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Sunday, 28 July 2013

Ramadan In A Time Of Boko Haram By: Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah

After a journey through the desert, Thomas and Christopher became thirsty, hungry and tired. Everywhere they looked, there was no sign of human habitation and the more they trekked, the more they felt  as if their destination was shifting ahead of them. They prayed and hoped that somehow, they would find some fellow travellers coming from the other end to offer them something, no matter how small, to either eat or drink especially as the sun seemed to get hotter by the minute. Then, presto, Christopher sighted what looked like some human habitation. An oasis, he said to Thomas. At last, God has answered our prayers and now we shall find some help from those who live here, no matter how little.
They argued between themselves as to how best to approach the problem. This is a desert, Christopher said and anyone with anything to eat or drink will not be too keen to share. It is almost certain that the families here are Muslims, no doubt about it. How do you think they will react at us with names like Thomas and Christopher? These names will give us away as Christians and I tell you, we may just continue with our hunger, thirst and exhaustion. So what should we do, Thomas asked, with the little breath he could gather. Me, Christopher said, I will just say my name is Mustapha, at least for the period of our stay until we get something to eat or drink.
That sounds very disingenuous, Thomas said. You mean you intend to fake an identity and thereby deny your faith just to be able to get something to eat or drink from a Muslim? You are not being faithful as a Christian and it is a shame on you. Well, Christopher said, as he removed his inner wear and began to wrap it around his head,you must learn to survive in difficult times. Do you not recall that even in the Bible, Abraham temporarily lied about the identity of his wife so as to survive?
Then, Christopher began to remove his shirt. What are you doing, Thomas asked? I want to look the full part, my singlet will serve as temporary turban, you see especially when I introduce myself as Mustapha and they believe I am a Muslim. A desert Muslim must have a turban as you know. Relax, Christopher said to his rather confused friend, deep down inside me, nothing has changed in my faith. I am a Christian as you know, but just for the moment, God Himself understands that desperate situations require desperate solutions. I am still Christopher and have become Mustapha for the purpose of survival.  I am totally ashamed of you, Thomas still manage to whispered as they came close to the tents in the oasis.
Assalamalaikun, Christopher, sorry, Mustapha said as they entered the compound with a loud voice. Laikumasalam, a voice said as an elderly man stepped out to greet them. He beckoned on them to sit down but Christopher stepped forward as if he held the key to the door. I am Mustapha, he said boldly with a smile and this gentleman here is a Christian, he stated with emphasis. His name is Thomas. Strange enough, their new host, beckoning them, seemed to be more interested in the stranger. Welcome to our home, Thomas, the host said as he sat them down. He then called his elderly wife: Hurry, please bring a cold bottle of water and Fanta for our brother Thomas and quickly, warm the food and serve him immediately.
On hearing this, Christopher, sorry, Mustapha wondered: if a Christian is being well fed in this Muslim home, surely, I can only imagine what I will be served. He felt happy with himself over the fact that his identity theft had worked the trick. He looked on as Thomas pounced on his food and drank his water and Fanta. Then, the host turned to fake Mustapha and said, so, brother Mustapha, ten days after the commencement, how has your Ramadan been? His jaw dropped and he looked on as Thomas gave him a good-for-you look as he dug into his warm bowl of food.
How many times have we been tempted to make spiritual adjustments, so as to extend the reach of our career or achieve some material benefits? The foundations of the convictions of our faith should be such that they cannot be shaken. Poor-fake Mustapha, if only he knew that faithfulness pays.
Now, Ramadan is here and I want to first congratulate our Muslim brothers and sisters as they seek spiritual depth and renewal. I have watched very carefully and with deep concern as the Ramadan has suddenly become a semi national eating and feasting bazaar or a social event. Suddenly, it seems that the breaking of the fast is the reason for the Ramadan itself. The breaking of the fast has become a political, diplomatic and social event that is now the subject of media attention. From what I see, there is need for the Muslim community and individual Muslims to very quickly rescue the sacredness of this month and all its divine promises from the clutches of the Nigerian politicians. I am not sure whether the ordinary Muslims themselves see this or whether the elevation of this sacred month to the pantheon of national politics will not drain it of all  its sacredness. 
