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Mounting intolerance for diversity and fundamentalism

11 September 2016, 22:46

On June 8 2016, the global think tank Institute of Economics and Peace (IEP) published her 10th annual edition of the Global Peace Index (GPI) revealing a shock that the world has become less peaceful in recent time. This conclusion was arrived at after IEP assessed 163 nations of the world across 23 indicators of peace categorised into three themes: the level of safety and security in society, the extent of domestic and international conflict, and the degree of militarisation.

It is worth noting that in the GPI 2016 ranking, Nigeria occupies the 15th position as one of the least peaceful countries in the world, placing her in the sixth place after African countries of Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, Sudan, Somalia and South Sudan (in descending order). This revelation is not only damaging to Nigeria’s image but places unequivocal emphasis on the security discourse in our nation.

There is little sense in doubting the authenticity of GPI’s placing of Nigeria on the red hot zones in its world map. A closer look on our nation’s history in the last one decade paints a picture of a country drifting away from a state of peace. During this time, there have been unprecedented terror outbreak across most northern states of Nigeria with a higher concentration in the North-Eastern states. Also, it is no news that herdsmen-farmers crisis have become a reoccurring havoc that have gone beyond the North-Central territories to now include some Southern states like Enugu. And in recent time, secessionist agitations from within the South have taken on violent dimensions that have birthed a renewed violence in the Niger Delta region. These scenes create an atmosphere of fear and great discomfort that affect lives and social activities in Nigeria in no small measure. Thus, it is no surprise that a report tagged ‘Global Overview 2014: people internally displaced by conflict and violence’ released in 2014 by the Internal Displaced Monitoring Centre (IDMC) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) claimed that Nigeria has the highest number of persons displaced by conflict and violence in Africa. Hence, Nigeria’s position in GPI’s ranking mirrors peace and security challenges in the country.

The crises bombarding Nigeria’s peaceful existence arguably result from many factors touching politics, religion, ethnicity, region and economics. In line with this reasoning, analysts of Nigeria’s security and peace challenges have given explanations emphasising one or more of these factors. Resultantly, Nigeria’s security and peace discourse has been a politically charged conundrum. However, it can be safely claimed that our nation’s history of violent unrest within the last decade is domestic in nature. I mean to say that Nigeria is no party to any international war (except in the sense that terrorism is rightly understood as a trans-border security challenge). Similar to this observation, it can be said that Nigeria’s security challenges largely reflect poor management of the nation’s peculiar pluralism. This is the case with terrorism related violence, inter-ethnic crisis, politically induced violence, religious violence and hate crimes within our borders. My second claim is a consequent of the first; that a mounting intolerance across our socio-political divides underpins the spectrum of Nigeria’s ‘fallen peace’. Focusing on the analysis of the concept of fundamentalism, I intend to show in this piece why this is the case and what can be done to remedy our security and peace challenges.

First, let us be clear on the nature of Nigeria’s pluralism. Since the formation of the country regarded as Nigeria more than a century ago, the entity has never been taken as a homogenous nation. Nigeria is a home to more than 250 tribes and has about 500 linguistic groups. Besides, Nigeria’s demography can be grouped according to the three widely practiced religions: Islam, Christianity and Traditional Religions. On the political fronts, aside party pluralism, Nigeria has been categorised into regions, the most recent being the six geopolitical zones: South-South, South-East, South-West, North-Central, North-East and North-West. Evidently then, Nigeria is heterogeneous and qualifies as a plural nation.

What is not so self-evident however, is the extent to which this fact is factored into managing our nation towards a sustainable future. A milestone historical indication that we have failed in the past to manoeuvre the intricacies of a plural society is the Nigerian civil war of 1967-1970. The scars of this avoidable national disaster continue to haunt our unity in many ways. Many would agree that the war resulted from divisive politics, mismanagement of resources and corruption of the 1960s. Almost six decades down the line, Nigeria’s governance system is still troubled by similar problems. Among these factors, divisive politics as a bane of Nigeria’s national problem is of interest in this piece. It is important because of its linkages with the other factors. Where there is a concerted and unified effort to governance, issues of citizenry welfare, accountability and transparency become society watchdogs. But where cooperation is absent or minimally present, feelings of suspicion, distrust and marginalisation create duress for crisis like those we are facing. In addition to that, lack of united front is problematic for addressing corruption and other governance challenges that Nigeria has.

Why are we not getting the governance of our plural polity right? It seems to me that enough has not been done to fully appreciate Nigeria’s diversity. One indication of this problem is our lopsided and distorted form of federalism which meaningful Nigerians like Chief Guy Ike Ikokwu and Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar have called to question on many occasions. Here, I shall deviate from this course to focus on the issue of group identity in Nigeria and how it relates to Nigeria’s security and peace challenges.  

