Weaponization of Religion and Religious Bigotry by Nigerian Media: My Personal Experience with the Guardian Newspaper- By Dr Azizat Omotoyosi Amoloye-Adebayo

Advertisements
Advertisements
Advertisements

On July 11, 2022, I was contacted via WhatsApp chat by one “Ameh Ochojila from the Guardian”. He had gotten my contact information from one of my colleagues in the Faculty of law, University of Ilorin, Ilorin. His request was for my ‘opinion on the Supreme Court judgement on the use of hijab in school and the reactions that greeted it from some quarters.’ He also wanted me to ‘please look at from a perspective of Nigeria being secular state.’ I asked what form my opinion should be expressed in and he said, ‘analysis of about 500 words’ and that he wanted it ‘on Friday (15 July 2022) with your picture.’

Advertisements

Even though I was slightly taken aback by the almost terse and seemingly aloof nature of his request as though I should feel privileged for the media attention, an inclination to community service in me took over and I set to work immediately.

The next day, 12 July 2022, I received another chat from Mr Ochojila that the date of publication had changed to two days earlier than the agreed date and that I should ‘endeavour to turn it in tomorrow (13 July 2022) with your picture.’

Before 10am on 13 July 2022, I sent him my analysis and my picture with the following covering note ‘More than 500 words, but that’s the least I could get it to. Pls cut out what you feel unnecessary, but would like to see any edited version pls.’ I said this because in my analysis which is entitled ‘The Supreme Court, the Hijab Decision and the Secular State Theory’, I had made references to good practices in other multicultural contexts such as the United States on the use of hijab in public places that I thought might be edited for space. But the only response from Mr Ochojila was simply ‘thanks, very resourceful. Your department pls?’  to which question I replied, ‘Islamic Law’.

Around late afternoon on 14 July 2022, the supposed date of publication, I asked Mr Ochojila when the publication would occur, and his response was ‘Tuesday (19 July 2022). Will send the link to you’ I found this response surprising but withheld my comments. I began to think that something was off when a day shy of the expected publication date, 18 July 2022, Mr Ochojila got across to me with a request to talk on the water resource bill before the National Assembly.

I declined that I had no expertise in the area and gave him the contact of another colleague who is a specialist in the area. Expectedly, the next day I got a message from Mr Ochojila that they couldn’t publish my analysis due to space and that he would let me know when it is done. At this point, I decided to keep track of what would eventually happen to my article.

After close to two weeks of silence, I sent Mr Ochojila a chat on 30 July 2022. His response was that the dates for law page are Tuesdays, and he will see whether it will be possible the next coming Tuesday. At this point, I had concluded that my opinion must not have gone down well with the editorial position on the matter and would not be published. All I said to Mr Ochojila was ‘okay then’.

Thus, it was a rude shock to me on Monday 02 August 2022 when I read mutilated, distorted and deliberately manipulated parts of my article and my name that were disingenuously orchestrated by Mr Ochojila to rubber stamp his bigoted and erroneous review of opinions on the Supreme Court decision on the use of hijab. Mr Ochojila sent me the link to an article he published in the Guardian entitled ‘Why Supreme Court’s Judgement on Hijab Heightens Religious Fault Lines.’ contrary to the discussions that my write up will be published as a feature article.

In that article, he describes me in an almost insulting manner as a ‘Sharia expert’ an appellation I have never used for myself and quoted me as ‘admitting’ that the decision of the Supreme Court protects only a particular religion and could pose a threat to the unity of Nigeria because it is insensitive and could promote religious bigotry. I know that some unscrupulous, base and unprofessional media personnel would employ cheap sensationalism and character assassinations to get ahead but I was still staggered that Mr Ochojila would sink so low as to deliberately misrepresent the contents of an article in print though unpublished.

The fact of its non-publication in law does not detract from it being the best empirical evidence of its contents and the opinion expressed therein. I immediately expressed heartfelt thanks to the Almighty God that my opinion had not been expressed orally to Mr Ochojila.

I immediately demanded a retraction of the article by Mr Ochojila and a publication within 24 hours of my position on the matter under my name with a disclaimer containing unreserved apologies for the damage to my person and professional reputation by the Monday 02 August 2022 publication of Mr Ochojila.

As this request was not honoured and in fact ignored, the present post by me represent the first step I am taking in this matter in my own little way to wrestle Nigeria from the clutches of bigots, unpatriotic, narrowminded and backwardly opinionated individuals marauding as professionals, particularly of the media, that always seek to weaponize or instrumentalize matters connected to religion for faulty and retarded personal sentiments and stance.

