(In Memoriam: Kofi Awoonor, 1935-2013)
On 21 September, the Ghanaian poet, writer, scholar and diplomat, Kofi Awoonor, was murdered along with many others in a terrorist attack launched by religious fanatics of the Somalia-based Al Shabaab Islamic fundamentalist sect purportedly acting on God’s behalf. For over a month now, I have intended some form of reflection in this column. The more I have thought about the catastrophe, the more it has appeared to me that perhaps the single most important danger to world peace, to peaceful co-existence, is the idea of chosenness at the heart of every revealed religion.
Chosenness invites, indeed demands, the unquestioning belief in, reverence, even deification of, the individual—always a man—to whom God elected, for no justifiable reason, to reveal himself, and to give the eternal laws and moral code by which all of humanity is to live from birth to death, forever and ever. By a revealed religion’s unchangeable code, time and tide, in other words, history, stand still from the moment of creation. Somehow, God always speaks to these men privately, in conditions of utter secrecy: atop a mountain, in a far remove from everyone else in the desert, in their bedrooms or tents, alone under a tree, in dreams and visions. Their sole authority rests then on our credulity, our readiness to accept the claim that God “spake” directly to them.
The iron code of a moral order founded on such dubious grounds ruled the world until the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. The wars of forced conversion to a kind and fatherly almighty God—though such a God could have “created” everybody to worship him instinctively, as naturally as we breathe—produced the horrors of the crusades and jihads whose legacies bedevil the earth today. The march of civilisation led inevitably to the separation of state and religion, of public affairs from personal belief. The resultant doctrine of secularism, often seen as a Western concept, has its roots in the humane older code that governs the ecumenical practices of indigenous cultures but which was destroyed by the violent and imperialistic revealed religions; particularly, the Abrahamic faiths.
Although the 1999 constitution, as every of its predecessors, proclaims the secularity of Nigeria, our leaders trample on its spirit and letter by putting religion front, back and centre of every thought and action, by a Pharisee-like public display of piety (PDP). From state sponsorship of pilgrimages to incessant calls for prayers to save the nation, Nigeria in the eyes of its holy leaders is a theocracy in fact and a secular state in name only. Thus, despite many corrections, President Jonathan just cannot keep his righteousness to himself. Fresh from a state-sponsored pilgrimage to Jerusalem in which he gave damning evidence of his brazen violation of the constitution, he took to the pulpit to declare that "but for the prayers of the church,” Nigeria “would probably have gone into oblivion."
What Jonathan cannot understand is that in making such a superstitious claim, he appeals to the same authority as the religious fanatic. God, and not the citizens, according to Jonathan, is the guarantor of the continued stability of Nigeria; he holds the country together only as a favour to the prayerful followers of two foreign religions. God, according to Boko Haram’s Ibrahim Shekau, has decreed an Islamic kingdom in Nigeria, one that would not even require prayers for peace since it would be ruled directly by him through his personally anointed prophet—most likely Shekau himself. Consequently, God commanded Shekau, “to fight against people so long as they do not declare that there is no god but Allah.” And in the process, to “enjoy killing anyone that God commands me to kill the way I enjoy killing chickens and rams.” Jonathan cannot disavow Shekau’s claims without giving up the basis of his own claims, including the view that God, and not voting citizens, made him president.
My more recent reflections on the holy superstition called chosenness reminded me of Jean Jacque Rousseau’s Second Discourse on Inequality where he writes thus: “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, to whom it occurred to say this is mine, and found people sufficiently simple to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. How many crimes, wars, murders, how many miseries and horrors Mankind would have been spared by him who, pulling up the stakes or filling in the ditch, had cried out to his kind: Beware of listening to this impostor; You are lost if you forget that the fruits are everyone’s and the Earth no one’s.” To all who accept without question every claim of divine revelation or directive, I commend the derision of chosenness by the great mystic poet, Omar Khayyam, in the Rubáiyát: “And do you think that unto such as you, / A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew, / God gave the Secret, and denied it me? -- / Well, well, what matters it! believe that too.” Today’s chosen men of God are, of course, very well fed and often finely accoutred, but fanatics they remain!
“God told me . . .” How much better the world would be if we called impostors by their true name and sought God in the quiet recesses of our minds.