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Yoruba Muslims vs Yoruba Christians

by Abimbola Adelakun
Yoruba Muslims vs Yoruba Christians
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Yoruba Muslims vs Yoruba Christians: Whether or not in agreement with the contents of Prof. Farooq Kperogi’s recent article on how Christians in Yorubaland routinely discriminate against their Muslim counterparts, the debate has been, at least, useful. I have always thought that the way Yoruba religious culture is typically framed in almost utopic terms is problematic. Rather than present it as permanently given, Muslim-Christian relationships among Yoruba should be subjected to continuous interrogation to understand its tensile strengths. What I disagree with is the one-sidedness of issues. The article merely presents instances of Christian malevolence against Muslims without asking why things are the way they are.

 

First, the belief that an almost perfect harmony exists between Yoruba Muslims and Christians is misbegotten. Anyone who witnessed Muslim and Christian parents throw stones at each other in Kwara State during their last hijab war could not have concluded that Yoruba are above the human tendency towards conflict and competition. Second, presuming an idyllic religious relationship about Yoruba suggests they are merely nominal believers who can always afford to be indulgent and indifferent to others. Like every other human culture, Yoruba respond to larger ideological issues and calibrate their politics accordingly. A passive relativism of all religious beliefs occurs mostly in contexts where the people’s survival is not at stake. Nothing activates the human impulse towards bigotry faster than a perceived threat to their survival, whether cultural or economic. When you live in a context where what you eat and who you become is intricately tied to how you identify, the politics of survival cannot but become the politics of identity.

 

So, rather than start on the false premise of Yoruba ecumenical religious relationship as a model of perfection only to refute it based on a few anecdotes, I always prefer to ask what factors account for the relative harmony they enjoy. Within a broader national context where one’s destiny is basically determined by the high stakes and zero-sum politics of religious and ethnic identities, how do Yoruba manage their religious diversity without resorting to frequent religious crises as it typically happens elsewhere? Kperogi believes the peace is maintained at the expense of Muslims whose Yoruba lives he depicted in dystopic terms when he observed, “Sadly, Yoruba Muslims have no voice and seem to have accepted their fate with listless resignation.” I am not sure Yoruba Muslims subsist in such dejected conditions. To successfully argue that Muslims are voiceless victims of Christian bigots entails demonstrating that the preponderance of political, economic, and cultural power is in the latter’s hands.



From my experience living among the Yoruba and studying their spiritual practices, I will say the sense of victimisation and oppression is mutual. When Muslims raise issues that irritate them, they narrate how Christians are privileged – largely as a consequence of colonial modernity – to have had a head start in the spheres of education, political administration, and industry. Thus, Christians have not only employed such benefits to their advantage in building their wealth and power, but they have also become oppressive. They are almost always touchy about the evangelical drive of Christians, and how much Muslims have had to fight to maintain their dignity in the face of the constant assaults.

 

When Christians tell their side of the story, they too talk about the immense political power Muslims wield. They attribute this dominance to Nigeria’s history of military incursion in power since those autocratic leaders came from a section of Nigeria where Muslims are the powerful majority. Christians point out that Yoruba Muslims prefer to align with northern Nigeria on political matters because those strategic relationships pay off with political power. Also, they believe Muslims get whatever they want from the state because they are prone to violence. Christians too express their fear of Islamisation, and they understand their conversion drive as counterbalancing the force of Islam.

 

Carefully listen to both sides, and you will conclude they share precisely the same fears of domination and erasure by the opposing side whom they deem as extremely powerful. Even more ironic is that each side considers itself oppressed, and both deem their aggression towards each other as a resistance to the dominance of the other. Much of the issues that cause these mutual tensions are matters the Nigerian state should properly regulate, but the political will is missing. We do not have the kind of leadership that knows how to manage diversity within a pluralistic society. All they know to do is exploit religion. Instead, what we have is a democracy that does not go far enough to guarantee the rights of citizens. When people take on the tasks of regulating civic rights by themselves, they diminish that of others. Without a coherent ideology that defines the rights and dignities of a Nigerian, we cannot get to the point where we can do the needful such as enact and enforce laws against discriminatory practices.

 

Without an overarching vision of how a society should run, we are thus left with managing the symptoms of our problems and doing so individually. When both Christians and Muslims get into positions of power, they build and maintain turfs for their fellow religious compatriots through unfair practices of exclusion. For instance, Sikiru Adebowale whose account of religious discrimination started this latest wrangling has now – we were gleefully told – been employed by an engineering company run by a Muslim. Adebowale had alleged that estate developer Femi Osibona refused him a job on account of religion. Whether his uncorroborated account is true or not, we will never know as that job site – the 21-storey building under construction in Ikoyi Lagos – now lies in rubbles. But the fact that Adebowale was allegedly rejected somewhere on account of religion only to be accepted elsewhere on account of religion shows one of the practical purposes that religion fulfils in Nigeria’s disjointed society. It allows people to build their own safe spaces where they can guarantee the dignity that the state continuously denies them.

Yoruba Muslims vs Yoruba Christians
Yoruba Muslims vs Yoruba Christians

The person that denied Adebowale a job sees himself as maintaining spaces where Christians can occupy to thrive within a larger national context that will deny them opportunities. The person that also gave him a job also sees himself as retrieving Muslim dignity. An otherwise serious society would have anti-discrimination laws that protect all Nigerians, regardless of their gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, and so on, from such power abuse but Nigeria is not yet that place. The best we achieve is to keep attacking the symptom of the problem by sticking to the emotive aspects. Our failure to situate the roots of our ongoing tensions within broader national politics also means that we cannot resolve the issues appropriately.



Finally, it is not entirely true to insinuate the Yoruba ecumenical spirit is constructed on the patience of Muslims who endure Christian bigotry. That assertion does not capture the sincerity of the spiritual beliefs of Yoruba who believe that there is only one Supreme God and that religion is merely a device humans construct as means to a sacred experience to this God. There is a reason that of all Nigerians, Yoruba are the most likely to practice one religion in the day and still patronise other ones at night. That is also why Christians, Islam, and African Traditional Religions customarily appropriate each other’s techniques of worship. All three forms of religion are ever mutually evolving. They each have their internal differences too, and it is those various contests that keep Yorubaland vibrant.

 

The religious relationship among the Yoruba is not perfect, and the tensions get exacerbated by the larger factors of economic precarity and lopsided political structures that habitually deny us human dignity. When you think of it, how many of these issues of casual religious bigotry that explode into crises occur among the rich Yoruba Muslims and Christians? Who sees well-to-do Muslims whose children attend posh schools go beat up a school principal over hijab? Mostly, it is the people whose children study in furnitureless and roofless classrooms who aggressively react when they perceive disrespect. That is why speaking on Yoruba bigotry as a simple case of bad Christians oppressing poor Muslims does not cut it. What turns people against each other is not religion as a mere belief, but desperation for dignity within Nigeria’s denigrating social circumstances. Unfortunately, as a society, we have not yet learned that realising human dignity need not be zero-sum.

FADAKA LOUIS
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