The North, Shiites and the Quest for Tolerance, By Adamu Tilde

By Adamu Tilde,

Today in northern Nigeria, we live in critically challenging times,
with our cultural harmony rapidly disappearing and our political unity
fast disintegrating, leaving social and political vacuums that are now
hotly contested by two mutually-rejecting, nihilistic tendencies, each
equally vicious and destructive. One does not require a Mensa IQ to
conclude that our society is dangerously tethering on the edge of the
precipice, heading inexorably towards a disaster. Our culture, our
history, and our civilization are under threat. The way we handle
those existential challenges today determines how posterity will treat
us tomorrow.

This piece is conceived in fear and borne out of desperation. Fear
over the north’s steady descent into sectarian abyss, and the
desperation to arrest this slide before it is too late, before we are
all consumed by it. Therefore, in diagnosing our problems and
proffering solutions, I do not intend to surrender ourselves to the
self-imposed tyranny of political correctness that often characterize
discussions such as this.

The recent sectarian mob violence targeted against the northern Shia
minority should enrage any believer in justice and freedom. That
appalling display of lawlessness and barbarism must be unreservedly
condemned by everyone. It is bereft of any legal, moral or social
justification. Those angry mobs who cheerfully lynched their fellow
citizens and torched and looted their properties have desecrated the
very religion (or values) they are claiming to protect, and the
clerics who silently or loudly abetted such travesty have betrayed
their calling as men of peace.

It is beyond the scope of this piece to trace the historical root of
the Sunni-Shia antagonism in Nigeria, but the Shia-military clashes of
2014 that led to the death of Zakzaky’s three children is a watershed
in the timelines of events that led us to where we are today. That
tragic encounter set the stage for a more tragic one the year after,
that saw hundreds of Nigerians perished and billions worth of
properties damaged, further deteriorating the already fragile
sectarian stability and bringing our peoples closer to sectarian civil

I do not intend to make light of the Shiites crimes and
transgressions, both real and imagined. Granted therefore, that the
Shiites stand guilty of sectarian incitement, provocation, road
blockage and wanton disregard for law and order, but no Nigerian sect
or party can claim innocence on all those charges, and under our laws
and norms, none of those crimes carries the price of a death penalty.
Human life, according to all secular and religious conventions, is
sacred, and no one has the right to take any life without recourse to
law, to judicial due process, except in cases of obvious self-defense.
But in Nigeria, putting the sacred tag on each soul does not prevent
the next Shiites from being lynched in our streets, or the next petty
thief from being lynched in our markets. Extrajudicial killings have
become a Nigerian hobby and our failure to do anything qualifies as
acquiescence, as an indictment on our collective humanity and pretend

More disheartening however, is the tendency of Nigerians to view
crimes through partisan and sectarian prisms. The Shia clashes of 2014
and 2015 are two cases in points. Our partisan social media
commentators found it politic to describe the tragic Shia clashes of
2014 as a Jonathanian massacre of defenseless Shiites by the genocidal
Jonathanian army, but the more tragic one of 2015 as a Shia
provocation against the almighty Nigerian army. To them, justice and
fairness is directly proportional to the prevailing political reality
and not facts on ground. And therefore, those who condemned the
tragedy of 2014 become the staunch legitimizers of the travesty of
2015. Nothing can be more absurd!

If the political partisans are guilty of reducing human life to a
political commodity based on defined exigencies, the sectarian
partisans are even worse, for they not only legitimize the violence
against the Shia minority, they also equate every sympathy for the
victims and any criticism against the perpetrators to a sin resembling
apostasy. In doing that, they succeed in silencing every dissenting
voice for justice and fairness and provide a veneer of popular support
to their acts of treacherous inhumanity. Many have tried to strike a
balance between condemning the Shiites and the actions of the military
by drawing an imaginary ethical equivalence between alleged
lawbreakers (the Shiites) and constitutionally mandated law-enforcers
(the security agencies). But there is no moral equivalence nor ethical
symmetry. There is only one denominator here, which is that of
Nigerian lives being wantonly wasted without any recourse to judicial
process or rule of law, and that a sizeable majority of Nigerians are
either happy or indifferent. And the fact that such violence finds
support among educated northerners speak volumes about our appalling
bigotry and intolerance.

This culture of hate, intolerance and inter-sectarian suspicions bodes
ill for interfaith and intrafaith relationships. As Sunnis, our
children are taught to hate the Shiite-other, and Shiites are taught
to hate the Sunni-other. Those indoctrinations subliminally paint the
other as violent, conspiratorial and demagogic, and therefore
incapable of peaceful coexistence and undeserving of our respect,
tolerance and understanding. By doing this, we forget or negate one of
the basic principles of our own faith where diversity is seeing as a
manifest of a divine design and guidance as a function of divine will.

The Shiites, like every other religious sect, have their peculiar
problems and shortcomings. Their contempt for secular authorities and
open disregard for law and order are affronts to their constitutional
obligations and to the fundamental rights of other citizens. However,
to shun all other sides and tell the world that the Shiites are the
most violent and intolerant speaks well of our ideological hypocrisy.
Because, statistics have shown that violence against the Shiites are
more than those perpetrated by the sect. But because of our inherent
bias, there is the tendency to underreport violence against them and
amplify those perpetrated by their adherents, and thereby exaggerating
their villainy and watering down the facts of Shia victimhood.

It is easy to condemn the Shiites as being misguided, forgetting that
religious text and injunctions are subject to interpretation. The
solution therefore, lies in scholarly discourse and not scholarly
scorn because the problem is rooted in the erroneous belief that it is
only our interpretation that is correct and legitimate, foreclosing
the chance of further dialogue.

We can achieve this by practicing our religions with “… Lakum
dinukum wa liya deen: To you your way, and to me mine” on our mind, by
believing in what we believe without calling each other names and
declaring each other heretics/apostates or wanting them dead, by
living in peace, harmony and understanding with one another, through
mutual respect, and without belittling each other’s belief system.

We should let our education and training not only reflect our social
media profiles and professional citations, but also reflect our
character and behavior. Because, education is meant to free us from
our own prejudices, from our own insanities. Education should not only
make us employable and rich, education should make us a better,
loving, and peaceful people. Education should help us embrace and
respect all humans regardless of race, ethnicity, ideology or
religion; we should work towards making the world a better place, not
ruining it by our actions and inactions.

Therefore, we must all rise up against this sectarian challenge. We
must dismantle all barriers to dialogue and eliminate all those
factors that promote sectarian tension and radicalization, especially
for our youth. De-radicalization, like charity, must begin at home,
with the very clerics whom their respective sectarian adherents look
up to for guidance and inspiration. With dissension and rebellion
being part of the Shia DNA throughout its troubled history, the IMN,
as the largest representative of Nigerian Shiites must re-evolve
itself and commit to conducting its activities in a legally
responsible and socially constructive manner.

Above all, government should be concerned about the types of
ideologies openly preached. We must strike a balance between
fundamental human rights and collective national interests, by working
towards entrenching justice and respecting and protecting the
fundamental human rights of all Nigerians, irrespective of the God
they worship or ideology they profess, in a way that does not harm the
collective peace and stability of our people. Unless we achieve this,
Northern Nigeria will be on the path to sectarian chaos, the path of
Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Through education and dialogue,
agreeing with Nelson Mandela, we can be able to achieve that peaceful,
accommodating, developing, flourishing and promising [Northern]
Nigeria. Like minds, let us embark on this mission in every possible
way we can. It will take a long time to complete, but let us remember
Lao Tzu’s epic one-liner: a journey of a thousand miles begins with a
single step.

– Adamu Tilde can be reached at [email protected]