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Our Religious Land Mines

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.
But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither
picks my pocket nor breaks my leg
The above quote is from Thomas Jefferson, the US scholar, architect and president. The
quote is not all about Jefferson and his beliefs, it is also about the bitter lessons from
Europe, continent of Jeffersons ancestors. The lesson is that religion and government
should not mix.
Let us go back to the Roman Empire. The Romans built a multi-religious, multi-ethnic
empire, until Caesars like Constantine put Christianity at its centre. Scholars like Gibbons
were of the opinion that the appropriation of Christianity as the state religion of Rome had a
corrosive impact on both Christianity and Rome.
The Roman Empire eventually fell and was replaced by a collection of warring European
states and a domineering Church centred in Rome. Dissent was brutally crushed. While
sacking Beziers, an abbot advised a soldier using these words: Caedite eos. Novit enim
Dominus qui sunt eius (Kill them all. For the Lord knoweth them that are His.).
One day in 1517, a young priest nailed 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg. His name
was Martin Luther. That led to the Protestant Reformation and the Thirty Years War. The
Thirty Years War was a very bloody affair, much of Central Europe lay in ruins. St. Vincent de
Paul despaired: Jesus said his church would last until the end of time, but he never
mentioned the word Europe.

After a long period of bitter experience, the Peace of Westphalia was signed. In it there
were elements of religious tolerance and the foundations of the modern state system.
Europeans learned through hard experience the dangers of mixing religion with politics.
Jeffersons ancestors, who fled religious persecution in Europe to America, took those
lessons with them.
The Middle East is wracked by violence that has taken a religious dimension (war between
Sunni and Shia sects). Our hearts break seeing images of Syrian children refugees. Maybe,
the Arab World is going through a Thirty Years War experience.
We then go back to Nigeria, where our perpetually incurious and historically illiterate political
elite have failed to pay heed to the lessons from European history. Instead, they play on
religious differences for narrow, selfish political interests. Nigeria is now multi-religious, it is
no longer secular.
When a serving senator says his Holy Book is superior to the Constitution, he is not saying
anything new. He is using the language and adopting the tone of those who condemned
Galileo for saying the Earth revolves around the Sun, and not the other way round. He is
speaking the language of stubborn, uninformed intolerance, making compromise difficult and
conflict inevitable. Remember the Thirty Years War?
There is more than one Holy Book and the discussion can very easily degenerate to whose
Holy Book is superior to the other? Since there is no room for compromise, there is also no
room for the creation of a secular, progressive and pan-Nigerian culture. We are caught
between appeasing two (or more) opposing religious world views.
And this is not a small matter, Nigeria has one of the most interesting and difficult religious
demographics anywhere in the World. Nations with Nigerias kind of religious demographics

are often on the knifes edge, consider Sudan (before its partition) and Lebanon. Yet there
is no real effort by anyone (including so-called intellectuals) to answer this most basic of
questions: how are we going to manage our religious diversity, twenty, thirty years down the
We have two broad options. We could reflect on the lessons of European history and build a
nation on religious tolerance as Americas founding fathers (descendants of those who fled
religious persecution in Europe) did. Separation of Church and State was a practical
necessity; these men reflected on more than a thousand years of European history and the
rivers of blood unleashed by centuries of religious wars.
Alternatively, we could continue with things as they are. Doing that guarantees we are
headed for a collision course. If we are perceptive, we can see the warning signs in front of
us. There is no need being politically correct about this. Far too many people have died in
religiously motivated violence.
Whatever option we choose is entirely up to us, but solving this problem requires our
agency, not wishful thinking (like a former president who remarked that a movement that
mixed religion with politics would die a natural death). On the contrary, that movement has
not died a natural death, it has left undeniable facts on the ground and made the task of
inter-religious dialogue more difficult.