• Saturday, May 25, 2024
businessday logo

BusinessDay

Is it really poverty?

businessday-icon

Politicians, world leaders and even the general citizenry characterise terrorists as motivated by many things. In Nigeria’s case, poverty has been blamed again and again, not least by the embattled governors of Northern Nigeria and much more tellingly by Bill Clinton during his last visit to Nigeria.

But is it really poverty? However misguided we may think terrorists are, are they indeed motivated by poverty or are they like most terrorists all through history motivated by what they perceive to be righteousness, faithfully pursuing what their religion tells them? Indeed at no point has any terrorist group in Nigeria stated that poverty is the cause of its actions. If Boko Haram has said it once, it has said it hundreds of times that they are motivated by a need to heed an ancient religious call to ban western style education and convert Nigeria to Islam. (The fact that a great percentage of western education as we know it today is accumulated knowledge from Muslim cultural and scientific scholars of old is completely lost on them but that’s another story.) Why then are we bent on making poverty the culprit? Why are we reluctant to believe them? Poverty unfortunately is too poor to rise to its own defence.

Perhaps we are reluctant to believe the terrorists because it would be extremely uncomfortable to say that religion might be the much more pernicious instigator for these violent crimes. It may or may not be, but at least it is worth a healthy debate.

All religions teach that unquestioned faith is a virtue. You don’t have to make a case for or justify what you believe. Once someone announces that it is part of his faith, the rest of humanity is obliged to respect it without question. Religious faith is uniquely primed to breed terrorism because it requires no justification and brooks no argument. In Voltaire’s words, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” We may wonder at the word absurdities but every religion has its own peculiar beliefs which those not of that religion perceive as absurdities; the birth of Christ by a virgin, the seventy virgins in paradise for every Muslim martyr, or the Hindu respect for the sanctity of life for every living thing including gnats, rats and all manner of vermin are examples.

And so we respect each other’s beliefs and faith without question until the day belief and faith take a left turn and manifest in the bombing of the UN building or the merciless and relentless pogrom of people of a different faith. Then there is a hue and cry and strident disowning by clerics who loftily explain that this extremism is a perversion of the real faith. But when faith itself by nature lacks justification and brooks no argument, on what basis can one define the boundaries of what is normal and what is extremist?

The young crusaders in medieval Europe who marched on Jerusalem to annihilate Muslims were not on the fringes of the Christian doctrine following an extremist interpretation of the faith, they were part of the core interpreting some unquestionable verses as they saw fit and as manipulated by the political machinations of the ruling pope of the time. In the same vein, the modern day Muslim jihadists and terrorists in Nigeria are not extremists but rational young men who truly believe that duty to God supersedes all other priorities (including the fundamental human rights of other citizens) and that duty, if need be, extends to exterminating anyone who believes in a different faith.

Might it be possible for all religions to accommodate some questioning and a general re-thinking of its beliefs? Might not a general discourse within religious communities on its extant beliefs result in weeding out the least useful and most destructive aspects? Must all die that religion may live?

Paradoxically, religion was more open to debate in its earlier beginnings; thanks to Muslim scholars of old, we now know that infectious diseases are caused by bacteria, not by God’s anger; the Salem witch hangings in the United States ended over two centuries ago and the Hindu now kill rodents and cockroaches, paving the way for better hygienic surroundings.

Why is religion in Nigeria today so ossified? Yet if some questioning and open debate could lead to no more suicide bombers, wouldn’t it be worth considering? It will be a useful start for all religions in Nigeria to teach that one’s beliefs must respect the rule of law and the fundamental rights of others to life, love and liberty (believers and non-believers alike).