The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) describes itself as “an independent, bipartisan federal government entity established by the U.S. Congress to monitor, analyze, and report on threats to religious freedom abroad. USCIRF makes foreign policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress intended to deter religious persecution and promote freedom of religion and belief” (USCIRF, 2020a). The commission has been accused of focusing on the prosecution of Christians, rather than followers of other religions (Hackett, Silk, and Hoover 2000). Most of the commissioners are affiliated with Christian organizations and one was president of the Family Research Council, a fundamentalist protestant group.
The USCIRF Legislation Factsheet: Religious Tensions and Fulani Communities in West and Central Africa was released on October 01, 2020. The main argument of the factsheet is the following:
The following factsheet explores the role that religion plays in escalating violence committed by and against Fulani communities in west and central Africa. Although the extent to which religious ideology plays a direct role in driving violence involving Fulani communities remains a subject of debate, the trend of increasing violence by and against Fulani groups is clearly aggravating religious tensions (USCIRF, 2020a :1).
While the statement above notes that Fulani are both committing violence and are victims of violence and that the role of religious ideology in the violence remains a subject of debate, the take-away message is that Fulani communities are linked to religious violence. In fact, the simple production of a factsheet on Fulani communities makes that case. This is also clear by how the factsheet is interpreted and retweeted, e.g. “USCIRF report examines role religion plays in Fulani attacks on Christians” (October 3, 2020)Footnote 1. In other words, while the factsheet aims to give a fair and balanced assessment and explains that the insecurity in the region is complex and multi-faceted and that religion’s role is a matter of debate (USCIRF, 2020a :4), there are major problems with the ways it represents Fulani and the violence and insecurity in West and Central Africa. Here we want to highlight five main problems of the factsheet: (1) focus on one group, (2) linking Fulani religious identity to centuries-old jihads, (3) linking Fulani to contemporary jihadist groups, (4) the way it portrays Fulani as perpetrators of violence, and (5) the use of hyperlinks to questionable sources.
First, the factsheet relies on a problematic and grossly oversimplified assumption that the Fulani are a single, cohesive ethnic group, rather than highly diverse cultural-linguistic communities that can be found across West and Central Africa, as well as the Horn of Africa. While the factsheet notes the diversity, the section Who are the Fulani? ends with an argument for representing them as one group and that is how Fulani are represented in the remainder of the document:
Some analysts and practitioners argue that Fulani groups have more differences than they have similarities, and the insistence that they are a cohesive ethnic group is mainly driven by the need for outsiders to ascribe them a common identity. Others note that Fulani demonstrate remarkable cohesion of self-identity considering their geographic scope and demographic diversity (USCIRF, 2020a :2).
While the section presents arguments for and against considering Fulani as a distinct ethnic group, the last sentence in this discussion indicates that they can be treated as one group. This is also what the title of the factsheet—Fulani Communities—and the first sentence—“The Fulani …”—indicate. However, this is problematic because the term “Fulani” covers diverse communities across many nations that do not form a single group with a cohesive social identity. We would argue that there is no such thing as “the Fulani”.
Second, the discussion of the religious identity of contemporary Fulani is linked to religious wars (jihads) that happened more than 200 years ago across West Africa. Again, while the document aims to be fair and balanced, half of the section on Fulani and Islam is about their involvement in religious wars that happened a long time ago:
Some Fulani groups played a significant role in several violent campaigns to implement Islamic rule in west Africa in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Although these campaigns were predominantly Fulani-led, they were ethnically diverse. There are many instances of non-Fulani fighters taking part, and there are examples of Fulani groups and communities refusing to participate (USCIRF, 2020a :2).
Again, even though the factsheet notes that not all Fulani participated in the jihads and that non-Fulani also participated, the factsheet presumes considerable continuity over a 200-year period in which West Africa was greatly affected by colonialization, independence, and globalization, which are not mentioned in the factsheet. Thus, the significance of long-ago jihads is emphasized over more recent and direct histories that have shaped religious identities among diverse Fulani communities.
Third, the factsheet links Fulani to different terrorist groups in West Africa, even though the members of these terrorist groups come from a range of different ethnic groups. Moreover, no evidence is provided in support of these claims—instead, there are references to “some cite” or hyperlinks to sources that also do not offer evidence for these claims.
Some cite Fulani participation in violent jihadist organizations as evidence of religious motivations. Fulani are disproportionately represented among some jihadist groups operating in the central Sahel, like the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and Al-Qaeda affiliates Macina Liberation Front and Ansaroul Islam. In Nigeria there is increasing geographic overlap and evidence of relationship building between jihadist groups and organized criminal bandits that are known to include Fulani fighters (USCIRF, 2020a :4).
For example, the hyperlinked text disproportionately represented links to a page on the website of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, an academic institution within the US Department of Defense (source 65) that does not provide any evidence that Fulani are disproportionately represented among jihadist groups—it just repeats the assertion. This is highly problematic because these assertions, when repeated enough, become an “unquestioned truth” and part of a larger narrative that links Fulani pastoralists to jihadist groups. The irony is that USCIRF earlier issued a report, warning about how “dangerous speech and polarizing narratives around religion have fueled violence, discrimination, and segregation between Muslims and Christians for decades, particularly in central Nigeria” (USCIRF 2019), which is cited in the factsheet. Apparently, it does not stop USCIRF from continuing to spread these dangerous polarizing narratives about Fulani pastoralists.
Fourth, the way the factsheet is written affirms the notion that Fulani are the problem. The middle part of the factsheet describes the role of Fulani as victims, perpetrators, and peacemakers, but a close analysis shows that the description is not as fair and balanced as the organization suggests. For example, compare the language of two sections: Fulani as Victims and Fulani as Perpetrators. The first sentence of the shorter section Fulani as Victims uses the passive tense, “Over the past several years, Fulani communities have frequently been victims of violence in west and central Africa”, while the first sentence of the longer section Fulani as Perpetrators uses the active tense, “Fulani individuals and militias have also been responsible for numerous incidents of violence against civilians in recent years”. Of course, one of the reasons for having a passive sentence in one section (victims) and an active sentence in the other (perpetrators) is because the topic of religious violence across West Africa is told through the lens of Fulani communities, which is the focus of the factsheet. And thus, the overarching sense of the factsheet is that Fulani are mostly to blame for the violence. Moreover, in the section Fulani as Victims, the framing is such that it seems that the victims are blamed for the violence, e.g. “In some countries, Fulani civilians are targeted because they are perceived to be affiliated with Islamic extremism” (3). The third section, Fulani as Peacemakers, provides examples of Fulani living peacefully with other groups, but to make the argument that Fulani leaders in Nigeria promote peaceful solutions, the factsheet quotes an incendiary statement from, “a Fulani fighter that claimed that ‘Nigeria belongs to the Fulani’”, USCIRF, 2020a :4). Moreover, to support the argument that Guinea is not affected by Fulani jihadism, the factsheet links to a source with the title Fulani people and Jihadism in Sahel and West African countries (source 30). The factsheet could have made the argument that Fulani leaders in Nigeria are promoting peaceful solutions and social harmony without citing a “Fulani fighter” making incendiary claims and without linking to a source with a problematic title (and content). In other words, even though the section on Fulani as Peacemakers aims to counter the stereotype of Fulani jihadists, the way it does so undermines the message.
Finally, while the factsheet aims to offer a fair and balanced assessment, a closer look at the sources linked to the document shows that this is not true for all the sources used and linked to the factsheet. Many are overwhelmingly biased against Fulani (pastoralists). The hyperlinks to these sources thus undermine the factsheet’s aim to use a fair and balanced approach.