Over the last few weeks I’ve largely avoided the sinkhole of social media debates surrounding President Trump’s seemingly daily executive orders that seem to be getting more absurd, because I’ve seen them mostly as toothless policies meant to fulfill partisan campaign promises. But the controversial Muslim ban; which sparked protests nationwide and was ultimately halted by a panel of judges, forced me back into the arena because it revealed a surprising and conflicting alliance between some religious conservative Nigerians and President Trump. One that excuses his character and temperamental flaws in favor of his anti-gay and anti-abortion policies. One that struggles to reconcile support for his anti Muslim rhetoric with apprehension for his xenophobic and anti immigration ideology which could threaten Nigerian visitors and migrants to the United States.
Few days after the US elections, a friend in Nigeria posted a campaign video in our Whatsapp group chat, which had made its rounds through churches in the US and around the globe. The video featuring then Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence, targeted the socially conservative Christian evangelicals seeking to allay concerns about Donald Trump who had been married 3 times, was clearly unfamiliar with Biblical teachings, was previously on the opposite side of social issues and who had been caught on tape in the waning days of the campaign violating at least 9 of the 10 commandments. The calmer, more devout Mike Pence highlighted his religious beliefs, while assuring voters that Donald Trump would appoint conservative supreme court justices that would overturn laws legalizing abortion, gay marriage and separating church and state, in favor of ones supporting Christian values, and “religious freedoms” which is just Christian freedom.
While the sentiments of foreign nationals positive or negative have little or no effect on the outcome of US elections, the fact that this campaign video made the rounds within the Nigerian Christian community, spoke to an undercurrent of support for President Trump that didn’t show up in opinion polls or casual conversations. When I raised questions about Trumps personal misgivings and the hypocrisy of supporting someone who clearly wasn’t a practicing Christian, they excused his insidious character as an imperfect vessel for Gods message, but celebrated what they see as a return to the moral values.
Of course no religious tolerance lesson would be complete without the gratuitous “Muslims need to do an internal house cleaning and reorientation”, but this lesson had a uniquely Nigerian twist. One I’d never seen before. It recommended that Muslims around the world visit Western Nigeria to learn the “tolerance and civilized” version of Islam practiced by the Yoruba ethnic group of Nigeria. Where there are interreligious marriages and all religious holidays are celebrated. While I found this hilarious in its absurdity and dismissed it as just another forwarded message, I soon realized that the sentiments in the message were widespread and indicative of attitudes about the Muslim ban. While it’s not terribly surprising that people of faith might support efforts to persecute those of religions other than theirs, it was surprising that Nigeria wasn’t on President Trumps list given the unrelenting insurgency in the North-East. The irony is that the same Nigerians who support the ban, share the same concern that Nigeria may be on the list should President Trump decide to expand his arbitrary list of countries on his banned list.
While the hysteria around the Muslim ban has brought this conflict into focus, it in no way resolves it. It is highly unlikely that the conservative right abandon President Trump, even if they are inadvertently harmed by his policies. As long as he continues his assault on the progressive values they so vehemently disagree with, they will continue to support and excuse even the vilest of his policies. The question then becomes: does this lead to the further erosion of the rights of persecuted groups within Nigeria now that the United States; which was able to use the power of the purse to moderate human rights abuses, seems to be heading down that path itself?