Regardless of the underlying causes, intolerance and suspicion of each other by people of various faiths have significantly affected our socio-economic development negatively. The resulting tension often affects communal peace and enterprise. Unfortunately, often fanaticism and uncontrolled religious emotions are behind the old conflicts that fuelled today’s suspicion and intolerance. Good examples include the 1987 skirmishes in Kafanchan that was attributed to a supposed blasphemous misinterpretation of the Qur’an by a new convert to Christianity. Similarly, the decision to site the town’s central Mosque close to the Palace of the Bachama paramount ruler ignited the 2004 outburst in Numan Local Government Area of Adamawa State. There are other possible culprits such as militant evangelism, as well as poverty. The latter sometimes lead to inexplicable anger and restive actions without rational explanations for such. In the end, these religious emotions leave hundreds of dead bodies in their trail. Since, 1953, Nigeria has had no fewer than 30 ingloriously notable religious clashes that have led to deaths of several hundreds of people. This horde of unwarranted deaths explains the underlying reason for the suspicion that has so far existed between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria.
It is however debatable whether the interest of the hardliners who perpetrate this mayhem is primarily to assist more people in reaching the fabled cornucopia of nirvana or in leveraging religious demographics to enhance their share of the nationally distributed economic opportunities. That is why a substantial population of Nigerians naïvely succumb to manipulations by politicians and other persons with vested interests in erecting those divisive walls without social benefits over the decades. While forward-focused countries are investing in artificial superintelligence, our governments get entangled in the issues of faith and religion, thereby creating even more disenchantments. The State’s elevation of religion and its use as one of the demographics for economic and political decision-making is partially why the problem has prevailed and burgeoned into a monster of the scale of Boko Haram. It may also partly explain why many Christians have been condemning the apparent lopsided appointments by the current government, which appear to be clearly in favour of the Muslims. But this divisive wall can be brought down if the ordinary worshipper becomes more tolerant of each other. That is the significance of the Christmas Church service attended by the Shiites at Church of the Advent, Samaru, Zaria. It was not as if it is something new, however recent developments in the country have heightened suspicion and drastically reduced the levels of tolerance among various faiths.
Several years ago, Muslims and Christians mainly in the Yoruba States and parts of Benue and Kogi States used to celebrate their religious festivities together. Ram meat was one of the key attractions for many Christians who used to share in it much the same way the Muslims feasted with them during the Christmas and Easter celebrations. So, the gesture of the Shi’ites is not new. I recall that in the mid-2000s, one of my members of staff used to bring gifts of meat to my family at every Muslim feast. I still miss it. Nigerian people are very tolerant people but have unfortunately given in to the manipulation of politicians and persons with vested financial interests in government would take advantage of our religious demography to pursue their selfish objectives. However, what has made this gesture by the Shi’ites remarkable is the height of the cacophony of religious intolerance and suspicion of our time today. For instance, many Nigerians still believe that the President – Muhammadu Buhari – is pursuing an Islamisation agenda. Therefore, to them, his appointments, policies and programmes are suspect. Such lack of trust and suspicion regarding the intents of the leader of the government breeds socio-political uncertainties which in turn affects economic enterprise and the prosperity of the people. Imagine Albania and the United Arab Emirates soaked in this kind of intolerance and suspicion. Imagine that the United States is battling with this kind of religious sectarianism and that it perceptibly feeds into its policies and programmes. The results are apparent. The traffic to those countries will cease.
Unarguably, harmonious existence among deeply religious people leads to profound positive societal values, one of which is orderliness. Entrepreneurial minded people appreciate orderly societies as it provides them with a conducive environment for their activities. That is why in places where there are religious freedom and interreligious harmony, there is prosperity as well. The reverse is true because those with vested interests hijack those opportunities and deepen the divide. Politicians are notorious for this.
