THE REGULATION OF RELIGION
Recently, the Nigerian Senate just concluded its week-long retreat in Uyo, the AkwaIbom State capital to usher in the start of a new legislative year. At the end of the retreat, part of the communiqué was that the Senators were mooting with the idea of a bill to regulate preaching and license preachers.
The idea of this bill is spurred by Nigeria’s present security challenges and as a response to the Boko Haram extremist Islamic sect. They feel that such a bill, if well implemented, would help in forestalling the emergence of clerics with extremist and violent messages and prevent religious fundamentalism.
Since this bill has not been formally presented on the floor of the Senate, we can only speculate what it will contain. In a few debates I have had with some people on the issue, I largely gather that the bill might grant religious bodies such as the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) powers to license and approve preachers in the 2 dominant religious faiths of Christianity and Islam.
Sadly, there seems to be quite a number of people who are in support of this idea.
Why do I say sadly? The very idea of a bill to regulate religion and preaching in order to prevent future occurrences of religious violence is a myopic approach to dealing with this recurring problem. They are looking at religious violence as a stand-alone issue and ignoring other factors that act as catalysts for it.
Let us take the Boko Haram situation, for example:
- Had it been that education rates in the North-East were not so dismal to the point of almost non-existence, Mohammed Yusuf and his band of misfits would not have had so much idle hands and unopened minds joining them.
- Had it been that the divide between the rich and the poor was not so wide and glaring, they would have been less discontent among the populace so much as to provide a breeding ground for terrorists.
- Had it been that there was sufficient employment opportunities, the type that provide upward mobility in the area, there would have been less able-bodied young men being used as merchants of war.
Terrorism and religious violence does not exist in a vacuum. Surrounding factors make it happen. Why is it that states such as Oyo and Osun with almost the same religious make-up as Kaduna never experience religiously-motivated violence as Kaduna and Plateau? Would regulating preaching and preachers simply solve the trick? I think not.
In the United States, for instance, among the very influential Evangelical Christian community, there exist popular preachers such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell who are committed Islamophobes. They continuously denounce Islam and call the religion all sorts of unprintable names, such as being ‘the devil’s religion’. Yet, there has not been single case of violence by Evangelical Christians against Muslims in America. That is because the surrounding factors do not provide for such idleness so much as to allow people engage themselves in a lose-lose situation as violence.
If the religious bodies are empowered to approve and vet preachers, what parameters are they going to use? For example, as Christians, we generally agree that it is not theology and divinity degrees that give one the power to preach the Gospel, but the in-filling of the Holy Spirit. Can there be methods of proving that one really has the filling of the Holy Spirit? It is a quite abstract concept, of which the belief that one has that filling differs from person to person. There are preachers that I cannot listen to, yet they preach to tens of thousands. Who is wrong in such situation?
In a situation where religious bodies are empowered to license preachers, there are bound to be situations where they shall deny some people the ‘license to preach’. Would not that then be trampling on our constitutional rights of freedom of thought and expression? The constitution is the supreme law of our land; why then enact another law that will clearly be going in conflict with the constitution in its application?
Solve the problems of low education quality, low literacy rates, unemployment, poor and non-existent infrastructure and you are on the way to solving terrorism even in the future.
Bridge the gap between the rich and the poor; create an environment where opportunities are created; give people hope in their lives and they will have no reason to be swayed by extremist religious preaching.
I really wish the Nigerian Senate does not go in this direction of chasing shadows. Such a bill would not only be a waste of time; it will also be giving them the semblance of problem-solving when in reality, they have just made it more complex.
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