The Challenge of Religious Dialogue in Nigeria
“A paper presented at a conference on inter-religious in Cairo, Egypt”
You know, I have never really considered the distinction between ‘What a thing is itself’ on the one hand, and ‘how people perceive it’ as something to be taken seriously. I simply just ignore the distinction, which has been my own mistake. But the question of a ‘what a thing is’, is fundamentally different from ‘how we perceive it’. The question of what a thing is, attempts to discover the ‘essential element or the substance’ of that thing, while the question of how we perceive it attempts to explore the various opinions we have about the subject. For example, when we ask the question, ‘What is David?’ and we answer, ‘David is a rational being’, by calling David a rational being, we intend to express what essentially distinguishes David from goat or a dog. But if we were to ask Daniel how he perceives David, we would most likely hear, ‘he is Irish’, ‘he is cool’, ‘he is smart’ etc., but these are mere personal opinions or perceptions Daniel has about David, which may most likely differ from the way Luke perceives Daniel.
Similarly, there is a fundamental difference between ‘what religion is, considered in-itself’ and ‘how members of each religion perceive their own religion’. But for the ordinary Nigerian, this distinction is simply non-existent; and the reason, I believe, scholars have achieved little or no success in the area of religious dialogue in Nigeria is because they themselves sometimes fail to make this distinction in their endeavour. But then, what is Religion? Religion is a way of life which leads to ‘salvation’. Islam, for example, since it is a religion, is a way of salvation. It exists to save humanity from doom and ruins. But how is this salvation achieved? How do we avoid doom and ruin? The answer to these questions is contained in the creed of every religion, and in Islam, it is contained in the Shahadawhich says, ‘la ilaha il’Allah, Muhammadan rasoulu Allah, ‘there is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger’. Belief in God, and acceptance of Mohammad’s message are the basic conditions for salvation. This is the famous Islamic creed. Belief in the one true God is the most important and the fundamental aspect or essential element of Islam, and of salvation. Every other thing is secondary. In the Shahada, the whole of Islamic religion is summarized.,
However, it is not enough for a Muslim to have faith in the one true God, he or she must equally strive to live out this faith in each context or situation he or she finds himself or herself., hence, the religious question, how should I express my faith in each situation or context I find myself? This is a very important question and a fundamental one at that. It is fundamental and important in the sense that it strives to make clear that there is a distinction between ‘what we believe’ and ‘what we practice’. To have faith is one thing, and to live a life corresponding to the faith one professes is another. But unless one’s faith is worked out in each context, salvation would continue to elude that individual.
The question is equally important if we are to understand the various Hadiths, or traditions, trends and groups in Islam. In fact these traditions are mere attempts to answer the question, ‘What does it mean to ‘live-out’ one’s faith in Allah in every situation, having considered the variables?’ One thing is equally clear from this point which is, sometimes a thing in itself, may be good, but our understanding or the opinions we form about those things may be erroneous. Hence, we are obliged to always seek to relate to things as they are in themselves. This is because dealing with something as it is in itself is the first and indispensable step to forming a correct opinion about that thing; ‘for the further we are away from the essential element or substance of a thing, the more prone to error we become’. Hence, if you would ask me, Is Islam good in itself? I would answer, yes, Islam is good in itself, since it offers the way to eternal happiness which is the goal of every human person on earth. However, I do have a problem with the way some Muslims perceive their religion. Some of them do have erroneous notions about their own religion. But this is not true of Muslims alone, but also some Christians too do have erroneous notions about Christianity. The Nigerian society has demonstrated what the consequences of not forming a good understanding of religion could be like. Sometimes, the consequences could be devastating, disheartening, destructive and massive.
Nigeria is one of the most religious countries in the world, yet very prone to religious crisis. The two main religions in Nigeria are Christianity and Islam. The constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria does not stipulate a particular religion as the religion of the country, yet we still find it very difficult to live with one another as brothers and sisters. There is an atmosphere of mutual suspicions among members of these religions. In addition, many Nigerians find it very difficult to make a distinction between religion and other aspects of life; this explains in part why some politicians could use religion to exploit and commit grand injustices in Nigeria. We tend to make friends based on religious affiliation; key-appointments are made based on religion. We only need to take a look at the key-appointments made by the Presidency to understand this. Like the President, the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria is a Muslim. The Minister of Defence, the Chief of Defence Staff, Members of the Economic Team are all Muslims. The Muslims control the financial system of the country and the country’s major source of income, which is crude oil.
My contention here, I must note, is not to criticise the ‘persons appointed’, insofar as they can get the job done. Rather, it is to show that the Government seldom considers the wherewithal, the capacity or qualifications of the candidates to handle the job. The focus is always on the candidate’s religious affiliation and region of origin. In this instance, religion is immediately seen as a condition for any official appointment.
This erroneous notion of religion is equally seen even in the Nigerian political scene. We are always ready to cast our votes for a candidate with whom we share the same faith, rather than for a candidate who can get the job done, and whenever a non-member of our own religion is perceived to be gaining an upper hand in any election, we immediately become aggressive and violent. This is exactly what one would discover in the recent religious conflict in Jos, the capital city of Plateau State.
There was a Local Government election in Jos. One party was perceived to be gaining the upper hand in the election by the other. This second party immediately gathered a group of idle young men and convinced them to see the first party’s progress as a threat to their own religion. These young men responded to this call with a mass slaughter of the members of the other religion and of course, these other men retaliated. Blood was shed everywhere, about 400 lives were wasted, corpses were seen on the roads, properties were destroyed, schools, shops, churches, and mosques were burnt, people were displaced from their own homes and made refugees even in their own country. What ordinarily started out as a political exercise of electing a new leader, ended up being a war between religions. The damage was devastating and disheartening. At the end of the day, the question we were forced to consider is this, Is this what religion is all about? Is this the lesson we learn from being religious?
Religion, in itself, offers a way of salvation. This is true of both Christianity and Islam. A way of salvation which consists of mutual self-giving in love, peaceful coexistence, mutual support, friendship, assistance and tolerance. But our concrete actions, at least in Nigeria, seem to be far removed from this ideology.
The response to the Jos crisis further complicated issues. Religious sentiments became the political response. As a result of this, enmity was further entrenched between the two religions resulting in another clash in another State, Bauchi, where about 5 Christians died and hundreds more were displaced from their homes. As I have said in one of my articles, The Supreme Being and Politics: The Nigerian politician’s Mistake, the Jos debacle reiterates why it is necessary for us all to consistently emphasize and appreciate the distinctiveness of religion, not our own opinions about it, not our own views but what it essentially represents which is never to be confused for selfish gains. This explains why I strongly disagree to the opinion that religion and politics should not be ‘essentially distinguished’, though I have great respect for those who express such opinions.
Religion, in Nigeria, has been mixed up with politics and politics with religion, so much so that we find it very difficult to differentiate between the two. This is the challenge of religious dialogue in Nigerian. An even greater challenge is to decipher how we can educate people so that they can appreciate religion for what it really is, in itself and ‘not what some sycophants opine’. Unless this is achieved there can be fruitful religious encounter in Nigeria.