Bugbears of Islamisation

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GUEST COLUMNIST: Fola Arthur-Worrey

Some Nigerians of southern origin or Christian persuasion have always had bugbears when it comes to their relationship with their largely northern or Muslim brothers with whom they are destined to co-habit in this wonderful country. It is partly courtesy of British political engineering but majorly due to historical and social forces. This has been more evident since our so-called independence in 1960. Essentially, the two main pre-occupations of the southern/Christian political and social classes have been how to resist so-called northern domination and Islamisation of Nigeria, and sometimes, the two bugbears are conflated, with claims that the perceived northern domination is the first stage of eventual Islamisation of the whole country.

In recent times, we have been regaled with the lists containing the various security and personal-aide appointments of the northern -Muslim President Muhammadu Buhari, and their seeming overwhelming slant towards the choice of northern Muslims, alongside claims that the movement of armed Fulani herdsmen through largely Christian areas is the vanguard of this plan, with ethnic cleansing and genocide as the strategy. But that is not my main focus today, particularly as we are yet to see the full picture of all his appointments and yet to have the full picture of how many Christians out of the estimated 70 million in Nigeria have been permanently displaced.

I have searched on-line dictionaries and other sources for the most objective definition of the word, “Islamisation.” Thesaurus defines it as to “cause to conform to Islamic law”. Wikipedia describes it as “the process of a society’s shift towards Islam, such as found in Sudan, Pakistan, Iran, Malaysia, or Algeria (and increasingly, Turkey). In contemporary usage, it may refer to the perceived imposition of an Islamist social and political system on a society with an indigenously different social and political background”. The Collins dictionary defines ‘Islamize’ as “to convert or conform to, or bring within, Islam”. So clearly, the definitions lean towards defining a process that is, on the one hand, voluntary, and on the other, by compulsion. In terms of the voluntary process, recent history informs us that it is usually in majority Islamic population nation states, that this occurs, when the state declares itself an Islamic Republic and adopts the symbols (such as flag) and judicial, legal and commercial systems that expresses its choice of Islam as its governing philosophy and identity. As quoted from the Wikipedia definition, these include countries such as Sudan, Pakistan, Iran, etc. The compulsion model, at least modern parallels of it, might be the rampaging actions of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Islamic State in parts of Syria and Iraq. Perhaps we may add Boko Haram to the North-east of Nigeria to these two, but none of them can be realistically described as state actors, and are located in predominantly Muslim areas and are actively opposed by the Islamic centred governments and populations.

In Nigeria, the questions to be examined when it comes to claims by some Christians (of which I am fiercely one, though I am not so obvious about it) of the existence of a grand plan to Islamize Nigeria are whether (1) there is any obvious, overt, visible, and viable attempts by the government of the national state and its institutions to: “impose an Islamist social and political system on society as a whole”; and whether (2) there is any serious effort on-going by any group or groups, state or non-state, to convert or bring within Islam, the majority of the population of Nigeria”? These questions are important because they address fundamental issues about national cohesion, perceptions in the minds of citizens which may affect their judgment and relationships, and existentially, they address the viability of the Nigerian project as we stumble, seemingly blindly, along.

As to the first question, we should look closely at the actions of the national government and its institutions and the laws that govern them to come to any conclusion on this matter. For us to conclude that there is a serious attempt, not a mere perception of such an attempt, by the state to Islamise the country, we would have to be confronted by two main features. The first would be a clear attempt to change the laws of the country as they govern all aspects of our lives, and more particularly the party or parties seeking Islamisation would push for the amendment of the constitution to bring it in line with the desired Islamisation. This is more particularly relevant to the provision that declares that no religion shall be adopted as a state religion or the one that states that no person shall be discriminated against by reason of his or her religion or gender or the one that guarantees freedom of religious belief. All national governing institutions would have to be changed in function and character, again by legislation, to bring them into conformity with Islamic precepts. Thus, for instance, the banking laws, the court laws, the marriage laws, the educational laws, the laws regarding commerce and property ownership, and criminal justice, the laws and on public holidays. The second would be that all government policies on these and other related issues, including areas like pilgrimages, employment, the allocation of grants, places of and modes of worship, scholarships, tertiary education, mode of dress, consumption of alcohol and the like would be geared towards the imposition of Islamic norms such that it would seriously interfere with and disrupt the lives of non-Muslims. So far, I am not aware of any attempt by any national government over the past 60 or so years, to formulate or impose any of such laws and or policies, either by direct decree when the pre-dominantly northern military was in power, or during any of the democratically elected governments that we have had. I am also not aware of any serious attempt by any legislator of Muslim-northern extraction to propose and follow through with any Bill that seeks to seriously alter the largely secular and Western/Christian-oriented structure and character of the major governing institutions of the country including the Central Bank, the superior courts of record, the regulatory authorities in charge of commerce, food and drugs, the federal universities, or other such bodies charged with the administration and execution of our laws.

