By David Dimas

Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State

Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State

The planned introduction of ‘A Bill for a Law to Substitute the Kaduna State Religious Preaching Law, 1984.’ has spread consternation throughout Kaduna state.

The Bill has generated a lot of fretfulness and upheaval. It contains sections that seek to establish committees of the two (2) major religious bodies in the state; the Committee of Jama’atu Nasir Islam (JNI) for the Muslims and the Committee of Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) for the Christians and their respective composition, and a third body called “the Inter-faith Ministerial Committee”, which shall execute regulatory control over the JNI and CAN committees.

Worthy of mention is section 9 and part of section 12.

Section 9 of the contentious bill “restricts the playing of all cassettes, CDs, flash drives or any other communication gadgets containing religious recordings from accredited preachers to the following places only: inside one’s house; inside entrance porch; inside the Church; inside the Mosque; and any other designated place of worship”.

A considerable part of section 12, if passed into law, will make it “an offence for any person who preaches without a license; plays a religious cassette or uses a loud speaker for religious purposes after 8:00 pm in public places; uses a loud speaker for religious purposes other than inside a Mosque or Church and the surrounding area outside the stipulated prayer times;…”

To begin with, I am convinced that Governor Nasir El-Rufai and his cabinet’s decision to introduce this bill seem to have been marked by an unprecedented “faith” in the law to help in curbing religious bigotry and radicalization which have caused global turmoil with Nigeria greatly affected.

In a multi-religious republic like Nigeria where members of one religious group are raised to view some other group’s beliefs or practices as wrong, mistaken, or undesirable, legislating religion is an uphill task, regardless of any intent and purpose.

Discussions that bother on freedom of religion and belief are overly complex. Conflicts between citizens often arise in the interpretation and application of the law. For example, confusion and conflicts in the law often arise when an issue tends to be religiously ambiguous. In such cases, the proffered solution to the dispute in question is usually perceived to be more religious than constitutional.

As individuals, we might dispute or deny the fact that Nigeria is a country where most people find it toilsome to practice their faiths without persecution, even though religious freedom is stipulated by the extant law to be a constitutional right.

Unfortunately, no courts or political leaders in Nigeria have given serious analytical attention to what counts as “Religious Freedom”.

While behind the veil of campaign some politicians make promises to protect citizens with an equal liberty of conscience but when sworn into office, they are likely to suppress solutions when it does not favor their own cultural interests and interpretation of religion, even if is the all-time solution to the crises in a context. The jurisprudence regarding religious exemptions to generally applicable laws is clearly still in flux, providing an uneven and uncertain patchwork of protections to religious adherents. This is a governmental incompetence in need of remedy.

Governor El-Rufai, a man who himself has been in the eye of the storm of religious issues in the past, frames his decision to pursue the passage of the bill around the excuse of State toleration of religion, as opposed to toleration in interpersonal relations. Good arguments exist for both sides: for freedom from regulation especially in a society like ours where we are unaware that the value of being able to follow our religious beliefs outweighs any gain we might achieve from imposing our views on others.

However, it is futile to attempt to use force to compel belief or otherwise, because convictions do not yield to external compulsion. There is a competing view to this matter of public contention. You cannot regulate preaching. The government’s role in a democratic tradition is not to make theological judgments but to protect the right of the people to pursue their own understanding of the truth, within the limits of the common good. The truth of religion is not a subject on which the government should take sides. If that becomes the case, one side will use the Constitution as a protective shield from a new law while the other uses it as empowerment for the law.

Regulation of religious beliefs has always generated controversy. Governor El-Rufai should know that he is flirting with an idea that might threaten public safety, peace and order. Controversy will arise when a law is generally applicable and religiously neutral but nevertheless has the accidental or unintentional effect of interfering with a particular religious practice or belief. For example, section 9 which seeks to criminalize preaching without license, will infringe on the constitutional right of a Christian who decides to follow the biblical commandment of Jesus Christ to ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation”. I speak as a Christian since that is where my religious knowledge lies. I have no doubt some sections might affect the constitutional rights of our Muslims populace.

Religion is one of the few systems of belief that actually gives effect to convictions about morality and conscience. What Governor El-Rufai and his team should look into are initiatives that are balanced, between law and religion that encourage tolerance in interpersonal relations. The rights of individuals and groups have been protected by the Constitution. All they need do is enforce it.

While incidents have occurred in the shadow of constitutional right to freedom of religion in Nigeria in the past, this right should no longer be abused by any government regulations. The Constitution does not deem any religion in Nigeria wrong, mistaken, or undesirable. The freedom to carry out injunctions of our chosen religions as Nigerians should be backed by some degree of government accommodation of religious practices and not to further abuse it.

David Dimas writes from Laurel, Maryland, USA and can be reached via www.dddimas.com and on Twitter: @dimas4real