A very recent example was the play up of the Muslim religion as a campaign low-point for Buhari during his contest against the incumbent president Jonathan in 2015. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) mobilised and reconstructed disjointed pieces of evidence to profile Buhari as an Islamist with a jihadist agenda. It was easy to tie his credentials to Boko haram insurgency. Similarly, the current governor of Kaduna State is equally considered an Islamic hardliner like Buhari by many. Regardless of the veracity or otherwise of those perceptions, our society appears to have become victims of politicians who take advantage of their love for the divine to divide us. Of course, it works in their interest. That is why some governors consider the construction of religious houses as part of the dividends of democracy in a state where over 80% of their citizens are poor. That is why some states are more interested in playing up the sharia to appeal to the sentiments of the populous poor rather than facilitating entrepreneurial activities and other socio-economic developments. That also explains why political leaders spend more time and resources trying to woo religious leaders rather than performing to the satisfaction of the electorate on their political offices. Religion aptly captured as the opium of the masses is craftily deployed by those in government to divert attention from their performances.
The Shi’ites replayed the visit of the wise men to Jesus in the manger. They also brought gifts as the wise men did. The visitation is a big lesson in communal living for both Christians and Muslims alike. The visit also requires a handsome return gesture from the Christian community. Would it not be interesting to see members of a Christian church visit a mosque on one of its festivals to offer gifts as well as show solidarity in oneness? Such a visit or show of communal solidarity does not in any way signal either a willingness to convert to the faith of the visited community of worshippers or the inferiority of a religion. On the contrary, it is a sign of maturity over and above the pedestrian religious quarrels and suspicions that have affected our capacities to move forward as a nation. We all know that if we successfully neutralise divisive sentiments of religion, then members of different faiths can more comfortably work together to achieve better results.
Ironically, the adherents to both faiths lay claims to the pursuit of love and peace. Yet, every inch of conflict speaks against those claims of love. Ideally, love finds the best expression in sacrificial tolerance. Much the same way that peace demands that we tolerate each other. But what are the adherents tolerating after all? The demonstration of a misplaced feeling of superiority of a religion relative to others invariably invites chaos among fanatics. Nigerians are highly religious people and therefore harbours lots of such fanatics. When one of these extremely zealous adherents expresses unwarranted superiority of his/her religion, it is like throwing a lit match into gunpowder. One would expect that those who profess peace and love should exhibit very high levels of humility and respect for the religions of other people. Again, the intolerant claims to the superiority of any religion breed mediocrity. Those who believe that their faiths are superior will always face the temptation to favour those who are in such a “superior community of faith” more than those who are not. Consequently, we sacrifice competence in favour of the religion that one practices. That is in part one of the roots of our problems.
The world has moved on fully loaded on scientific innovation and economic progress. Religion and the private practice of faith do not seem to be one of those elements transiting into the future. Yet there is no doubt that religion matters significantly and is very important. Even if it is not real, the hope of a paradise or hell after death will always lead to some conscious behaviour among many that eventually benefits society. Nevertheless, those countries and communities that are mired in that pursuit more than striving to excel in science, entrepreneurial innovation and technological progress always lag behind their counterparts in terms of the quality of living of its citizens. That noted the orderly society that religion helps to create is also a compelling driver of economic progress. And that is where the critical lesson that the Shi’ites visit a Christian church on Christmas Day is teaching Nigerians. It means that the divisive walls that heighten suspicion and intolerance that robs us of the opportunity to collaborate for better success are destructible. They have challenged other religious communities to act in the same way. Christian churches should consciously recognise as well as respect what the Muslims are doing and are celebrating. And vice versa. Neither needs to believe in how the other worships before respecting it. More of such overtures across the country will invariably neutralise the obnoxious walls of religious intolerance and suspicion. It is without any doubt that we will collectively do better when we work together rather than when we are divided. That is why Henry Ford remarked that “coming together is the beginning; keeping together is progress, working together is a success.” It will always be difficult for us to come together, keep together, and work together if we do not consciously destroy those elements that separate us.