By Sango Omojola
African people’s traditional religious and spiritual belief is traditionally characterised by a tolerance for other religious beliefs whereas foreign religions which have come to dominate in much of Africa are traditionally characterised by a lack of tolerance for other beliefs. Christianity, a very intolerant and violent religion when adopted in Europe, adapted to become less violent and more open after a long struggle between the forces of science/industry and religion, after which Christianity held back development. (This is in Europe. Exported abroad alongside slavery and colonialism it resorted to its violent character). Christianity instead now focuses on converting through preaching and other means, but this signifies intolerance for the other persons’ beliefs. Islam was initially accepted freely by some African peoples’ living close to the Arab world who were engaged in trade and these peoples’ showed the tolerant side of African traditions so that when the Moors of Africa conquered parts of Europe they displayed great tolerance towards other religions. Otherwise, Islam too has largely displayed an intolerant character to other religions over time.
A quick note before proceeding on tradition. As an elder once advised me, long held African religious beliefs are better referred to as indigenous beliefs rather than traditional beliefs. Why is this important? Because indigenous beliefs originate or occur naturally in a place, being native to it, whereas traditional beliefs are long held beliefs that include elements that come from outside the place but which have persisted over time. So foreign beliefs mixed with indigenous beliefs could be referred to as tradition and culture of the place, with confusion arising between what is natural and what has been accepted from outside over time. The importance of this distinction will become clear as the article proceeds.
The distinction between traditional and indigenous can be seen in the role of women in African society. Who’s to say where the foreign has penetrated and become interwoven into tradition? It is often pointed out that women could not inherit property in Igboland with the Supreme Court of Nigeria passing judgement against customary law which guided such practice. But care has to be taken, because much of what was brought with colonialism has become customised to be treated as African ‘culture’. This is not to say that women’s roles in traditional African society were not regressive in many aspects, but that the coming of foreign religions introduced ever more regressive anti-women practices, which over time got merged with local beliefs to become taken as culture. Throughout Africa women’s roles were more progressive than they were in Europe and the Arab World; the Igbo property rights cited can only be considered an anomaly, and one which is better understood as not being fundamentally indigenous. A lack of proper research blinds people to claim that such practices are ‘igbo culture’, i.e. that they are indigenous to the Igbo. For instance, an article, Igbo Woman in Traditional Religious Setting (Nwokoye, NA and Chinkwere EC, 2014), sets out some definite oppressive practices among the Igbo but explain that European influences on research led to poor research on how indigenous Igbo culture was, compared to what it became over time. According to the article:
“Some researches have been carried out on aspects of the lives such as Igbo Women gender sensitivity and women rights. As regards women rights, some of these studies tend to portray Igbo culture as savage, primitive and inferior. In addition Igbo religion was regarded as idolatrous, satanic and backward. The social system and institutions were also non productive, non-sustainable and basic. Among these institutions, the marriage institution is contaminated in the discourse determined by the Western value system, long used to an atomistic model, as oppressive to women. Here, the researchers believe strongly that these views are not true because they were based on assumptions, not facts. They believe that the Igbo system understood that women were a very important group in the scheme of things and so owned their own property/wealth. It was at the onset of the colonial process that women began to suffer oppression”.
This article also summarises the overall role of women in Nigeria prior to foreign intrusion: https://www.britannica.com/topic/role-of-Nigerian-women-1360615
And where the foreign religions codified in writing such regressive anti-woman practices, there is no such thing in African indigenous culture. At the end of the day, Europe evolved over time from a very patriarchal society to a society with nominal rights for women. Organised religion was fundamental to its regressive practices. It is crazy to even argue that African culture had no capacity to even evolve, a pandering to racism. These societies evolved sophisticated political systems so why would they not have evolved modern family rights even as they were characterised by a relatively tolerance based foundation?
All of these misconceptions are allowed to take hold by lack of proper research due to poor educational systems in Africa caused by our neo-colonialist rulers. Racism is however the bedrock of such fundamental misconceptions – ‘the black man is a savage’ is the intention behind such mischaracterisations. This is why there is acceptance by many people of ridiculous assertions that the Yoruba political and cultural system was imported from Arabia or that the Igbos derive from Israel. When there is DNA evidence as well as archaeological evidence against which such claims are inconsistent.
Organised religion especially the foreign is a stumbling block to knowledge and development. That is the problem with intolerance, you claim to be better than others, you codify certain things and so assumptions of science that can move a society forward are treated as treasonable. Which is why the Europeans refused to believe the earth was round and later that it was not the center of the universe even when Egyptians knew the earth was round and revolved around the sun. Or that the world is billions of years old, after all the holy book says it is 6000 years old. Because the scientific evidence contradicts what is written down in religious books. And so now, despite the overwhelming evidence of evolution of human beings from primates, Christians and Muslims will argue against it; yet the DNA understanding which arose from evolutionary theory is a useful progress in medical science.
And so developed European societies have strongly reduced their practice of organised religion in as much as it is counter to progress despite the same Europeans being responsible for foisting these religions on Africans by force. When the Ijebus in Yorubaland resisted British interference, the British organised what is called the ijebu Expedition, with the first aim being to destroy the temples of worship. Christianity has displayed no tolerance in Africa, despite claiming to use words rather than violence. Where words (conversion) fails it has resorted to mere violence. Now Africans have taken themselves to a level of uncritical thinking caused by adherence to such religions, the very thing our colonizers have rejected for themselves.
And so, when people criticise the foreign religions, the religious get sensitive and ask for religious tolerance. What makes your religion immune to criticism? It is actually intolerance that says I won’t hear what you have to say about what you see to be wrong with my religion. Some would even kill you for criticising their religions or try to affect your means of earning a living.
Organised religion is anti-progress. But when a foreign religion becomes the bedrock of a local people’s beliefs, the regression is even more extreme as the people no longer believe in themselves. The Japanese were never colonised by Europe because they resisted Christianity. Today the Japanese are guided by ancestral beliefs but reject organised religion. Africa too can only develop if it accepts what comes from within and if it accepts critical thinking through the rejection of regressive organised and foreign religious beliefs. That does not mean people have to be forced to stop being Christians or Muslims, but rather that the society based on critical thinking will feel free to criticise any practices be they part of tradition or part of religion that are inimical to progress.
Tolerance and critical thinking go side by side. Not the imposition of beliefs as being from a holy book or being MY OWN therefore don’t criticise it.
The great paradox is how these foreign religions came to Africa by force, very intolerantly; they created misconceptions about African practice to characterise them as evil; and yet criticism of these religions will not be tolerated because it is intolerance!