Professor Mohammed Abu-Nimer is a Senior Advisor to the International Dialogue Centre (KAICIID), and also a teacher at the School of International Service at American University. He served as Director of the Peace building and Development Institute (1999-2013). He was a facilitator during the recently concluded three-day programmes organised by KAICIID International Dialogue Centre in partnership with Institute of Peace and Conflict Resolution and Interfaith Mediation Centre (IMC). In this media interaction on the sidelines, he speaks on ways of attaining peace among religious adherents and the genuine interaction that took place during the conference, among others.
What is the International Dilaogue Centre (KAICIID) all about and what is the focus behind the three-day conference on religious understanding?
We are an inter-governmental and international organisation representing five major religions such as Christianity, I slam, Buddhism, Judaism and Hinduism. KAICIID is created by four countries, namely, Kingdom of Spain and Saudi Arabia, Republic of Australia and the Vatican as an observer. The aim of the organisation is to work with religious leaders, institutions and also policy makers in government. The three-day conference in Nigeria was aimed at bridging the gap between these two religious entities under the belief or assumption that without these two entities talking to each other, the response to many of the problems that relate to religious identity, manipulation for the justification of violence will be limited. We work in religious war zone, mainly in Central Africa Republic, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria and Myanmar, among other countries, and creating platforms for supporting communities’ efforts and translating these plans into action so as to achieve religious understanding among religious communities.
What have you gathered from Nigerian religious community since the commencement of the conference?
What we gathered from this event is that Nigerian Muslims and Christians are willing to work together. The highlight of this event is that both religious leaders are over 90 percent agreed that there is need for peace among their adherents.
As they have noted in the last session, together they see themselves as Nigerians and are resolved to ensure peaceful co-existence among their members for development. The religious leaders also discovered that the gap between them is not as wide as it is assumed. The highpoint of this conference is the resolution of religious leaders, both Christians and Muslims, to insist for joint action towards religious harmony and understanding in the country. They also identified some problems and resolved to collectively and jointly tackle them. More importantly, Nigerian Muslims and Christians resolve deploy dialogue to achieve peace in the country. Dialogue is important and should be encouraged to ensure citizens of a country, no matter religious affiliation, live peacefully as a people and thereafter encourage development for the country.
What specifically are some of the problems identified by the religious leaders at the conference?
Some of the problems range from hate speech, marginalization, education opportun ities and lack of space for both communities to meet one another. The negative images on Islam and many other problems were also discussed. The good thing is that all such discussion took place under an atmosphere of genuine discussion and good intentions towards resolving the issue. Both groups also spent two days discussing intra-religious issues in separate sessions. These sessions afforded them the opportunity to find ways of dealing with intra-religious misunderstanding and pushing ahead for both intra-religious and inter-religious action understanding in the country.
What would you say is the achievement of the recently concluded three-day conference organised by KAICIID in partnership with the IPCR mad IMC?
The highlight of the conference is the understanding reached by both Christian and Muslim leaders that the mutual suspicion and fears are unfounded. They have resolved to work together in harmony and close the gap that has militated against religious unity in the country. They also agreed to work together and work toward the promotion of discourse that will enhance and further the commitment to peaceful co-existence through encouraging legislation against hate speech and carrying joint action in furtherance of religious unity. The religious leaders have also agreed to conduct joint prayers and also embark on fasting for the promotion of harmonious co-existence.
How would you compare the religious misunderstanding in Nigerian and the Middle East?
From my experience working in Sri Lanka, Central Africa and the Middle East, I can assure that the problems are no different. In all these countries, both religious groups discover that they are not different as they assumed. They also discover that dialogue is the key vehicle in building relationship towards promoting religious understanding. The key to preventing religious violence and conflict can only be possible through improving personal relationship and using the governments and religious leaders to promote peace. However, that will be insufficient if nothing is done to counter manipulation of religions for violence. So, the key participation of religious leaders and government is crucial, and we are happy that we have achieved the objective of bringing religious leaders and government to the conference table to explore ways of improving religious understanding in Nigeria.
What should be the government’s role in achieving religious understanding among its citizens?
We are actually partnering with the Institute for Conflict Resolution (IPCR), an agency under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We had a representative of the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs who delivered at the closing ceremony of the conference. We are also discussing on what government can do to support leaders in promoting religious understanding in the country. Many of the religious leaders are either Muslims or Christians. They have identified the problems and we see the government policy as integral framework in the promotion of peace co-existence among Christians and Muslims in Nigeria.
Both Islam and Christianity, including cultures of their origin, are foreign to Nigeria. What is the influence of these cultures in Nigerians?
That is a very good question. What I observed here, including other countries that I have visited, is that both religions are alien. However, both religions enjoy almost same origin and both share similarities as to their origin.
Whatever it is, culture should be seen as a connector and not divisive tool in breeding misu nderstanding. As you have here in Nigeria, no matter the various ethnic groups you have in this country, at the end of it all, people refer to what they can describe as the Nigerian culture.
There is nothing wrong about cultural differences; it is when people resort to a default system that causes frictions.
In Nigeria, you have more prevalence of religious violence and misunderstanding in the North than in the South. What, in your opinion, is responsible for this?
What do you mean by prevalence?
I mean that there is more religious violence and misunderstanding in the North than in the South.
Actually, the issue did not come here for discussion. I am not an expert in the history of Nigeria and cannot explain why you have religious violence more in the North than the South. I think I leave that question to you who may be conversant with history of the country. May be the issue of resources and other matters may have accounted for such. But it is a question best answered by those conversant with the history of Nigeria.
What would you suggest as the way forward towards promoting religious understanding in Nigeria?
As an action plan, the conference has been able to create the beginning of a relationship between the different religious backgrounds. Both the Christian and Muslim leaders have planned to work against hate speech and collaborating with policy makers in the country towards achieving religious understanding in the country. Having achieved the objective of ensuring Christians and Muslims work together for peace, I am optimistic that the future holds bright for religious understanding among Nigeria’s diverse communities.
At the end of the conference, what impression do you have for Nigerians in terms of prospects for religious harmony?
The prospects are really bright and promising. The three-day conference reveals that both Muslim and Christina leaders are committed to peace and this conference brought them for a genuine interaction. They are willing to talk and willing to close the gaps on issues that have caused tension. The presence of government officials also indicates the willingness of the Nigerian government to promote religious harmony. The conference proved an opportunity of bringing Christian and Muslim leaders to the table to discuss common problems. I am glad that the conference achieved the feat of brightening the horizon for religious peace in Nigeria.