Over the years, the Pilgrimage and Ramadan have become the most visible manifestations of the incongruity in the relation between religion and the interference of the state in Nigeria. Christian political leaders who themselves do not fast, either at Ramadan or Lent suddenly dress up and sit at the table, claiming that they are breaking their fast in solidarity with Muslims. Some Christian politicians have often said that they fast with Muslims during Ramadan as a sign of solidarity with Muslims.
Really? Do they ask the Muslims to fast with them at Lent? If that is the case and if they are serious, why do they not go to the hospitals and lie with the sick in solidarity? Why do they not go on the streets and beg as a sign of solidarity with the almajiris? Why are they not pounding the streets in solidarity with the thousands of young job seekers? These politicians are in solidarity with political Islam and not with the Islamic faith and this is where I think Muslims must be more careful over the possibility of the draining of the spirituality of the Ramadan. This is because, the Ramadan fast is becoming an instrument for political mileage. This, as far as I know, is not the intent or the meaning of this holy season.
As the Ramadan season progresses, we see individuals, corporate bodies, banks, and businesses flooding the print and electronic media with goodwill messages in apparent show of solidarity. Yet, their real intention is to stay in business. The same organisations and corporate bodies that are defaulting in the payment of arrears, compensation or retirement benefits of even their Muslim employees are expressing solidarity with Muslims in this Ramadan period. How is that? Almost on a daily basis, we see hundreds of our brethren on the media, mercifully pleading for medical assistance for ailments, to no avail. If these bodies and individuals were serious, it would be wonderful if they came to the help of even only sick Muslims at this sacred period. Unfortunately, the poor have no political value.
There is also the issue of how federal, state and local governments have continued to toy with huge sums of money in these periods for purchases and distributions of cows, rams, chickens and so on. The distribution of Sallah cows, rams, rice or chickens has become an industry in government. I have been a beneficiary of these donations, but I am worried because I do not need most of what I receive. I know that there are too many people who need it more than me. How long can this go on?
The huge sums of monies expended on these purchases are wasteful and misdirected at men and women who are sufficiently powerful, can afford everything that is being donated to them and really, do not need all these gifts. These huge sums of monies are not formally budgeted for. Those who dispense these huge sums of money while in office do not do so when they are out of office with their private monies. The whole exercise remains a waste because in the end, it serves only political ends, serves the rich who already have and merely scratches the problems of the poor, who remain with us.
The Ramadan fast is first and foremost, an invitation to every Muslim to “beat” himself or herself into spiritual shape, as it were. As Christianity, all forms of asceticism, including fasting, are meant to serve other spiritual ends such as make the believer divest himself or herself of some of the luxuries of life, even food, which can be masquerading as gods. Having becoming “spiritually leaner” the believer can as it were be in a better situation to do the will of God. Thus, one fruit of every Ramadan fast would be greater growth in charity manifested through almsgiving and greater attention to the needs of the poor. Another fruit would be living a holier and more virtuous life. Ramadan was not about the rich and the ostentation associated with being rich in Nigeria. This is my worry.
The other issue is the Umrah, Lesser Hajj as it is called, which has become a social and semi religious calendar for the powerful politicians and those connected with free government funds. We have heard the cases of some states and local governments shutting down and hundreds of politicians and their friends turning the Umrah into a holiday from governance and an opportunity for stealing public funds, thus desecrating the meaning of this holy exercise. This is totally unacceptable especially given the fact that once out of office and unable to access free funds, these ad hoc spiritualists no longer seek this annual holiness. Mallam Adamu Adamu wrote some trenchant critiques of this waste and he did a far better job of it. No country in the world tolerates what Nigeria is witnessing from politicians and public functionaries in the name of Islam or Christianity.
The north is not growing economically. It is not integrating socially. It is stunted educationally. National unity is in shambles and the rumps of the factions and fractions of its ruling classes do not possess the moral authority to rally the troops for integral human development. Who has the moral authority today to rally the north to any regional or national cause? No one! The reason is that, most of those who could do so are very busy lining their pockets for their own personal ends. And, when it suits them, they make a few noises in the political arena without any knowledge or solid desire to do anything for the mass of the people they purport to be “fighting for”.  Poverty is not synonymous with stupidity, so the poor knows all these.
Our people are living with some of the most pathetic and unacceptable health conditions anywhere in the word, ranging from Malaria, Polio to VVF and HIV/AIDS. The trauma of early marriages is leading too many young women who could be leaders of tomorrow to the streets or their early graves. There are no young Malala figures anywhere in sight in Northern Nigeria.
