In my home state of Kwara, which used to be proverbial for its peaceableness and inter-religious harmony, recriminatory disputes over whether female Muslim students should be allowed to wear the hijab as part of their school uniforms in historically Christian missionary secondary schools that are now government-owned is fueling tension and fears of extensive internecine violence.
This controversy is personal to me because I’m a Muslim who attended historically Christian missionary primary and secondary schools in the predominantly Muslim Baruten (former Borgu) part of Kwara State. Anyone who is familiar with Kwara State would know that the Baatonum-speaking Baruten Local Government in the western most fringe of Nigeria’s border with Benin Republic is the state’s least developed, most neglected area.
The earliest schools (and hospitals) in the area were established not by the government but by American Southern Baptist Christian missionaries who first appeared in my hometown in 1948. Until the early 1980s, Christian Religious Knowledge (or, as it was called then, Bible Knowledge) was compulsory in Baptist Grammar School, my alma mater, even though the federal government had urged the take-over of missionary schools by the 1970s.
I was in the second cohort of students who had the latitude to take Islamic Religious Knowledge as an option for religious education in my secondary school, but the school still observed its Christian traditions (such as requiring all students, most of whom were Muslims, to sing Christian hymns in morning assemblies), and the Nigerian Baptist Convention still determined who became principal and vice principal of the school.
Sometime in my final year of high school, a native of my hometown who lived in Sokoto for decades and returned with degrees in Arabic and Islamic Studies got a job to teach Islamic Studies at this Baptist Christian Missionary secondary school that was now fully funded by the Kwara State government. One of the first things he advocated was that Muslim students should have a separate morning assembly so that they won’t be required to sing Christian hymns and listen to Christian morning devotion.
I opposed him. And I was supported by other students, more than 90 percent of whom were fellow Muslims. When the man discovered who my dad was, he was mortified and decided to have a word with my dad about his “Shaytan” [Satan] of a son.
To his astonishment, my father, who also studied Arabic and Islamic Studies and taught it at the then government-funded Baptist Primary School, said the man was wrong to disrupt the decades-old tradition of my secondary school. He reminded him that American Christian missionaries built the school with their money at a time the government didn’t even acknowledge people in my place existed, and that in spite of decades of proselytization, Christian missioners didn’t get many converts.
He advised the man to use his education and vast network to attract Muslim entrepreneurs to build a Muslim secondary school in the community to compete with my alma mater. My father said he would only draw the line if the school had insisted that Muslims convert to Christianity as a precondition to be enrolled in it (he missed out on the education American missionaries offered in the 1940s and 1950s because he refused to convert to Christianity like some of his siblings did), but stressed that no knowledge is ever wasted.
More than a decade after this conversation, the idea that no knowledge is a waste materialized for my father’s much younger first cousin who attended Baptist Grammar School at a time Bible Knowledge was required for even Muslim students. He had A1 in Bible Studies, but still remains a staunch Muslim. Now a medical doctor in Kaduna, he was caught in the crossfire of the sanguinary ethno-religious upheaval in Kaduna in 2000 that pitted Muslims against Christians.
In the same day, a Christian mob mistook him for a Fulani because of his light complexion and a Muslim mob mistook him for an Igbo for the same reason.
His entreaties to the Christian mob that he wasn’t Fulani was rebuffed by a counter claim that he was a Muslim because his forehead showed evidence repeated contact with the ground. He lied that he was a Christian. The bloodthirsty mob baying for Muslim flesh asked him to prove his claims by reciting John 3:16. That was easy-peasy for a man who attended Christian missionary schools and got A1 in Bible Knowledge. He escaped the jaws of death.
Just when he was about to get to his home, he encountered a Muslim mob baying for Christian blood. He pleaded with them that he was a Muslim. They insisted he was Igbo and asked him to recite surat-ul-fatiha, the first chapter of the Qur’an, to prove his Muslim bona fides. He said he could do better than that; he recited Surah al-Baqarah, the second and longest chapter of the Qur’an, instead, which most of his would-be murderers couldn’t recite. He survived.
I lived in Kaduna and covered the upheavals for the Weekly Trust at the time. When I visited him and heard how he escaped death by the whiskers from two groups of murderous thugs who claimed to be fighting for their religions, I recalled what my father said about no knowledge being a waste.
Nonetheless, while Christian missionary schools have unquestionably done a lot to expand access to education and equip people with lifelong and lifesaving skills, we must recognize that Nigeria has evolved. Part of that evolution is the emergence of the hijab as a symbol of female Muslim identity.
In more ways than was the case when I came of age in Nigeria, many, perhaps most, Muslim women have been socialized to see the hijab as the definitive sartorial assertion of their Muslim identity. Perhaps precisely because of this fact, the hijab now stirs negative emotions in so many Christians.
We need to have an honest national conversation about why the hijab triggers such extreme bitterness and hostility in some Nigerian Christians. Why has it been weaponized to stir bile and reinforce toxic prejudices against Muslim women when its wearing doesn’t hurt Christians?
In Kwara State, two separate court judgments (a high court judgement and an appeals court judgement) have upheld the rights of female Muslim students to wear the hijab as part of their school uniforms in schools that were historically owned by Christian missionaries but that are now hundred percent government-funded.
There are now only two options left for these schools: either appeal against the judgements by lower courts at the Supreme Court or obey the Kwara State government’s court-sanctioned directive that Muslim students be allowed to observe the hijab.
Instead, Channels TV reported on March 17, officials of Baptist School in the Surulere area of Ilorin, physically turned back hijab-wearing Muslim students from entry into the school in the aftermath of the Kwara State government’s reopening of former Christian missionary schools it had closed to protest the schools’ discrimination against Muslim students’ sartorial choices. The lawlessness by officials of Baptist School ignited violence.
Since these former Christian missionary schools are now public institutions that are fully funded (or underfunded) by the government, it isn’t reasonable to insist that Muslims enrolled in them can’t wear their hijabs— if they choose to— even after two court judgements say they can. That’s theocratic tyranny.
“State of harmony” is the number-plate slogan Kwara State cherishes about itself, but as Steve Goodier once said, “We don’t get harmony when everybody sings the same note. Only notes that are different can harmonize. The same is true with people.” In other words, it’s our ability to accept and live with our differences that can ensure harmony, not unnatural uniformity or mechanical sameness.