It appalls me to see the Muslim North divided on a trivial, yet substantial religious issue like ‘interfaith’. I have for long heard Muslim clerics discrediting the whole idea of interfaith since the establishment of its centre in Bayero University Kano – one of North’s prestigious universities, something which was otherwise not their business, but thanks to this institution, interfaith is now localized enough to get such stimulating clerical attention in Northern Nigeria.
Having had the opportunity to study Islamophobia exploringly, I would say interfaith is significantly relevant where the identity of Islam is greatly contested. By definition, interfaith, whether as a dialogue, in research or academic discourse, revolves around the peaceful, complaisant, and constructive, interaction between people of different faiths for mutual benefit. It involves the striking of balance, a tolerable understanding of such interrelationships and beneficial engagements through dialogues, academic events and activities purposely aimed at peaceful coexistence. To say all these aren’t relevant for a Muslim community is a dismal misunderstanding of the whole concept and reasoning of interfaith.
The world witnessed an unprecedented rise in Islamophobia shortly after 9/11. Statistics show that Islamophobia reached its peak in 2016. If you reside in the Western world in the decade after 9/11, you will understand the intricacy of the threat Islamophobia puts Muslims into, especially for Muslim women who are more obviously identified than their counterparts. Muslim women were subjected to hate speech, discrimination and all sorts of abuses, thanks to the incessant misrepresentation of Islam and Muslims in the Western media. Since the Muslims are a minority in such Western countries, their religious identity was at stake, as such the results were provocative political discourses, foreign policies and the whole activities of the Islamophobia industry vigorously tarnished the image of Islam beyond doubt.
Islam was always portrayed as an intolerant and backward religion that advocates terrorism, Muslim men as utter misogynists, violent, barbaric and bloodthirsty fanatics, while Muslim women were seen as oppressed, voiceless, helpless and subordinate individuals in dire need of immediate liberation. Now, this has been the case centuries before 9/11, but the Orientalism surged after 9/11 because there was an agenda to create fear of Muslims and control the world using that purported fear—New World Order? As such, the occurrence of 9/11, subjugation of women in Afghanistan, terrorist activities by ISIS, Boko Haram etc. were leveraged as justifications for such claims such that the average Westerner believes every accusation about Islam, and has little or no interest in discerning the images. One may ask so what if they believed?
Well, the consequences are bigotry against Muslims, vandalism of religious places, hate speeches, discrimination, loss of jobs (or other vital opportunities), rejection in the community they ought to belong to, and the worst is loss of lives. We have seen so many cases of Islamophobic attacks on the Muslims, the New Zealand mosque shootings for example. This misconception renders the Muslim communities in the West vulnerable, it puts them in constant fear of perceived danger and consequently loss of faith, yes, look at it from the perspective of younger generations struggling to fit in.
Among many other factors, I acknowledge the efforts of Yaqeen Institute by Sheikh Omar Suleiman, a Palestinian American scholar who has taken the lead in fighting Islamophobia, through interfaith dialogues among other methods. Why shouldn’t the Muslims engage in interfaith dialogue when it has been an avenue for discussing the Muslims’ predicaments. It has given Muslims a platform to talk about their real lives and share their religious practices contrary to the narrative the media has always propagated. It has helped quell the flame of hate. It has given Muslims the room to openly operate as an inclusive religion – with lots of global moves to ascertain cultural harmony. It has opened laymen’s minds about Islam which they would otherwise have remained unaware of. It has opened the door for discussion of religious differences politely and positively, which in turn pushed many non-Muslims towards studying Islam. Do you know the result of this increased curiosity about Islam? Acceptance of Islam, the Christian West has seen rapid growth in conversion to Islam. So where is that extreme hate of Islam/Muslims today? Alhamdulillah, there is a significant improvement in the situation thanks to interfaith dialogue among other efforts taken by anti-Islamophobes.
So is interfaith precarious to Muslims in Nigeria? Why all the debates?
Would Nigerians understand the need for an interfaith dialogue without foreknowledge of Islamophobia, global diplomacy and religious inclusiveness? It’s a fact that Muslims aren’t a minority in Nigeria, but ethno-religious crises are still ravaging, in the North especially; crises in Jos and Kaduna would have been addressed amicably if the interfaith dialogue was well embraced. It is utterly disconcerting to say that, in this age, people are having religious disputes. Similarly, Boko haram has been synonymous with Islam in Nigeria, in that, it is always referred to as an ‘Islamic terrorist group’. Don’t we need to dispel the myth of Islam advocating terror in Nigeria? Are Muslims too big to have a peaceful inter-religious conversation in Nigeria? Are we blind to the fact that Islam is under attack in Nigeria? When professor Farooq Kperogi wrote on Islamophobia in Yorubaland, I was bemused, because I never expected that of all the tribes in Nigeria, Yorubas will discriminate against their tribesmen based on religion. The rapidity at which Islamophobia is manifesting in Nigeria is quite alarming, Nigerian Christians’ support for Donald Trump in the last election spells out their desperation for the continued exclusion of Muslims. Many more events to relate with.
Religious harmony is still farfetched in most regions of Nigeria. We are just pretending to be harmonious and tolerant, little wonder how very minuscule events easily trigger provocation. We need to talk about our differences positively and engage in healthy interactions to progress as a nation. We are already bonded together by colonial masters, so unity in diversity becomes definite, or do we wait until our children begin to ask us questions before we get to talk about our differences nicely? If not for anything, interfaith in Nigeria will allow non-Muslims to learn about your faith – Islam, isn’t that a form of da’awa?
My research acknowledges how interfaith dialogue in the US, Europe and other parts of the world, contributed to the curbing of Islamophobia by promoting peaceful coexistence. So to use religion to relegate the whole idea is quite imprudent. To quote Shafiq, Muhammad, and Mohammed Abu-Nimer the authors of Interfaith Dialogue: A Guide for Muslims, “although a relatively modern term, interfaith dialogue has in fact had a long and enduring history for Muslims, underscored by a spirit of genuine inquiry and respectful exchange. The primary role of interfaith dialogue is to remove misunderstanding and accept difference…”
Some Ulamas in Nigeria have taken a critical stance on this matter. I listened to one yesterday opining that interfaith is an extension of secularism. While I appreciate his disposition, I beg to disagree that ‘we don’t need interfaith’ due to his stated reasons. It should be at the discretion of the participant to know the aim of every dialogue before engaging in one. My focal point is that whoever is engaging in interfaith dialogue should be cognizant of their religious jurisdiction and be wary of their intentions. If you ask me, I will advise our Ulama to focus on ways to religiously liberate the Northerners from the abject poverty that has infested this region, instead of the debates surrounding the appropriateness of interfaith – which is long overdue.