Attached to this post is my original article as initially sent to Mr Ameh Ochojila from the Guardian:

The Supreme Court, the Hijab Decision and the Secular State Theory – By Dr. Azizat Omotoyosi Amoloye-Adebayo

On Thursday 16 June 2022, the Supreme Court of Nigeria delivered a judgement that approved the use of hijab by Muslim female pupils in Lagos State’s public primary and secondary schools.

The implication of the decision as a matter of law is that any Muslim girl or woman attending all public educational institutions in Nigeria has an unfettered right to the use of hijab if they so choose. Unsurprisingly but regrettably so, a considerable number of Nigerians, most notably of the Christian faith and Christian organisations have expressed displeasure at this stance of the Supreme.

Not only were different social media platforms massively deployed for the various expressions of disapproval of the decision, but a lawyer in fact also wore traditionalists’ attire into a court as practical manifestation of his perspective on the decision. The main plank of the arguments against the decision is that Nigeria is a secular state and that the issue of religion as manifested by the Hijab case should be left in the realm of private observance.

Thus, there are charges of Islamization of Nigeria or that of clear bias for Islam as a religion. In fact, in the online version of The Sun Newspaper of 10 July 2022, some lawyers alluded to the fact that the hijab decision seems to protect only a particular religion and could pose a threat to the unity of Nigeria; it is insensitive to the religious rights of others and could also promote religious bigotry. Out of all the comments against the hijab decision, it is the expressions of disapproval by lawyers and the basis of such expressions that worries me the most. 

In the first instance, even though the theory of Nigeria being a secular state is always constitutionally anchored on the provisions of section 10 of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, this is not the only perspective on the matter. The other aspect of the debate, which is more realistic in my view, is the multireligious state theory. This theory is also very much sustainable within the same provisions of Section 10 that neither a state nor the federal government shall adopt any religion as state religion. Former Archbishop of the Catholic Diocese of Abuja, Mr John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan in the foreword to a book (Religion, Politics and Power in Northern Nigeria, 1993) by Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto succinctly demonstrated the fallacy of the secular state theory in the following timeless words – [E]ven nations which make much of separation of religion and politics find many ways in practice to act against this principle.

It seems to me that this is why our prolonged debate over the “secular” nature of the Nigerian state has remained inconclusive. “Secular state” means different things to different people. It is surely more useful to tackle concrete issues of interaction of politics and religion and from there evolve just and fair solutions to our problems of peaceful co-operation.

Why I found the disapproving comments by lawyers, particularly of the Christian faith, worrisome is the demonstration of unconscientious cherry-picking of when and how to chant the secular state theory slogan. Although it seems to be the case that it is the Nigerian style, regardless of religious affiliation, that issues of national significance are always left bereft of needed intellectual public engagement.

This posture encourages the citizenry to employ persuasive sentimentalism and orchestrated sensationalism without logical basis to score points against each other on issues with polarised views. But I think professionals, and more particularly lawyers, should always stive to rise above such in the interest of building a collective value system that cater for diverse aspirations. The same lawyers that berate the Supreme Court for favouring a particular religion on the hijab case know that non-legal days called dies non-juris that indicate legal holidays for judges and the court as contained in the various rules of courts up to the Supreme Court include entire weeks beginning with an Easter Monday or a Christmas day.

This is just one example out of many clear biases for the Christian faith without logical explanation under the Nigerian law. Problem of space for indepth analysis precludes my further examination on the matter. Suffice it is to say that the hijab decision came out as a result of the invitation of the court’s jurisdiction by a private individual for the protection of their right to religious observance. The court can only pronounce on the merits of the matter before it. Thus, it was not a case of Islam versus all other religions in Nigeria and need not be viewed as such.

The decision, for instance, cannot be used to compel a Muslim girl who does not wish to wear the hijab to do so in any public educational institution let alone a pupil or student of any other religious affiliations. But note that non-legal days as I pointed out above are compulsorily observed by all lawyers and judges regardless of religious adherence from time immemorial. Whence then the secular state theory?

In conclusion, I think it is important for all Nigerians regardless of religious affiliations to always try to be objective and dispassionate about issues that by their nature must be susceptible to diverse perspectives such as religion, culture or ethnicity. It is disingenuous, in my view, to instrumentalise religion for personal gains or weaponize religious sentiments that are not shared.

A question that begs its answer is – who is likely to be hurt by a Muslim girl wearing hijab in an educational institution? Even in Western contexts such as UK and US, religious headgears for Muslim girls, Sikh students and Catholic sisters in educational institutions are accepted as the norm so much so that the reaction by some Nigerians to the Supreme Court decision may be mistaken for backwardness in this age of rights.

For example, as far back as February 25 2015, the US Supreme Court in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch ruled against the retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, 8-1, deciding that the company’s failure to accommodate a job applicant who wore a hijab violated civil rights law. This is not even a government or public institution, and it is in respect of religious observance and the right to work which to me is an essential right but not as foundational as the right to education

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *