He had ‘swag’ about him. There was such soothing confidence in his delivery that it seemed almost arrogant. However, I went on YouTube and went through the entire library of his lectures. I was not only drawn to his eloquence, but also to his managed ‘superiority’ and command of his area of expertise. On some aspects of his teachings I vehemently disagreed. On others, I was forced to do some research and found him wanting as per my understanding and translation of scripture but on a great deal we were in agreement. After going through the available videos I could find online, I was on to my next adventure and was studying the lives and times of the most notorious world leaders of all time. Of course I had to start with Mao for I was within reach.
The last few days have seen the rise of a macro debate society online of Gambians. There have been tense exchanges, emotional debates, interesting forging of alliances and battle cries screamed from the mountain-tops. I think I played devil’s advocate on one or two discussions mostly for the fun of it. I have become a big fan of the exchange of knowledge and I know I deserve a serious head-butt for simply wanting to learn. I AM A PIG!
To my point again lest I digress, I was amazed to see Facebook posts beleaguered by the typically silent crowd of onlookers. I call it The Gambian Way…well actually I never really called it anything, but for the purposes of this essay, I find it fitting to come up with a name. For years now we have seen an extension of our bantaba debates on the corridors of the digital fortress which is the internet. However, as the topics have been discussed, debated and expounded on, there is a trait that must be acknowledged; that we are mostly comfortable in our own shells. To take the Gambian out of his comfort zone is akin to placing a metal on heat for the longest of hours and imprinting a lifelong tattoo on his or her back. It is a painful thing to endure and we are not a people that believe in pain. So, over the years, topics have ranged from music, politics, sports amongst others but the greater majority have found it better to spent their time uploading beautiful (and sometimes not so beautiful) photos online daily for their hundreds of virtual fans online. We have chosen the celebrity over the opportunity to grow and that also is not such a bad thing.
It was on the internet that I learnt of the State’s invitation of the Dr and I raised no eyebrow. My first thought was to try to attend a private lecture. I would not attend to start a debate or to learn something new. My intention was to simply see in the flesh a man whose videos had been a constant for me for months in University. I likened it to my meeting Professor Klaus Schwab for the first time. I imagined my voice would shake for a moment before gaining the strength required to tell him how much I enjoyed debating and discussing with him in my head and how his lectures inspired the religious researcher in me to (like Oliver Twist) ask for more. Alas I would get an invitation to one of his public lectures but found the hall too full and sweat-ridden for my comfort and that of my accompanying partner. As expected, I left before he made it there (which was already three hours after the announced time). I believe fate will allow for a more fitting meeting as I build on my ‘selfie’ collection with great thinkers, movers and shakers.
So the trouble online since Dr Zakir Naik’s visit has been on the speculated amount budgeted for his visit, the topics of discussion, his handling of opposition and most essentially his ‘politicising’ of religion. The Dr has been accused of many things over the last few days and I believe the uproar has been more of publicity for his words than anything else. There was almost a message of my refusing to find the propinquity to allow reason to guide my contribution to the few discussions I could manage but I imagine some things are just too difficult to explain. I believed I had learned all I needed to learn from the Dr prior to his visiting our dear country, so the ego in me found it unnecessary to insist on attending the lectures or watching the videos. I saw it as an opportunity for many. Whether Muslim or Christian, I feel that our country needs some serious purging. If our consciences as religious people are not enough to guide us, then maybe, just maybe our religion will. I never argued with those that believe that inviting a religious leader to provide a series of lectures during a national event was wrong of a secular state because the secularism of a country with a Muslim majority has always left me confused. Where exactly do we draw the line? I applauded all those who voiced out their concerns. I believe it shows that The Gambia hasn’t lost its religious tolerance. However, the arguments left me more confused than in acceptance. That the argument grew from it being wrong of the State to spend xxx amount of money to ‘import religion’, to the Dr being a propagator of the ISIS agenda, to him being an agent in the bid to turn The Gambia into a religious monarchy, I wasn’t really sure whether this was a calculated attempt to discredit the state, the Dr, or to simply burn the house down. Whatever the reason was, I did not watch the videos of his lectures to know if he took the bait or if he basically just rode on his accustomed horse. Truth be told, I knew what to expect of the Dr and I half expected facebook to turn into a war of the worlds.
