If you want to know how much of a rabble-rouser a typical pious Nigerian is, just broach a conversation on religion. In the last eighteen years of electoral democracy practice in Nigeria, nothing has threatened the corporate existence of this fragile entity like religious intolerance.
After the Sharia crisis of the early 2000s, there have been pockets of religious crisis here there, before the hydra headed monster which is currently ravaging the North-East reared its ugly head– Boko Haram. With the separatist movement in the South-East, the militants in Niger Delta, and the herders/Farmers crisis in North-Central, the six geopolitical zones were considered unsafe, except South-West. The latter, which had been considered the post child for the ability to reconcile Islam and Christianity co-existing peacefully, is gradually becoming like the North, considering recent development.
For instance, Ibadan International School (ISI) which is located inside the prestigious University of Ibadan has been closed indefinitely over an issue (wearing of hijab) I consider trivial. Trivial because such an issue does not constitute sufficient reason that necessitate closing an institution of learning. Now, keep in mind that this is not the first time wearing of hijab in an institution of learning is creating such problem. There was the case involving one Firdaus at the Law School, and that of post-primary schools in Lagos State. What this says most clearly about the Nigerian state is that, as a people, the more cosmopolitan we become the less accommodating and tolerant we are. This is an incontrovertible fact. If in doubt, check our history.
The question now is: is wearing of hijab the problem? I don’t think so. What adherents of both religions make of this issue in an attempt to either justify or kick against wearing of hijab not helping matters. I mean, I’ve read incendiary remarks by friends and professors concerning this issue that left me thinking what kind of kids are raising for the future given our attitude, knowing full well the dangerous effect of what religious identity for the wrong reasons has done to us as a nation.
Since this is becoming a recurring issue, I think it’s about time our leaders did the needful before we slid into another bloodshed. There is enough lesson for us to learn from the European experience. For students of history, you would agree with me that 17 th century was a terrible period in European history. People brutally murdered each other for religious reasons during the Civil Wars in England which involved 3 Kingdoms – Scotland, Ireland, and England. This is aside the thirty years Wars in Europe – essentially fanned by religious intolerance – which ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. In the case of the Civil Wars in England, it ended with a compromise in Britain which went like this: you practice your religion and teach it to your children; let me practice mine and teach it to my children. That is why today in places like Germany and Italy, it is absolutely forbidden to invoke a deity. No politician is allowed to do that for any reason. It is called secularism. In fact, in the countries conquered by the Napoleonic
Wars, the aim was to drive religion from the public sphere, and to a large extent, that has been achieved.
Conversely, this is not the case in America where the separation of religion from the state has not worked. This failure is not unconnected to the fact that religion was specially favoured by the country’s founding fathers. In the same vein, successive American leaders followed what the founding fathers did when a joint resolution passed by Congress and approved by President Dwight Eisenhower went a step further to imprint In God We Trust on the country’s currency.
Even with the Establishment Clause which prohibits government from making laws religious matters; or favour one religion over another, government institutions in America have stopped at nothing in observing religious worship, unlike Europe. Few examples will suffice.
The same Congress that proposed the Establishment Clause to the people, directed George Washington to proclaim a Thanksgiving to God for all His blessings upon America, which is still part of America’s tradition. Again, the U.S. Supreme Court opens its session by saying God save the United States and this honourable Court. Elsewhere in federal Congress and State Legislatures, there are paid Chaplins’ who open the day with prayer. This is not only in consonance with the special favour the framers of U.S. Constitution accorded religion, it shows how religious the U.S. is much more than European countries.
Again, in spite of the loopholes in America’s liberal democracy, it has to a “large extent” been able to accommodate pluralism when it comes to religion. For this reason, Islam and Christianity have co-existed in the U.S. with minimal intolerance as is the case in Nigeria, which adopted America’s model of federalism. Nigeria, being the only country in the world where a 50/50 percent claim of both Christians and Muslims could be made, this in my opinion has posed enormous challenge for both religions to co-exist peacefully.
In the face of this reality, I think borrowing from the important compromise that ushered in the “period of restoration” in England will go a long way in helping us put an end to the perennial religious crisis and tensions that has become a permanent feature of the Nigerian state. In addition to the notion of secularism as enshrined in our Constitution, a law should be enacted that we practice our religion and teach it to our child, and keep it away from the public sphere.
Ihembe, Ayankaa Martin is a political scientist with research interests in political Development, governance, public policy, democracy and democratization.
He can be reached via07036396194