Ìsèse practitioners should be protected class – Punch Newspapers

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One of the first things that jump at you in the charge sheet issued against Ilorin activist, Adegbola Abdulazeez (popularly called Tani Olohun), and published on SaharaReporters was the erroneous description of his religion as “idol worshipping.” It is a mischaracterisation borne out of socially transmitted ignorance. Public officers in other cultures are made to undertake diversity training for reasons like this. The officers who booked Tani Olohun need a crash course in Yoruba culture because those armed with outdated knowledge reify abuse.

Just so they know, Yoruba indigenous religions are not “idol worshipping.” Describing them that way is pejorative, an unmistakable echo of colonial-era misattribution. Till date, some of our people have not expanded their vocabulary and still make the fundamental error of referring to indigenous religious practices as “fetish,” “pagan,” or that their worship is “rituals,” and their religions are a “cult” etc. A police system that uses such derogatory language in an official document not only reveals itself as prejudiced but also demonstrates its lack of competence—cultural and ideological—to adjudicate in the ongoing confrontation between Ilorin Muslims and the ìsèse practitioners. The best course of action—if the police have any institutional integrity left anyway—is to promptly discontinue the case and seek an education on religious diversity in the country.

In a case that reprises that of Kano atheist, Mubarak Bala, who is presently serving an extended prison term, Tani Olohun too was arrested and charged to court after some Muslims petitioned the police to complain about his provocations. In one of such petitions, the complainants resorted to what has now become a standard ploy: invoke the spectre of numbing religious violence that has happened in northern Nigeria to threaten public peace. It is a bait the police are guaranteed to swallow. Joorojáàrájooro, they will make an arrest and prosecute their victim with a degree of zeal they will not deploy to other extant serious issues. Meanwhile, according to Saharareporters (and undisputed by the police), the warrant used to arrest Tani Olohun was even a fake. If his arrest was unwarranted, is his prosecution about “justice”?

The antagonism and the high-handedness being deployed against ìsèse practitioners like Tani Olohun have everything to do with the political vulnerability of religious minorities. Yes, I know about Tani Olohun’s provocations (I have seen his videos). While I am also aware the police added defamation to his supposed crimes, I still see no reason for their involvement. Defamation can be pursued as a civil case by those supposedly impacted. Much of Tani Olohun’s contents that his accusers find provocative retaliate the attacks on his religious beliefs. His comments are pretty routine in Nigerian churches and mosques where religious leaders who run out of things to say put down other people’s beliefs. Anyone who finds what he has to say in bad taste can block him off. There is a reason that the Oyinbos that invented social media added that feature.

For as long as one can remember, practitioners of indigenous religions have always been cheap targets of those who need to assert their political and spiritual power. Yet, they cannot take half the provocations they haul at others. During my National Youth Service Corps year at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in Abia State, I witnessed when some practitioners of indigenous religions came to submit a petition that some evangelical Christians were destroying their places of worship. To my consternation, the people I worked with thought those Christians were doing the work of God! It was frustrating arguing with them—bureaucrats in the ministry of “culture”—that trampling on people’s private spaces to assert your beliefs is unjustifiable. Unfortunately, they were so steeped in their evangelical ways that they could not accept that other people have religious rights too. You do not need to believe in what they do; you do not even need to respect their beliefs; you only need to respect yourself and mind your own religious business. It cannot be that hard.

A similar lack of awareness that reprises in other parts of Nigeria is worsened by the ignorance (or cowardliness) of formal institutions that should mediate the democratic rights of the parties. Going by how the Nigerian police serially make itself a willing tool in the retrogressive hands of the fanatics always seeking to abridge other people’s freedoms, practitioners of indigenous religious faiths like ìsèse need to be formally classified as a protected class.

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People toy with the practitioners of indigenous religions (and yet surreptitiously patronise them) because they are politically invisible (although socially hypervisible). The social tensions these minorities experience swing on the spectrum between an extractive relationship (that wants to appropriate their order of knowledge) and an unwarranted agenda of obliteration. Without a formal structure that acknowledges their existence and allows specification that they must not be discriminated against on account of their faith, they will continue to suffer gratuitous violence in the hands of those who see what they believe as an aspect of African “culture” that can be sacrificed on the altar of supposed modern progress.

Designating them as a definitive religious category will be fraught with all kinds of problems because what we typically call “African indigenous religions” are an amalgam of dynamic beliefs, practices, and communities that are not necessarily coherent. Numerically they might even outnumber some of the so-called majority religions, but like all things Nigeria, that is statistically impossible to determine. Categorising them as religious minorities will also (potentially) ameliorate the unwieldiness of bringing disparate beliefs under one umbrella. No, it will not be a decisive solution to the bigotry that wants to run them out of town, but it is a start.

One significant—and heartening—development that has emerged from all the small-mindedness that has been ensuing from Ilorin recently is how southwestern states like Lagos, Ogun, Osun, and Oyo now formally recognise August 20 as the annual Ìsèse Day. Formal recognition will go a long way in fending off the excesses of those who see religious minorities as a testing ground of spiritual and political might. Huge kudos to the governors who took that important step.

One of Tani Olohun’s supposed sins was burning the Quran in a video. Now, if the police ever need an example of what constitutes idolatry, I hereby offer them the tantrum over that video as an example. Anyone who is willing to do (or justify) violence over a mere religious symbol should watch it. They are close to falling—if not already fallen—into the sin of substituting the symbol for the substance. Tani Olohun could not have burned the Quran. The Quran is supposed to be an eternal word of God, and no single individual can burn it.

The police officers who made themselves available to be used to abuse a man for expressing his freedom are collaborators with those who use institutional might to settle private scores.

What is called “blasphemy” is a mere human invention. An infinite God cannot be diminished by the opinions of a finite human. God is too mighty to be petty. Those pursuing Tani Olohun are self-important idolaters who have substituted perishable things for the eternal Truth of God. They are taking advantage of the lack of protection for religious minorities like him to make him suffer.

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