In Nigeria, personal identity is formed along the lines of the nation’s plurality spectrum mentioned earlier. Thus, we can have Chucka as a ‘true-and-true’ Igbo, Amina as a ‘real’ Hausa, and Tope as an ‘omo’ Yoruba. Similarly, we could have Abdullah a Muslim, Rebeca a Christian and Adukwu a traditionalist. And same categorisation can apply to other core differentials of Nigeria’s plurality (e.g. a PDP identifier vs an APC ‘fan’). While this is a conventional practise world over, the often misrepresentation of personal identification in Nigeria betrays full appreciation of our nation’s diversity and consequently negates the formation of collective identity needed for nation building.

The misrepresentation spoken of above relates to exclusive perception of group identity that is characteristic of ‘us vs them’ syndrome. It is a syndrome that argues along this line: ‘You are a Tiv, I am a Fulani and you are nothing like me’; or that ‘you are not a Muslim, therefore, you are a Kefir’. Arguments such as these two, point to certain unscrupulous assumptions about cultural difference that can be unravelled in the concept of ethnocentrism vis-à-vis fundamentalism.

Let us examine the first of the two, ethnocentrism. Essentially, ethnocentrism describes the tendency to view the world through one’s own cultural filters. Individuals who exhibit this tendency make sense of their daily experience through their worldview informed by the culture they identify with. They erroneously take their cultural yardstick as the only valid and genuine mode of evaluating life experience. Consequently, anything deviating from their standard is judged fake and/or inferior. The deviants are then perceived as threats to be eliminated if they are unavoidable. This is akin to the psycho-social makeups of extremists and haters that perpetrate violence across our nation and beyond. They adopt a worldview exclusively and fail to appreciate that they share space with other people who do not share their worldview. And denying that such people even have worldviews that are valid or practical filters of experiencing the world like theirs, they go further to deny them of their humanity either in the form of defamation or maiming to the point of murdering.

Consider the recent hate violence experienced in the Northern part of Nigeria during the last Islamic month of Ramadan as examples. In one instance, an elderly woman, Mrs Bridget Agbahime, who lived in Kano State was butchered to death on the claim that she differed on the point of religious practice. To the mob that perpetrated the violence, they considered Late Mrs Agbahime as a deviant and a threat to their strongly held worldview. In similar tune, in Kaduna State, a young man, Mr Francis Emmanuel (a professed Christian) was gravely beaten up on the account that he did not practice fasting along with his Muslims counterparts. Again, the perpetrators acted in accordance with their ethnocentric orientation which did not allow them to appreciate the young man as different from them in cultural outlook but never inferior to them or unlike them in humanity, not the least, in nationality.

As condemnable as the above two hate-crimes are, they are not isolated cases in Nigeria. Especially in the spheres of religion, killing and maiming have taken place in states like Plateau, Kano, Abuja and in recent times, the North-Eastern states of Nigeria. Away from religion, similar orientation underpins inter-tribal and other group relations in our country. Often, there is a shallow understanding of the ‘them’ group which allows room for demonization that justifies outrageous treatment of outsiders as inferior species within our common nation. It is one thing to belong to one party or tribe or religion, but it is a different thing to think that the group you identify with has sole right to validity of existence such that others outside your domain are not meant to exist or that their existence should be made miserably subordinate. A society that pays little attention to appropriate behaviours in diverse community leaves room for fundamentalist/extremist ideologies to rise.

I am aware of the conceptual debate on fundamentalism and all the confusion. However, there are common themes from popular narrative that are of import to our discussion. The first is of ideology. Rinehart Holt and Winston Inc, in their book titled ‘The Sociology of Religion’ (1958) employed the term fundamentalism to entail a strong commitment to ‘a powerful doctrinal conservatism’. Accordingly, fundamentalists, in truth to their charged passion for held beliefs, resist any form of ‘infiltration’ from any outside influence. This is made possible by their commitment to an absolute standard of truth. In the case of an institutionalised religion, the absolute truth is usually contained in sacred text (this is often referred to as scriptural inerrancy).

The doctrine of the inerrancy of sacred scriptures might seem unproblematic given that most believers of organised religion (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.) take their scriptures to contain truth. However, fundamentalists are unique in that they ardently believe in the principle of intra-textual scirpturalism, a form of literary methodology that says text must be allowed to speak for itself. According to Adis Duderija of Centre for Muslim States and Societies, University of Western Australia, this literary style argues that a reader of the scripture is able to grasp undiluted the absolute truth contained in the holy text. In contrast, modern practice takes cue from inter-text readership of the scripture on the ground that derived truths are relative to subjective factors. While the former encourages rigidity and out of context understanding of text, the latter fosters change and openness and considers the extent to which a text is interlaced with the rest of the holy book and its intersection with history.

