One has to live under a rock to not be aware of the current crisis in the Middle East and portions of Northern Africa over the production and virtual circulation of a movie demeaning the Prophet Mohammed. A lot of the protests have been violent and intolerant with a government official in Pakistan offering a personal reward for the murder of the producer of the controversial movie. Muslims the world over have identified with the anger- if not the violent mode of its expression. It’s easy for the non-Muslim or the “enlightened” Muslim to write off the protests and protesters as barbaric. In this vein, celebrated American hip-hop act, Lupe Fiasco (who is a Muslim) has retorted by saying let Islam fight for itself.
But the urge to rise to the defense of one’s faith or religion either violently or otherwise is a thread so deeply woven into the fabric of human nature that it cannot be expunged by mere education or exposure, more so when education teaches that we have an inalienable right to our faith and expression. Even before democracy and formal education came to tell us this, we knew instinctively.
The story is told in the Bible of a young man named Gideon who destroyed the community idol. The community didn’t respond by talking about it or rebuilding the idol- they marched to Gideon’s father’s house and demanded for the boy. It took his father’s cunning to deliver him that day. That was in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Saul of Tarsus combed the length and breadth of Israel hauling Christians (who he deemed enemies of his Judaism faith) into jail- and even participating in the murder of some, like Stephen.
Outside the Bible, students of history are well aware of the Spanish Inquisition which lasted from the 27th September 1480 to 15th July 1834. The prime purpose of the Inquisition was to maintain the Catholic orthodoxy of Christians as well as converted Judaists and Muslims. Their tactics were not always friendly- or humane for that matter. They included expulsion from the realm, denunciation, trial, censorship, prison sentences, burning at the stake, burning in effigy and ultimately, death and confiscation by the Spanish Monarchy for anyone caught trying to appeal to the Pope. In fact, decrees issued in 1492 and 1501 ordered Jews and Muslims in Spain to either convert or leave! Bear in mind that even Jesus-believing Christians who were non-Catholic were also subjected to these measures.
And this was not the only Inquisition. There was one in France and another in Portugal- that we know of.
The Muslim Jihad is very much fresh in our minds too- not just as a historical fact but as a present reality and daily news item. The Internet is brimming with pictures and videos of masked men wreaking havoc and violence as part of their Jihadi duties. And Jihad is a duty- it is mentioned 41 times in the Quran and many other times in sundry related texts. It is defined by the Dictionary of Islam as “a religious war with those who are unbelievers in the mission of Muhammad…” The final of the three components of Jihad (as postulated by the BBC) is “Holy War” and there are “commands inculcated in the Quran … on Muslims to fight those who will neither embrace Islam nor pay a poll-tax…” (Per Wikipedia).
One can see then that regardless of what the Holy Prophet could have meant when he taught and practiced Jihad, its construction by many Muslims as an active, physical war is either right or understandably mistaken.
The Tibetans (mostly Buddhists) have acquired a certain international notoriety for self-immolation particularly as an expression of political dissent. While this is in the immediate sense, is a victimless action, its propensity to incite and/or hurt the sensibilities of its witnesses cannot be disregarded.
The point made is this- religion has a strong hold on man and can cause him to bend over backwards, fly through hoops and lay his life for his faith. Recognizing this cynically, Karl Marx wrote; “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”
The above quote by Marx has often been clipped to the final sentence and thrown around as an attack on religion. The full quote though suggests that Marx spoke from both sides of his mouth having acknowledged that in this mad, soulless and heartless world, religion is the soul and heart of society. I’m inclined to think that for all its imperfect past and present, religion does more of good than harm- it is only more difficult to overlook a hurt.
However loftily religion is placed though, man’s interpretation of it has subjected it to confusion, ridicule and distaste. The Nigerian man’s interpretation of religion also falls into this chasm of error. Briefly, we’ll lay out our take on this
1. Discord. Nigeria has 250 ethnic groups (at least) and only 3 major religions. In other words, we arithmetically have approximately 83 more reasons to disagree about our ethnicities than about our religions. Yet somehow, the reality is dramatically different. We bicker and bite over our religions. We take to the streets, burn, loot and maim in the defense of a God whose image and perception we’re trying so hard to embellish. In the heat of religious crises, some men have been known to kill their own wives- of an opposite faith! And because we’re experts at double speak, we preach tolerance in the papers and incite our followers behind closed doors. We say we don’t care what religion another man practices but his religion is a prime consideration when he needs our votes or employment. We smile on the outside and burn with hate and spite on the inside. We say we’re committed to the building and maintenance of a truly secular state and yet we arm our followers with the philosophy that it is the will of God to enthrone a particular religion in the nation- like we are in a battle for supremacy.
