aim of creating an Islamic state under sharia law. The seizure of northern Mali by Al Qaeda affiliates last year further bolstered impressions of the region as rife with conflict among religious zealots.
Overwhelmingly, those perceptions are inaccurate. A Pew survey in 2010 of 19 sub-Saharan African countries—including Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria, Cameroon, Liberia, and Mali—concluded: “Insofar as the conventional wisdom has been that Africans are lacking in tolerance for people of other faiths, it may need rethinking.” The study found that Africans typically views members of the other faith in a positive light. In most countries, a majority of respondents said they are okay with a political leader of the other religion.
Ghana, like the region as whole, is not without tensions. In the mid-1990s, small bands of Muslim vigilantes harassed Christian preachers who allegedly insulted the Prophet Mohamed. After the 2000 census, Muslim leaders claimed they had been grossly undercounted. Christians have complained about so-called positive discrimination in support of Muslim missionary schools. In one alarming statistic from the Pew survey, 61 percent of Ghanaian Christians said they viewed Muslims as violent.
These sentiments, however, have rarely translated into actual interfaith conflict. In fact, a more serious problem has arguably come from intra-religious squabbles. Ahmadi Muslims, adherents of a stream of Islam that originated in 19th-century India, have had a tense—sometimes violent—relationship with mainstream Sunnis in Ghana’s north.
Meanwhile, the former mayor of Accra, Nat Nuno-Amarteifio, frets about the “arrogance” of the dominant Charismatic churches, who “scream and rant and rave at two o’clock in the morning” in working-class areas. “I expect that someday government will have to take action or otherwise you’ll start seeing vigilante activities,” he warns. “But Ghanaians are so superstitious that they will tolerate a lot,” he adds with a sigh.
Still, Ghana’s tolerance shines, though its people struggle to pinpoint what accounts for it. Mustapha Abdul-Hamid, a lecturer at the University of Cape Coast in southern Ghana, points to a familiarity and trust bred by a long history of interaction between the two faiths. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the powerful Asante kingdom welcomed Muslim migrants from northern Nigeria as protectors and advisers to the court. In the 20th, Muslims struggled alongside Christians for independence.
“These incidents have been escalated into forms of what I call the dialogue of life,” says Abdul-Hamid.
The country’s religious situation also echoes its political openness. Ghana is widely hailed as one of Africa’s model democracies. Although Ghana’s Muslim population in the north tends to be poorer and more socially-marginalized than its Christian counterpart, it has, according to Abdul-Hamid, been given a voice in the political discourse. Mahamadu Buwamia, the vice presidential candidate on the losing NPP ticket in 2012, is seen as the presumptive flag-bearer of his party moving forward.
That spirit of compromise pervades both politics and religion. Reflecting on Ghana’s tradition of religious tolerance, Nuno-Amarteifio recalls a parable a friend once told him. “When three Nigerians need to decide who is chief, they fight,” he says. “When three Ghanaians must decide, they organize an election.”