Just to illustrate how fundamentalists approach a holy text. Consider the reading of the Qur’an text: ‘the religion for God is Islam’ (al-Imran, 2: 19 & 64). An individual with extremist tendency who might read this could come to believe that anyone who is not practicing Islam is not doing the right thing. Or in another case, the text from the Christian Bible: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men[sic] by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 (ESV)) can appeal to an individual as meaning NO SALVATION outside the Christian fold. Under both cases, the individual who interprets these texts that way and come to hold a belief based on the derived meaning can be said to pose to challenge to anyone in so far as he/she stops at that level. However, once the behavioural aspect of fundamentalist is considered, the danger inherent in the doctrine becomes evident.

In addition to holding unto dogmatic beliefs then, fundamentalists subscribe to high degree of ‘behavioural purity’ and are commitment to helping their deity to fulfil his purpose for humanity, says Dr Sabah Mofidi of Sanandaj, Kurdistan in Iran. This makes fundamentalists reactive to perceived marginalisation of religion. And guided by a dualistic worldview where everything is black and white, there try to maintain sharp boundaries that demarcate the ‘them’ from the ‘us’. Usually, the ‘us’ are considered as the elect, the saints, the righteous and the ‘them’ are regarded as inferior, the evil generation, the lost, etc.

From the foregoing, we can understand the psycho-social forces that informed the perpetrators of the two hate violence mentioned earlier (and many others happening around the world). In each case, the victims were treated as ‘deviants’. As cruel as their actions came across to ‘humanity’ (humanity with qualification); in fundamentalist reasoning, the perpetrators were fulfilling a deity’s command. In other words, fundamentalists are helping their deity ‘to purge the world of impurities’!

For those who may doubt that such a way of thinking is real, I suggest they read an article on Sahara Reporters titled ‘Kano Blasphemy Killings: Extremists Storm Governor Ganduje’s Facebook Page, Vow to Kill Again’ (Published by Bayo Akinloye on June 12, 2016). The news article reported that after Governor Ganduje shared his peace initiative concerning the Agbahime’s killing on his Facebook page, series of hate comments greeted it denouncing the governor’s move. Akinloye reported that most commentators not only commended the perpetrators of the crime but also vowed that any similar case in the future would receive even severe assault. Take Mr Usman Lawan Tanko’s comment on the governor’s Facebook Page for instance. Tanko writes:

“Muslim (Islam) is a religion of peace, but we will not tolerate such kind of stupidity to our noble prophet. I swear without any exception anybody who did (sic) it again or try to will expect the same consequence or above that. Be careful.”

There you have it, the passion and zeal to fight for one’s object of belief!

A lot can be said about how unscrupulous fundamentalist assumptions are. For instance, their ideological commitment is incommensurate with common sense. It is generally taken that religion is a product of human socio-cultural evolution, and like other aspect of human culture, its modus operandi is not static but responds to changes from environment and time. However, as the case presented so far shows, this is not the case with fundamentalists. For them, ‘the good’, whatever that maybe, remains unaffected by history and environment and must remain so. Unfortunately, there is no evidence of ‘a way of life’ that has remained mute and unaffected by the dynamics of the world multi-dimensional and inter-connected relations.

Also, fundamentalists’ commitment to intra-textual principle of the scripture places too much confidence on the ability of human beings to decipher author’s intent from readership of a text. On this point, it is worthy to note that human beings are too fallible (including the mystics) to do justice to such expectation. Human beings are susceptible to subjective influences arising from personality make ups and individual milieus. Unfortunately, many Nigerians have been subjected to gullible hate preaching from clerics in the name of communicating God’s injunction even when clearly these clerics are relating their personal biases. For this reason, interpretation of text that is devoid of context and out of sync with the overall theme of any religion (which generally speaks of love and peace) should be subject of suspicion, no matter how sublime in form it might appear and irrespective of which cleric communicates it.

On the behavioural characters of fundamentalist, it leaves little to be desirable. The first inconsistency in the thinking is on their commitment to ‘fighting’ on behalf of their deity. It beats my imagination to think of a deity described as ‘all powerful’, but who then becomes so powerless that s/he now requires mere mortals to fight his/her course. My question is: Why not allow your deity to fight his/her fight? By picking up weapons to fight in the place of your deity, you immediately communicate to us that your deity is not what you say s/he is.

Again, consider this case of contradiction. A deity is described as a ‘God of love’, but the actions of his/her believers tell us that the same deity delights in spilling bloods, in wanton destructions of the people s/he claims to love. One might argue that it is the blood of deviants that the deity allows. But doesn’t this leaves us with the big question of who defines deviants and how this is done? Does this judgement fall into the hands of mere mortals who are undoubtedly biased? How about little children whose conscience are yet unformed but are part of extremists’ colossal destructions? These questions are dints to extremists’ bloodthirsty religion.

