Arewa House and violation of principle of non-partisanship in the religious public sphere

Abdulbasit Kassim

Today, August 12th 2018, a book presentation titled “The Fallacy of Shiites Beliefs” written by Professor Umar Labdo is scheduled to be held at the Banquet Hall, Arewa House Kaduna by 10:00 am. As a critical academic observer of the sectarian milieu in Northern Nigeria, the moment I saw the poster of the event, including the name of the chief host of the event Mallam Nasir El-Rufai (Kaduna State Governor) and the venue of the event, Arewa House, one of the best research centers in Northern Nigeria, I felt it is important to speak on how this specific event violate the principle of non-partisanship in the religious public sphere.

As a multi-religious state, the institution of the state in Kaduna is ideally expected to operate with strict impartiality vis-a-vis religious communities and the administration must not violate the prescription not to privilege one religion or sect at the cost of another. This ideal principle of nonpartisanship has been violated on a plethora number of cases by the Kaduna State Government and this specific event is just one example.

It is no secret that there is no equality in the religious public sphere in Northern Nigeria. The discursive structure of religion in the public sphere was initially monopolized by the Sufi brotherhoods before they were gradually supplanted by the reformist proselytism spearheaded by Shaykh Abubakar Gumi from the 1970s. Since the early years of proselytism of Shaykh Abubakar Gumi and his marriage of convenience with Sardauna Ahmadu Bello, the new hegemons have wielded all available elements of power (politics, media, religious institutions) to sustain their hegemony in the religious marketplace in Northern Nigeria. All interpretations of Islam contrary to their version of Islam are not only censured and occluded from being proselytized in the religious public sphere but the followers of such interpretations of Islam are bullied into the sphere of religious ‘subaltern’.

But who are the religious ‘Subaltern’?

The religious subalterns are those populations that are excluded from the hegemonic religious power structure and are thus denied the means by which people have a voice in their society. Ever since the adherents of Shiism entered into the religious public sphere, their entry is ideally expected to change the preexisting discursive structure in the religious public sphere as long as their actions do not defy rational sense of human justice. But that has not been the case for them and for all other groups in the religious ‘subaltern’.

Talal Asad once made the following submission in his article “Religion, Nation-State and Secularism”:

“The introduction of new discourses may result in the disruption of established assumptions structuring debates in the public sphere. More strongly, they may have to disrupt existing assumptions in order to be heard. Far from having to prove to existing authority that it is no threat to dominant national values, a religion that enters political debate on its own terms may on the contrary inevitably threaten the authority of existing assumptions. And if that is the case, what is meant by demanding that any resulting change must be carried out by moral suasion and negotiation and never by manipulation or force?”

The religious public sphere in Northern Nigeria is yet to fully come to terms with the meaning of “diversity” and “plurality” of religious thoughts and ideas. The state is ideally expected to manage sectarian polemics and promote inter-sectarian relations. However, when a state and an academic research center provides a platform for the promotion of sectarian polemics, especially in a state where the followers of Shiism are yet to heal from the memories of the 2015 brutal genocide in Zaria, it is wrong.

It would have been ideal if this event is held at the Sultan Bello Mosque or any center owned and administered by the people who share the same sectarian understanding of Islam with Professor Umar Labdo not an academic research center like the Arewa House. It is also wrong for the Governor of Kaduna State to register his presence at this event. As an independent observer of the sectarian milieu, the Shiites are also citizens of Kaduna state. They pay their taxes and they deserve to be accommodated in the religious public sphere as long as they conduct themselves according to the rules of the public sphere. It is equally wrong for Dr Aliyu Khalid, the secretary of Jama`atu Nasril Islam to chair this event. His presence at the event only goes to buttress my thought that the overt reticence of the JNI and the NSCIA over the case of Ibrahim Zakzaky and state maltreatment of the Shiite followers undermines the way they present themselves as the general representative body of Muslims in Nigeria. They are more or less the political wing of the hegemons dictating the affairs of the religious public sphere.

If we truly desire an egalitarian society, it is important for the state to function without privileging one sectarian understanding of Islam over another. All voices that conduct themselves peacefully must be represented in the religious public sphere and incendiary lectures and vitriolic verbal attack against the religious ‘subaltern’ should never be given a platform at a state level or academic research centers.