On the other side of the debate, I saw the many that were upset at ‘some Gambians’ for questioning the Dr Unfortunately, I am not versed enough in The Qur’an to quote a response. Even if I were, I doubt I would win a debate against people that have spent their lives studying the teachings held within so my statements are more from a moral perspective than a religious one. I believe that makes my argument null and void doesn’t it. But ah! The beauty of this being my essay and not an examination paper to be marked by WAEC. Call me ignorant but I have always been raised to ask questions. I cannot for the life in me fathom an environment where questions are unwelcome. I would leave!! We learn because we ask…we ask because we learn…and the wheel of life continues does it not? So when people of different faiths went online and questioned the legitimacy of some of the Dr’s statements, I was shocked that a facebook fraternity of followers damned all the ‘seekers’ to hell. I believe every man of knowledge (including of course the Dr) needed to ask questions to gain the knowledge required to reach his stature. That he or anyone who follows his teachings wouldn’t welcome criticism or questioning would be ironically against the very principles of academia and the schools of ‘thought’. To understand that the translation of religious scripture is the imperfect fraction of scripture is to understand also that no man who walks this earth a man is infallible. There is none perfect but God/Allah. We have all…will all falter. That we would believe that a human being is infallible is in fact the very heresy we seem to preach against.
When I said we need redemption as a people, it was due to the things I have seen with my very own eyes in our dear nation. In Dante’s inferno, the ninth level (or circle…whichever version of hell you prefer) of hell is reserved for the treacherous. Dante therefore translates scripture to show that treachery is the most evil of all ills. The betrayal of a loved one, for Dante is the most evil a man can be and have we not seen such treachery fast become a norm in our dear nation? It is that very treachery that has brought us here…to this point where trust is absent in our society. I too have been treacherous! I mean, I have such treacherous thoughts for the future that I believe there is a special place for me in the ninth circle of hell. I have betrayed my loved ones in the past, and will most probably betray them in the future. I am a sinner…a sinner in need of as much redemption as the many Dante had thrown into the very circle of hell that he just might have found himself in having already placed many in his magic funnel.
Over the years, we have lost a lot of our ‘Gambianness’ to the wind. As the debates continued on facebook I asked myself if the religious tolerance we claim to possess is still a truth we can hold on to. Men have done crazy things in the name of religion and our country has always been bigger than that. I now welcome the Dr’s visit for one more thing. I believe it showed us a truth that was not so evident in the past. It showed us that we have the potential to hate each other. It showed that Gambians can take the most beautiful of things and turn it into the ugliest reality ever. It showed that we are all as human as any other nation that has undergone chaos in the past. It showed that we have to step carefully.
There has been a lot of political propaganda online in the past but this has been completely different. Religion is the most powerful of tools in a developing Africa and to see the harmony that has always existed between a Christian minority and a Muslim majority (not to forget the many who still believe in traditional religion) show signs of depletion is a scary truth. Our culture cannot change overnight. The scary possibility is that a lot of things have been changing so much that all it needed to reveal itself was the visit of a religious scholar.
I went home the other day and met an Uncle of mine (Famara…who isn’t really my Uncle but was around when I was a child) and we exchanged greetings. He’s a man hustling to survive but always has a smile on his face. When I asked him how life was treating him, he smiled and said, “santa Ya’Allah lu barri…Jaama ak Heewal”. To hear those words coming from him almost pushed me to my emotional edge. Our peace, our love for each other, our respecting of each other regardless of tribe, religion etc is what makes us different.
I walked into my parent’s house on Saturday evening and watched as my father (a reverend minister of religion) and my mother (who I should call a pastor evangelist) watched Dr Zakir Naik on GRTS and made comments on his lecture. That was the religious harmony I was raised around. Where I blame my country being 90% Muslim and my parents being tolerant of my independence at an early age for my failure to see people as one religion or another, I must blame my exposure to the books and truths of this world for my state of mind.
My point on all of this is simple. I have not watched the Dr speak in The Gambia and haven’t found the time to. I believe him to be a man of knowledge and a man of true faith…but I believe him to be a man. I understand the people who took offense in his teachings and those that say that the world has reached its end. However, if a visit from the Dr is what it takes to transform our identity from tolerant to hateful, then the truth is, we were never tolerant in the first place.
Our nation is built on the shoulders of men and women; some of them of religion, others without; some of them Muslim, others Christian. I do not know where this ship sails to but I know for a fact that the only thing that has changed for me is that my desire to seek knowledge has grown tenfold. I think our desire for knowledge as a nation must grow. I believe we must encourage public debates and discussion. I believe we can be better. I also believe we have more Muslims and Christians in need of redemption than unbelievers. There’s more to religion that a cross or a crescent. Religion comes with the spirituality to do ‘good to all men’; to put aside selfishness and the culture of greed; to look out for our neighbours; to get our children off the streets; to stop corruption; to believe in our nation and to give it our best regardless of whether or not we get recognition or not. Religion is more than a name!