By Wale Odunsi
It is a long-established reality that religion – the belief and worship of God or gods – has polarized households, tribes, communities, cities and nations. The world cannot continue to act as if all is well amid the dangerous dimension that religious differences have routed us. But how did the act of practicing the faith lead to so much hatred, division, persecution and death?
I come from a family where more than 90% of the members are Muslim. My parents converted to Christianity in the 1970s after their marriage in Igbesa, Ogun State, Nigeria. Mom had been seriously ill for weeks, but was well within days of finding healing in a church. Dad was always happy to share the story with everyone; the whole family had no problem with the couple regarding their choice of belief.
Growing up, we expected to see the same chord; alas, the grass is not always greener on the other side. In many parts of the sphere there are stories of brutality and heinous crimes committed by extremists, but many are unknown. While I agree that de-radicalizing and accommodating humans is difficult, influential international organizations need to devote more energy to engendering mutualism.
With over 200 million people, Nigeria has two regions (North and South) and six geopolitical zones (South-East, South-South, South-West, North-Central, North-East and North-West). The predominantly Christian South has a population of Yoruba and Igbo ethnic groups. The North is predominantly Muslim; the Hausa and the Fulani are the dominant groups. Sometimes disagreements snowball into crises accompanied by destruction.
In May 2022, Deborah Samuel, a student at Shehu Shagari College of Education in Sokoto State, was lynched for blasphemy against the Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAW) after speaking out against posts in a WhatsApp group created for updates. up-to-date on academic activities. Male colleagues seized her from school security, stoned her to death and set her body on fire. This kind of cold-blooded killing must not continue.
Reacting to the execution, the famous cleric Sheikh Ahmad Gumi said that the Prophet Muhammad – in whose name Deborah died – never took life despite the insults. “Anyone who kills a non-Muslim with whom he has agreed to live in peace will not smell the scent of paradise for 40 years,” he proclaimed. We need to spread messages like this on the world stage.
According to a study by the Pew Research Center, an American think tank based in Washington, DC, the number of countries experiencing remarkably high hostilities rose from 10 in mid-2007 to 15 in mid-2010. In the analysis of 197 countries and territories, five countries – Egypt, Nigeria, Palestine, Russia and Yemen – were added to the “very high” category.
For decades, West Africa’s powerhouse has witnessed myriad religious violence and killings in virtually all 36 states and the capital Abuja. Recent events have prompted foreign countries to issue travel advisories to their citizens. The situation is not improving as the prevalence of attacks remains high; the same is true in climates where there are tensions over doctrines.
The Global Exchange on Religion in Society (GERIS), an initiative supported by the European Union (EU), strives to connect positive experiences of coexistence between people of different faiths or without religion. The platform consists of more than 120 civil society leaders, experts and journalists eager to see a united humanity, regardless of their religious backgrounds.
During the trip of the GERIS “Living together” team to Belgium, the Center against Islamophobia in Brussels expressed its disappointment at the “discrimination against Muslim students in high schools”. In separate meetings with AIF+ in Limburg and the Almadina school in Antwerp, officials complained that women wearing the hijab do not get jobs despite their qualifications.
However, we have made pleasant observations about the institution. I admired the passion of the founders and staff, including citizens of Middle Eastern countries such as Syria and Iraq; their determination to ensure that young people receive a quality education in an environment where they feel comfortable. Equally fascinating is the tutoring of child ‘green activists’ on climate and the environment. Groups can replicate this initiative in their area.
As a matter of urgency, leaders must bridge the gap and try to achieve lasting peace; the first starting point is the immediate environment. People should be allowed to practice their faith while adherents should do so modestly. In Genk, in the east of Belgium, the Maison d’Abraham affirmed its support for cohesion. The organization, which promotes solidarity, has also suggested regular interfaith dialogues.
Here, many religious leaders agree that intolerance is a problem that needs to be addressed holistically. The establishment of the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council (NIREC) in 1999 was one way to foster fellowship. The association, made up of 50 members (25 Christians and 25 Muslims), is statutorily headed by the outgoing Sultan of Sokoto and the President of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN).
On the subject, CAN reiterated its support for concerted efforts to promote understanding. Christian leadership demands an end to segregation. “Followers shouldn’t feel left out. The actions of political leaders and government should not favor one section. If there is bias, issues that can be settled amicably can escalate and spiral out of control,” warned the Chairman of CAN in Kaduna State, Joseph Hayab.
The Nasrul-Lahi-il Fathi Society of Nigeria (NASFAT) said the role of leaders has always been essential in providing direction on the way forward for people and nations. The Islamic organization advised governments to magnify voices speaking for unity, connect with political and religious leaders to create a movement for harmony, and create spaces/facilities for interfaith collaboration.
“Religious leaders can be an inspiration to others. To fulfill their God-given role, they must rise above religious, ethnic, and other parochial sentiments and speak truth to power. They should be the conscience of the devotees and cooperate with national leaders for world peace,” said Imam Ibrahim Olalekan Shodehinde, the Area Missionary in Ondo State.
Citing research, the Advocacy Initiative for the Advancement of Peace and Harmony in Africa (ADAPHAI) observed that people who live together in harmony tend to earn more, unlike those who live in acrimony without end. The civil society group insists cordial coexistence remains fundamental as day-to-day activities lead to “intrinsically unavoidable” conflict.
“Citizens should build a formidable conflict resolution mechanism, demonstrate tolerance and mutual respect. Countries must genuinely guarantee justice and equity. They must be fair, regardless of language and religion; build and maintain a system that treats everyone equally without any feelings. They must constantly preach peace through vibrant institutions,” said Olaniyi Owolabi, the national coordinator.
The Executive Director of the Women and Youth Empowerment Initiative (WOYEIN), Husna Ibrahim, stressed that no country can survive or develop without peace. “It is necessary for everyone to take responsibility and ensure peace. Governments must implement inclusive programs and policies and be neutral in their dealings. When people have a certain level of security and social protection, there is less of a crisis,” she argues.
Undoubtedly, the religious split is a challenge that affects all genders, young and old, citizens and nations; all hands must be on deck to make the world a better place. It is high time that those who run the business took more deliberate steps to defuse tensions, ensure order, inclusion and reduce polarity between members of religions.
The unity of purpose the world has shown during the COVID-19 pandemic was proof enough that the goals are achievable if the majority works in unison. Although the issue of faith is personal and the outlook of humans less likely to change, religious, political and government leaders should collectively take global action to encourage tolerance. The Holy Books preach peace, so why don’t we tolerate each other?
Wale Odunsi tweets from @WaleOdunsi; email: [email protected]