Religion is one of the greatest institutions created by man. For instance, Islam is defined as a “religion of peace” but you will find in the Quran some passages as violent as this: “And when the sacred months are passed, kill those who join other gods with Allah wherever ye shall find them; and seize them, besiege them, and lay wait for them with every kind of ambush”, even though you will find in its hallowed pages many passages urging mercy toward others, tolerance, respect for life and so on. Most interpreters of the Koran find no argument in it for the murder of innocents. But it would be naive to ignore in Islam a deep thread of intolerance toward unbelievers, especially if those unbelievers are believed to be a threat to the Islamic world.
The use of religion for extreme repression, and even terror, is not restricted to Islam. For most of its history, Christianity has had a worse record. From the Crusades to the Inquisition to the bloody religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, Europe saw far more blood spilled for religion’s sake than the Muslim world did. Christianity defines God as love but the Holy Bible contains a verse like “I have brought you not peace but sword.” (Matthew 10:34).
Perhaps the most important thing for us to realise today is that the defeat of each of these fundamentalisms required a long and arduous effort. The conflict with Islamic fundamentalism is likely to take as long. For unlike Europe’s religious wars, which taught Christians the futility of fighting to the death over something beyond human understanding and so immune to any definitive resolution, there has been no such educative conflict in the Muslim world. Only Iran and Afghanistan have experienced the full horror of revolutionary fundamentalism, and of the two only Iran has so far seen reason to moderate its religious inclinations to some extent. From everything we see, the lessons Europe learnt in its bloody history are yet to be absorbed within the Muslim world. There, as in 16th-century Europe, the promise of purity and salvation seem far more enticing than the mundane allure of mere peace. That means that we are not at the end of this conflict but in its very early stages.
Faith cannot exist alone in a single person. Indeed, faith needs others for it to survive – and the more complete the culture of faith, the wider it is, and the more total its infiltration of the world, the better for it. It is hard for us to wrap our minds around this today, but it is quite clear from the accounts of the Inquisition and, indeed, of the religious wars that continued to rage in Europe for nearly three centuries, that many of the fanatics who burnt human beings at the stake were acting out of what they genuinely thought were the best interests of the victims. With the power of the state, they used fire, as opposed to simple execution, because it was thought to be spiritually cleansing. A few minutes of hideous torture on earth were deemed a small price to pay for helping such souls avoid eternal torture in the afterlife. Moreover, the example of such government-sponsored executions helped create a culture in which certain truths were reinforced and in which it was easier for more weak people to find faith. The burden of this duty to uphold the faith lay on the men required to torture, persecute and murder the unfaithful. And many of them believed, as no doubt some Islamic fundamentalists believe, that they were acting out of mercy and godliness. One can guess rightly the reason religion is so misunderstood.
Questions that that I often wonder about are: Why is religion so misunderstood by those who should even know better? Is culture not supposed to be part of religion? Why do some people do negative things in the name of religion? There was an outrage on the social media some weeks ago about President Muhammadu Buhari “forcing” the minister of finance, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun, to cover her hair during a meeting in Qatar. The pictures that surfaced online showed the minister, with her hair covered, signing a bilateral agreement on Avoidance of Double Taxation and the Prevention of Fiscal Evasion with Respect to Taxes Income in Doha.
The perception of some Nigerians who saw the picture was that the president actually mandated the minister to cover her hair, a ‘supposed directive’ which some interpreted to mean that Buhari was on the verge of “Islamising” the country.
Those who have been following the thread of discussions since the 2015 presidential elections will not be surprised to hear the phrase ‘Islamising Nigeria’ from Buhari’s opponents. Leading the pack in this is no less a person than the Ekiti State governor, Ayodele Fayose who, for reasons best known to him, decided to capitalise on the fears of some Nigerians to accuse the president of setting in motion the process of Islamising the country.
The first thing that came to mind on reading this piece on the social media was that some people were only doing their utmost to make the minister look like a minor who has no sense of decision of her own. I say this because, even my 5-year old niece knows when to say “no’ and mean it. If my niece knows when and how to stand her ground, why should a 48-year old woman not know how to, especially in a sensitive matter pertaining to one’s faith?
The second thing that came to me was the question of why the president would even be interested in “forcing” her to cover her hair. Can it be a condition from the Qatari government to get the sought deal? Is it an act of sheer patriotism or desperation or religious bigotry? Does covering one’s hair in a foreign land simply translate to “Islamising” your country?
As confusing as these questions appear, the answers are easy to find if we look well enough. I have seen the picture of Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the President of Liberia with the Emir of Qatar, His Highness Sheikh Tamim, on one of her visits to that country with her hair fully covered. I am not sure of the level of ‘Islamisation’ she has subsequently pushed in Christianity-dominant Liberia. I have equally seen the pictures of Mitchelle Obama with the Chief Imam of Jakarta mosque, Ali Mustafa Yaqub during their visit to Indonesia. Her hair was fully covered, just as it was when she met Pope Benedict XVI during his papacy.
Some went as far as telling us that Buhari visited a Church once and did not bother to take off his cap. My direct reply to this is, having read my Bible, that I have not found any portion or verse that tells us to take off our caps as men while in Church. If my Church doctrine tells me to take off my cap and I do so, it is my business. I have never seen the Pope or any other priest with his head uncovered. My Bible yet tells me that women should cover their hair during worship. But again, if my Church permits a woman to leave her hair uncovered during service, it has little to do with my business!
Aside our “too religious” friends, what I think Adeosun should have done was to have asked President Buhari or whoever “forced” her to cover her hair is: “Sir, Why should I cover my hair?” Maybe this would have saved some of us the stress of having to speculate.
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