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          Nigerian Islam vs secularism
                       The concept of secularism

                                       Jan H. Boer
                                   Vancouver, Canada
                                                politicians have a heavy responsibility to

I   ntroduction
    Since the rude awakening of 11
    September 2001, or, as it is now
popularly referred to as “9/11,” Islam as a
                                                demonstrate practical Christianity to the
                                                large Nigerian Muslim community.

                                                Secularism is the major issue
phenomenona        has    received     much         that divides Nigerian
attention in the non-Muslim world. Certain
aspects of Islam as religion and as                Christians and Muslims
ideology have also come to the fore, inter
alia the possible link between Islam and        Secularism is the major issue that divides
terrorism. Another aspect that has been         Nigerian Christians and Muslims. Muslims
highlighted is the attitude of Islam to         reject secularism with a passion and
secularism – the subject of this brief series   regard it as the product of satan himself,
of short articles.                              while Christians uphold it with equal
                                                passion as the solution to Nigeria‟s inter-
Most writings on Islam by non-Muslims           religious problems. Like Nigerian Muslims,
since 9/11 deal with Asian Islam. Saudi         and contrary to their Nigerian counter-
Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and         parts, some leading Christians in South
Iraq, Indonesia – these countries are the       Africa reject secularism as their “most
attention grabbers. If African Islam is of      dangerous enemy,” as Prof. Bennie van
any interest at all, Egypt or Sudan usually     der Walt put it some time ago in the title of
come to mind – or Libya with its mercurial      an article. How can there be such a total
Ghadafi. However, this article deals with       contrast between these two groups of
Nigeria, a country with a number of both        Christians and such a convergence be-
Christians and Muslims, some 50 million or      tween Nigerian Muslims and South African
more of each. Too many people bypass            Christians on such an important issue?
this home of two very dynamic religious         Obviously, everyone is going to be in for a
communities whose relationships and             big surprise once they begin meeting for
interplay can justly be regarded as a           political or business purposes. This short
showcase of future relationships in other       series of articles will hopefully help South
countries – a not-so encouraging show-          African Christians to understand the
case, I should hasten to add.                   Nigerian situation.
There are various reasons why South             The Muslim critique of secularism presents
African Christians should be concerned          a challenge to Christians with their easy
with the issue of secularism in Nigeria. The    flirtation with secularism. It should lead
two countries are vying with each other for     Nigerian Christians especially to a very
leadership in Africa and both are               serious inward look: On what basis can
aggressively lining up to do business with      Nigerians defend their insistence on secu-
each other. This means that Christians          larism as the key to their problems with
among South Africa‟s business people and        Muslims? And that question, of course,

                                                     WOORD & DAAD – HERFS 2002 – 1
leads us one step further back into the        board. Secularism is almost invariably
history of missions and missionaries from      seen as negative.
which Nigerian Christians at least partially
                                               Bola Ige, until his recent assassination
inherited their worldview. These missiona-
                                               Federal Minister of Justice, a lawyer and a
ries include South Africans who have been
                                               Christian member of the Constituent
involved in the development of at least two
                                               Assembly of the 1970s, reported that
Nigerian churches.
                                               when the issue of secularism was raised in
In this article many quotes from Nigerian      the Assembly, “… our Muslim colleagues
Muslims will be found; the voices of           … raised objections saying, „A secular
Nigerians themselves will be heard.            state is a godless state.‟ And in spite of the
English is not the mother tongue of many       hot debate the members … had on this,
of these writers – they would probably         the word „secular‟ had to be deleted in the
formulate better in Hausa or Arabic, but       draft before we submitted our report to the
then we would not understand. So, despite      Nation.” A dual Muslim concern was ob-
the limitations of their English, I have       vious: the deletion of the term “secularism”
consciously adopted the quotation style for    and the inclusion of the sharia. The battle
such discussions. I want the outside world     around this dual concern, according to Ige,
to hear them speak with their own passion,     almost broke up the Assembly. It took
indignation, frustration and anger. They       them two days to forge a draft on these
can express all that much more effectively     issues and even then the Assembly was
than an outsider can.                          “unable to announce its approval or non-
                                               approval” of the issue until it was forced by
Of course, I side unequivocally with
                                               a deadline to report. It was and has re-
Nigerian Christians in their struggle for a
                                               mained the hottest issue in the country
place in the Nigerian sun and disapprove
                                               ever since, with neither side prepared to
strongly of the continued Muslim attempts
                                               compromise toward a mutually acceptable
to dominate Nigeria. At the same time, I
                                               solution. That compromises that have
sympathize with important aspects of the
                                               been made are not mutually acceptable
Muslim perspective. Along with them, I
                                               are illustrated by Ige‟s article on religious
abhor both imperialism and secularism.
                                               freedom within the frameworks of the
Extensive immersion in Muslim literature
                                               Nigerian Constitution.
has enabled me to practise some empathy
that allows me to make some of their           In a newspaper article the late Abubukar
passion my own. May this brief series of       Gumi, Nigeria‟s only recipient of the King
articles similarly enable you to move from     Feisal Award, the Muslim equivalent to the
outright hostility, sometimes so common of     Nobel Prize, who caused much fermen-
Christians everywhere, to a degree of          tation in the Muslim community describes
empathy. Such an attitude will not only        the secular state as “an atheistic state”.
bring you to a closer empathic under-          Similarly Juma‟atul Nasril Islam (JNI), the
standing of the Nigerian situation, but also   largest Nigerian Muslim umbrella organi-
of the entire global Muslim ummah,             zation, regards it a secular state – “a
including those associated with 9/11, for      system of social teachings or organisation
the Nigerian Muslim community is a             which allows no part for religion”.
microcosm of the international scene. It
                                               Ibraheem Sulaiman describes the “secular
may help our governments to redirect their
                                               attitude” in his article on national rebirth as
long-term anti-terrorist strategies from
                                               one that “tends to ignore all matters
guns and bombs to more serious attention
                                               pertaining to God and seeks to build a
to and respect for religions and their role,
                                               system of life and an attitude of mind that
both Christian and Muslim. Empathy, of
                                               is distrustful of God”. In another context,
course, is an aid to understanding, but not
                                               and dealing with Islam, secularism and
a synonym for agreement.
                                               Nigeria, he writes, “Secularism is simply
The nature of secularism                       an attempt to run a society on a basis
                                               other than religion ...”
The way in which secularism is described
by Muslims varies, but one consistently        Musa Sulaiman describes secularism as
meets strong resistance to it across the       an attempt “to reconstruct society without

