Sheikh Aremeyaw Shaibu is right to some extent: My preliminary response to a looming religious tension

Today, on May 9, 2021, l watched a recorded programme on TV3 that hosted Sheikh Aremeyaw Shaibu, the spokesperson of the National Chief Imam.

Sheikh Aremeyaw Shaibu, my friend and “father” who guided me with my undergraduate long essay in 2008, has spoken.

He has said a long suppressed truth: “Religious tolerance in Ghana is a fascade.”

Given the truth of Sheikh Shaibu’s conviction, let me say that, now, those who keep writing romantic and bitter narratives about their experiences in either Islamic-oriented or Christian-oriented schools should hold it, with all apologies, to face a reality.

Sheikh Aremeyaw Shaibu couldn’t have said it any better than his admission that: “the claim of religious tolerance is a fascade”.

Unfortunately, the journalist, who hosted him, appears to be deluded in protesting what Sheikh Aremeyaw said.

All the same, Sheikh Aremeyaw is not entirely right about some of his claims. But here is simply a roadside, so l will not say anything beyond my appreciation of his candor.

But l would say that, as Sheikh is talking about unity among Christians which he sees as threatening to inter-religious tolerance, l think Sheikh is aware that these days we don’t see the Ahlu-Sunna and Tijaniyya fighting each other.

I hope Sheikh is also aware that at least these days almost all the major Islamic groups, including the Ahmadiyya – once in the 1970s declared non-Muslims in Pakistan, could meet at the same venue at the Jubilee House to pray collectively against the coronavirus pandemic.

Maybe, we should assume that the Muslims are uniting because of the pandemic. Maybe we can assume Christians are also united. But whatever this unity is, it is part of the issues we need to discuss to navigate our way out a religious quagmire.

Putting the perceived religious ecumenism aside, and in addition to what Sheikh Aremeyaw has said, l must say that the tension between Muslims and Christians has always been there.

What accounts for the different manifestations between then and now is what we need to investigate. Certainly, l have enough to say on this.

Nevertheless, if we want to find an answer to a looming social crisis, we should move away from our superficial responses and counter-accusations.

We should not limit the debate to the veil and prohibition of fasting in Wesley Girls’ High School. And if we care, we should not see it as just a Ghanaian problem. We should not even see it only as a contemporary challenge.

We should see it as a historical and global challenge that has always sapped the peace of God’s world.

We should not sweep it under the carpet by accusing each side as intolerant. After all, none of the two religions is necessarily tolerant when it comes to their zest for converts and controlling the public sphere.

But, even with this mutual intolerance, a few times, we have seen Muslims and Christians uniting to achieve a common interest.

For example, about a month ago, Sheikh Aremeyao Shaibu and Dr Samuel Ofori Onwona, who is now a persona non grata, shared the same platform on Joynews.

The two of them kept repeating, “As for this – referring to the homosexual issue – we are on the same wavelength with our Christian and Muslim brothers”, as they roasted homosexuals.

As l watched the programme, l was wondering why these two religious leaders kept saying, “As for this”

Before this time, we had seen Rev Dr Lawrence Tetteh courting the support of the National Chief Imam to stem the tide against homosexuality.

In fact, Rev Lawrence Tetteh referred to the National Chief Imam as his father and in return the Chief Imam assured him of his support and that of the Muslim community against homosexuals.

But, at the time, l asked myself: Is it not possible Rev Lawrence Tetteh’s “Ghana For Christ” campaign would one day run roughshod against other religions, including mission ones like Islam?

Anyway, back to Sheikh Aremeyao and Dr Onwona. When the two kept saying “As for this”, it meant that they were reluctantly telling their differences that had been suppressed for long in public.

However, because homosexuality is treated as an anathema to both Ghanaian Islam and Christianity, it was easy for the two religions to unite.

This unity was/is precisely because homosexuals are the easiest target. Attacking homosexuals also has a huge political capital to politicians.

Nevertheless, as the two religions begin to see the explicit manifestation of their differences, we find one side claiming, “Ghana is a secular country” and all must be tolerated.

