NIGERIA: RELIGION WITHOUT FAITH. IS IT WORTH THE TROUBLE?
Foreigners are often surprised to discover how religion is deep-rooted in the psyche of the overwhelming majority of Nigerians. When the Egyptian-American doctoral student of Harvard, Sarah al-Tantawi, visited me early this year to ask some questions regarding the impact of Sharia implementation on women, she did not fail to show her amazement at our religiosity. "I am surprised to see so many people here attend the fajr (dawn) prayer," she exclaimed. "Yes, more than you can find anywhere in the world, perhaps," I replied with a temporary feeling of worthiness. However, as the interview took off, it did not take time for her to realize that our commitment to God ends just at the ceremonial level, that we are not better than the rest of the world.
I remember what was the most crucial question to her, about which almost nobody was ready to tell her the truth throughout her travels across Northern Nigeria: why were the Muslims in the North hesitant in applying the rajm (stoning) in the case of Amina Lawal; instead, they did all they could to find excuses for her? And when her appeal against the conviction succeeded one could feel the air of relief even among the Muslims? "Nobody wants to tell me why," she complained. I asked her: "Do you really want an answer?" She replied, "Yes, please."
"Okay. I will tell you," I started to explain. "The reason is not farfetched. Though one can foresee the anguish of watching a woman actually stoned to death, the real reason why Amina gained so much sympathy because we all believed that she was not the only one who commits such a sin. We are many. This is a nation in which religion ends in the mosque or the church. Outside our places of worship, we are hardly restrained by conscience from committing any crime in any way. So since we go unpunished why would Amina suffer for a sin that is common?"
And so I went to present the usual points I have repeatedly made in my writings regarding our relegation of religion to the status of ceremony. The widely acclaimed article, Cheating God, was the most recent. I am increasingly approaching the conclusion that the Nigerian mindset is essentially but dubiously secular. We generally like God to be restricted to place of worship. We – Muslims and Christians alike – attend to Him there only under the wrong notion that regardless of whatever we do, He is the Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful, who will overlook our shortcomings and let us go into paradise. It is members of the other faiths (ironically, with whom we connive to perpetrate evil) that he will punish in the Hereafter.
We often deliberately expel Him from our minds when we come to commit one crime or another. One day, the internal auditor of my local government gathered its councillors to discuss the distribution of fertilizer. The auditor told them that if they agree they would not need to return the proceeds of the sale; he will know how to cover them. One of them, the youngest, asked: "Ok. If we do not return the proceeds what do we tell God in the hereafter?." The auditor quickly interjected, "Kash, Kash. Kai kuwa kar ka kawo maganar Allah mana a nan. (Oh. Please do not bring in God here). Among the eleven councillors, only two returned the proceeds and only they were saved when the matter was later investigated. Others had to sell their houses and mortgage their salaries to pay back. The auditor remains unpunished.
What pushes me further to discover our dubious secularity is its commonness. It is not restricted to Muslims or Christians. In fact, Nigeria would have been a great nation if either group had carried its faith beyond its mouth because the population of each is substantial. However, Muslims and Christians in Nigeria today are mirrors of each other. The Hausa used to be seen as an epitome of honesty in Eastern Nigeria, for example; but no more. The Hausa Muslim, on his part, used to see the Northern Christian as a more disciplined, more humble and more honest person. That one na before. My fellow Muslims express surprise when I tell them that very little of the aid sent to Christian victims of the Jos crisis through the Plateau state government actually reach. The case of consignments of Turai Yar’adua and Dangote in 2008 are good examples to cite. Turai, at her best hour, asked a consignment of six trailer loads of assorted household items originally destined for Republic of Congo to be diverted to Jos in the aftermath of the crisis in November 2008.
Dangote also did the same, allocating almost an equal load of grains and beverages. Those consignments never reached the victims. Rather, Christian officials of the government sold them to traders –this Alhaji and that Alhaji – at subsidized rates! The Alhajis paid for the goods and claimed them directly from the warehouses. That is why both NEMA and Nigerian High Commission for Refugees took the pain of carrying their relief themselves to Dogo Nahauwa, at the distaste of the Plateau State government. In cheating God, Nigerian Muslims and Christians go into partnership; in killing one another, however, each faction demands the exclusive partnership of God. Glorified and Exalted is He above our wrongdoings!
