By Muyiwa Adetiba

There is a lady I consider a lifelong friend. My thoughts go to her from time to time. I wonder how she is faring these days with her two children married and living abroad on two different continents.

It is not easy to face the sunset years with your loved ones strewn apart and the economy facing south. That however, is the story of many in my generation. But it is a story on its own for another day – perhaps next week.  My thoughts went to her recently because of an incident – a common incident really – I witnessed in my estate.

But first, the story of my friend. My friend’s father is from South-South. Her mother is from the Yoruba speaking part of North- Central.

Her father, a Christian, converted to Islam at marriage. I don’t know whether it was a condition for marriage or simply a career move since he had worked in the Foreign Office in a country where your religion could influence lucrative postings. Whatever. He seemed happy with his choice and remained a Muslim until he died.

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My friend attended a popular Christian school in Lagos and had close buddies ‘across the aisles’ of Christianity and Islam. This, with her background, made her comfortable with the two religions. She actually drifted in and out of the two at some point and once confided her indecisiveness to me. She eventually chose Islam.

About a decade and a half ago, she performed the rites at Mecca and is now an ‘Alhaja’ like her late mother. Her siblings are divided between the two religions. Outside the usual sibling rivalries, there is love and cohesiveness in the family irrespective of religion. Her two children with their spouses, are Christians.

It stands to reason that a family like hers knows too well not to make religion an issue. It also stands to reason that she would not pick friends or relationships based on religion. When I think of her, I don’t see an Alhaja. I see a lovely, generous soul which she is.

Now to the incident. I was looking out in front of my balcony – something retirees do often – when a young lady passed by. She was appropriately dressed as a Muslim. She would not have registered beyond the subconscious had she not stopped to talk to someone.

Then she stretched her hands to pass something over to the person. That was when she inadvertently exposed her hand up to the upper arm; a gesture that made me take a second look at her.

She was wearing a nicely cut pair of jeans with a sleeveless white blouse under a loose, semi-transparent, almost translucent overall. Her head of course, was covered.

From what I could see, she was a young, full bodied woman with the kind of body that would have elicited admiring looks if not cat calls had she walked the streets without the ‘externals’.But with the overall, she had marked herself and it was unlikely that a young Christian ‘stranger’ would approach her now except for the daring.

It was also unlikely that she would accept a date from a young Christian except an illicit one because I do not think parents who allow their daughters dress like she did would encourage a Christian boyfriend. It was therefore highly unlikely that she would ever have a romantic relationship with a non-Muslim.

And if she attended a Muslim secondary school, it was unlikely that she would forge any serious, lifelong friendship with a Christian. So living in this kind of religious bubble, how would she get to really know the intrinsic qualities of those from the ‘other half’ she was destined to share her country with beyond what she heard and what was preached to her at home and in the mosques? How could she not be biased?

How markedly different this is from my generation – and those preceding mine – when nothing, not your mode of dressing, not even your name, differentiated Christians from Muslims growing up. We met, mingled and played pranks irrespective of religion. We knew warm parents and difficult parents irrespective of religion or even tribe.

We shared festivals together and indirectly learnt about the tenets of each other’s religion. We learnt to respect those tenets. We also learnt religious tolerance just by experiencing it without being tutored from pulpits. We were therefore able to develop both platonic and romantic relationships that lasted years.

We married and divorced in spite of, not because of religion. I think of my female Muslim friends whose friendships have enriched my life and given me different perspectives to life. I think of those carefree days when neither religion nor tribe mattered.

I now think of families like that of my lifelong friend whose members like I said, have intermingled tribally and religiously. What is going to become of them now that our religious and political leaders are hell bent on forcing religion down our throats?

We talk about religious tolerance yet we keep pushing religion into the front burner of our body polity. It should be the other way round. I don’t want to have to trust a person because of his religion or tribe.

Let their integrity and the content of their character lead me to the God they worship. I have always believed that those who push religion in conversations and transactions have character deficits they are trying to hide. Leaders who project their religion ahead of their humanity are not worthy of the name.

And let those who think salvation comes only from their God leave me alone to work out my salvation. One of the surest ways to build a united country and blur the lines is to encourage intermarriage along religious and tribal lines. Conversely, one of the surest ways to divide a multi-cultural, multi-religious country is to accentuate religion and tribe.

Those who are rigid about the place of religion or the supremacy of one religion over the other in the polity are not out to build a country. In fact, they are out to destroy it. It is even worse for those who kill and those who allow killings in the name of religion.

They will ultimately destroy that religion in the minds of other people. We will have a great country if we are tolerant of other people’s religion and culture. We will have a blessed country if we simply fear God, love justice and serve humanity;and stop paying lip service to religion.

Vanguard News Nigeria

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