Friday, July 29, 2011

Religion, Controversy and Hypocrisy

Every now and then, some furious disputation inflames our fault lines and calls into question the prospects of a true and enduring unity. The most recent trigger of such contention is the Central Bank of Nigeria’s introduction of Islamic (non-interest) banking.

In summary, some Christian individuals and groups oppose the initiative because it allegedly contravenes Nigeria’s secularity. More vehement opponents say it is a grand plot to “Islamize” the country. Conversely, Muslims lament their demonization in the media, argue the virtues of Islamic banking and bemoan the Islamophobia that has gripped non-Muslims.

In fact, there is nothing wrong with Islamic banking. It is merely a facet of non-interest financing, the introduction of which is a laudable attempt to expand the range of financial services available to Nigerians. Islamic banking and non-interest financing in general are available in several nations across the world including those of a Judeo-Christian heritage.
Some critics say that the CBN handled the affair poorly. By emphasizing the particularity of Islamic banking rather than the universality of non-interest financing, it ensured that a religiously-charged controversy would greet the initiative. But the CBN’s purported mismanagement of the new initiative surely does not account for the spate of sectarian name-calling and faith-baiting seasoned with ignorance, paranoia and hysteria.

In truth, the current controversy is not about banking. It is about the perceived institutional and symbolic primacy of competing religious identities in the public domain. It is about an irrational fear of all things Islamic and the insensate tenor of public conversation in a climate of incivility. These are the obstacles to the honest but civil conversations needed to bridge the divides of our society.

Non-interest banking poses no legal or constitutional affront to Nigeria’s secular status as its opponents claim. Yet, even this appeal to secularity requires scrutiny. Nigeria’s secularity has always been so loosely defined as to be practically meaningless. This accounts for inconsistencies in state-faith relations such as the state sponsorship of pilgrimages to Mecca and Jerusalem. Every year, federal and state governments spend billions of naira on pilgrimages. Obviously, secular countries do not use public funds to subsidize private spirituality. This contradiction is mostly unchallenged because Christian and Muslim Pilgrims’ Welfare Boards are lucrative bureaucracies which offer access to national oil wealth. Both faith establishments see patronage through these bureaucracies as part of the great contest for primacy in the public square.  
It would be more intellectually honest for secularists to advocate the abolition of pilgrimages and other forms of state involvement in religion.   

Nigerian religiousity possesses the quantitative width of zealous proselytization but not the qualitative contemplative depth of knowledge and reason. Most Muslims and Christians are ignorant of theirs and each others’ faiths. Indeed, they are increasingly raised to be mutually antagonistic.

And Islamophobia exists. 80 percent of our media is based in the so-called Lagos-Ibadan axis and is dominated by southerners and Christians. A subliminal prejudice taints reportage and commentary due to both genuine ignorance and fearful malice. Because sensationalism sells papers, the press opts to highlight the most extreme elements in the interfaith debate. Firebrands on both sides who can provide searing belligerent front page quotes are preferred to communicators of measured faith who can offer calm coherence. Derogatory sound bites are exalted above rational analysis. Extremists are promoted at the expense of moderates, fault lines deepen, and prejudicial attitudes harden. Thus, the media profits from conflict while assisting politicians and public figures whose claim to credibility is their opposition to “Islamization” or “Christianization.”

Most Muslims are rightfully and genuinely bewildered by their vilification in the media. A trustworthy axiom of social analysis and journalism is that it is wrong to judge an entire category of faith (or any identity) by its most extreme fringes. Reverend Chukwuemeka King, the homicidal pastor sentenced to death for murder no more represents mainstream Christianity than Boko Haram represents mainstream Islam.

But the feigned incredulity and recourse to victimhood by some Muslims are also disingenuous. In the past sixty years, sectarian violence has assumed a normative presence in northern Nigeria. Church-burnings, killings of Christians, and the destruction of property have been wrought in the name of Islam. Obviously, violence manifests all over Nigeria but its frequency, scale and incendiary alchemy of religious and ethnic animosities make it particularly distinctive in the north. Tens of thousands carry psychological and emotional scars from these serial holocausts. In the southern consciousness, the north is a feral wasteland patrolled by bloodthirsty mobs that practice the ritual mass murder of “unbelievers.”

Islam’s bad press is also the legacy of Muslim-dominated military dictatorships. Ordinarily, the fact that Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha were Muslims should have been incidental. But they cast themselves as devout Muslims and legitimized their juntas by cultivating a pseudo-Islamic solidarity. This perverse brand of politicized Islam, buttressed by armies of homicidal vagrants on northern streets, has engendered a reciprocal Christian militancy that discerns conspiracies to Islamize the country in everything.  

It does not matter here whether sectarian violence is rooted more in social and economic factors, as I believe, or whether dictators flaunting their Islamic faith were simply defrauding the public. Mainstream Muslims have been largely unwilling or at best reluctant to rescue their faith’s reputation from lynch mobs, duplicitous politicians and religious demagogues. This may be due to apathy, cowardice, denial or a misconceived sense of solidarity with those who appropriate Islam for nefarious ends. Just as it is unfair to judge a religion by its extremities, its adherents must not let extremists become their faith’s most vociferous public representatives. Otherwise they license caricatures of their beliefs in the public mind. As long as this is the case, traducers of the faith, however ignorant and hate-filled, will continue to appeal to the fearful and uninformed. Despite this, we should also note that there are Muslims who have condemned groups like Boko Haram at great personal risk.

It is no coincidence that the growth of religion has paralleled the increase in sectarian violence and corruption in our public life. Dubious clerics intensify inter-religious antipathies because group solidarity is often strengthened by creating a common enemy. So the faithful are rallied against “Islamization” or against “infidels” and distracted from questioning the relationship between clerics, corporate elites and kleptocrats in our society. In the age of pastor-tycoons and Imams subsidized by a degenerate political class, these questions would pierce through the fabric of mass deception.

The pursuit of shallow symbolic victories also obscures the necessity of interrogating the status quo. We chose to debate the Ajami inscriptions on the naira when the currency’s functional worth to millions of Nigerians, both Muslim and Christian, was being reduced by government’s policy of devaluation. Some fought to keep the inscriptions on the naira when a more worthy priority should have been getting all Nigerians literate in the official language and learned enough to participate in a modern economy.

Clerics who have been so equivocal about the implication of prominent Christian entrepreneurs in the scandal of the financial sector – slave wages, casual labour, executive theft, unhinged profiteering and fraud – are speaking with incandescent conviction against Islamic banking which holds redemptive economic possibilities for the poor.

Christians have no theological reason to oppose Islamic or non-interest banking. Until the 16th century, the Christian church prohibited usury so strictly that moneylenders were barred from having a Christian burial. Based on its doctrine of Just Price, the Church saw usury as unearned income. In Dante’s Inferno, usurers are in the same circle of hell as the inhabitants of Sodom and other practitioners of unnatural vice. The papacy eventually relented and lifted the outright ban on usury but greed and the charging of exorbitant interest are still forbidden. Indeed, Judaism, Christianity and Islam hold significant critiques of capitalism and its unqualified conception of profit.

It is no accident that after the global financial crisis, nations are looking to the great ethical traditions for alternative models of finance. However, bigotry threatens to overwhelm our moral imagination. In an absurd inversion, those who should defend the poor and champion socioeconomic justice have become unwitting advocates of profiteering.

Clearly, Nigerians need to talk to each other more and know more about each other’s faiths. It takes conversation to humanize each other and to build bridges instead of walls. If moderates do not choreograph this conversation, extremists will continue to do so with catastrophic results.   

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