Religion should nourish the believer. Not harm the believer’s neighbor. Whither Nigeria?
2. Control. Religion is a shield. At least, it should be. It should shield man from himself. It should shield man from habits and inclinations that limit his potential and stunt his growth. It should shield man from choices and influences that harm his body and damn his soul. It should set a man free, not enslave him. Sadly, of all the modern form of hypnotism, enslavement and mind-control, religion appears to be the chief means. It’s the reason a man can push out his wife of many decades. It’s the reason why humans with a shared patrimony can take a knife to each other’s throats and celebrate at the end of it all. It’s the justification for the killing of innocents and defenseless women whose only offence is prayer to a different God-or no God at all. It’s the source of income for a refined orator with no divine connections but a lot of head knowledge.
The story is fresh of the United States’ minister, Rev Carl Keyes who is suspected of and under investigation for many allegations of financial impropriety including benefitting from the $31 million sale of his church building and diverting donor-supplied funds from his charities- Urban Life Ministries and Aid for the World. We also know of sheikhs who commission bombers but wouldn’t ever put themselves in harm’s way.
In Nigeria, religious people are more prone to developing a feeling of subservient fear and reverence for their religious leaders than in cultivating a personal relationship with their respective deities. This is a dangerous trend because the leader (who is first of all, just a human being), is prone to corruption and adulteration which he can pass down to impressionable and all-too-compliant followers. And this happens- even on non-violent issues like politics. After all, a member of Chris Okotie’s church was excommunicated from the fold after she spoke against his ambition back in 2003.
3. Resignation. This is our greatest grouse with the Nigerian interpretation of religion. The blame falls on both sides of the political divide to wit- the government and the people.
Sometime ago, a First Class graduate of a Nigerian university while being interviewed on her convocation was asked for the secret of her success. She said she achieved her glory by reading like she never prayed and praying like she never read. She understood that prayer alone could not change a man’s life as neither could effort alone. Even scripture tells us that faith without works is dead. Unfortunately, she falls within an infinitesimal percentage of Nigerians who understand this.
A lot of Nigerians have a culture of resignation. So when they have a representative in parliament who doesn’t speak for the people, they endure him through his term conceding that it must be the will of God for him to be in office and forgetting that it is also the will of God that they be aware of their power to recall the recalcitrant rep. When they take their kids to the hospital for routine inoculation and come back with dead or maimed kid- the victim of avoidable medical negligence- they ascribe it to the supreme wisdom of God who gives and takes as He pleases. When they have a valid cause to express dissent and object to authority, they recline and recoil, citing their God’s command to be obedient to leaders.
And because government is only a reflection of the masses, we’re bogged with leaders who have the same defeatist mentality. Who see a security lapse as inevitability rather than an error? Leaders who view hunger strictly as a punishment from God rather than a consequence of too little production for too many consumers. Leaders who think we are all pawns in the grand design of the gods without a choice in the matter.
This is why when planes built and designed to withstand gravity suddenly fall off from the skies, we organize prayers for the repose of the souls of the lost but never punish the corporate executives that profited and looked the other way when the first signs of disaster began to appear on the aircraft. It’s the reason why a state that has come to mean something to us is about to be submerged by the confluence rivers Niger and Benue and the incident is being treated as a natural disaster when in truth, it was the direct consequence of a decision to sporadically shed the hydro burden at Kainji.
Every time the government fails, they respond by saying they are doing their best as if they are being sabotaged by divine powers without any human remedy in sight. The truth remains though that God particularly loves Nigeria and it is His will that we do well. God doesn’t loot treasuries, we do. God doesn’t rob banks, we do. God doesn’t ram bomb-laden vehicles into buildings, we do. God doesn’t give or take bribe, we do. God isn’t tribalistic, we are. These are our true ills- God isn’t the cause.
We are not heathen, hedonist or atheists. We are religious men who will not be put in a box by narrow-mindedness. If we cannot live in peace in defense of our faith, then we have no need for that faith. In any case, one cannot understand the love and defense of God if he cannot practice the love and defense of his neighbor.
“If a man says, I love God, and hate his brother, he is a liar: for he that loves not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” The time has come to put away childish things. To understand God for whom He is and politics for what it is – to realize that we are God’s representatives on earth with a wide spectrum of powers over the earth, an infinite imagination and a will unrivaled by no other occupant of this planet – to understand that God is more than a silly excuse for our incompetence. And to see that religion and faith are not one and the same thing. God Bless Nigeria.
This article was written by Ope Owotumi and edited by Okechukwu Effoduh – both human right lawyers with interest in governance and national development. Follow Ope Owotumi on twitter @SoloTrong and Okechukwu Effoduh @jakechukwu.