By Farooq A. Kperogi
Last week’s column on the enduring symbolic, cultural, and economic violence against Yoruba Muslims in spite of strategically romanticized and hyperbolized media narratives of unexampled religious ecumenicalism in Yorubaland has stirred a profusion of impassioned responses that invite one last response from me.
First, it’s flattering that such a large number of people found what I wrote important enough to deserve responding with such overpoweringly concentrated emotions. I thank both people who condemned me and those who commended me because only people who find your views worth engaging with will insult or praise you for them. I tell my journalism students here in the US that editors would rather have a cornucopia of angry reactions to stories than none at all because that means people are engaging with the stories.
Having said that, in response to critics who have imputed sinister, conspirative motives to me, let me establish my bona fides for starting this conversation in the demotic public sphere. First, my ideological impulses impel me to always identify with the underdog, the marginalized, the alienated, and the ostracized.
Before I wrote last week’s column, which was actuated by what we call a “news peg” in journalism, i.e., a current event that exemplifies a trend, I was working on an article on Hausa and Fulani Christians in Nigeria’s Northwest and have gathered a lot of information on this. Bishop Hassan Matthew Kukah will bear me witness that I reached out to him for data. I’m also working on Igbo Muslims whose identity momentarily flashed into our public consciousness in the aftermath of the death of Alhaji Abdulaziz Chibuzor Ude in September.
I’ve always written about and lent my moral weight on subaltern populations, including northern Christians. Check the archives. To expect that I won’t bring to light the oppression of Yoruba Muslims just because I also happen to be a Muslim is both churlish and narrowminded.
Second, I come from a part of Borgu that shares geographic and even cultural boundaries with the predominantly Muslim Oke-Ogun area of Oyo State. I have intimate familiarity with the experiential realities of perpetual symbolic and cultural violence that Muslims in that area endure. Oke-Ogun also happens to be the least developed part of Western Nigeria, and several people there, rightly or wrongly, attribute their marginality to the fact of their being predominantly Muslim.
Third, my late wife, Zainab, was a Yoruba Muslim who graduated from the University of Ibadan. She introduced me to her circle of Yoruba Muslim friends whose experiences of unvarnished hostility and or casual rhetorical inferiorization (with statements like “you don’t look like a Muslim,” “you don’t behave like a Muslim,” “you’re too brilliant to be a Muslim,” etc. often calculated to inspire low self-esteem and instill diminished self-worth for purposes of proselytization) are eerily congruent with what I’d been familiar with in my associations with Oke-Ogun Muslims.
Finally, I’m from Kwara State and know for a fact that the University of Ilorin, although located in the historic Muslim city of Ilorin, used to be one of the most inexplicably anti-Muslim universities in Nigeria. Because it started life as a satellite campus of the University of Ibadan (which is ironically the most merit-driven university in Nigeria), the University of Ilorin was an exclusivist enclave of extremist Pentecostal Yoruba Christians who intentionally shut out Muslims from studentships and from the professoriate. The school was run from churches and Christian fellowships, and only few Muslims were admitted as students and employed as lecturers, mostly as token gestures of paternalistic accommodation.
That stopped in 1997 after Professor Shuaibu Oba Abdulraheem became the institution’s first Ilorin Muslim vice chancellor. He broadened the school’s focus and made it a truly federal institution with some sensitivity to its immediate environment. Kwara State indigenes who never bothered to apply to the school before embraced it for the first time.
But although Abdulraheem was sometimes extreme in his corrective policies, which was understandable given that he was trying to stamp out a deep-seated culture of religiously-based exclusion of people, he was vilified, ridiculed, libeled, and demonized in the media. He was framed in the media as a violent, intolerant, know-nothing “jihadist.” I couldn’t recognize the soft-spoken, brilliant, compassionate, mild-mannered, even-tempered man who taught me at Bayero University, Kano, in the media portrayals of him.
People who said I’m animated by an agenda to disrupt the praiseworthy (but in reality make-belief) interreligious harmony of Yoruba land by centralizing the taboo conversation about the symbolic and substantive oppression of Yoruba Muslims in their own land are at once unreflective, escapist, and insensitive.
If just one column by a geographically distant columnist is all it takes to explode the glorious edifice of religious harmony in Yoruba land, then there wasn’t one in the first. If there was one, it was a phony edifice of harmony that could be knocked down by the faintest wind of scrutiny.
