Why We Should Fear the Nigerian Taliban

Lasisi Olagunju

(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Monday, 23 August, 2021)

Some years ago, an editor-friend told me that he was slapped from behind by someone during his first pilgrimage to Mecca. His offence was that he pointed at ‘something’ with his shoes in his hands. The person who slapped him was not an Arab. The man who slapped him was a Nigerian pilgrim from our north. My friend said even the Saudis there were shocked at the assault and wondered why. I remembered the story when the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan happened and subdued joy travelled across some notorious parts of our country while a huge number of other Nigerians prayed against having such a misfortune in this land. We are that divided by extremist lines. There are some Nigerians who fear that Afghanistan could happen to Nigeria very soon. There are others who would insist that it is not possible. Now, if you hold the belief that Nigeria is too cute to yield a space to homegrown Talibans, think about that man who slapped my friend in Mecca. The fundamentalist Nigerian who slapped another Nigerian inside a holy site abroad would kill at home. Think of how many thousands of that assaulter that are hatched daily in the vile incubator that birthed him.

We have acute fanatics among Christians too. These ones may not do indiscriminate murder as Boko Haram does;… but they kill too with hate and scorn. Click To Tweet

Someone described religion as “a retreat from reason.” That is the only explanation for the rise in religious terrorism and the other similar evils troubling the world. Afghanistan is a country with a 2021 population of 39.917 million. Ninety-nine percent of that figure is Muslim. Yet, a supposedly Muslim group called the Taliban felt that their country was not Muslim enough. And when they suddenly retook that country last week, the capital city, Kabul, exploded in horror. What we saw subsequently at the Kabul airport was the irony of hundreds of Muslims desperate to escape a ‘Muslim’ regime. The Taliban’s first coming triggered that panic. Why would a group make itself terror unto its own kith and kin? That question sounds like asking why Boko Haram terrorists murder their own blood and faith relations in Borno.

Afghanistan has just re-fallen into the hands of madmen, idiots with illusion of understanding of God's reason for humanity. I see the idiots too in Nigeria – dangerous, shallow people who inflict belief polarization on a land that is in… Click To Tweet

Now, this is where I am going. The fanaticism that may sink Nigeria is not a monopoly enjoyed only by extremist Muslims. We have supremacist dogs who breastfeed their own and feed on others’. We have acute fanatics among Christians too. These ones may not do indiscriminate murder as Boko Haram does; they may not cry “Kill all, God will know His own” as was ordered by the crusaders at Béziers on 22 July, 1209, but they kill too with hate and scorn. Growing up, we celebrated all festivals – Muslim, Christian – as members of communities of love. We sang, danced and ate together. Now, those are old things fast receding into the dark caves of extremism. There are Yoruba Christians who avoid the Muslim Ileya and its delicious sallah meat like sin. And this is where knowledge and self-awareness should come in. When I see some Christians around me refusing to say amen to Muslim prayers because they are said in Arabic, I laugh. I recently told one of them that Arabic words are used daily in virtually all churches where Yoruba language is spoken. She looked at me somehow. And I told her when you say ‘let us pray’ in Yoruba (e je ka gb’adura), what language owns the key word there – ‘Adura’? It is from the Arabic word ‘Du’a’ (meaning: prayer). My friend and her Yoruba pastor pray daily for Alaafia (peace, good health). ‘Alaafia’ is the Yoruba form of the Arabic ‘afiya’ which also means good health, free from illness, free from grief and problems. The Lord’s Prayer is cardinal in Christian worship as taught by Jesus Christ in Matthew 6:9-13. Its translated version in Bibeli Mimo (Holy Bible) harbours a linguistically interesting line: ‘Sugbọn gbà wa lọwọ bilisi (But deliver us from evil). ‘Bilisi’ is a Yoruba word formed from the Arabic ‘Iblis’ which means Satan – the arrogant, haughty fallen angel who disobeyed his Creator once and is mentioned eleven times in the Quran.

Nigeria has its own Talibans. We should be scared of them because they are worse than the ones from whom terrified Afghans ran last week. Click To Tweet

There are many more. What about the Christian cleric – that Bishop/Pastor/Evangelist – who, with pride, calls himself ‘Alufa Ijo’ but silently prays never to have anything to do with Islam? What if he is told that ‘Alufa’ is from the Arabic word ‘Khalifa’ which means successor or representative of the Prophet of Islam? Yoruba Muslims use ‘Alfa’ probably because they know it leads them securely back to the source of their faith. The word ‘sermon’ is translated in Yoruba churches as ‘Waasu’ and it is so used at every service. But it is a word directly from the Arabic word ‘waz’ (meaning: admonition, sermon). Yoruba Muslims call it ‘waasi.’ When my Christian friend binds the devil and prays against ‘wahala’ (trouble), I hope she would agree that the root of ‘wahala’ is the Arabic word ‘wahla’ (meaning: terror; trouble). To skeptics, who may insist on more proofs and more examples, I recommend Italian linguist and scholar, Professor Sergio Baldi’s seminal paper presented at the Annual Conference on African Linguistics at Los Angeles, United States in March 1995. He headlined the paper ‘Arabic loans in Yoruba’ and gave a list of such loanwords. There are other very helpful related articles from the same author. Communication scholar and columnist, Farooq Kperogi has also done a considerable work in this area – all telling us that humanity is one.