Certainly, Ghana was and is a secular country when these religions ranted against homosexuals who are not asking to be accepted in either the church or mosque, other than their rights to be recognized as Ghanaians in the public sphere.

In fact, they also want their valuesto be part of the public sphere like the veil, dreadlocks, and fasting.

Much as l do not support homosexuality, l feel our response to the issue – appealing to Ghana’s secularism – is flawed and problematic. Of course, there are many valid grounds to counter homosexuality, but l leave that out for another time.

The secularism appeal is a complex subject that is quite vague. For example, England has a state church and yet allows for the veil in public. It even allows homosexuality.

On the other hand, France has no state church and yet, it contests the use of the veil in public. It however accepts homosexuality.

Both countries appeal to secularism to respond to how the public sphere should be governed. Ghana does not have a state church and yet, we know the public sphere is saturated with religion.

Even so, both Muslims and Christians did not speak for the devotees of African Traditional Religions (ATR) when our late president, Prof John Evans Atta Mills, stopped indigenous priests from pouring libation at state function.

Similarly, when the president of Ghana, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufu-Addo, invited Christians and Muslims to the Jubilee House to pray, he clearly left out members of the African Traditional Religions.

This is against the background that ATR is far older than both Christianity and Islam in Ghana. It is also perhaps the most peaceful religion – given its openness to new deities and ideas.

And yet, both Christians and Muslims did not appeal to Ghana’s alleged secularism to protect Christians and Muslims, however, know that some of their members continue to patronise ATR in times of crises!

But as part of the fascade of religious tolerance, just a few weeks ago, Rev Fr. Andrew Campbell was one of the special guests of honour at the 102 birthday of the venerable National Chief Imam. The event was held at the Jubilee House.

Father Campbell spoke about the beauty of religious tolerance in Ghana. The Muslim Master of Ceremonies of the programme kept saying, “Masha Allah” to Ghana’s perceived religious tolerance.

Sheikh Aremeyao gave an exhortation that was heartwarming. It was brief but apt to stir the heart of his audience to reflect.

BUT, in all this, as a Zongo man from Maamobi, Accra, and a student of religions, l knew all was, indeed a fascade.

As l followed this rather beautiful programme celebrating a real legend, l squirmed at how religious garbs overshadowed tensions that needed to be faced and solved – or mediated.

This was because both Dr Mahamadu Bawumia and the National Chief Imam have been condemned by Muslims for going to the church to be prayed for or show solidarity. This is against the background that the venerable Chief Imam loves peace.

Unfortunately, some Christians also feel uncomfortable about Dr Bawumia’s engagement with the church. This is because they see Bawumia’s presidential ambitions more than his fraternity with the church as part of endorsing inter-religious tolerance.

So, while Dr Bawumia qualifies to be president, some Christians in both NPP and NDC are worried about what they consider as Bawumia’s political pragmatism to advance the cause of Islam.

So, Sheikh Aremeyao, it is impliedly not true that most Muslims were/are happy with the Chief Imam’s “cordial” relationship with the church. It is part of the fascade you rightly mentioned.

So, now that our religious leaders are beginning to wake up to a seamless tension that has been swept under the kept for long, what do we do?

I will provide my responses soon. But until then, please let us stop painting the religious Other as intolerant.

Those who do not subscribe to any religion should be slow in condemning whatever that is happening as a signal of primitive religious fanaticism.

For, whether we like it or not, most Ghanaians are religious and take a keen interest in religion.

Whether our religiosity positively impacts on the provision of needed social services is another issue. But until then, we must accept our current religion of enchanted public sphere.

More so, religion is a highly sensitive issue. It can drive passion for both good and evil. So, until we are all called upon to rethink our country’s challenges, let us be circumspect about everything we say and do.

I end by saying that the issue at hand is a complex one. So, let us refrain from simplistic answers that can exacerbate matters for us. We need wisdom, tact, and dialogue to sail through. Peace is priceless.

I am available to participate in any dialogue for a way out.

Satyagraha

Prempeh Charles

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