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Our religious land mines

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg..”
The above quote is from Thomas Jefferson, the US scholar, architect and president. The quote is not all about Jefferson and his beliefs; it is also about the bitter lessons from Europe, the continent of Jefferson’s ancestors. The lesson is that religion and government should not mix.

Let us go back to the Roman Empire. The Romans built a multi-religious, multi-ethnic empire, until Caesars like Constantine put Christianity at its centre. Scholars like Gibbons were of the opinion that the appropriation of Christianity as the state religion of Rome had a corrosive impact on both Christianity and Rome.
Rome eventually collapsed and was replaced by a collection of warring European states and a domineering Church centred in Rome. Dissent was brutally crushed. While sacking Beziers, an abbot advised a soldier using these words: “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius” (Kill them all. For the Lord knoweth them that are His).

One day in 1517, a young priest nailed 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg. His name was Martin Luther. That led to the “Protestant Reformation”, the “Great Schism” and eventually the “Thirty Years War”. The Thirty Years War was a very bloody affair; much of Central Europe lay in ruins. St. Vincent de Paul despaired: “Jesus said his church would last until the end of time, but he never mentioned the word Europe.”
After a long period of bitter experience, the “Peace of Westphalia” was signed. In it there were elements of religious tolerance and the foundations of the modern state system. Europeans learned through hard experience the dangers of mixing religion with politics. Jefferson’s ancestors, who fled religious persecution in Europe to America, took those lessons with them.

The Middle East is wracked by violence that has taken a religious dimension (war between Sunni and Shia sects). Our hearts break seeing images of Syrian children refugees. Maybe, the Arab World is going through a “Thirty Years War” experience.
We then go back to Nigeria, where our perpetually incurious and historically illiterate political elite have failed to pay heed to the lessons from European history. Instead, they play on religious differences for narrow, selfish political interests. Nigeria is now “multi-religious”; it is no longer “secular”.

When a serving senator says “his Holy Book is superior to the Constitution”, he is not saying anything new. He is using the language and adopting the tone of those who condemned Galileo for saying the Earth revolves around the Sun, and not the other way round. He is speaking the language of stubborn, uninformed intolerance, making compromise difficult and conflict inevitable. Remember the Thirty Years War?
There is more than one Holy Book and the discussion can very easily degenerate to “whose Holy Book is superior to the other?” Since there is no room for compromise, there is also no room for the creation of a secular, progressive and “pan-Nigerian culture”. We are caught between appeasing two (or more) opposing religious world views.

And this is not a small matter, Nigeria has one of the most interesting and difficult religious demographics anywhere in the world. Nations with Nigeria’s kind of religious demographics are often on the “knife’s edge”; consider Sudan (before its partition) and Lebanon. Yet there is no real effort by anyone (including so-called “intellectuals”) to answer this most basic of questions: “how are we going to manage our religious diversity, twenty, thirty years down the line?”

We have two broad options. We could reflect on the lessons of European history and build a nation on religious tolerance as America’s founding fathers (descendants of those who fled religious persecution in Europe did). “Separation of Church and State” was a practical necessity; these men reflected on more than a thousand years of European history and the rivers of blood unleashed by centuries of religious wars.
Alternatively, we could continue with things as they are. Doing that guarantees that we are headed for a collision course. If we are perceptive, we can see the warning signs right in front of us. There is no need being “politically correct” about this. Far too many people have died in religiously motivated violence.

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