The rest of the country is making some measurable progress in almost all areas of life. Northern politicians continue to argue, position themselves and focus on 2015 and you wonder what they will do with power that they have not done in over thirty years. This is the time for politicians in Northern Nigeria to begin to show their constituents and Nigerians what they can do with power and the stupendous resources they keep squandering on Hajj, Umrah and other false shows of shallow spirituality. There has been too much waste and hypocrisy in the name of religion by the elites in Northern Nigeria and it is time to take on this problem head on. There are no private Hospitals or Institutions not to talk of tertiary institutions, such as Polytechnics or Universities by any of these elites who love Mecca.  Welfare and service to the poor is what they should be thinking about during this Ramadan.
Boko Haram is in some ways, a direct by-product of this hypocrisy that has attended the debate about the role and place of the Sharia. Northern Muslims continue to speak about the Sharia as if it is all about law against theft and adultery. They have done very little, if anything, to present the Sharia as a guide to life in its entirety. Politicians with very limited knowledge continue to parade themselves as learned men and in the process, creating more confusion and tension in our society.
Today, the rest of the country has suffered and continues to suffer and are bearing the brunt of the hypocrisy of these claims. Young Muslims, frustrated by the failure of their fellow Muslims in power, have become vulnerable to the manipulation of the forces of evil. Some of them in frustration for unrealised economic dreams and promises, have turned to violence and in search of a “theocratic” solution to a problem which is squarely in the hands of human beings to solve.
In other words, seeking a purely Islamic state for these young people is a loud statement about the failure of Northern politicians to deliver what is now termed the democracy dividend. The other aspect to this deception is the belief that a political entity run by a group of self-appointed religious elites would in fact usher in a new era on earth where there is no more sickness or pain, no more vices of any type, a perfect polity. Anyone who is tempted to believe in this rhetoric has only to look to Iran, Algeria, Pakistan and now, Egypt under the ill-fated rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Today, thousands of lives of Nigerians have been lost in the name of Islam. It may be true to say that these problems are not about religion, but we must admit that hypocrisy of those who allow politics to infiltrate the religious realm create the conditions for these crises. The leadership of Islam must therefore stand up to retrieve its sacred religion from the clutches of those who use it for power.
Ramadan is a period rich in symbolism but beyond merely eating, engaging in wasteful practices and other outward show. There is the need to go beyond all these and ask ourselves some serious questions. For example, in truth what do we all hope to do to redeem those who have been condemned to a life sentence of Ramadan which has kept them hungry not for thirty days but for life? What does our Ramadan mean for the thousands of helpless Nigerians who have become refugees in their own country in the name of Boko Haram? The rich are temporarily, and only symbolically hungry for a few hours within a period of one month. What about those Muslims who have been serving a life sentence of hunger, sickness, destitution and squalour? For them, life has been and will remain a permanent Ramadan. We must find a reason to ensure that they fast voluntarily not by circumstance.
Our country cannot go on this way. Nothing is irreversible or permanent. Nigeria must exorcise the demon of corruption in many ways by the choices we make as individuals or communities. One way that does not require the Police or the EFCC is by consciously legislating and banning the endless distribution and waste of resources in the months of Ramadan and Christmas. The government should take its hands off Ramadan and allow true Muslims to worship God in the spirit dictated by their faith. Those who wish to help the poor as dictated by the faith, should design a more lasting and permanent way of ending poverty and hunger for the poor.
I will not be surprise if I am misread in these comments. I am against the breaking of fast as a political stunt. I would rather we meditate on how to we use this period to think over how to build stronger bonds of union and trust among ourselves.However, I wish to place a few thoughts for our meditation. We have a country to build and religion can, and should offer some guide but it must be freed from the imprisonment of politicians who do mean well, but need to be guided. What I say to my Muslim brethren, I say to my fellow Christians.
Finally, I wish all our Muslims a successful Ramadan but I also call on our Muslim brethren to seek a more constructive role for their faith in public life. The political class may mean well, but we must appreciate the fact that true religion relies on God not the pillars of temporal power. Religion must seek to claim its purity, free from the trappings of temporal power so it can play its redemptive role as the light meant to conquer darkness, the voice of the oppressed and the voiceless. In this way, religion will be free to really position itself and help liberate our country and our people from the clutches of politics and politicians. Ramadan kareem!
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