7th October, 2012
Penultimate Wednesday, the 26th of September 2012, Aljazeera´s Live Stream program featured the award-winning author, Lesley Hazleton, in a discussion titled “Raging against the narrative”. Following in the global condemnation of the crudely produced anti- Islamic video that sparked protests (and in some cases, violence) across the Muslim world, Professor Hazleton, who maintains a very interesting blog she calls The Accidental theologist, called on all Muslims and non-Muslims alike to “reclaim the narrative from both ‘Islamist’ extremists and Islamophobic bigots”. She was joined by Nouman Ali Khan, a Professor at the Bayyinah Institute in Texas, USA, who had earlier presented an excellent rejoinder on the video, and Michael Muhammad Knight, an American novelist. The discussion helps in exposing the real motive behind such acts and condemning them for what they are; deliberate provocations to create chaos and violence. Beyond that, it demonstrates how more needs to be done in reclaiming the narrative from those who use such provocations to perpetrate and justify violence, even as we condemn any form of freedom of speech that disrespects other people´s way of life. We can reclaim the narrative from those who insist on imposing their interpreted versions of popular culture and religion; those who close their minds to any differing opinion and insist that others must think and act the way they do, guilty as they are of the greatest form of arrogance (the so-called first sin, utterly condemned in religious scriptures).
The discussion further highlights how stereotypes are created in the minds of the gullible, and how religion is easily the most powerful instrument in achieving this. As the accidental theologist herself stated in one of her lectures, stereotypes are easy because they relieve you of the task of having to think for yourself. For minds that are fundamentally closed, thinking beyond a stereotype is a painful experience. You simply assume the other person is what the TV or newspaper says and move on. It is much easier than thinking and that explains why they flourish. However, the impetus for out rightly rejecting the other opinion and/or point of view is often given a breath of life in formative years in our homes and schools as I relate on the following pages based on personal experience.
The story relates to an incident, two decades ago involving yours truly. I probably would never have deemed it necessary to tell this story but for the now pathological religious hypocrisy amongst many of us, which was created and sustained by Nigerian leadership that has constantly manipulated religion for political ends and a followership unwilling and/or unable to read, think and question. Adherents of all religions are responsible for the underlying causes that have led to hatred, violent attacks, corruption and sheer acts of imbecility and barbarism common in our country. I shall return to that later.
The early 1990s in Nigeria saw the emergence of Muslim brothers’ movement. Mostly inspired by the Iranian revolution and more common in northern Nigeria, an army of young men and women joined the movement. At the time, there were stories of people who destroyed their university degrees certificates as a form of allegiance to the movement, as against allegiance to government and western education. In those days, “preachers” frequented different public places on missions including boarding secondary schools to deliver sermons in mosques. Typically, those visits were never authorized by school administrators. Indeed they were often condoned or simply tolerated. If there was any legal framework that regulated preaching in Nigeria, it was cast aside, like most of the laws in the country. No one dared question any activity involving religion, including those of market and road side preachers, no matter how ridiculous and inciting they were. Such activities still flourish. And so it was, a certain Thursday evening, a group of these preachers visited our school. After leading a prayer, one of them stood up and warned us against reciting the Nigerian national anthem. Yes, the “arise ó compatriots…” He argued that by reciting the anthem, Muslims were pledging allegiance to a country instead of God and that was considered a form of idol worship. He promised us eternal punishment in hell fire if we did not stop. To our young, innocent and vulnerable minds, nothing could be more terrifying! It turned out that similar missions visited many other boarding schools preaching the same thing back then.