At the basic then, extremists berate the principle of diversity at the expense of peace and progress. This is the very reason why extremist tendencies amongst us must be given due attention. Its exclusivist principle goes against nature and convention. Observation of nature world over tells of the beauty and functionality of diversity. From the flora of oceanic beds to gigantic forage of the Amazon forest, nothing is all alike. And like the rainbow colour, their cooperation with the grand designs of our universe is what keeps the world going. Why must human beings then be cajoled to be all alike? Rhoda Unger of Brandeis University argues against such exclusivist position in a Journal article titled ‘Them and Us: Hidden Ideologies – Differences in Degree or Kind? (Published in 2002 by Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy). Unger offered that ‘it is important to recognise that there is a diversity of ways in which people can look at and explain reality’. Like nature, we are all different even though we are made of same stuff. It seems to me then, that anyone who takes diversity with laxity is out of touch with reality.

Aside the intolerance for difference embodied in fundamentalist tendency which is problematic for peace, there is a sense in which extremism encourages isolation. This is where it stands the way of social progress. Again, here, fundamentalists are out of touch with reality. In this present age, it is almost impossible to think of how sustainable any group or community can subsist on their own without interacting with the outside world. This is increasingly being made difficult by the forces of technology and economics that have made borders and strict boundaries very fluid. Accordingly, anyone with ethnocentric orientation would not only find it difficult to survive in the world societies that is increasingly becoming multicultural but stands to lose from utilising opportunities that come with social integration for self and society progress.  

What is the way out then? It begins with an individual honest and open self-evaluation to ascertain how much of fundamentalist tendencies one has. Make no mistake of identifying fundamentalism with any group alone. Historically, fundamentalism in relation to religion has occurred in various religions of the world: Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Neo-Confucianism, Buddhism, Judaism and Sikhism. Arguably too, there is a possibility that one can exhibit fundamentalist behaviours or tendencies in one’s identification with a tribe, region or party. For instance, to what extent do I think of my tribe and its culture as superior in relation to another? How much of tension does cross-cultural relationship generate for me at work, school, town meetings etc.? If this exercise leaves one with a list of conservative, isolationist and purist tendencies, one should immediately be on a guard.

The goodness for all is that intercultural competence can be learned or acquired. According to Dr Milton Bennett, a renowned specialist on Intercultural Communication, intercultural competence refers to ‘the ability to think and act in interculutrally appropriate ways’. This competence is acquirable. The first step is to learn to accept cultural diversity as a given social phenomena that is undoable. Secondly, Unger suggests that one ‘maintain[s] and increase educational experiences with others unlike oneself’. The rule is to create more room for exposure to as many different cultures as one can. For example, if I am the type that finds too much comfort with people that attend my church/mosque or people from my tribe, or profession only, I would do well to challenge myself to move out of my comfort zones to experience others in their existential forms. Traveling is also part of this. The more borders one crosses, the more chances one has in growing one’s intercultural sensitivity and competence.

The society has a role to play as well. Apart from maintaining law and order which must supersede all sectarian commitments, our social institutions must create rooms to increase intercultural interaction and communication. In particularly, intercultural communication breaks barriers to genuine cross-cultural experience. Whenever this is to take place however, problems with asymmetry of power relationship in our nation must be taking care of. All parties has to be given a fair share around the table of dialogue irrespective of size. Where dominant group(s) dictates the tune of communication as it often happens with our national interactions in the past, genuine dialogue is compromised and the ground for understanding that must proceed resolution gets marred. In addition, parties to national dialogue should be prepared to listen and ensure that others are heard and well understood. It is not only about coming with one’s agenda and pushing it through. In a situation where national discussion is overtaken by some sections who are willing to only speak on the views of their group but are not prepared to allow others table theirs, the likelihood that others would misfire even a genuine contribution from their end is high.

Lastly, our society must encourage inter-group sharing at all level to allow room for intercultural assimilation. This falls on all groups within our nation. Faith groups should be open to inter-faith dialogue with genuine openness. Public institutions like our educational system should provide teaching and learning on history and culture to diffuse unfounded fears and suspicions amongst the committee of Nigeria’s sub-groups. I believe that if all these steps are taken in good faith, our nation would come to appreciate and value our diversity. This would have positive impact on our peace building initiatives and would go a long way to reduce intolerance for difference which feeds violence in Nigeria today.

God bless Nigeria!

Okoliko is an alumnus of University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa and an upcoming essayist. He has a multi-disciplinary training in Philosophy, International Relations and Political Science and has keen interest in politics of diversity. He writes from Lagos State of Nigeria.

- MyNews24

Disclaimer: All articles and letters published on MyNews24 have been independently written by members of News24's community. The views of users published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. News24 editors also reserve the right to edit or delete any and all comments received.

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