RELIGIOUS PLURALISM AND THE NIGERIAN STATE. SIMEON O. ILESANMI. ATHENS, OH: MONOGRAPHS IN INTERNATIONAL STUDIES (AFRICA SERIES, NO. 66), 1997. 299pp.©
The overlay of global missionary religions such as Christianity and Islam on the traditional religious map of Africa has evolved in the face of two major contradictions. One is geo-political. Here global and traditional religions, which had a regional presence, now find themselves contained by the boundaries of modern nation-states. The second is legal. Religions, global and indigenous, with their own institutional and legal histories, must now negotiate their presence and activity within the framework of national law, which with its pre-colonial conceptions, is grounded in a secular vision that sees religions as occupying a distinct sphere, separate yet regulated by the state.
Nigeria, as Simeon Ilesanmi points out in this study of the role of religious pluralism and modern politics, offers a multi-layered context for analyzing these contradictions and their historical consequences for the relationship between religion and state in Africa's most populous country.
In choosing to address the issue, he takes the view that religious perspectives and concerns cannot be divorced from public life, that to dichotomize religion and politics would be to create an untenable polarity. His own approach and conclusions are intended to lead to an applied ethic, which aims at reconciliation of diverse points by creating a public philosophical discourse as part of Nigeria's effort to create unity. This discourse, combining theological insights against an interdisciplinary perspective, offers a kind of world-view that links political and religious life for the goal of "civil amity."
The first two chapters set out the theoretical perspectives and review existing scholarly and theological perspectives on religious pluralism, politics and the state. The author's main reference points, as laid out in the beginning of Chapter Two (p. 55) are the works of well-known scholars and theologians such as Murray, Penny, Lovin and Reinhold Niebuhr. All their work, however, is primarily in a Christian and Western context. Their general theoretical and practical insights are probably very useful, but some larger context, including more detailed references and background on theological and political issues in Latin America, the Muslim world, and Africa might have been much more useful as a framework for looking at Nigeria's particular situation. The "dialogic" process emphasized by the author needs to be a global one and not driven exclusively by theoretical assumptions located within one cultural matrix of scholarship and theological concerns.
In a section dealing with the so-called Sharia debate, Dr. Ilesanmi clarifies the contradictory attitudes that the debate has generated by masking deeper questions related to the role of religion in public life. It is useful to remind ourselves that the discussion among Muslims in Nigeria is influenced to a great extent by two factors: the internal diversity of Muslim opinion and the impact of similar debates going on in other parts of the Muslim world. The assimilation of the whole of Islam into the limited context of the Sharia debate suggests that among Nigerians, Muslims and others, a greater awareness of the broader context of Muslim life, public and private, needs to be developed. This complements prescriptive religious life and enlarges the world of Nigerian Muslims, whose own specific make-up can then be viewed in the wider context of a pluralistic religious landscape in the region as a whole, not to mention Nigeria itself. The same situation applies to Christianity as indeed to the indigenous religions and their overlap with Islam and Christianity in the lives of many Nigerians.
Pluralism still remains the great hope of most emerging African nation-states after the demise of Communism. This study provides a good starting point toward identifying the connection between religion and pluralism as a key factor in the reconstruction of public life and common political discourse in Nigeria.
Azim A. Nanji