By Tufa Arasu
With the economic downturn, infrastructural malaise and other challenges facing the country at this material time, religious disharmony has remained a difficult hurdle holding us back from collectively and constructively forging a path out of our unfortunate predicament. Nigeria’s need for a religious rebirth should thus be seen as a goldmine that must be given the seriousness it deserves. Building a religiously intelligible society where religion shall not be used by those who see it as a potent tool for divide and rule is one of the effective answers to some of the maladies being experienced in this country. Though it may seem unattainable given the present realities, however, reverse is the case since once upon a time it was practised in this country.
At this writer’s present age of above 40, there was a time in this country when religion was practised for the sake of harmony. Back then, the two major religions co-existed with mutual respect in a national brotherhood where the prestige of an individual was weighed against how industrious and well-mannered they were within their communities. What did our fathers do right to have enjoyed this feat in national integration?
Let me here give a brief insight into what I mean by religious harmony and national integration during my childhood years. This writer recollects that as we were growing up, the only difference we knew that existed between Christians and Muslims in my community was that on Sundays, we must leave our Muslim friends for some hours in order to attend Church service while they eagerly await our return. Whereas on the part of our Muslims friends, they must proceed to their makarantan allo (today referred to as Islamiyya school) in the evenings thus making us suspend play time. I recall that whenever we went to church and to Sunday school, our Muslim friends became time keepers, monitoring by the minute; awaiting our arrival. As for us Christians, sometimes even their Qur’anic school does not keep us apart because of its informal setting and we would hang around waiting for them to take their lessons so that we all rush home to continue playing together. It got to an extent that some of us could recite some Qur’anic verses simply from accompanying them and our parents were not scared of our being Islamised.
I also recall with nostalgia how during Christmas and the Eids, a stranger in our community will not be able to differentiate a Muslim child from a Christian’s among us. They used to wear their newest cloths and we would all go out for Christmas outings jumping and playing innocently. It was the same during Sallah festivals. In fact, we used to await religious festivities with an eagerness in order to wear new clothes and planning on where next to go for the celebrations. Our advantage was that we had more religious festivals to enjoy and our parents did not stop us. Ramadan was one time we cherished because of the customary tashe that we used to engage in from the 10th of Ramadan. It is a night-time entertainment concert carried out mostly by children and few adults who visit people’s homes singing and dancing in return for cash. At the end of the tashe period, we would break our piggy bank and share out whatever amount we were able to raise.
How did we allow all this to change? How did we end up depriving our children the kind of childhood our parents allowed us to enjoy and instead raised them with fear, insecurity and mutual suspicion? Our societies have been torn apart by marauders wearing the garb of religious custodians. Unfortunately, many Nigerians fail to see them for what they really are; wicked opportunists; instead rush gullibly to their defence in the name of religious solidarity. We have turned the concept of religion into a rivalry and competition where the winner takes the glory. The question is, has there been a winner so far or losers with unquantifiable losses of lives and properties? Is this what religion is supposed to represent?
From my modest understanding of logic of religion, it is supposed to be like a personal philosophy guiding adherents to a higher moral pedestal of existence such that, even in primitiveness, man shall enjoy self and community well-being; against beastly inclinations. Religion should be a fundamental ground for moral decency and national growth where man should be able to lift his fellow man up when he is down and not the other way round. This, in fact, is similar to that style of living we enjoyed during our childhood. This was the kind of religious teaching we received in the past because this is what the Prophets taught. And nothing has changed from the messages the Prophets bequeathed to the world except for the crooked misinterpretations by some of their misguided preachers who turned this doctrine on its head by promoting the direct opposite.
Truth is, most of our new generation preachers are nothing but shrewd communal politicians and businessmen who disguise as clerics to misguide and misuse the ignorant poor and desperate among their followers for the clerics’ egotistic ends. By politicians here, I do not mean those who stand on the podium seeking for our votes. Politicians here refer to those cowardly community leaders who mobilise irate youth to settle their personal, ethnic or commercial scores for them in the name of religion. Unfortunately, it is these same poor followers of theirs that suffer the most in the face of any form of violence. But for naivety of most of these followers, how many times have the families of these so-called clerics suffered in the face of communal conflicts? Unless the poor and ignorant flocks among the people begin to search for the truth on their own instead of waiting to be fed with all sorts of gospel and da’awah from their politically disguised clerics, Nigeria may not yet enjoy the benefits of a religiously harmonious society.
