The decision by the UN to designate August 22 as the international day to commemorate the victims of acts of violence based on religion or belief is a commendable development. This is because, until recently, religious violence has largely been ignored and perpetrators have been treated as heroes and defenders of the faith. According to the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres: “On this Day, we reaffirm our unwavering support for the victims of violence based on religion and belief. And we demonstrate that support by doing all in our power to prevent such attacks and demanding that those responsible are held accountable.” In the same vein, the High Representative, Federica Mogherini, on behalf of the European Union, declared on the occasion of the International Day: “Persecution as a response to religious belief or affiliation, or lack thereof, is a violation of international law and requires joint work to combat it…Believers from any faith, as well as non-believers in many parts of the world, continue to suffer from violence and persecution. They face incitement to hatred and violence and hate crimes by state or non-state actors or both.”

It is significant that, at last, the international community is waking up to the unconscionable acts of violence based on religion or belief. The UN has eventually taken a categorical stand against religious persecution. Unfortunately, there was no national statement or declaration to commemorate this important day in Nigeria. Even though Nigeria has a long history of religious persecution and bloodletting. This lack of interest in marking such an important day and remembering victims of acts of violence based on religion or belief could be traced to the reluctance by the Nigerian authorities to call out religion-based violence and categorize perpetrators are criminals.

A little historical background might be instructive at this point. Religious violence predates Christianity and Islam. Before the introduction of eastern and western religions, there was religious persecution and violence among the local indigenous religious populations. But it was of a different kind. This form of persecution targeted those who refused to abide by the dictates of the various territorial gods and oracles. Violence was used to elicit compliance and to legitimize divine authority. But religious persecution took a more vicious dimension following the introduction of Islam and Christianity especially Islam.
These religions designated traditional religious worshippers as fetish people, as unbelievers who should be converted by force if necessary. Thus Islamic scholars raised armies of Allah who prosecuted covert and overt ‘holy wars’; they perpetrated ‘sacred acts’ of violence, and launched jihads against nonbelievers. These were nonbelievers according to the definition of the jihadists, and they included other religious believers and even other Muslim believers. Thus engaging in acts of violence became a religious duty, a form of religious service that was carried out with impunity.
For instance, Sheikh Uthman dan Fodio is a hero among Muslims in Nigeria and beyond because he prosecuted a jihad in 1804. But by today’s standards, Dan Fodio is a war criminal. He committed genocide and crimes against humanity. Dan Fodio was a jihadist who fought and killed unbelievers perpetrating acts of unimaginable violence against those who did not subscribe to his brand of Islam. In post-colonial Nigeria, the country has witnessed similar acts of religious bloodletting, especially in Northern Nigeria.
In the 80s, the maitatsine sect swept across the North killing and maiming real and imagined nonbelievers. Violence and bloodshed have characterized the interaction between Muslims and Christians in Kano, Kaduna, Jigawa, Gombe, Bornu, Bauchi, and Plateau, etc. Violence and conflicts have trailed the implementation of sharia law and the campaign by Boko Haram to enthrone an Islamic state. Unfortunately, the perpetrators of these acts of violence were never charged or prosecuted. Jihadists, that is, those who perpetrated acts of violence in the name of Allah or Islam have never been made to answer for their crimes.

Thus, it is appropriate that an international day has been set aside to remember victims of religious violence and persecution and to advocate an end to acts of violence based on religion and belief. In Nigeria, August 22 should be a day of education and reorientation. It should be a day to honor the memories of Gideon Akaluka, a Christian trader who was beheaded by Islamists in Kano in the 90s, Christianah Oluwatoyin Oluwasesin who was lynched by her Muslim students in Gombe in 2007, Bridget Agbahime who was killed for blasphemy in Kano in 2016, Leah Sharibu and other girls who have been abducted by Boko Haram militants and other victims of violent extremisms in the country.

The international day to commemorate the victims of acts of violence based on religion or belief should be devoted to demanding justice for the victims and to urging that the perpetrators of acts of violence based on religion or belief be brought to justice.

*** Written by Leo Igwe.