Between Faith and Fanaticism in Nigeria

In September this year (2014), men of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Lagos State Police Command caught a four-man robbery gang in the Mile 2 area of the state. Their names: Mutalubi Abdullahi, Ismaila Moruf, Opeyemi Akinyemi and Sarah Emmanuel. Speaking to journalists within the confines of their police cell, Mutalubi said: "We usually prayed to God before embarking on any operation. The prayer is for God to protect us." I am sure such prayer is usually bi-partisan in which case Sister Sarah Emmanuel would offer her supplication in the name of Jesus after Alhaji Mutalubi must have committed the operation to the name of Allah the beneficent, the merciful.

Two months earlier in July, there was a report that prostitutes in Harare, Zimbabwe were in the habit of visiting prophets to seek divine intervention for their trade. One of the commercial sex workers was reported as saying: "My brother, it is true we go to prophets so that we can ask for God's favour while conducting our business. Being a prostitute is dangerous since during the process you might find an abusive client who could even assault you. Also the police are always after us. To overcome all these problems, we need the intervention and protection of God."

Before the start of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) every Wednesday in Nigeria, it is standard practice that two ministers—one a Muslim and the other a Christian—would pray to commit the day's business, mostly award of contracts, into the hands of God. It really doesn't matter if any of these Muslim and Christian prayer warriors would thereafter present a memo with contract figures that may include his/her own kickback.

Mr Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, when in October this year, I received a mail from Mr. Abdurahman Adogie with an attachment containing a letter from Mr Disu Kamor, Executive Chairman of Muslim Public Affairs Centre (MPAC) inviting me to today's occasion as guest speaker, I immediately sent a reply that in case he didn't know, I am a Christian. He replied that the organisers were aware of the faith I profess and that it didn't matter. I therefore consider it an honour and privilege to be here today at this important forum.

The goal of MPAC, from what I have read from its brochure, is to promote, among other values, individual liberties and rights of people regardless of their creed while the organisation operates on the core Islamic principles of justice, mercy, human dignity, freedom and equality for all. Other objectives of this group are to: advance understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims in Nigeria and internationally; promote dialogue and build community cohesion across faiths and societies; encourage the participation of Muslims in the democratic process and actively promote shared values, understanding and mutual respect for all Nigerians. These no doubt are noble objectives and I commend MPAC for them.

However, it is one thing to espouse lofty ideals, it is another thing to live by them. I started my presentation with three stories which depict very clearly that we live in an age when almost everybody has built God according to their own image and that is the source of the problem we have in the world today. Since adherents of both Christianity and Islam have learnt to pick and choose whatever suit them in the Holy Scriptures—and I have decided to limit myself to only the Bible and the Quran—in promotion of self-interests, it is also easy to understand why evil is easily rationalized in the name of God.

If we look at the examples cited again, we would see that both the Bible and the Quran are explicit that God abhors stealing, prostitution and corruption. These are common vices in the world and particularly in our society today. Yet if statistics were to be taken of those who indulge in them, a greater majority would be those who call themselves either Christians or Muslims, people who are most often ready to die for the faith whose tenets they don't live for. In his paper, 'The Psychology of Religion: A Force for Good or Evil?', Dr. Steve Taylor—a lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, United Kingdom who claims to be an atheist—argues that there is a strong impulse in human beings to define themselves by association, whether it's as a Christian, a Muslim, a socialist or even as a Gunner as we supporters of Arsenal describe ourselves. This urge, according to Taylor, "is closely connected to the impulse to be part of a group, to feel that you belong, and share the same beliefs and principles as others. And these impulses work together with the need for certainty —the feeling that you 'know', that you possess the truth, that you are right and others are wrong."

While we can forgive Taylor for his limited understanding of the essence of faith in God, arguments like his today find currency in a world where many would want to win the religious debate not by the power of their exemplary lives that reflect the faith they profess but rather by the barrels of the gun. It is therefore difficult to fault Taylor, especially when he differentiates between what he described as Dogmatic Religion and Spiritual Religion. Such a dichotomy itself is interesting because all religious persuasions are supposed to be spiritual but the question remains, are they?

It is from such superiority complex, Taylor argues, that fanaticism grows because for some of these adherents, "the fact that other people have different beliefs is an affront, since it implies the possibility that their own beliefs may not be true. They need to convince other people that they're wrong to prove to themselves that they're right. In other words, whereas the purpose of dogmatic religion is to strengthen the ego, through beliefs, labels and group identity, the purpose of spiritual religion is the complete opposite of this—to transcend the ego, through compassion, altruism and spiritual practice."

For a professed atheist, Taylor has a fair idea of what true religion and faith in God is all about but I guess why he is cynical has to do with the fact that people of faith hardly live what they profess. We all know what the Holy Scripture teaches about some of the evils in our society but these are things done, and often rationalized by those who claim to belong to one faith or another. How then will anybody take us seriously?