I have given the above examples to show that no faith is autochthonous or is a finished product that came from nowhere. The more we know, the more we see no need for war. And if we are so related in faith, why then can’t I pray, you pray and we chorus Amen or Amin and share meals of love and brotherhood? Why should we live our short lives in tension and terrorism and war because of worship when, indeed, every religion is a product of symbolic and linguistic syncretism? This is even more true for Nigerian lovers and copiers of the Afghanistan rave of the moment, those who call themselves the Taliban (from the Arabic word ‘talib’ meaning student). There are several tomes and texts showing that the ancestors of the Taliban brewed their version of peaceful Islamic civilization from a cocktail of cultural items and practices. Yet, because these later ones felt they knew God more than their parents did, they unleashed a more than 20-year insurrection on the world with a human cost of hundreds of thousands including 67 journalists/media workers and over 400 humanitarian/NGO men and women. Our own local variant in the north east is even deadlier. The casualty figures keep rising while the government we have cuddles and wraps the culprits in velvets of rehabilitation and reintegration.

The person who said religion is a “retreat from reason” also described faith as a “refuge of the ignorant.” That is very debatable. But there is a special place for crass ignorance wherever fundamentalism is on the throne. Zeinab Barkhordari, Islamic philosophy scholar at the University of Tehran, Iran, in a 2018 paper describes extremism as a “cover for ignorance.” In Arabic language, according to that teacher, ignorance has two interlocking meanings. One, she says, is counter to knowledge and the other to patience. It is her submission that the self-ignorant cannot be at peace with himself and if he lacks internal peace, he would lack moderation. “One who does not reach internal moderation cannot be at peace with others,” she submitted. There are such fundamentalists in every region and in every branch of religion – even among atheists. And they are in every country – people who think and believe that it is their own duty to condemn you in order to save you. They act like the US army officer who, with messianic conviction, announced to the world that his troops had to destroy a Vietnamese village “in order to save it.” We have such in abundance in Nigeria from the coast to the desert.

Iconic American actor and Hollywood star, Clint Eastwood, has a description for extremists. He calls them idiots who need no depth of thought to take positions. Nigeria has its own Talibans. We should be scared of them because they are worse than the ones from whom terrified Afghans ran last week. So, as we debate, argue and fight over how best America ought to have handled Afghanistan, can we cast a thoughtful glance at our perilous situation? What Afghanistan represents today is more than terrorism and extremism. It represents failure of democracy and failure of religion. Both have failed too in Nigeria. Afghanistan has just re-fallen into the hands of madmen, idiots with illusion of understanding of God’s reason for humanity. I see the idiots too in Nigeria – dangerous, shallow people who inflict belief polarization on a land that is in search of peace and hope. Did you see photographs of the Talibans eating with both hands, their fatigued feet on golden presidential chairs inside the captured palace? What their hungry fingers tell us is that the bearded zealots came to power to eat using the false flags of religion. We have them here too.

The Quran enjoins the believer to “speak beautifully to humanity.” Speaking “beautifully” suggests and includes doing justice to all and speaking truth to power without discrimination. Two weeks ago, twenty-five Muslim travellers were killed in Jos. They were followers of a powerful sheikh based in Bauchi. That unfortunate incident happened and we promptly saw a storm of power-flights from Bauchi to Abuja and back to Bauchi. We heard the powerful sheikh in Bauchi directing the governor of Plateau to do what was right or he would proceed to do that which was right. It is good that the sect leader spoke out firmly for his murdered followers. Now, there is a problem when Godly people choose what good to do and what good to ignore. The sheikh and other sheikhs – Nigeria’s kingmakers, the real electors of our president – have not been heard giving such orders to the Villa over the flood of insecurity submerging the country. They’ve not been heard issuing threats of justice to ubiquitous bandits killing the poor, raping their wives – old, young, pregnant, and abducting pupils of Islamiyah and secular schools. Media reports yesterday said in two months, 77 persons were murdered and 3,631 families displaced in that same Plateau State. In the far Muslim north, the tragedy is even more tragic. Thousands of human beings there have been killed, hundreds stolen for ransom. Majority of them Muslims. Yet, the sheikhs, the ulama are quiet about these horrendous happenings. And it is forever true that the Quran enjoins them to speak out and fight in defence of the weak, the attacked and “for those oppressed men and women and children who cry out, ‘Lord, rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors! By your grace, give us a protector and a helper'”(Quran 4:75). The afflicted has no helper among men of religion. Instead, the ‘helpers’ are holding closet balls in celebration of the Taliban’s second coming in Afghanistan.

The Afghan Taliban is an army of 75,000 tribal gunmen who evolved from being students of conservative religious schools. Their parallel here are those who grew from the Almajiri system. The Nigerian Talibans are thus in millions and they procreate every day, swelling their ranks. And they are everywhere – in government, in trade unions, in the media, in the forces, in schools and in worship houses – everywhere you go. Extremists are described as idiots and we should be scared of them. Argentinian singer, songwriter and author, Facundo Cabral wrote a song, quite popular: ‘Cuidado con los boludos (meaning: Careful with idiots). The song is anchored on the wisdom of his grandfather, a Colonel. Cabral said his grandfather was a very noble man of courage who was only afraid of idiots. He sang: “One day I asked him why, and he told me – Because they are many, there’s no way to cover such a front! No matter how early you rise, where you go, it is already full of idiots, and they’re dangerous because being the majority, they even elect the president…”

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