By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Unlike many Nigerian Muslims—and at the expense of exposing myself to attacks from fellow Muslims—I’m willing to concede that Nigerian Christians have a valid reason to resent Nigeria’s membership of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). In a country as intensely fractured along religious lines as Nigeria is, it’s insensitive to expect Nigerian Christians to not be wary of an organization that describes itself as “the collective voice of the Muslim world” and that says its raison d'être is to “safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world….”
It’s no comfort to our Christian compatriots that Nigeria’s membership of the OIC is primarily economic rather than religious, or that many predominantly Christian West African nations are also members of the OIC. Given the volatile emotions that religion evokes in Nigeria, those arguments do nothing to assuage the anxieties of Nigerian Christians.
However, I am appalled at what seems to me like the deliberate misrepresentation of — and unjustifiably vicious attacks on— Dr. Nurudeen Mohammed, our Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, who was part of a federal government delegation at the recent Fourth Extraordinary Session of the OIC’s “Islamic Summit Conference” in Saudi Arabia.
The minister was misquoted to have said that Nigeria is “an Islamic country with the largest Christian population.” Another version has him say that “Nigeria is one of the most Christian-populated Islamic nations in the world.” None of these quotes, as you will see shortly, comes even remotely close to what the minister actually said.
|Dr. Nurudeen Muhammad, Nigeria's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs|
This whole manufactured hysteria first began as incoherent murmurs in Nigerian social media circles—Facebook, Twitter, listservs, blogs, etc. But it quickly blossomed forth into a full-fledged media feeding frenzy. And in a matter of days, all manner of people joined what seems like a premeditated chorus for the firing of the minister. The president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, for instance, called on President Goodluck Jonathan “to sanction the minister who should not be a member of the Federal Executive Council in the first instance” for allegedly saying “Nigeria is one of the most Christian-populated Islamic nations in the world.”
Newspaper columnists joined the frenzy. They murdered facts, turned logic on its head, inflamed raw passions, and stirred religious tempers just to make the minister look like some irredeemable religious fanatic who is unworthy of his position. But perhaps the most concerning, for me, is Vanguard’s editorial of September 4, 2012 on the same issue.
The editorial repeated the misleading falsehood that the minister said Nigeria is “an Islamic country with the largest Christian population,” but grudgingly admitted that the minister “denied ever making such a statement.” It nonetheless went on a wild interpretive stretch of what the minister reported himself to have said and then asked that the minister be investigated. “If found ill-qualified or psychologically too immature to hold such a sensitive high office he should be relieved of his position immediately. We cannot afford keeping irresponsible officers on the job when we are going through the worst region-related violent threat to our national survival,” it said.
Maybe it is Vanguard’s editorial writer that should be investigated for being “psychologically too immature” to write an editorial—whatever in God’s name “psychologically too immature” means. How do you explain a news media organization writing: “We want to know whether he actually said those words attributed to him or he is simply being maligned or quoted out of context. The NTA, fortunately, should have the records and should be able to provide it for independent and credible scrutiny.”
It is astonishing that an entire media organization chose to write an official position on an issue it has not had the time to independently verify. But what does it take to verify the accuracy of the minister’s account? What happened to the investigatory role often ascribed to the news media? Who does Vanguard’s editorial board expect to verify the authenticity of the minister’s claims? NTA?
Well, I have done that for them already. There is a video of the interview the minister granted to a reporter of the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA). It is posted on YouTube. So, to start with, contrary to what Vanguard and other newspaper columnists have written, the minister didn’t make the statement during the OIC meeting; he made it to an NTA reporter who talked with him AFTER the OIC meeting.
This was exactly what the minister said: “The King extended invitation to the 57-member states, and his colleague and brother, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, mandated the Vice President to sit in for Nigeria. The basic agenda for the meeting is to discuss the barrage of problems facing the Muslim world: the crisis in Syria, the crisis in northern Mali that is threatening the Sahelian region, and… you know, the Sahelian region is very important to OIC, because out of the 15-member states of ECOWAS, 14, I mean 13, are OIC members.
“And, of course, the issue of inter-faith dialogue… in that respect Nigeria featured prominently. We are the largest Islamo-Christian country in the world, and any dialogue between faiths will come out to the greatest advantage of Nigeria. Other issues that were discussed include encouraging moderation in Islam and a move to bring out a universal educational curriculum…”
As the reader can see, nowhere in this entire quote did the minister say Nigeria is “the most Christian-populated Islamic nations in the world” or that Nigeria is “an Islamic country with the largest Christian population.” He only said Nigeria is the world’s “largest Islamo-Christian country.” That may be an awkward choice of words, but he can be excused because he spoke off the cuff. However, the context in which the words were uttered makes it clear that the minister didn’t intend to be understood as saying that Nigeria is a Muslim—and Christian—theocratic state.
He mentioned Nigeria’s “Islamo-Christian” character only in the context of inter-faith dialogue—a theme that, according to him, featured prominently during the OIC meeting. He was basically saying: if there is any country that needs inter-faith dialogue desperately in the world, that country is Nigeria, because it is the most populous country in the world with an almost equal number of Muslims and Christians-- and which has been plagued by inter-religious strife.
It beats me how these simple, straightforward words can be twisted to seem like the minister had declared Nigeria a theocratic state. This is especially puzzling for me because I have had the privilege of knowing the minister personally before he became a minister. He is one of the most broadminded, cosmopolitan, and tolerant people anybody can ever wish to relate to. And I say this with all sense of responsibility.
It is obvious that people who chose to pervert the minister’s words to make him come across as an intolerant Talibanic mullah aren’t stupid. I think they are intentionally using the minister as a scapegoat, as an opportunity to vent pent-up anger over Nigeria’s membership of the OIC.
As I said earlier, it is perfectly legitimate for Christians to question Nigeria’s membership of the OIC, but it is unconscionable to willfully distort an innocent man’s words and stir religious hysteria in order to revive an old debate.