Tug of religious war
In this holy and hallowed season of Christmas, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, as if he was sending a message of goodwill, chose to release the report of the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom for the year 2018, a report which was as damning as it was unflattering.
That report put Nigeria in the company of countries such as Comoros, Russia, Uzbekiztan, Cuba, Nicaragua and Sudan, countries which it says “ continue to tolerate discrimination on the basis of belief” and which, to use ordinary language, have continued to suppress freedom of worship.
It also listed Nigeria’s Boko Haram among the most prominent terrorist groups. For good measure, there is a particular emphasis on the continued detention of Sheik Ibrahim Zakzaky and his wife along with numerous other detainees as justification for Nigeria’s listing.
“ Our actions,” says the State Department, “ have been, and will continue to be, consistent with our position on religious freedom. No country, entity or individual should be able to persecute people of faith without accountability.”
The Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, welcomed the censure of Nigeria. It said in a statement issued on behalf of its national president, Mr Samson Ayokunle, that the killing of Christians in states like Kaduna, Benue, Plateau, parts of Adamawa and Taraba, though not mentioned, couldn’t have escaped the attention of the US. In a manner of saying a Daniel has cometh to judgment, CAN saw the listing of Nigeria as an endorsement of its well- known position that Christians have been and continue to be persecuted.
But Sultan Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar, president-general of Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, put up a strident defense of Muslims and denied there was any persecution. At least no such report was ever tabled at the interfaith meetings where leaders of various faiths meet to promote religious tolerance. For the first time, it would seem, the Sultan had publicly made a distinction between criminally-minded Fulani herdsmen, some of whom are not Muslims and whose activities should, therefore, not be linked with Islam. In fact, said the Sultan, among the Fulani you have a large number of Christians as you have a large number of atheists.
Unfortunately, CAN can’t be persuaded to see the matter any other way. It behooves the leaders of the Muslim community, therefore, to come out more bolding and more clearly to defend the faith by putting all cards on the table and dissociate the community from the activities of extremists either of the Boko Haram hue or some fiery Islamic preachers who inflict their ignorance on their vulnerable followers. Many of them have done more harm to Islam than the so-called unbelievers.
It is difficult to convince the leadership of CAN that Boko Haram is not targeted against Christians. But many Muslims have also fallen victim of their activities which clearly are out of the fold of Islam. But as if to give more credence to CAN in this tug of war, the ISWAP, one of Boko Haram’s fellow travelers, came out with a video in which it claimed to have killed eleven Christians that they had been holding as hostage somewhere in the North East of the country. The killing, which was condemned world-wide, was said to be in retaliation for the death of the leader of the Islamic State Abu Bakr al Baghdadi who committed suicide in October to avoid being captured by US forces in Syria.
Reacting to the killing, President Buhari was “saddened and shocked by the death of innocent hostages in the hands of remorseless, godless, callous gangs of mass murderers.”
But he brought the message more poignantly home: “We should under no circumstance let the terrorists divide us by turning Christians against Muslims because these barbaric killers don’t represent Islam.”
Now we are beginning to talk. This is the kind of denunciation we had expected from leaders of the Islamic community when Boko Haram was burning down churches and killing Christian worshippers. Perhaps such clear message would have served to convince people that armed bandits, cattle herdsmen who were killing people on their farms and the most atrocious of them all, the Boko Haram, don’t mean well for the country. And they don’t mean well for Islam. Because all their activities are anti-Islam.
Islam, for instance, does not permit the taking of women as war prisoners. Keeping Leah Sharibu in captivity is totally against the tenets of the religion. Islam does not encourage conversion by force because, in its holy book, we have been told there is no compulsion in religion.
Islam is not anti- Christians because you cannot be a good Muslim without believing in the teaching of Jesus Christ, the son of Holy Mary, a woman of extreme virtue, with a whole chapter of the Holy Qur’an devoted to her, the one who is honored by God above all women, the virgin chosen by God to be the mother of a holy child, who would speak from the cradle heal and cure by the mercy of God; the one sent to spread the word of God and proclaim his Unity and Holiness, the only one that deserved to be worshipped, without any partners ascribed to Him. That was Christ for whom his followers named their religion – Christianity – though what he preached was monotheism, the worship of one Supreme Being, in Arabic, Al Islam.
And that is what was revealed to those before him, “Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the Tribes, and that which was given to Moses and Jesus and the Prophets from their Lord.” And that was the message that was given to Holy Prophet Muhammad, the seal of all the prophets, the last in the relay race after whom there is no other prophet.
So those who willingly and ignorantly take up arms against the followers of that Christ are doing grave harm to themselves. And Muslim leaders have a duty to educate both their followers and those they wish to convert. But conversion is not with the sword but with words of mouth and your good, exemplary conduct.
It is clear that CAN’s arrow is decidedly aimed more against the presidency than against Islam and the Muslims. When it argues inappropriately that appointments are lopsided against Christians, it is on a weak ground. That is not evidence of persecution of the Christian flock. There are millions of Muslims who can make the same argument. The president was honest enough when he betrayed his personal weakness by confessing that he was appointing only those he knew. Problem is that he couldn’t have known everybody, no matter how much he tried. Incidentally majority of those he knew have found their way into his administration. That many of them are Muslim may, therefore, have nothing to do with his love of Islam.
There is another notion that must not be allowed to gain ground. President Donald Trump may have his problems but hatred for Islam in Nigeria is not one of them. And he is not unduly enamored of Christians in Nigeria either. When the case was made against Nigeria, the prominent name that came up as evidence of persecution on the basis of faith is that of Zakzaky and his wife. But they are not Christian.
And in my effort to confirm the integrity of the report, I checked what it had to say about the persecution of Muslim minorities in the Rohingya genocide. The four generals of Myanmar Army that were most culpable had been named and shamed by the same report that seeks to paint Nigeria as a religiously intolerant country. In whatever we do or fail to do, the world, like the Big Brother, is watching us. Happy New Gregorian Year.
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