It’s like white Southerners in the United States who used to say there was racial harmony in the South because Black people, who knew “their place,” didn’t stage mass revolts against slavery and later segregation, and that that it was busybody Northern liberals who sowed seeds of discord in the South by letting Black people think they were oppressed. If someone telling you are oppressed causes you to think you’re oppressed, you’re truly oppressed.
I received literally hundreds of messages from scores of Yoruba Muslims affirming what I wrote. To delegitimize their anguish and angst because you don’t feel what they feel is to be callous and boorish, not to mention disrespectful.
But I understand what is happening. When you rupture the sedate boundaries of people’s settled and simplistic certainties, when you disturb the taken-for-granted myths that they have internalized and caused to percolate into the public consciousness, they’ll lash out with all the emotional energies they can summon.
People who have persuaded themselves that they own the exclusive copyright to victimhood and that Muslims can only be villains, not victims, will certainly have a hard time wrapping their heads around the notion that others, too, can be victims, and that they, too, can be oppressors.
Nothing in what I wrote was intended to suggest that Yoruba Christians are uniformly monsters of structural violence against their Muslim brothers and sisters—or that Yoruba Muslims are angels of innocence who are unblemished by the faintest blot of bigotry themselves.
But it’s undeniable that there is a symbolic power asymmetry between Yoruba Muslims and Yoruba Christians and that Yoruba Christians have instrumentalized their superior symbolic power to evangelize, inferiorize, exoticize, marginalize and even dehumanize their Muslim brothers and sisters.
Many years ago, former Youth Minister Bolaji Abdullahi related an intriguing encounter he had with the late Afenifere leader Pa Abraham Adesanya when he was an editor at ThisDay. Pa Adesanya called the newspaper and Bolaji Abdullahi picked the phone. Pa Adesanya asked who was on the line and Bolaji Abdullahi answered. “Bolaji what?” Adesanya shot back.
As Abdullahi made clear, Pa Adesanya heard him clearly. He just didn’t think “Bolaji” and “Abdullahi” should collocate in the Yoruba onomastic cosmology, which is ironic because Yoruba people have been bearing “Abdullahi” at least three centuries before they started bearing “Abraham.” And if bearing “Abdullahi” as a last name was the cause of the late sage’s consternation, it would be interesting if he thought the same of name combinations like “Bode Smith” and “Mobolaji Johnson.”
Microaggressions like that from wielders of cultural and symbolic power in Yorubaland are constant companions of Muslims.
To be sure, Muslims do the same to Christians in the Muslim North. But discourses of Muslim oppression of Christian minorities in the North are mainstream in the Nigerian public sphere. Plus, Northern Christians have allies in the dominant news media formation in the country and among progressive Muslims.
Colonel Dangiwa Umar, to give just one example from this year, went out of his way to fight for one Justice Monica Dongban Mensem who was going to be passed over as president of the Court of Appeal on account of her Christianity. In several columns, I provoked the displeasure of fellow Northern Muslims for bringing attention to the systematic exclusion of Northern Christians in northern Nigeria.
But the exclusion of Yoruba Muslims in mainstream Yoruba land wasn’t even a topic of national discourse until last week. If we must solve a problem, we must first admit it exists. The reality is that the cultural, symbolic, and media elites of the region oppress Muslims by making a subliminal association between the negative image of Islam in the Middle East (and elsewhere) and Yoruba Muslims.
They then exteriorize the transgressions of Muslims in distant lands to their own brothers and sisters, which provides justifications to alienate and “other” them. It’s almost like they’re made to suffer vicarious retribution for the sins of their geographically distant co-religionists even though Yorubaland’s sociological soil is infertile for the growth of the seeds of violent Islamic extremism.
This issue isn’t new in the scholarly public sphere. For example, in her 2009 book titled “Political Spiritualities: The Pentecostal Revolution in Nigeria,” Professor Ruth Marshall talks of “the growing interreligious intolerance in the highly mixed Yoruba community” and said this “is undoubtedly linked to the evangelical zeal of young Yoruba Born-Agains and their increasingly aggressive public presence” (p. 226).
Professor Ebenezer Obadare of the University of Kansas also brilliantly captured this tensile stress in his 2018 book titled “Pentecostal Republic: Religion and the Struggle for State Power in Nigeria.” I am glad that I’ve caused this conversation to spill over to the public sphere.