Sunday, July 10, 2016

Wither Osun State! We Are Watching

By Anthony Okogie
In Nigeria today, Religion is always used for wrong reasons. We witnessed the OIC palaver of 1986 which nearly split our country in two, the religious riots in the old Kaduna State during which a number of churches were set ablaze and innocent lives were lost, the Sharia controversy in some states in the North in 2000 which also led to loss of human lives and harassment of the Christian minority in those states, the subjection of Nigerians to noise pollution issuing from churches and mosques, the exploitation of religious differences by politicians who would do or say anything to get votes, the use of religion to justify the obviously politically motivated Boko Haram insurgency, to mention but these.
Religion is once again in the news, this time in Osun State on the wearing of HIJAB.  The much publicized hijab controversy in Osun State and the ensuing altercation between Muslims and Christians in the state should make peace-loving Nigerians apprehensive. Osun State is in the South West, a part of Nigeria that is noted and envied for its inter-religious harmony. It is a part of Nigeria where one could find siblings who practice different religions without acrimony. Let it not be that the hijab controversy in Osun State is the beginning of the end of inter-religious harmony in south-western Nigeria.

Osun State Governor (Ogbeni) Rauf Aregbesola has, in some quarters, been accused of instigating the crisis. The governor, for his part, has pro-tested his innocence. He has asked his accusers to provide evidence to prove the accusation. His accusers, for their part, believe rightly or wrongly, that his protestations make him look like the man who, according to a Yoruba allegory, having shot an arrow, now uses a mortar as his helmet. They believe, again rightly or wrongly, that the government he heads comes across as a government of questionable neutrality in this matter.  

But let us identify the real problem in Osun State. It is neither the wearing of hijab nor the wearing of choir robes. The problem of Osun State is the problem of many of the states in the fissiparous federalism Nigeria has been operating. Osun State, like an overwhelming majority of states in Nigeria, has failed to demonstrate that it is economically viable, and there are sufficient indices to back the assertion. The state government has not been able to pay salaries of workers for months. From the uncompleted intersection at Gbongan on the Ibadan-Ife Road, through the entire state, it is clearly evident that roads in Osun State are among the worst in Nigeria. It is hardly possible to drive one kilometer without a pothole, sometimes a crater.

In 2015, Osun State was ranked 29th of the 36 states in performance in the senior secondary school certificate examination. Quality of life in Osun State ranks among the worst in Nigeria. It would therefore amount to a distraction to make wearing a religious garb — whether it is hijab or choir robes— the issue in Osun State. It betrays a depressing lack of focus. This is the time for the governor and the people to live up to their beautiful name, to think and act like omolua-bi, since they call the state Ipinle Omoluabi. The problem of Osun State I dare say is not religion but the scandalous under-development of the state. Why is it that a portion of Nigeria that is so richly endowed is inhabited by impoverished people? The potentials for agriculture, tourism, sports, education in Osun State and the poor living condition of the people of the state raises a big question about quality of governance, past and present, in Ipinle Omoluabi. Instead of quarreling over religion, the people of Osun State would do well to call all its governors, past and present, to explain why, since the creation of the state in 1991, that state has simply failed to take off.

 What type of politics has left Osun State in abject poverty? But religion is in the horizon, and we cannot refuse to look at what is in the horizon. That is why we must still inquire: is wearing the hijab an absolute obligation in Islam? In other words, would a Muslim woman be less Islamic if she were not to wear the hijab? There are scholars of the religion of Islam like Leila Ahmed and Raza Aslam who would answer the question in the negative. As such scholars would point out, while wearing the hijab was required of the wives of the holy prophet of Islam, it was not required of all Muslim women always and everywhere. It is because wearing of the hijab is neither a fundamental human right nor a religious obligation of universal extension that we have countries like Turkey, Tunisia, Tajikistan, to mention but these, where Muslims are in an over-whelming majority but Muslim women are not obliged to wear the hijab. Wearing the hijab was in fact banned in Iran between 1936 and 1979. In the same vein, the choir robes being worn to school by some in Osun State are meant to be worn during worship. Wearing them to school would amount to a desecration of those robes. Scholars of Christian religion, particularly scholars of the history of Christian liturgy, who know the meaning and history of those robes would point out that wearing them to school is not a fundamental human right. Osun State is therefore reminding us that we are in this mess because Nigeria is a country where religious scholarship is treated with levity. Many of our preachers in Christianity and in Islam fail to see that religion is a human act, and, as a human act, must not be taken out of the sphere of intelligence.

We have become a nation of religious fanatics where faith is separated from reason, and where there is absence of differentiation between piety and public nuisance. Religion is being used to cover up our incivility and intellectual laziness, and both sides in the Osun story are guilty of the same offence. The Osun State story challenges us to distinguish between the right to wear the hijab or choir robes and the right to wear them to school. The right to wear a religious garb, any religious garb, is not to be disputed. But to mistake it for a fundamental human right, and to claim that wearing them to school is a fundamental human right is to fail to grasp an important distinction.

We must be careful not to allow the enmity and acrimony of the past to pass into the future, into the hearts of our children and children’s children. The children of Osun State, in the innocence of their young and impressionable minds, have always related well with each other. Opportunistic political and religious leaders in Osun State should refrain from actions that might lead to war among their children and children’s children. That is why this fashion parade of religious garb in Osun State calls for sober reflection.
*Anthony Cardinal Okogie, immediate past Archbishop of Lagos, wrote in from Lagos.  

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