One of my favourite Bible passages can be found in James 2: 18 which says, "Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works." That passage repudiates any notion that a profession of faith can be divorced from the actions of adherents and reaffirms that genuine faith can only be authenticated by good deeds. Our Lord Jesus Christ himself said in Matthew 7:16 that by their fruits, you shall know them. Incidentally, the injunction in Chapter 61, verses 3 and 4 of the Quran is similar: "O you who believe! Why do you say that which you do not do? It is most hateful in the sight of God if you say something and do not practice it." And if we go to the Hadith, according to Sahih al-Bukhari, Abu Hurairah narrated that prophet Muhammad (SAW) said: "The signs of a hypocrite are three: Whenever he speaks, he tells a lie. Whenever he promises, he always breaks it (his promise). If you trust him, he proves to be dishonest. (If you keep something as a trust with him, he will not return it.)"

I am sure many of us can look ourselves in the mirror and ask salient questions about what we profess and what we do. That perhaps explains why the result of a recent Gallup polls which asked people how important religion was to them was quite revealing: the people of Somalia, a country where anarchy reigns supreme are all religious to the last terrorist. According to the poll, Somalia, Niger and Bangladesh are the only three countries where all the citizens polled believe religion is the whole essence of their being. Our country, Nigeria did not also do badly in that 95.5 percent of the respondents also said that religion was important to them.

This then brings me to the central theme of my presentation which is about the challenge facing Muslims and Islam in the world today. But before I go ahead, let me state that I am not a stranger to Islam. My late mother's name was Munirat and that should say something about the religion of her parents. Up till today, anytime I go to the village in Kwara State, the only identity that earns me instant recognition among the elders is "omo Muni" (Muni's son). My late maternal uncle with whom I spent most of my holidays while in school was also a respected Islamic leader in the Ikate area of Lagos. So I come from the typical Yoruba family where adherents of the two faiths cohabit and that explains why I had no qualms registering for Islamic Religious Knowledge in my West African School Certificate (WASC) for which I am proud to announce I got A3.

With that background, I believe I can say a word about what has become the challenge of Islam today given that there is a disconnect between what the religion teaches and what some of the fringe elements who claim to be adherents do in practice. I know this gap is common to almost all religions, and I see it all the time in Christianity but for Islam, terrorism anchored on a fanatical adherence to some strange doctrine has become a serious problem not only to the faith but indeed to humanity.

A fanatic has been described as "one who redoubles his efforts, and forgets his goal." That's a fitting description for the people we are talking about. Quran 2:256 says there is no compulsion in religion while Quran 10:99 says if Allah had willed, he would have made everyone into a believer in the faith. Yet in their warped attempt to force everyone into their brand of Islam (at least that is their claim), Boko Haram insurgents have killed defenceless citizens in schools, in churches, in markets and at motor parks. But the most recent attack in Kano during the Jummat prayers is one of the most bestial anybody can imagine. Yesterday, I was sent a film footage of the tragedy apparently recorded by someone while the killings were going on.

Since the video clip came with a warning about its graphic nature, I did not have the courage to watch it but I read the comment of the man who posted it: "This video as you can see tells the whole story. It was indeed a carnage of unimaginable proportion, happening inside a Mosque in Nigeria. What makes this video hard to watch is when ordinary citizens were removing the dead, Boko Haram militants came from nowhere and started shooting indiscriminately at them. The braves, undaunted men remained at the scene and were equally killed by the gunmen. Please be advised, the footage is very graphic!"

These are people supposedly with a mission to convert all of us to Islam yet would kill inside a Mosque while the Jummat prayer was going on. That should tell us something about their sinister agenda which has nothing to do with Islam. I am therefore delighted that the theme for this conference focuses on a foundational principle in Islam which is basically our common humanity. And it is most appropriate that it is coming at a time many Muslims are rising up to take their faith from the hands of those who have scant idea about the essence of the religion they profess and would manipulate its doctrine to perpetrate evil.

Anybody who has followed the tragic violence in the North-east of Nigeria cannot but wonder how any rational person would believe they are killing innocent villagers, maiming children and disrupting the livelihood of millions of people in service of God. Even with my elementary knowledge of Islam, I am very much aware that what these people profess is not what the faith teaches. However, what I see as the problem is that there are Muslims who tolerate them, especially at the beginning of their madness because these terrorists are also smart enough to play into the local politics. With Boko Haram for instance, there were rationalizations that it was because of poverty and those who should speak up to challenge their weird thesis bought into the lie, notwithstanding the fact that most of their victims were usually Muslims.

