11 January 2013

Nigeria: Punch and Aregbesola


In November, Alhaji Abdul Rauf Aregbesola, the governor of Osun State, declared the 15th of November 2012, which coincided with the 1st of Muharram, a public holiday to commemorate the commencement of the Islamic Hijra New Year. By the nature of things, this declaration ought to have been supported by all those who normally clamour for a proper federation. Alas, this was no to be.

Immediately after the announcement, there was what appeared like orchestrated press opposition to it; and The Punch would go to the extent of writing an editorial to castigate the governor's action, basing its opposition on the premise that a religious holiday shouldn't have been declared, because it is divisive; but in the end the logic of the editorial only succeeded in proving the opposite case.

The editorial, which appeared in paper's November 20, 2012 edition, said the issue of religion has never divided South-Westerners, a claim that cannot be true, because it is belied by the very motive that prompted the writing of that editorial. Otherwise, why should the issue of the Muharram holiday be so unwelcome and so unacceptable to a newspaper that believes the South-West possesses "prowess in forging metropolitan centres, early contact with and love for western education [which] have given it a cosmopolitan and accommodating worldview"?

The newspaper apparently gives its blessings only for the three holidays that it says the Muslim faithful hold dear--Eid el-Fitr, Eid el-Adha and Eid el-Maulud; but this contradicts its main thesis, considering the fact that these three are even more religious than the Islamic New Year which it opposes; and, which, going by the logic of that editorial, ought to have been opposed not only on that count, but on the fact that "in a secular society like Osun, whose diverse sub-nationalities have a robust history of accomplishments in education, culture, business and the professions and are renowned for their religious tolerance and political sophistication," religious holidays have no place.

It then tried to teach the governor what examples he should have taken in deciding public holidays for his state, citing the examples of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the State of Qatar, all three of which it said don't observe holiday on the first day of the Islamic New Year. But The Punch ought to know that a governor in Nigeria is supposed to take his cue not what they do in Saudi Arabia or the Islamic Republic of Iran, but from the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and extant laws. And by this type of argument alone, the newspaper has by itself proved that the holiday is, after all, not really a religious issue as such, especially since it says, it is not observed at all in Saudi Arabia, which is home to Islam's founder; nor in Iran, "whose supreme political authority flow from Islamic religion." So, what really has the paper got against the declared holiday?

In a federation that recognises and provides for the social, religious and cultural and other significant differences between the peoples of a state, one may not necessarily like what others are doing, but so long as they do it within the confines of the law, a sense of shared citizenship, tolerance and civic responsibility require that one accepts their right to be different: indeed, one is expected to defend it since it is a right protected by law.

But with all the venom spewed, you would be forgiven if you thought Aregbesola had called for the complete abrogation of the Gregorian calendar, which, by the way, he could have had the right and power to do; because besides its use for official purposes at home and the need for synchronisation of events on the international scene, the Gregorian calendar has little meaning to a majority of the people in Osun State and indeed even in Nigeria at large. And going by the logic in The Punch editorial, Muslims will then be justified in opposing the Gregorian calendar on account of its origin.

It is a thing of joy that Muslims in Osun ask only for what is theirs, and have not opposed what isn't, realising that a calendar, whatever its origins, is not without its uses; because it ordinarily provides a system for ordering the lives of a community, tracing the passage of days, the commencement of the seasons; and for those who cherish and wish not to forget, it helps keep track of special days so they can arrange uniform celebration of events important to them.

The Islamic New Year begins on the first day of Muharram, the first month of the calendar that marks the date of the migration of the Prophet of Islam [SAW]. This, no doubt, makes it religious, as indeed its name says; but so also are all the others. The Chinese calendar is based on the Zodiac of Buddhism, Mayan and Aztec calendars are based on Mesoamerican shamanism, the Julian calendar on Roman paganism, with the Gregorian being merely a Christian improvement on the Julian, and the Hijra is of course of Islamic origin.

The fact Muslims in Ogun State--and it really should have been Muslims in all states of the Federation--enjoy a public holiday on the first of Muharram will no more Islamise the country than the public holidays on Christmas and Easter have Christianised it. In fact, it may be asked: when some Christians protest what they say is the Islamisation of Nigeria, what exactly do they hope to mean? In the current case, for instance, what are they likely to lose if Muslims don't go to work on any particular day? How can the declaration of a public holiday compromise Christian interest in this country? The Punch didn't say--and couldn't.

The paper only said that the "abusive manipulation of religious causes has to stop," without saying what exactly the manipulation is and who is doing it; and based on its own created premise, it proceeded to heap the blame on religion, and not just on that manipulation, which, by talking about, we thought it had discovered: "Religion should be driven completely from the public square into the exclusively private realm. Our state governments should leave religion to individuals and concentrate on their core mandate."

But this manner of assault on religion by the secular mind--in promoting the delusion that religion is unwanted and thinking that religious values are dispensable and prescribing all such other related misfortunes--is really cheap and cheapening and quite unfortunate. Stripped of its shine, that pretended effort in an attempt to appear fair between religions that is supposed to have occasioned the writing of that editorial, is really no more than the echo of some educated noise made elsewhere; but the attempt to portray that echo as the coming of age of that secular educatedness just won't sell here.

The reality is that there is nothing in the world better than religion; and if The Punch wishes to oppose that, it should come out and do so openly; but under no circumstances should religion be made the whipping boy of anyone just because some people do misuse it. There is no good thing that cannot be--or has not been--misused and abused; but this fact has never been a rational ground for opposing good things.

And today, we live in relative peace only because the majority of the people in this country believe in and don't misuse religion, irrespective of what manner of abuse minorities on both sides have currently subjected it to. Many others live exemplary lives, true to the traditions of their faiths, being upright and honest, living and letting others live. If we are bad, it is not because of religion but because of our abandoning it. We must indeed be grateful to religion that it has given us timeless values and inculcated admirable qualities in some people.

And one good example in public life today is probably this governor that The Punch is busy unjustifiably pillorying. Aregbesola is one of the best, most humble and most upright governors in the country today, not because of the secularity that the paper wishes to promote, nor because his "state that has been exposed to mass education made free at various levels since 1954," as the editorial said; but because of his genuine adherence to the principles of Islam--belief that has been put into practice.

This should be good news to everyone, especially those who don't share his religion, and even more especially at this time when Islam is on trial and has successfully been portrayed as a religion of violence, and some Muslims as crooks in office. Nothing gives the lie to all this better than Aregbesola's conduct--simple, religious, accountable and fair to all.

The Punch said his declaration of Muharram 1st as a public holiday "has set off major alarm bells that cannot be ignored." This is in spite of the fact that the Public Holidays Act gives the governor of a state the power to appoint a special day to be kept as a public holiday in his state. And no matter how carefully you strained your ears the only bells you heard were those of that peculiar type of intolerance--the inability to coexist with what doesn't concern you and what will not affect you adversely--now championed by a national newspaper that proclaims itself the "the most widely-read newspaper" in the country. How unfortunate!

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