Many times I contemplate the wish that we could leave God alone and go the whole hog to reject him. We would then vindicate God from our daily inequities and own up to our misdeeds. If anyone cheats in an election and become the president or governor, no cleric would anesthetize us by invoking predestination, saying he is God-given and anyone who does not pay him homage is a disbeliever as it happened in the aftermath of Yar’adua’s selection in 2007. We would employ reason to tackle our problems, not waiting for God to do it or waste time in appealing for His fear among the hearts of men who do not have any regard for him. We would realize that employing technology would do a better job, like introducing electronic voting machines during elections.
Our problem is that we want to enjoy both, the belief in God and the liberty to behave irresponsibly towards our fellow countrymen. The two cannot be reconciled. We should either believe in God and behave responsibly or acquit ourselves of Him and behave irresponsibly. Both ways would finally lead to orderliness as the latter, through reason and technology, would achieve with greater efficacy in the mundane what the former would achieve through revelation. This is a choice that Nigerians must make and stop wasting their time.
For me it is a choice that I made long ago. I told Sarah, the Harvard Student, that, given my background in natural sciences, I would have ceased from believing in God long ago, if not for two reasons: one is the profound conviction, against all that I read about Darwinism from Darwin himself down to his present vanguard, Dawkings, that the complex universe cannot be a product of chance; and, two, the computational and content analysis of the Qur’an which alludes its divine origin. The two continue to glue me back to religion whenever I tried to wander away, more than anything else that a Nigerian preacher would say, to whom I barely listen and treat with glaring contempt anyway. Yet, I often tell people in my conversations that if I have to cheat to win elections or loot public treasury to survive, I would abandon religion for it has failed to make me better than an animal. This is a promise that I have resolved to keep until death to the best of my ability.
I know there are thousands, if not millions, of Nigerians that are frustrated with our inability to use our entrenched religious fervour to solve our problems, which are essentially none other than our inability to transform ourselves from the levels of individuals to that of a community where we the action of one person has consequences – good or bad – on the life of all others. We still see ourselves as individuals, those hunter-gatherers that our ancestors were. If we gain any elevation, it is not beyond the divisive boundaries of clan, tribe or religion. We fail, repeatedly, to view ourselves first as part of the humanity whose members deserve an irreducible minimum of rights into which we must restrain our desires from encroaching. We have still failed to see that our survival, security, happiness and progress as individuals lie only within that realm of humanity which we must sacrifice our animals instincts of selfishness to protect. Instead, we prefer, to abandon the education we acquired in citadels of learning and behave as individuals first, aggrandizing for our selfish ends whatever comes of our way that is meant for our common good. The inevitable end is the collapse of any edifice that we build: NEPA, NITEL, Nigerian Railway Authority, INEC, education and health institutions, and all other public parastatals, along with the entire political structure.
We are in the last days of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. Thousands of Nigerian Muslim elites have gone for the lesser Hajj, umrah. So much time and resources go to these and other rituals which virtually every Muslim in Nigeria would agree have become mere ceremonies. Why suffer so much then in the name of religion? At the Holy Land, outside the Holy Mosques, the discussion will surely be dominated by politics. People of various parties and interests will be meeting to see how they can have an upper hand in 2011: the most effective way to rig the elections or hoodwink the masses. The concern of civil servants, who have now supplanted the local bourgeoisie in attending the jamboree, is the ongoing in their offices back at home. Two years ago, a cashier of a local government paid a huge sum to enable him return from Hajj a day earlier in order to participate in the monthly payment of salaries. He did not want to miss the proceeds from ghost workers. Subhanallah. What is the benefit of the Hajj or Umrah then?
The common answer is that well at least the reward from the rituals would compensate some of the wrongs we commit. This is underestimating the gravity of the wrongs. Islam lays a very high premium on public accountability. Everybody will stand trial before God in the Hereafter where he will account for his deeds. Yet, there a consensus that public office holders will have the severest trial for the sins they committed that border on denying the rights other fellows. Among us is the person whom the Prophet (peace be upon him) called muflis, the bankrupt cheat. He would come with a pile of good deeds. Then people would troop in each asking for his right which the cheat usurped backed on earth. God would start compensating them by distributing the good deeds of the cheat to them until when his entire good deeds are exhausted and many more claimers would be awaiting their compensation. Then God would instead remit the bad deeds of each claimant into he account of the cheat before he is finally committed to Hell. How many people would come asking for their rights before a president, a governor, a local government chairman, or a public officer who stole from the treasury? Is this end all what our religiosity could buy us? If this is what awaits us, is the religiosity worth it?
Our problem is that there is so much religion around, but no faith. We should acquire in the latter or free ourselves from the former, all together.