Government on its part should not fold its arm and leave religious practices without regulation. This is foolhardy bearing in mind the level of damage this stance has caused the country so far. Indeed, government must step up effort to monitor and regulate religious activities including preaching, purchases, locations of physical structures and what are stored therein. While surfing the internet, I stumbled on an Indonesian religious regulatory document and found it both interesting and worth emulating.
The Indonesian constitutionally recognised religious regulation declaration took off with the establishment of a ministry of religious affairs way back in 1947 whose responsibility was to promote religious harmony in diversity. Since then, its boundaries have grown to include monitoring and restricting any volatile religious activity capable of inciting rivalry not to talk of violence. Some major steps taken to ensure this include a bill in 1965 on prevention of religious abuse or desecration. This was followed by a directive from the office of the then head of government stipulating that invitations to join any religion should be extended only to those who were not already adherents of any particular religion be it Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism etc. To that effect and for the sake of national stability, government banned coaxing into conversion from one religion to another whether through distribution of pamphlets, money, clothes and newsletters whether on the streets or house to house of religious faithfuls with the intention of persuading religious conversion. Foreign aids to religious bodies were also regulated while government worked in tandem with NGOs in implementing its policies.
According to Prof Dede Rosyada, author of ‘Harmony in Diversity: A Government Policy and Mutual Effort of Religious People in Indonesia’, “Government exists to deal with the issue of religious communities, not just to resolve conflicts between them, but rather to guide and direct all religious communities in Indonesia in order to appreciate their different beliefs.” Thus far, the author continued, this has helped to “develop and to maintain the cohesiveness of the Indonesian societies in order to advance the nation to align with other major nations in the world, and be advanced as other countries.” To date, religious harmony regulation in Indonesia remains dynamic enjoying regular reviews. In there is a vital lesson for Nigerians and their government, for whom religious diversity has so far been a curse; reduced to an appalling and lurid condition holding progress of the country to ransom.
For starters, ministry of education should see the need to introduce and pursue rigorously, a programme of religious education, from an early stage in our educational curriculum up to advanced level: a programme geared towards teaching religious respect and respect for one another. This is with the hope of disabusing the minds of children from any harmful religious indoctrination they may be receiving from their parents or religious clerics in addition to building trust for one another.
Indeed, appreciation must be shown towards the numerous interfaith agencies and NGOs who have been at the forefront of promoting religious harmony in the country. Some of these NGOs include the Clinton Foundation etc. Yet, there is still more that could be done towards engineering the principle of peaceful coexistence built on the essence of humanity of man to man while de-emphasising the type of religious dogmatism and bigotry that has brought us to where we are today. One way of doing this is by keeping the people engaged in executing community development projects whereby members join hands in advancing the course of their societies through building social structures and maintaining same. Hopefully, this will give members of that community a sense of belonging as well as keeping them away from redundancy which avails them with excess time and energy that are mostly channeled into destructive activities. This should be followed by awarding of small grants for local initiatives to individuals who may have displayed commitment and productivity during such community development labours. The grants should come as a way of encouragement to them and those who may not have demonstrated any enthusiasm.
In addition, NGOs must sustain dialogue activities in the media as has been initiated by some platforms already. Outreach to religious leaders whether under conferences or individually should be paramount in both government and NGOs’ agenda with the aim of curtailing any excesses from their preaching. Since breakdown of trust is obviously the phenomenon that led us into the religious quagmire we have sunk in the first place, we must cross any bridge that would foster sincere communication and dialogue especially among religious and community leaders with the goal of quashing suspicion in order to forge a way forward in our journey together as a nation.
Similarly, organising leisurely interfaith funfair for children as well as retreats for the youth will not be a bad idea. In addition to enlightenment on peaceful coexistence, quiz contests and entertainment, mediation training and conflicts resolution methods could be systematically taught under these gatherings.
*Arasu is Dean, Collective of Patriots (CoP), writing from Abuja