Perhaps among those who turned deaf ears to the antics of Boko Haram at the beginning were Muslims who share some of their resentment towards elements of Western civilization, and the presence of Christians in certain parts of the North they consider to be strictly Islamic territories. But as in the prophetic words of the writer, James Baldwin, "the fire next time will consume even the air". The truth is that whereas human beings define themselves by all forms of identities, including religious and ethnic, when such identities are perverted and bigoted, and when the champions of such perversion and bigotry are not immediately checked, they end up hurting everyone in the society.

It is however, heartwarming that the Muslim world is rising up to challenge not only the doctrine of these fringe elements but also to confront them. Early last week, Shiite and Sunni clerics from about 80 countries gathered in Iran's holy city of Qom to develop a strategy to combat extremists, including the Islamic State group that has captured large parts of Iraq and Syria. At the opening ceremony, the Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, the chief organizer of the conference, appealed for consensus among Islam's two main branches, urging all Muslim clerics to work to discredit groups espousing extremism. "Military attacks against this deviant group (IS) are necessary but insufficient. The roots of their violent ideology must be dried up. This is the job of Muslim scholars, to preach the true, moderate face of Islam and expose the ugly face of IS ideology," said Shirazi, a prominent Shiite cleric who has a large following in Iran and abroad.

In addition to the meeting held in Iran, there was an earlier letter refuting all the arguments used by IS and similar organizations. It was signed by many scholars from all over the world, including our own Sultan of Sokoto, his Eminence Mohammed Saad Abubakar. But as I said earlier, we need a similar initiative at home. Respected clerics and other critical stakeholders in Islam in our country must stand up and take back their religion from these dangerous elements in our society.

While Boko Haram may have claimed as its grand mission the Islamization of the country, questions must be asked about how they intend to do that by killing the same people they want to convert to their own way. However, as has been said by Mallam Nurrudeen Lemu and Reverend Father George Ehusani, both of who jointly run an organization called Interfaith Activity and Partnership for Peace, "it is easy to manipulate religion in a society where believers are largely poor, uneducated and desperately looking for someone to blame for all their woes."

I share the view of both Father Ehusani and Mallam Lemu with whom I have collaborated in the past and whose efforts I commend. However, while there are several of such interfaith initiatives at the top, and it is in that spirit that I was invited here today, we need them more for the people at the bottom. Since the main goal of Boko Haram is to divide Nigerians along religious lines and deploying that to cause interreligious fight, ordinary Nigerians should also promote interfaith dialogue and peaceful coexistence. We must counter the message of hate being preached by the insurgents with a message of tolerance.

To do that successfully, our Christian leaders have a role to play by trying to have a better understanding of Islam and the real tenets of the faith. That implies that nobody should define the religion by what extremists and terrorists do or play politics with such a dangerous issue. On that score, I am sad to admit that some of our Christian leaders from whom you expect compassion and understanding at such a critical time as this cannot see beyond partisan politics. What confronts us in Nigeria today is not a problem for the North or for Muslims. It is a serious national security challenge that we must tackle together regardless of the faith we profess.

The ultimate responsibility, however, rests with Muslims who must change the perception of Islam by retrieving their religion from the hands of a tiny but powerful minority who preach their sermons with guns and cudgels. A starting point is to challenge those characters at the doctrinal level and educate those who might not know the true essence of the faith. This will help to reduce the pool from which the terrorists can recruit. Also, rather than keeping quiet and be deemed complicit, Muslims need to speak up and strongly condemn those committing evil in their name or in the name of their religion. It is not enough to say "they are also killing Muslims too" or that "our religion stands for peace". The time for silence or passivity or being defensive or living in denial or propounding unhelpful conspiracy theories is over.

While in the past wars were fought in the name of both Christianity and Islam, most of the serious conflicts on the global level today have some link with those who profess Islam. This is a major disservice to the religion that identifies its name with peace so it is important for true adherents of the faith to take back their religion from fanatics, bigots, murderers and sadists who are today giving Islam a bad name.

Mr Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, even as a Kafir as my friend, Bolaji Abdullahi would jokingly call me, I am aware that Surah al-Nisa says in verse 136: "O you who believe! Believe in Allah, His Messenger, the scripture that He revealed to His messenger and the scripture that he revealed before. Whoever disbelieves in Allah, His angels, His books, His Messengers, and the Last Day has gone far astray."

But the preceding verse in the same Surah, boldly written on the wall of one of the buildings at Harvard Law School, says it all: "O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest you swerve, and if you distort justice or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well-acquainted with all that you do."

May God help us to obey His injunctions and may He find us worthy to inherit His kingdom when we depart this world.

Thank you very much for listening as I wish you a successful conference.


Text of a paper delivered in Lagos on Saturday, 6th December, 2014 at the 4th Muslim Public Affairs Centre (MPAC) National Convention

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