Indeed, the whole country has largely accepted our way of doing things, save when from time to time, some officials or persons have sought to or suggested a change here and there, such as the recognition and adoption of Sharia based non-interest banking, which raised such outrage and a hue and cry, but which was understandably muted when it was discovered that the provisions for such banking practice had been in our laws since the 1960s. This is typical of many cases of the uninformed comments on national affairs that that we are made to suffer from time to time. Public holidays are routinely declared for each faith, and only if one day the government suddenly declares that it no longer recognizes the sacrosanct days of Christmas and Easter would there be legitimate cause for concern.

Indeed, I think we can safely dismiss any allegations of some state-sponsored conspiracy to “Islamise” the country by way of constitutional or legislative action. It would be impossible to achieve in any event, given the make up of the country and its very vigilant and vocal populace and the potential for great unrest should such moves be contemplated, and even structurally it would be a virtual non-starter. On policy areas for instance, both Muslims and Christians are allowed, indeed encouraged, to proceed on pilgrimages, and God help any government official or politician who has the temerity to suggest that the country would save a lot of money if government were to withdraw its support for such a process. Government even provides special exchange rates for pilgrims, despite a claimed shortage of foreign exchange, and the adherents of both major religions benefit from this sentimental policy. The fact that more Muslims proceed on pilgrimage than Christians is purely a matter of faith. Unless someone can point out a policy that overtly supports one faith to the detriment of another, I think we can put paid to the idea of national state sponsored Islamisation of Nigeria. Indeed I would respectfully opine that if any one should complain, it should be the adherents of those indigenous religions who have been pushed aside in the scheme of things by the Muslims and Christians. I would venture to say that an application by a Hindi to travel on a sponsored pilgrimage to shrines in India would be looked upon with very little favour.

Granted that some states here and there have adopted Sharia in certain aspects of their legal system or favoured one religion over another in terms of land allocation and the like, but this is no different from the discrimination against so-called ‘non-indigenes’ in many Southern ‘Christian’ states. Abia State is a fairly recent case in point. In any event, the courts are there for correction of course on these matters, but someone has to make the case.

I think that if we discount the activities of Boko Haram and Shia fundamentalists and extremists who are largely restricted to predominantly Muslim areas and inflict their pains mostly on their own fellow Muslims (though one cannot ignore the collateral damage on many minority Christians), there is no hard evidence of any forceful attempt by any Muslim group to convert Nigeria’s Christians to Islam. Recent incidents of herdsmen attacks seem to have more to do with desperation for grazing land than attempt to convert people to Islam. If that were the case, all they would have to do to achieve voluntary conversion would be to withhold the trade in cows, thereby denying the Christian South of its cows for the big ceremonies and the ‘suya’, ‘bokoto’, ‘ponmo’ and ‘shaki’ that we all enjoy down here, no matter our faith. It is government’s hesitancy and failure over the decades to resolve the grazing question, that has led us to this path. When it had the power under the Public Lands Acquisition Act to carve out grazing lands, it instead concentrated on so-called and dreadfully administered national parks (copying the American tradition) which hardly anyone visits, but perhaps now that we are facing the unanticipated climate change, the parks might be opened for grazing. Now they are confronted by the limitations imposed by the Land Use Act and a suspicious population. And it is not only Christians who have suffered the brunt of rampaging herdsmen as records clearly show.

In my view, Nigerian governments over the years have taken some symbolic steps, which have perhaps erroneously created the impression that there was some monstrous conspiracy to Islamise or Christianise the country. It would be foolish of us to let the two received religions to divide us so grievously. The surreptitious joining of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) by the former military leader, General Ibrahim Babangida’s regime in 1986, even if only in a so-called “observer” status, greatly exacerbated the always simmering suspicions, and the actions of governments since then have merely compounded the problem by giving religion such a huge and divisive place in affairs of state. The symbolic steps include mosques and churches built in airports and government secretariats; images of top government officials lined up in rows at the Muslim prayer grounds or arrayed in all their splendour across the front pews of churches; the celebration of so-called men of God by politicians seeking endorsement and the cavalier deployment of police escorts paid for by tax payers to all manner of religious leaders. You wonder if they truly believed in God’s protection and the efficacy of all those healing oils they market, why they feel the need for so much physical protection.

And if the Christians complain of Islamisation, so can the Muslims. After all, a Christian president of a multi-religious and multi-cultural country that we are took all the Christian members of his cabinet to Israel, ostensibly to “pray for Nigeria”. What message did that send? And what about the recent and astonishingly speedy response of the northern-Muslim led federal government in intervening in the tenure saga of Pentecostal church leaders (who had registered their churches as charities and were therefore subject to regulation). Not only did the government unceremoniously remove the head of the agency that had raised the issue, but also they announced an action probably unprecedented in Nigerian governance annals, the suspension of the operation of the relevant law that had been duly passed by the National Assembly and assented to by the executive! Imagine if roles had been reversed, and that it was the tenure of Mosque leaders that was in contention. The cries of “further proof of Islamisation” would have rent the airwaves and social media.

We must not allow those who rely on division to feather their political nests to divide us.

• Mr. Arthur – Worrey, former Solicitor-General of Lagos State, is a Consultant on Legal, Security Funding and Governance Issues.