reference to God or future life. The             larism includes the assumption that the
emphasis is primarily on one‟s happiness         “secular” and the “religious” aspects of life
in this material world”. One of the main         exist separately. This assumption, in fact,
objectives of the secular state is seen as       “is pivotal to the secular alternatives pro-
the “deconsecration of values by rendering       moted in the Muslim world”. Secularism
morality relative and questionable”. Secu-       separates concerns of “other-worldliness”
larism promotes the “desacralization of          from “the goodness of this life”. This world
politics”, a fancy term for the separation of    has nothing to do with the hereafter.
politics and religion. Sulaiman ends his
                                                 As indicated in previous publications, I
discussion by concluding that “virtually
                                                 highlighted the fact that the Nigerian
every sector of our life is being secularized
                                                 Muslim discussion on secularism started
...” (see Musa Sulaiman‟s publication On
                                                 during the Constituent Assembly of the
the political future).
                                                 l970s. The quotations in the previous
The list of quotations can go on almost          section stem from that era. When the
endlessly. Ibrahim Umar‟s article on             governor of Zamfara State in 1999
Islamic liberal democracy alleges that           announced his intention of making the
Western liberal democracy has secularism         sharia, the Muslim law, the basis of his
as its ideological foundation, by which he       state‟s constitution, the discussion revived
means the “separation of religion from           all over again and often turned into a
other vital aspects of life, like politics and   rancorous and bitter affair between the two
economics”. In an article written by Awwal       religions. However, the Muslim attitude
Hamisu Yadudu he puts it this way:               towards secularism has not changed.
                                                 Their opposition to it remains as adamant
“Secularism or secularization of society
                                                 as before. There are signs, however, that
and its institutions is a political arrange-
                                                 this bitterness has increased, due to a
ment which is predicated on the twin
                                                 sense that they are losing control to a
understanding that (a) there shall be a
                                                 growing Christian community that is flexing
separation between church and state and
                                                 its political muscle more than before.
(b) that religion shall have no relevance
and must of necessity be confined only to
the private life of individuals. Conse-
                                                   Over against the objections
quently, public affairs shall in no way be        of Christians who argue that
influenced by religion”.
                                                    the sharia is intolerant of
In an article on Islam in Nigeria and              non-Muslims, Muslims brush
dealing with its perceptions and practices,
Bidmos concludes that secularism was              secularism with the same tar
“developed to replace religion and also to
                                                 Secularism is now also seen as intolerant.
provide man with alternative principles that
                                                 Over against the objections of Christians
govern his daily routines”. He continues,
                                                 who argue that the sharia is intolerant of
“... a secular country runs its affairs
                                                 non-Muslims, Muslims brush secularism
absolutely without any religious conside-
                                                 with the same tar. Ibrahim Suleiman, an
rations. All religious practices in a secular
                                                 eloquent Muslim spokesman whom we
society are conducted privately”.
                                                 have already met earlier in this article,
Husaini Hassan also scrutinizes the rela-        argued against secularism in favour of
tion between Islam and the modern secu-          both the sharia and pluralism. “The only
lar society and views the essence of             way to guarantee that different groups
secularism to be the separation of church        have what they want is to encourage
and state. It divides life into two com-         pluralism and provide alternatives. But the
partments. In the one, the church, spiritual     secular elements [read: Christians] in this
and moral forces dominate. In the state,         country are, blindly and arrogantly insisting
policies rest on the power of security           that everybody must live according to their
institutions.                                    only way and all must be forced to drink
                                                 from the same cup. The danger of
In a paper delivered in 1989 El-Miskin
                                                 colonialism and secularism is that
suggests that the perspective of secu-
                                                 everybody is forced and programmed to

