The The fireworks sparked by Professor Farooq Kperogi’s article claiming that Yoruba Christians oppress Yoruba Muslims are a reminder of the religion’s misplaced stance in Nigeria and elsewhere. It is quite ironic that religious fervor is intensifying in these parts of the world even as it declines sharply in other prosperous ones.
It’s not that people in those parts of the world no longer have religious beliefs. For the most part, they still do. It’s just that they have learned – for the most part – that faith and religion are primarily personal matters. They should be practiced within the confines of the home and of the congregations of fellow believers. They do not determine public policies.
Unfortunately for Nigeria and many developing countries, the trajectory has gone in the opposite direction.
For some Christians, it is no longer enough to be a practicing Christian. You have to be a Pentecostal, with all the rituals and protests that come with it.
Among Muslims, there are Islamists who insist on dogmas that have hardly ever been practiced. For them, all the others are infidels who do not deserve to live and even less to participate in governance. They even target and kill other Muslims, including clerics, whom they believe do not meet these standards.
Christian fundamentalists do not impose the death penalty on non-believers, they impose the social equivalent.
A report by an assistant magistrate provides a striking illustration of this. His boss often criticized pastors and prophets for being false or hypocritical. So one day he asked her, “Lady, if you are feeling this way, why are you still going to church?” Her response is something that many people can relate to: she had to attend to remain socially and professionally viable. If she did not attend, even the judgments of her court would be dismissed as coming from an unbeliever, she said.
So, if the practice of exclusion is so intense within denominations, how much more between them. This is why public affairs are better protected from religious dogma. When it comes to personal interactions, there isn’t much you can do.
Kperogi cites a number of examples of what he considers communications from Yoruba Christians that are “calculated to inspire low self-esteem and instill lower self-esteem” among Muslims. His Muslim friends and associates told him that they were told: “you don’t look like a Muslim”, “you don’t behave like a Muslim”, “you are too bright to be a Muslim” .
These are excellent examples of what I call in a recent book “cultural chauvinism,” a universal tendency of groups to claim distinction or superiority. The first two examples are obvious cases of stereotypes and the third indicates the narrow view of the speakers on reality. Either way, all three are in fact backhanded compliments, even if they seem to disparage religion.
I cannot count how many times I have been told ‘You are not acting like a Nigerian’. I get it from both Nigerians and non-Nigerians alike, either in a teasing or neutral way. While I’ve always had a general idea of what they mean, I usually ask for an explanation anyway. My associates would generally reply that I lack the courage for the mad rush. Others see me as too laid back and genteel to be a Nigerian. I have always felt more perplexed than flattered by such comments. Whether they are correct or not, they concern Nigeria more than me. Yet such comments did not diminish my Nigerian identity let alone my self-esteem. I still declare my Nigerian nationality from here to heaven.
The most relevant example that Kperogi cites is the governance of the University of Ilorin which he said “was one of the most inexplicably anti-Muslim universities in Nigeria.”
“The University of Ilorin was an exclusive enclave of Yoruba Pentecostal Christian extremists who intentionally excluded Muslims from scholarships and professorships,” Kperogi wrote in response to criticism of his original article. “The school was run by churches and Christian communities, and only a few Muslims were admitted as students and employed as lecturers, mainly as symbolic gestures of paternalistic accommodation.”
Kperogi added on his blog that the situation was only reversed after Professor Shuaibu Oba Abdulraheem was appointed vice-chancellor in 1997. According to Kperogi’s calculations, Abdulraheem used “extreme” but “understandable” measures to turn the situation around against Christians.
Significantly, Kperogi characterized Ilorin as a historically Muslim city, making said marginalization of Muslims particularly blatant. There is the opposite story that Ilorin became Muslim through an influx of Muslims who gradually supplanted the native non-Muslim population. But it is from elsewhere. What is important here is that a public institution has become the scene of religious rivalry. This could well be a microcosm of the problem of religion in Nigeria. So, rather than quibbling over which religion oppresses the other, the most pressing challenge is to take religion out of public life and keep it in the private sphere. This is increasingly pressing because of the doctrinal pressures on the two major religions to the extremes.
The doctrine of the separation of church and state has been central to political stability in North America and Western Europe for the past two centuries or so. In the United States, it is implicitly mandated by the constitution. Elsewhere, it has evolved through practice or the common law.
Ironically, in these countries, particularly the United States, the ideological polarization is starting to take on a theological tinge. In the United States, the Liberal Democratic Party is under enormous pressure from its ultra-liberal wing. And the conservative Republican Party is under the equal but opposite influence of its ultra-conservative wing.
The conservative pull is complicated by the ambiguous form of conservatism of former President Donald Trump. It appeals to a difficult range of interests, from white evangelicals to white supremacists and many other ideological followers in between.
It is this polarization that gave birth to the “stop-the-steal” movement. Adherents believed Trump’s argument that he won the 2020 presidential election, despite certification from fellow Republicans and the courts’ assertion. Thus, they stormed Congress on January 6, seeking to stop the final certification of election results. All this means that genuinely secular governance in itself does not provide all the answers. For countries like Nigeria, this is a good start. Ultimately, adherence to the ethics of rationality, reciprocity, due process and the rule of law must be strong enough. The formal and programmatic excision of religion from public life offers the best route to these civic values.
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