The following morning on assembly ground, when directed to recite the national anthem, everyone kept silent. Our vice principal, standing in for the principal that morning, pleaded with us several times, but everyone kept mum. He explained that reciting the national anthem was part of an educational policy and as a rule, must be performed every time there was school gathering. He tried to show us how foolish we were for not obeying a simple rule. “You are so young and are just starting. If I leave this school today, I will get a better job somewhere. What about you, who have not even started studying?” We responded with silence. Eventually we were discharged and all school activities suspended that day. A few minutes later, all prefects (student leaders, of which yours truly was one) were summoned to the staff room for a meeting with the principal and teachers who wanted to know the reason behind this civil disobedience. When asked, every one said they had no idea, everyone, except yours truly, that is. I simply decided to answer the question. Mindful of the possible consequences of my “treason”, yet highly irritated by our silence, I summoned courage. In a boyishly articulated English, I explained how some “Muslim brothers” visited our mosque and convinced us against reciting the anthem. Without being asked, I further opined that it was ridiculous heeding the advice of the visiting preachers.
All eyes now turned on this miserable boy who dared tell on his fellow students of a plan hatched in the mosque. Heaven knows I cannot claim any moral superiority over my colleagues, most of who must have secretly agreed with me. But I was the only one foolish enough to open my big mouth and tell. However, to my young mind at the time, it was an issue of responsibility especially because some of the teachers asking the questions in the meeting were present at the mosque when we were being indoctrinated.
After the meeting, nobody wanted to talk to or be seen with me. Indeed back in class, one of the prefects, overcome by an emotional bout of spiritual superiority, came right to my chair, grabbed me by the collar and choked me until my eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. He accused me of being an infidel, hypocrite and traitor, for disclosing what was supposed to be a secret. By then I had started to realize the danger I was in. Back in the hostel, a hefty bully came and descended a couple of slaps on my face. Suddenly I was the most hated guy in school. I could feel the eyes of everyone wherever I went that day.
In a risky show of solidarity, someone secretly alerted me that there was a plan to get myself lynched that night. He advised that I either left school or apologized class by class. Short of seeking refuge at the principal’s, the idea seemed like an evolutionary stable survival strategy. For fear of my life, I went round, apologized and explained to my classmates (about six classes) that I only said the truth. I further stated that really it was silly not reciting because the argument that we were promising what we could not fulfill in the recitation, was untenable since we were taught actions were judged by intention. We have all grown up today and have put that behind, but the experience taught me that you must stand for the truth no matter what. Certainly many young men and women must have passed through similar or even worse experiences. Mine may indeed be dismissed as some silly childhood event but it has left a lasting impression on me. I am not sure to what extent any such display of bigotry is practiced in our schools today, but I believe it must still be happening not only in secondary schools but higher institutions, one way or another, as I demonstrate shortly.
Twenty years down the road and I am the teacher. Upon arrival at a Nigerian university to teach, one of the biggest shocks I received was neither the fearful and demoralized disposition of the vast majority of the students nor their laziness, corruption and lack of motivation, but the fact that in almost all classrooms I stood, on one side of the teaching board there was a notice board for Christian students association of that course and on the other, Muslim students association of the same course. Most of the notices were announcements on tutorials and had nothing to do with religion. I thought it was quite strange but it seemed normal throughout the university. In one of such classes, I noticed the sharp division, not only in the seating arrangement but in the bitter and unhealthy rivalry of participating in the lessons. Yet I taught biochemistry, the subject, not Islamic biochemistry or Christian biochemistry. I was shocked at how such divisions were accepted and sometimes even encouraged in centers of learning. It is probably worth speculating whether tolerance of such divisions forms part of the dynamics that led to the recent massacre of university students in Mubi, northen Nigeria. While the right of group identity and freedom of association must be protected, it is difficult to fathom such divisive attitudes. Suddenly it is my secondary school all over again.
In the name of religion, you can do and say anything with minimum objection. The result of this conniving silence and negligence on larger society is telling. In the violence that has characterized Nigeria today; the mob effect of embracing any form of oppression and theft and denying the truth, provided religion is invoked; in the deliberate use of religion to commit and justify any form of atrocity, we have become a sick society. From denying the girl (and indeed many boys) their rights to education, to the way ordinary human beings are idolized and worshipped even when they are known to be common thieves, provided they wear some religious garment, we have become the most religiously hypocritical nation on earth. It is telling in the way we even name our children after murderous dictators and oppressors, because they invoke religion, even as some give their names as “dazzling so-and so” or “sweet so-and-so”.
To be continued……….