True Christians and Muslims should embrace the liberty of Leah Sharibu as a joint project, writes Monday Philips Ekpe

The other day, leaders of Nigeria’s two leading religions – Christianity and Islam – had unsettling exchanges. The sore point was the hostage-taking of teenager Leah Sharibu by Boko Haram. Frustrated by the seeming incompetence or nonchalance of the federal government to negotiate her release when the rest girls who had also been captured regained their freedom, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) threw the first punch: “We are doing a lot of things we cannot be disclosing to the public. Our concern includes the silence of the media and the civil society organisations thinking Leah Sharibu is a CAN affair… Let all and sundry rise up against the failure of the security agencies and ask President Muhammadu Buhari to wake up from his slumber before the terrorists and herdsmen finish the country. Leah Sharibu must not die. Her death, God forbid, can spell doom for Nigeria. It can give an open invitation to religious war because Leah is being detained purely because of her religion.”

The amiable Sultan of Sokoto and President-General of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar, could not hide his displeasure: “How could that be? Did the Muslims connive with Boko Haram to abduct the girls and release others? No. For them to now make that comment that if she dies in the hand of Boko Haram there will be a religious war is very unfair. How could you start attacking Muslims because this innocent girl happens to be a victim of murderous terrorists? It means they (Boko Haram) are winning the war because that is what they want. If they hear about this and kill the innocent girl that means you are part and parcel of what makes them do that because they want to cause confusion in the country. We are all praying for her safe return and for the safety of every Nigerian irrespective of his or her religion.”

The sad reality is that while it is true that Sharibu is held on grounds of her faith, the insurgents cannot be said to be acting on behalf of Moslems in Nigeria or anywhere else. When they started their campaign years ago, discerning persons saw clearly that they were only foul minds hiding behind their religion to commit criminality. This façade only became clearer to many people when the terrorists moved beyond churches, public institutions and places to also visit mayhem and bloodshed on mosques and fellow Islamic believers. History is full of instances when groups of people presided over mass destructions and took the lives of others in the name of carrying out divine injunctions.

In Christianity, during the Great Inquisition, protectors and lords of Catholicism pronounced judgments on Protestants for dissent, perceived heresy and blasphemy. Thousands of people were executed as a result. Sadly, all that sacrilege took place on the altar of the same core beliefs but different interpretations given to the letters of the same Holy Book that was supposed to bind them together. When Karl Marx came up with his dictum, “Religion is the opium of the people”, in 1843, a maxim that later gained prominence in the 1930s, it was, no doubt, in relation to the struggle between the ruling and working classes. But it could well refer to something deeper. Religion generally derives its strength from explaining the invisible, the unknown and the eternal. Individuals who lay claims to special insight into those realms could turn that asset into strong instruments, for good or ill. They are usually in a position to convince others to act in certain ways. Extremists who seek to forcefully impose their convictions on others abound in various creeds and different forms. So, labeling any religion violent is, at best, simplistic and ignorant. A particular religion may be taking its turn today to produce a chunk of such characters but that should not stop us from taking a holistic look at a problem that is potentially apocalyptic.

Martin Luther King was right: “Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.” With the emotions (righteous and unrighteous) of Nigerians that have run riot over and over again, it would indeed be unfortunate to yield to the coercive, paralysing power of hatred and court its tragic consequences. As the Sultan has said, Boko Haram would sing victory songs if the country is plunged into religious wars.

The way out of the present dilemma is not simple though possible. The first step towards avoiding the kind of chaos hoped for by enemies of peace is to come to terms with the fact that we are all faced with the failings and complexities of humanity, irrespective of our spiritual persuasions. Surely, no rational person would deny the right of CAN to be angry under the circumstance. In a nation where sentiments are often relied upon to assess socio-political, cultural and economic developments, venting it may even appear normal. Luckily, the central personality of the Christian faith – Jesus Christ- is called Prince of Peace; and the very name of Islam means peace. Equation balanced. It should, therefore, not be too difficult for true Christians and Moslems to pursue peace by all legitimate means. Through prayer, preaching and teaching – strong features of both religions – more enlightened, peace-loving followership can be achieved.

Henceforth, the champions of both faiths should embrace the liberty of Miss Sharibu as a joint project. Rather than being a stumbling block, it can actually be a golden opportunity to forge unity in Nigeria.