For the records
Any ideology, however sane and robust, can be abused. Religion is not different. Historically, even Christianity, founded upon the Christ of history — Christ who would rather die than take up arms in self-defense — has been abused by people with evil motives. Apart from teaching us: “love your enemies”, Jesus Christ walked His talk during His arrest, when He restored the ear of a servant of the high priest. Peter, in zeal for his Lord had slashed off the servant’s ear. Rather than praise Peter, Christ rebuked him. How then can anyone go to war, or kill in the name and defense of this Christ? How? But several people have done exactly that, in the history of the church. Shame.
I have been thinking quite seriously (and reading Os Guinness) about religion and our national experiment, one thing that’s come home for me is that, because of the inappropriateness plus impracticability of rigorously regulating religious beliefs/teachings, we must focus more on civic education and the regulation of behaviour. The posture I’m advocating for, sounds like this: “I don’t care what you believe, but because none of us lives in a vacuum, we have to negotiate what is acceptable behaviour, for the sake of our corporate existence as a nation.” Then, we must proceed to teach these negotiated code of conduct in our civic education project.
It is possible. It is workable. Back in the day, “the American way” used to be taught in schools, and to immigrants coming into the USA. The USA is a religiously plural society but they negotiated a way to ensure unity without inhibiting liberty and diversity. There are debates over how well they are doing today in this respect, which is what informed my use of “back in the day” earlier. The point, nevertheless, remains: unity is possible in the face of diversity.
The trouble in Nigeria is, we lie too much to ourselves. If you raise the issues that threaten our existence as a nation, you’d be quickly accused and branded as divisive. Yet, the commonality between a people never made them go for a civil war. What binds us together is not the reason we fight. It is differences that drive a wedge between groups of people, if the differences are not discussed with the view of finding a civil agreement. In discussing these differences, there will be need for concessions and sacrifices, because, that is how agreements are negotiated.
In the words of Os Guinness: ‘differences make a difference.’ In our case as Nigeria, we are not just up against differences. We are up against differences, and suspicions, and accusations. Muslims suspect Christians, Christians suspect Muslims. Each accuses the other. When you throw coercive silence into the mix, as has been the case over the years, the result is a nation dancing gleefully on a path of self destruction.
No group of people advanced because they ignored their significant differences. But negotiating differences, and suspicions, and accusations, which is what is required, take a lot of maturity and guts. Sadly, maturity and guts are not our strong points, as a nation. I guess this is why two very irresponsible solutions are usually advocated by many Nigerians.
Away with religion!
On one hand, there are people who say: “let’s get religion out of our clime. Let’s educate our people away from religion, because it is religion that poisons everything.” This view is not only factually wrong and naive, it is ludicrous. Religion, historically speaking, has been a force for enormous good even though it is occasionally hijacked to perpetrate evils. On a balance, it has done more good than whatever evil has been achieved by its mishandlers. Secondly and more importantly, religion will not go away. The attempt to muzzle it out of existence was made in China. Today, that nation has one of the highest Christian population (per country) in the world. Some of the leading figures in our world today are deeply religious people. In a sentence, religion will not go away.
On the other hand, there are Nigerians who promote coercive silence. Their posture is something like denial. They assume that if we refrain from discussing our differences and suspicions, they will simply go away. Consequently, they spare nothing to brand you an “enemy of progress”, and a heater up of the polity, if you attempt to bring our differences and suspicions up for discussion. What they are occasioning (maybe without realizing) is a situation where the (perceived or alleged) oppressor continues to oppress, and the (perceived or alleged) oppressed continues to be, or to feel oppressed.
You may get me to keep quiet about my suspicions of you but that won’t make those suspicions go away. The suspicions will rather fester and continue to build up till they find a vent in some other ways, ways that will be far more deadly than whatever would have come out of discussing the suspicions and differences and accusations, in the first place. When people are bullied or blackmailed into silence in the face of perceived injustices, they are inadvertently empowered to explode upon the perceived bully, or to self destruct, or to achieve both. Coercive silence is corrosive. Everybody losses.
The balance is not to banish religion from the horizon, neither is it to demand silence from those with objections to the current state of things. The balance is to let everybody be heard, and provide opportunities for civil engagements over what must be seen as rights, and privileges, and duties — for all. The backbone of a robust republic is an unwavering commitment to the trio of dignity, liberty and equality for all. The terms of our continual coexistence as a nation must be negotiated and agreed upon by all stakeholders and for future/potential stakeholders: Religious and regional.