A photo of the student from Modibbo Adama University of Technology, Yola who was accused of abusing Prophet Muhammad has been circulating on the social media. Apparently, fanatical elements have published this photo in order to eliminate this student, or rather to have him pay for his ‘crime’.
Some people have attributed the recent clashes between Muslim and Christian students at a university in Yola to the purported sacrilegious act of this student, that is, he abused prophet Muhammad. For them, the abuse of prophet Muhammad is a serious offense that warrants the annihilation of this individual and have the name placed on a death row, and literally turning him into a fugitive in his own country.
Others have blamed the crisis in Yola on the grievances of Muslim students over the outcome of the recent students union elections in which Christians won most of the positions. Whatever the case, this religious crisis and other variant manifestations of religious fundamentalism on campuses portend danger, decay and destruction of the educational system in the country. In fact, this piece argues that the recent eruptions of religious zealotry and intolerance on Nigerian campuses constitute a betrayal of academic trust.
First of all, it is important to stress that universities-colleges and schools are public institutions. They are built, funded and established to foster public good, that is, the acquisition of knowledge and understanding. Campuses are places to learn new things, exchange ideas and acquire new knowledge. So it is important that a variety of ideas be available, and that those who go there be disposed to embark on unusual intellectual engagements and adventures.
Learning can indeed be a disconcerting exercise that unsettles the learners, and hurts the sentiments of schoolers. Learning entails an exposition to new and strange ideas, to hostile opinions and insights. Universities are theatres where the oft-painful process of opening minds is performed. So, those who go to these places should be ready to undergo this procedure. They should be disposed to experience and absorb the mental, cultural and social shocks that go with this surgical process.
That is why it does not speak, or sit well, to hear that students clashed, rioted and in fact attacked another student for expressing offensive ideas. Such behavior amounts to a desecration of the academic space, a violation of the university norms, an academic treason. Look if students cannot tolerate offensive expressions, then why do they go to the university? Why do they call themselves students in the first? Students are supposed to study. So what actually are they studying? Only comforting ideas that soothe their nerves? The expression of offensive ideas is part of what makes the university what it is. It is part of the university educational project to expose students to uncomfortable opinions.
Whenever any person signs up to go to school, to attend a college or a university, the fellow has undertaken to be offended, to encounter hurtful, stupid, senseless, painful, insulting, outrageous and blasphemous ideas. So it is difficult to comprehend that university students violently rioted over mere expression of ideas.
Students who are Muslims should expect to encounter ideas and expressions that query and sometimes make a caricature of their faith, of their most cherished beliefs such as the belief in the existence and potency of Allah, the prophethood of Muhammad, and the inerrancy of the Quran. In fact, they should know that others could deem expressions of their Islamic religious beliefs abusive or insulting. And that one deems an expression insulting does not justify violent reactions
Muslims should not expect that others would always respectfully speak about Islam and prophet Muhammad. No. Muslims do not always speak respectfully about other religions and beliefs. Do they? Muslim preachers propagate messages which people of other faiths and beliefs could deem offensive or an abuse of their ‘prophets’ or Gods. And if Muslims have the right to freedom of religion and expression, others have the same right too.
And nobody should understand and appreciate these basic human rights better than students! Unfortunately, this is not the case.
In addition, Christian students should be disposed to engage in civilized debates of all ideas that are critical of Christianity. They should be ready to explore thoughts that question and ridicule the provisions in the Bible and tolerate views that challenge the messiahship and saviorship of Jesus and other Christian dogmas.
Universities are –should be places for experiments, the experimentation of ideas, the free exercise of curiosity and imagination. Students should be disposed to generate, engineer and test new ideas. This social experiment can take different forms. Students should be ready to experiment dating students of other faiths or none. They should try voting and electing officers not based on their religious belief or lack thereof but based on their character and abilities. If students continue to socialize and vote along ethnic and religious lines as they do in the wider society then their university or college education is useless, a waste of time and resources
In conclusion, Nigerian students must be ready to conduct themselves civilly in the course of their educational pursuits and learn to tolerate offensive viewpoints without taking offence. They should understand that all religious objects are materials for critical examination and inquiry, whether it is Allah, Prophet Muhammad, Jesus, Ifa, Sango or Amadioha. Students must commit themselves to this sacred duty and obligation. Violent reactions to expressions that purportedly offend religious sensibilities have no place in a university. So Nigerian students should learn to uphold and not betray this academic trust that is reposed on them.
Leo Igwe is a human rights activist and the founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement. He was the Western and Southern African representative to IHEU, the International Humanist and Ethical Union. He can be reached by email HERE.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.