n civilised societies, laws and policies protect religious freedom and, in practice, the government generally enforces these protections. But faced with the fear of radicalisation, many countries across the world are reviewing the concept of religious freedom. In Kaduna State, amid sound and fury, Governor Nasir el-Rufai and his team are facing an uphill task in defending “A Bill For A Law To Substitute The Kaduna State Religious Preaching Law, 1984” before a distrustful public.El-Rufai is, indeed, walking a tightrope. In 2004, a similar bill to regulate religious preaching sparked an uproar in Niger State.
For obvious reasons, religious groups across both Christian and Muslim faiths are loudest in mounting stiff opposition to the passage of the bill. The offending provisions of the bill, among others, include banning the use of loudspeakers for religious purposes other than inside a mosque or church and the surrounding areas outside the stipulated prayer times;restricting the playing or circulating of all cassettes, CDs, flash drives or any other communication gadgets containing religious recordings from accredited preachers other than inside one’s house, porch, church, mosque and other designated places of worship, and the banning of religious recordings in which abusive language is used against any person or religious organisation or religious leaders (past or present).
The bill also seeks stringent conditions for licensing of preachers, with a ministerial committee empowered to issue or deny licences to religious bodies. Without a valid licence, local preachers cannot preach and without a permit, external preachers cannot preach in the state. Violation of the law attracts prison terms or fines. That is right and proper.
But citing Section 38 of the 1999 Constitution, which provides for a right or freedom of thought, conscience and religion and a right to change religion, critics of the bill are already up in arms against the government. They are wrong.
Any society that allows religion to run haywire does so at a high risk. Apart from Boko Haram’s horrific terrorism, Kaduna State, as el-Rufai and his team have taken time to explain, has a bloody history of religious and sectarian crises. And if the protection of lives and property is the basic function of the state, it follows logically that Kaduna State’s attempt to rein in religious violence is reasonable. And that is why religion should be pushed to where it belongs: private life.
In most democracies, freedom of religion is guaranteed as long as the law is not infringed upon. In the United Kingdom, most religious institutions are classified as charities, since the advancement of religion is considered to be a charitable purpose. But to be exempted from taxes on most types of income and capital gains, they must use their income or gains for charitable purposes and be licensed. In the same UK, the maximum penalty for stirring up religious hatred is seven years in prison.
In 2008, the home secretary issued revised rules allowing exclusion of foreign preachers who espouse hatred. The government can exclude individuals on the grounds that they have engaged in unacceptable behaviour, defined by the government as using any means to express views that foster extremism or hatred.
Indeed, the onslaught of global jihadist terrorism has forced many countries to take a fresh look at the concept of religious freedom and other rights of expression. In Spain, since March 11, 2004, when 10 bombs on four different commuter trains in Madrid exploded almost simultaneously, killing 191 and injuring at least 1,800 people, the government has been seeking tighter control over Spain’s mosques and the content of Islamic religious services. A government spokesperson says: “We cannot name the imam who is going to preside over a religious service…we can require of the imam or preacher of any religion that it be known who he is, and what he is going to say in the mosque or church…We are talking about a phenomenon that can create a breeding ground for terrorism that kills people.”
Even Islamic countries are not left out in the challenge to collar the beast of religious extremism. In its December 13th, 2014 issue, The Economist says Saudi Arabia has long used a simple method to regulate mosques. “The oil kingdom lavishes clerics with money and perks that can suddenly vanish if their preaching goes astray. If that does not work they are fired or parked in jail.” In Egypt, decrees require all preachers to be government-licensed, and impose a code of ethics forbidding discussion of politics in mosques. In Morocco, according to Sahel Standard, in an effort to prevent the spread of radical ideologies, the Ministry of Habous (“religious endowments”) and Islamic Affairs has undertaken to monitor the theological content of instruction given in the country’s 30,000 mosques. In order to even attempt to carry out this herculean task, the government strictly regulates the opening and closing times of these institutions.
In the Sahel region, according to reports, Mali and Mauritania are taking the lead in measures targeting extremist preaching, while Chad is following the same path. In Mali, this process of regulation includes control of preachers through the development of guidelines for the contents of prayers and sermons presented in mosques and broadcast on Malian radio stations. It also includes the active shaping of the education of imams and overseeing the educational contents in the many Koranic schools in the country.
Ending religious extremism should matter deeply to Nigerians. For us, we will continue to stand resolutely for the rejection of religious extremism and support the strong will of any government to confront it anywhere and anytime. El-Rufai should not let his eye off the ball. But in passing the bill, Kaduna State’s religious diversity must be recognised and respected. We believe what el-Rufai should work on more is the enforcement of the laws and regulations that prohibit incitement to religious hatred and violence.
It is the responsibility of the government to balance its own wish for control of radical or extremist activity in the complex religious field against the concerns of violation of freedoms and rights. But those who believe their freedom of religion has been infringed upon have the right to seek relief in court.