YAOUNDE, Cameroon – With radical Islamic insurgents on its doorstep, Cameroon is trying to head off unrest at home by quelling any signs of the extremism that has roiled neighboring Nigeria.
In recent months, Cameroon has arrested dozens of imams and their followers accused of promoting radical ideology and collaborating with Nigeria's Boko Haram militants.
But the country is also mobilizing soft power. The government sponsored a conference this week where Islamic and Christian leaders discussed promoting religious tolerance. Earlier this month, Cameroon announced $8 million in grants for young people who start businesses in the north, the country's poorest region and the one where most Muslims live.
Boko Haram insurgents have been fighting the Nigerian government for six years in the hopes of creating an Islamic state. With their own security threatened, Cameroon, Chad and Niger are now attacking the militants inside Nigeria.
Military operations alone cannot defeat Boko Haram, says Bridgit Ndemba, a sociologist at the University of Yaounde, in the capital.
"As far as ideology is concerned, fighting it will take a lot of time because we cannot fight ideology with war weapons," she said.
Cameroon — where about 20 percent of the population is Muslim, 40 percent is Christian and the rest hold indigenous beliefs — has a long history of tolerance. But Ndemba says high youth unemployment and poverty in Cameroon's north could leave young people vulnerable to recruitment.
Already the influence of Boko Haram can be felt in Cameroon. Some mosques in the northern regions are calling for Shariah law, according to Souleyman Abba, a cleric and member of Cameroon's Islamic Cultural Association, which helped organize the conference. Muslim students and clerics are offered scholarships to study in Arab countries, raising fears they may return with extremist beliefs.
Even at the conference itself, there was friction.
Modibo Moustapha Issa, an imam, told the conference that it was wrong to invite Christians to discuss religion because they are nonbelievers.