                                                      WOORD & DAAD – HERFS 2002 – 3
think and behave in one and the same           areas, except in secular garb. Religion,
way, with no tolerance to alternative view     Nigerian Christianity consistently pro-
points”.                                       claims, is private and personal. It has
                                               nothing unique to say about these major
The very next day after the above-
                                               areas of culture. And so Muslims conclude
mentioned comments by Suleiman had
                                               that this is the situation with Christianity in
been published, the same newspaper
                                               general the world over.
featured a lecture by another prominent
Muslim authority, Justice Muhammed             Most missionaries in Nigeria from more
Bashir Sambo. His comments were fully          holistic traditions such as the Reformed
representative of both Nigerian main-          and the Roman Catholic have not helped
stream Islam as well as of fundamenta-         the situation either. They have seldom
lism. He criticized those who opposed the      accorded priority to sharing the holistic
further entrenchment of sharia in the          aspects of their traditions with Nigerians.
country‟s court system and claimed that        That was never part of their assignment.
they were doing so on the basis of a           Where it did happen, it was more a matter
wrong interpretation of the constitution.      of personal predilection that received little
According to Sambo they argued that the        encouragement from their home offices.
constitution declares Nigeria a secular        Thus Muslims have been left to draw their
country that thereby prohibits adopting a      own conclusion: Christianity does not have
state religion. Nigeria, declared Sambo, is    it! As a result, Muslims tend to see
not a secular state but is multi-religious.    Christianity as a trivial religion with little or
“The wrong use of secular status for           nothing to offer to Nigeria.
Nigeria has been constantly used es-
pecially by the Christians to deny the          Islam finds itself frustrated
Muslims their fundamental right of having
sharia as an instrument of law to govern
                                                     at every front by an
their lives.”                                    impoverished, reduced and
Things are even worse than that as far as        trivialized Christian religion
Sambo is concerned. According to him,
not only is the Christian secular inter-          that constantly waves the
pretation of the constitution wrong, it is a              secular flag
trick. He demands that “this trick to deny
the Muslims their fundamental rights must      Today, Nigeria finds itself in a tragic and
stop”. And stop it will, he warns, for         bloody struggle between the two religions.
Nigerian Muslims have woken up from            Muslims proudly parade their religion as
their colonial slumber. Sambo emphasizes       the solution to the country‟s problems.
that Muslims “have once again discovered       Their religion, they proclaim time and
their fundamental rights … and, God            again, is not merely a religion; it is a total
willing, there will be no going back from      way of life. It finds itself frustrated at every
these … rights”.                               front by an impoverished, reduced and
                                               trivialized Christian religion that constantly
Christian secular emphasis                     waves the secular flag. But that, according
According to T. El-Miskin, secularism is       to Muslims, was the very weapon the
the reason for “the absence of an              colonialists employed to undermine Islam
elaborate political and economic thought in    in its deepest core. How can they possibly
Christianity meant to be applied to worldly    make peace with that?
governance”. Indeed, compared to Nige-         I am far from suggesting that Muslims
rian Islamic literature that boasts of many    would not try to dominate if Christians
books and articles elaborately outlining       followed a more holistic approach, or that
aspects of Muslim political and economic       Nigeria would then be a peaceful country.
thought, Nigerian Christianity seems to be     It is not that simple. I am not even
singularly poverty-stricken. It is a highly    suggesting that Christians are unilaterally
regrettable situation that the Christian       responsible for the problems of Nigeria –
testimony Nigerian Muslims confront is         or even primarily. But I am saying that
largely shorn of contributions in these        waving the secular flag guarantees that

the bloody battle will continue until one or   to Muslim perceptions, secularism stands
the other is vanquished. A red flag is a       for godlessness and atheism, ignores
guarantee for an enraged bull; a secular       God, is mistrustful of Him and leads to
flag is a guarantee for an enraged Islam.      social organization that omits God and
And a secular people among Muslims are         marginalizes spiritual and religious con-
perceived as a bull in a china shop. That is   cerns from the marketplace. Muslims
definitely not the way to peace.               regard secularism as promoting an
                                               exclusive concentration on the material at
Summary                                        the expense of the spiritual. A religion that
                                               gives in to this attitude is doomed to
Muslims regard secularism as                   trivialization – as has happened to
     promoting an exclusive                    Christianity, according to Muslims. It is
                                               reduced to the sphere of the personal and
concentration on the material                  private, while it has no concern for the
     at the expense of the                     structural aspects of society. Furthermore
                                               it negates everything that Muslims are
spiritual. A religion that gives               proud of in their religion, and is even used
 in to this attitude is doomed                 as a weapon against the re-introduction of
                                               the sharia into national life. The latter is
    to trivialization – as has                 achieved through the misinterpretation of
   happened to Christianity,                   the constitution and through trickery.
                                               Serious Muslims will have no truck with it.
      according to Muslims                     Advocating secularism is a guarantee that
                                               neither Nigeria nor the world as a whole
It is clear from the above that for Muslims    will find peace.
secularism is totally negative and has no
redeeming features of any kind. According

                                                    WOORD & DAAD – HERFS 2002 – 5

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