The crisis currently rocking Kwara State over the use or otherwise of the hijab by female Muslim students in government-funded Christian missionary schools should leave no one in doubt about the divided state of Nigeria today. That Kwara, a liberal, moderate and accommodating state, which is well known for inter-religious harmony, would become the latest ground in the age-long battle for supremacy between Nigeria’s dominant Abrahamic faiths (Christianity and Islam) should be a cause for concern to every Nigerian.
The controversy generated by the use or otherwise of hijab, which has become a symbol of Islamist separatism, in government-funded missionary schools is indicative of how deeply Nigeria has become polarised along ethno-religious fault lines.
The controversy started a few weeks ago when, in February, officials of Saint Anthony Secondary School denied hijab-wearing female Muslim students entrance to the school premises. According to the officials, Saint Anthony Secondary School was a missionary school where hijab was not allowed. The stand against the wearing of hijab by officials of Saint Anthony School opened another chapter of conversation of the ownership of government-funded missionary schools.
Whereas the responsibility for the funding of missionary schools was taken up by the Kwara State government in 1974, there was an arrangement that allowed the schools to retain the religious signature in their operations.
Over the years, the original owners of the missionary schools have generally guided their operations to reflect their Christian heritage in a manner that does not undermine inclusiveness in matters that are fundamental to Kwara State children’s rights to education without discrimination on the basis of religious orientation. And everything appeared to have worked out pretty well, until recently.
Following the refusal of entry to hijab-wearing female Muslim students in Saint Anthony Secondary School, the Kwara State government, exercising its control over Christian missionary schools in its domain, ordered the closure of 10 of such schools to allow for consultation across all divides. And when it felt enough consultation had been done, the state government ordered the opening of the government-funded missionary schools only to meet an even fiercer opposition to the hijab by the various schools’ management.
The sight of parents of Muslim schoolgirls in hijab that were prevented entry into the premises of Baptist School, in the Surulere area of Ilorin, in hot exchange of words with some Christian officials of the school, which quickly degenerated into the throwing of stones at each other, was shameful, to say the least. The ugly incident at Baptist School clearly showed that, if any consultation was done on the hijab issue at all, it was not far-reaching enough and interested parties are still maintaining a hard stand.
While Abdulrahman Abdulrazaq, the Muslim governor of Kwara State, did not impose the use of hijab in government-funded missionary schools, his approval of hijab for willing Muslim female students before arriving at a resolution with school management and other critical stakeholders was a hasty decision that may worsen the bad situation.
In the half a century after the arrival of Salafi Islam in Nigeria from the Sudan in the early 1970s, the ideology of Islamist separatism has taken a firm grip of mainstream Muslim theology in Nigeria. In this period of systemic Islamist separatist indoctrination by mainstream Muslim authorities, the hijab has been elevated to an article of faith and has become the most defining symbol of Islamist separatism.
And with the systemic indoctrination of Muslim women to adorn the hijab as a distinguishing identity without which their Islamic faith is either incomplete or a nullity, one can begin to understand why many are wont to wear the hijab as a matter of religious duty.
And while it may not hurt the Christian missionary schools or their non-Muslims for female Muslim students to adorn the hijab in accordance with their religious obligation, it is not in the place of the Kwara State government to unilaterally enforce tolerance on these schools.
If the issue of wearing hijab in missionary schools was all about religious tolerance, then it would not have been a problem at all, as Christendom throughout the ages has emerged the torch-bearer of religious accommodation in the world. As though in fulfilment of the eternal words of Allah SWT, in Quran 5:82, “You will certainly find that the closest of them in friendship with Muslims are those who say, ‘We are Christians’. That is because among them are priests and monks, and because they are not arrogant,” Christians have stood shoulder to shoulder with Muslims in love and accommodation from ancient to modern times.
Following his first celestial encounter with Angel Gabriel in a cave on mount Hira near Mecca in 610 AD, which left Muhammad the son of Abdullah so shaken that some of his kinsmen thought him out of his mind, it was Waraqa, a Christian monk, who declared him of sound mind and proclaimed him a messenger of God in fulfilment of an earlier prophecy of his coming. And three years later in 613 AD, when the idol worshippers of Mecca began a brutal persecution of Prophet Muhammad [PBUH] and his Muslim followers, it was in the Christian Kingdom of Abyssinia whose ruler the Prophet of Islam described as “a just and righteous Christian King, in whose kingdom no man is wronged” that they took refuge. This singular act of Christian accommodation of Muslim refugees with their hijabs and turbans from Mecca saved the light of Islam from extinguishing.
In recent times, when the Muslim lands of Syria, Iraq and Yemen went up in the flames of sectarian wars and the gates of Tehran and Riyadh were firmly shut against millions of displaced Muslim men, women and children, it was the Catholic Pontiff, His Holiness, Pope Francis I [may Allah be pleased with him], the Bishop of Rome and the Vicar of Christ on earth, who appealed to Christian leaders of Western Europe to grant refuge to their Muslim brethren.
In all of these cases and many more, Muslims were not given the pre-condition of either conversion from Islam or removing their hijab and turbans as their Christian brethren demonstrated unconditional love and accommodation towards their fellow humankind.
Here in Nigeria, Christian missionary schools have always been open to Muslims without prejudice to their faith. Not only were Muslims allowed to attend missionary schools, Arabic and Islamic studies are actually taught in some of these schools.
Therefore, it becomes imperative for Abdulrazaq, the Muslim governor of Kwara State, to address the fear of religious domination and expansionism that has characterised Islamist separatism in Nigeria in the last five decades. The governor should engage further with Church leaders, missionary schools’ managements and other critical stakeholders by providing concrete assurances that the use of hijab is not a ploy by Muslims to take over their schools.
And while this important engagement is going on, Muslim parents will do well to maintain the exemplary patience of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad [PBUH], and desist from throwing stones at the officials of a school they want their children to attend.
Until then, the use or otherwise of hijab by female Muslim students in government-funded missionary schools is a needless controversy.