The Good, The Bad and the Freedom of Religious Expression
Religion has a place of great significance among Nigerians, one only trumped by tribe. Virtually every aspect of life here is influenced by it in some way, be it covertly or not. Nigerians, though not necessarily the purest of individuals, are very zealous religious enthusiasts. We pray everywhere: homes, places of worship, offices, schools, buses, sidewalks, markets. We pray publicly and we pray loudly, and when our voices cannot carry, we rummage around for public address systems. We pray for ourselves, we pray for our government, we pray for random strangers who are fortunate enough to be “under the sound of our voices”.
A lot of people who find themselves on the left-to-center of the religious line have, at one point or the other, felt that vague (or sometimes not-so-vague) irritation when people scream out prayers in places that are generally considered public and therefore neutral. You’re sitting in a bus and next thing you know, a surprisingly agile middle-aged man who has been blessed with more than his fair share of saliva leaps up and begins barking out prayers (accompanied by a surprise baptism of saliva) at the hot, tired, and now drenched commuters. You find yourself getting incensed at the sheer unprofessionalism of an entire office retiring for ‘midday prayers’ when they ought to be doing brisk business and not wasting your precious time. Most annoying, I agree.
Is this behaviour a nuisance to the public? Yes. Should they be legally banned? I don’t think so. This is Nigeria, a lot of things that shouldn’t cause a public nuisance do, and do so on a daily basis. Generators have been known to render little children shell-shocked. ‘Owambe’ parties are notorious for not only refusing people in the neighbourhood the fundamental right of hearing themselves think, but also mercilessly obstructing traffic for entire days. Do these things irk the world out of we saner ones? Of course it does. However, it’s not practical to place a ban on them.
It has been suggested that prayer should be restricted to either homes or prayer houses (churches, mosques, shrines, etc.). Personally, I think that this is a form of prejudice. This suggestion is followed up with the argument that not everyone belongs to the same religion and therefore it’s infringing on the rights of others to shove one’s prayers down the throats of others. We must be careful when fighting the good fight for equality, not to tip the scales drastically to the other side. Dancing is not restricted to clubs. Math is not restricted to classrooms. Reading is not restricted to libraries, nor is eating to restaurants. Prayer should be given the same courtesy. If we claim that we live in a free society, then, as long as the activity poses no threat to life and limb, we can’t be selective.
There’s a school of thought that believes that a definite line should be drawn between freedom of religious expression and creating a public nuisance. The truth is, in a country as religiously polarised as Nigeria, where religion carries a lot of weight in major decisions, where majority of the believers in any religion are fanatics, where any perceived slight against any religion is as incendiary as throwing a lit match into a barrel of petrol, it is difficult to draw such a line. Sentiments will unfortunately rule a lot of opinions on the matter. It will be impossible for people to agree on what’s crossing the line and what’s acceptable, and I, while rejecting the idea of an outright ban, frankly don’t see any resolution to it. We must accept that every fundamental right has a flipside, and live with both the good and bad.