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Religion and Society

Tradition and inculturation in Muslim-Christian dialogue in Nigeria

Intervention by H.E. John Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja (Nigeria), on the occasion of the Oasis Yearly Scientific Committee

If tradition is to be a living reality, it must find a way of making itself relevant in changing times. This is the temporal dimension of tradition. If tradition is to be meaningful in a diversity of cultures, it must try to speak in a language understandable by each different culture. This is the imperative of inculturation, which was a major concern of the First African Synod of 1994, as regards the expression of the Christian faith in Africa. We now know that this is important not only for Africa, Asia and the so-called “mission lands”, but also for the entire church everywhere and in every epoch. Furthermore, culture itself is subject to change with the times. This makes the discourse even more complex than at first appears.




As stated by His Eminence Cardinal Tauran, genuine inter-religious relations are not between institutions, but between people. Therefore, when talking of the “Muslim world”, we must think of Muslim people all over the world. It is being said often these days, and I believe rightly too, that the centre of Christianity is no longer in Europe or the so-called “Western world”. But it seems that it is not being recognised that the centre of Islam has long shifted away from the Middle East. The nation with the greatest number of Muslims is Indonesia, with almost 200 million Muslims. I hear that there are still over 150 million Muslims in India, despite the carving out of Pakistan and Bangladesh by the British as home for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent way back in 1947. In my country Nigeria, there are over 70 million Muslims, more than the number in Saudi Arabia and many of the Gulf States put together. This means that when we are talking about the Muslim world, we need to take into consideration this majority of Muslims who live outside the Middle East, and who consider themselves no less Muslim than those in the Middle East. Especially in our globalized world, it is necessary to do this if we are to be realistic in our assessment of situations, and especially if we are to break through some long standing impasse and blind allees.



It is in this regard that I wish to draw attention to the case of my country, Nigeria. We pride ourselves to be “the greatest Islamo-Christian nation” in the world. Our population of over 140 million is about equally divided between Christians and Muslims. This means that in our country, there are 70 million Muslims living side by side with about as many Christians. I am not aware of any other country with such a combination and numbers of both faiths. That we are 50/50 means that there is no question of majority-minority. From the religious point of view, despite the yet unresolved challenges of some recent moves by some politicians to introduce the Sharia in some states of the Federation, every Nigerian is equal before the law, and all religious groups have equal rights. In a situation where both Christians and Muslims take their respective faiths very seriously, this is the only way for us to continue to live in peace and harmony. I have a feeling that the global relevance of our unique experience has not been adequately recognised. We believe that our country is a good laboratory of how the world’s two greatest religions can live together in peace and mutual respect and equality.



Thus, we believe that we should be commended for succeeding to live most of the time in peace and harmony in the same nation, not without challenges and occasional flashes of violent conflict. Talking about religious conflicts in Nigeria, the international mass media has not been fair to us. They are interested in us only during the one or two days in the year when we fight. Every little incident is beamed across the global networks, giving the wrong impression that this is what normally happens in Nigeria. We have often wondered why they are never interested in seeing and transmitting what we are doing in the remaining 360 days in the year, when we are living together and struggling together to survive in a difficult socio-political environment. The reality is that most of the time and among most Nigerian Muslims and Christians, relationship is good and cordial. Our problems come mainly from two fronts: the utterances and activities of extremist fanatics on both sides, and the manipulation of politicians cheaply exploiting the deep religious sentiments of the people. This highlights the grave responsibility of the leadership of both faiths in our nation, to rein in their respective “mad dogs” and to watch out against being used by politicians when they fraudulently claim to be fighting for God in the pursuit of their selfish political agenda.



In this regard, I am happy to report that there have been of recent very successful initiatives of collaboration at the highest level of the leadership of both faiths. We have formed an apex body called “The Nigerian Inter-religious Council” (NIREC), which at the national level brings together 25 leaders from each of the two faiths. This Council of Fifty has done a lot, not only to defuse many instances of potential conflict, but above all to promote working together for peace and justice in our land. While acknowledging our dogmatic differences, we have identified many common values and convictions around which we can rally ourselves for common action. Furthermore, we share common concern for the challenges that afflict all Nigerians, irrespective of faith: e.g. poverty, disease, especially Malaria and HIV/AIDS, bad government and corruption in high places. We recently set up a Foundation to facilitate our interfaith participation in the fight against Malaria, in collaboration with government and international agencies. This opens up wide prospects for the future.



I am convinced that we are witnessing in our days a movement of the Spirit, moving humanity towards recognising and exploiting the resources of faith communities to break new grounds for global peace and cooperation. Openness to interfaith dialogue is not only within the Christian community. We are witnessing very significant moves also within Islam. We only need to remember the famous letter on “A Common Word” by over 250 high level Muslim leaders from all over the world, the Christian-Muslim dialogue initiatives from Saudi Arabia and Jordan, the visit of the Saudi King to Pope Benedict VI in the Vatican, to mention just a few examples. It is also noteworthy that the international organizations, especially the United Nations, which for so long has tended to marginalize religion, seeing it only as a nuisance value in international affairs, are now showing ever greater interest in the value of the resources of religious communities in tackling global problems like poverty and war. We are now hearing that they are trying to open a window for religions within the UN system. I believe that this needs to be welcomed and encouraged by the religious communities worldwide.


From our discussions, I see some urgent tasks ahead, which I hope we shall all insist on, each with his or her own resources. Freedom of religion presupposes that we all sincerely accept that even our religious diversities is willed by God, and that we can celebrate this diversity without compromising our commitment to our own faith. It seems that this is yet to be widely accepted, both among Christians and Muslims. It is this which will give firm basis for recognising the equality of rights for all faiths, both in private and in public, whether in majority or minority situations. Does this not challenge the continued relevance of the whole idea of a “state religion” with privileged status over others? It seems to me that our many “Muslim nations” may have some “opening up” to do in this regard if they are to respond adequately to the demands of our days. With regard to what is to be considered fundamental and non-negotiable and what is “circumstantial” and can be modified in the expressions of religion, a lot would depend on who decides the boundary between the two. How does one reconcile pluralism of religions in the same constitution? This is an issue we are still grappling with in Nigeria, especially as regards the place, if any, of the Sharia in our legal system.



Let me conclude in the light of the foregoing with two final recommendations:


First, there is an urgent need to broaden the basis of discourse about Islam in the non-Muslim lands. Secondly, it is about time we effectively insist on more consistency in the areas of human rights in general and freedom of religion in particular, even in nations that claim to have a state religion. No nation should be allowed to get away with denying its citizens the right to freedom of conscience, within the accepted limits of good order. The governments of the Western nations should go beyond diplomacy and politically correct language in these matters.