Prof Ebenezer Obadare. Photo: Efunla Ayodele

By Ebenezer Obadare

The theme of our panel discussion this evening is Teetering on the Brink: Religious Extremism in Nigeria.

That this is an important and timely subject goes without saying, and it stands to reason that the organizers’ choice must have been informed, in part by the situation in the northeastern part of the country, where the Boko Haram insurgency has laid waste to huge swaths of territory and made everyday life unsafe for millions of ordinary Nigerians; and in part because ripples from the group’s atrocities have reverberated across the country, generating forms of non-state violence like banditry, kidnapping, and other manifestations of lawlessness that draw attention to the growing incapacity of the Nigerian state to successfully mobilize and deploy legitimate violence.

Nevertheless, I crave your indulgence to turn the table on the organizers and suggest that, while their disquiet over religious extremism is not unfounded (and how can it be, given the body of work that Boko Haram has notoriously produced?), it is not religious extremism as such that should command our attention, but religiosity or the religious imagination, especially the Nigerian iteration that has steadily taken possession of the collective mind over the past quarter of a century or so. I want to suggest that religious extremism, for all its ruinations and dangers, remains, nonetheless, a low hanging fruit.

Much more insidious, more destructive of the civic spirit, and therefore more ramifying in its implications, I propose, is its ideological cousin, religiosity, or the religious imagination. What do I mean by this? What lends the religious imagination such a terrible aspect that I favor giving it priority over religious extremism?

In order to answer this question successfully, we must first name the religious sensibility that has constituted more or less the defining spirit of the Nigerian Fourth Republic since its inception in 1999. That presiding spirit is Pentecostalism, a Christian form so all-engulfing and so powerful that one sees its imprint in nearly every aspect of our social life- from politics, through sport, to the economy, entertainment, the arts, the media, the education system, civil society, and, to infer from some troubling evidence which emerged recently from its uppermost echelons, even the military. (For those who may have missed it, I am referring here to the “Spiritual Warfare Seminar” on the theme, “Countering Insurgency and Violent Extremism in Nigeria through Spiritual Warfare,” organized by the Nigerian Army on September 30 2019.)

Having named this sensibility, and in light of my overall contention that Pentecostalism tends to a fundamental corrosion of social felicity, I should like to touch upon its impact. For the sake of time, I will limit myself to five key interrelated elements:

First, Nigerian Pentecostalism, imbued with a deeply anti-intellectual impulse, is hostile towards reason. This has various consequences, all uniformly injurious. For one thing, hostility towards reason makes clear public deliberation impossible, as debate tends to be stymied or corrupted by insinuations of extra-human agency. Whether manifested as a hankering after miracles or a quest for ‘spiritual intelligence,’ there can be no doubt as to the grievous social harm that the perversion of, or hostility towards reason, can give rise to.

Second, and a corollary: weakening of public debate prepares the soil for civic atrophy, which in turn increases the possibility of a hijack of the public sphere by illiberal or outright reactionary forces. Thusly, the Pentecostal sensibility constitutes an indirect attack, but an attack nonetheless, on one of the constitutive elements of a healthy democracy, namely, a robust public sphere of critical conversation.

Third: Pentecostal insistence on a world of ubiquitous spirits, a world in which human agency is either completely absent, or, when present, exists in sufferance to the untold machinations of invisible evil spirits, works to undercut the very idea of democratic accountability. If agency cannot be assigned because sundry ‘familiar spirits’ and ‘roving spirits’ are the ones calling the shots, then there is no agential responsibility. Not surprisingly, politicians and office holders are drawn to this worldview because it excuses and writes off their impunities. Other aspects of this process of democratic enchantment are discussed in detail in my book.

Fourth: Pentecostalism’s ethical disposition is dubious at best, and, at worst, positively invidious. When it is not lending dubious theological justification to ill-gotten wealth, through its constant advertisement of wealth as something that happens “accidentally” or miraculously, it is dismissing delayed gratification, personal industry, investment, diligent accumulation and frugality- all elements of the Calvinist work ethic. Either way, it offers no reliable platform on which public morality may be anchored.

Fifth, and finally: whether we are talking about religious extremism or ‘mere’ religiosity as I have postulated, it is important to always focus our attention on power; for not only is it impossible to discuss religion in the absence of power, it is in fact fruitless. Pentecostalism commingles with power in at least two ways. First, Pentecostal delegitimization of human agency makes political mesmerism possible. Second, and as we have seen over the course of the Fourth Republic in Nigeria, the alliance of the political class and the theocratic class empowers both to the detriment of the rest of the society.

None of what I have enumerated is to be taken as an indication that religious extremism is not a problem. It is- and a serious one at that. [Nor that Pentecostalism alone is to be blamed for all the social evils that haunt Nigeria. I make no such claim]. My reservation is that because religious extremism is such an obvious problem (so obvious that even extremists disavow extremism), it is easy to overlook a religious mentality that is no less damaging for the body polity, not just immediately, but also in the long run.

*Ebenezer Obadare is professor of sociology at the University of Kansas, USA. The above is based on talking points he presented at the Ake Arts and Book Festival panel discussion on the theme: “Teetering on the Brink: Religious Extremism in Nigeria”