“Listen more to things than to words that are said,” –Birago Diop.
Once, in the dark, there was a fight between two men over a disagreement. One of these men seeing that he was going to be overpowered started screaming, “Barawo! Barawo!” The other, realising he was being set up to be lynched, shouted, “I am not a thief, it is two-fighting.” And thereupon, the wilful mob that was about to take form, became peacemakers between the two combatants.
My column last week, “Rahama Sadau, Muhammadu Sanusi II v. the North”, triggered many healthy and unhealthy reactions. While many people wrote, texted and called to thank me for writing it, many others, like the fighter above, tried to summon the lynch mob and used some words I am encountering for the very first time, like “xenocentarism.” (I blame this on the commenter’s fervour and desperate desire to appear adept in the use of the English language.) The others were standard-issue, regular words or phrases one who, like me, grew up in this north and lives here, would have heard when there is an argument that teases our irascible core. I was described as a “sellout,” accused of collecting money to write my column. I was called “bigoted.” But the funniest, and also the most incendiary, came from someone who huffed and puffed and branded me an “apostate!” This person conveniently ignored the fact that nothing in my column challenged religion or the revered figure of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW).
The people who called me these names are my fellow northerners, they are Muslims, like me. None of them elaborated on what specifically in my column they found so offending. In fact, the only person who wrote a rejoinder that I know of was a non-Muslim journalist, George Onmonya Daniel, who accused me, quite contrary to what my fellow Muslim northerners are doing, of “placat[ing] extremist intolerant voices.” I have since addressed his issue on Twitter. And I will like to, like the other fighter in the dark, set the record straight before I am set upon.
When the great Senegalese poet, Birago Diop, wrote the lines that open this column, he meant that people should pay attention to the substance of what is being said, to listen, with our minds and not to be lost in the words that are used. Or our emotions for that matter.
A few people were hung up on the fact that I used the word “conservative” to describe the northern region. How they associated the term conservative with retrogressive is a leap I don’t quite follow and one I did not infer, but by all parameters, the general attitude in the north is conservative. And this is a social, not a religious classification. (It would help to look up the meaning of the word, for those in doubt). This orientation took root from the pre-Islamic feudal society that the north is and has subsisted until date.
The fundamental principle of being conservative entails an acquired belief that what one has, socially, culturally and otherwise, is inherently the best and whole unto itself, and, therefore, anything new, anything outside of what one knows, is first viewed with suspicion, and way too often, rejected with contempt. It happened with the introduction of western education, the impact of which we are still struggling with today. It is evident also in many of the problems plaguing this region, from the almajiri conundrum to the ci rani ideology to our attitudes to marriages that have seen divorce rates in the region soaring.
It is a fact of history that every innovative idea or system, at some point, becomes conservative. And even when the region embraced Islam in the 15th century, it required the jihad of Ibn Fodio in the early 19th century to displace the conservative practices of the people that were injected into the practice of Islam. Eventually, over time, this new system ushered in by the jihad, married with the old traditions, settled into the new conservative ideas that challenged the colonial conquest, that initially rejected western education, that in some parts still rejects or hold great contempt for this system. It is these ideas that have seen this north take more than the lion share of the 13 million out-of-school children in the country, and, according to recent data by the National Bureau of Statistics, more than a mammoth share of the country’s poverty index, the same ideas that have ensured our continued feudal subservience to systems and leaders who have ceased to serve us.
When I said if we used half the energy we have expended in tackling Rahama Sadau in raising concerns over some of these issues, some people considered it an affront. Again, I did not ask those who are intent on confronting Rahama Sadau’s dress—or insisting or blaming her for the misguided comments of one of her fans—not to. It is, after all, one’s prerogative how one expends his energy. I deliberately chose not to do this because a: it is not my place to judge her, b: by the time I wrote my column last week, she had already tendered an apology to those who felt offended and distanced herself from that person who denigrated the prophet (SAW). I suppose some people mistook my description of the two versions of Rahama Sadau we saw last week (the one in that dress and the one in the hijab) as some kind of endorsement. These are people who forget or are yet to grasp, the basic principle of Islamic jurisprudence that says recounting an act or saying, (especially for the purposes of teaching) does not equate to an endorsement (loosely translated in context).
But I think most of those who felt incensed by my column forget that when you point an accusing finger at someone, four other fingers are pointing right back at you or to paraphrase, as an Arab poet once wrote, if you have a tongue, people have tongues.
The truth here is bitter. This north has been far too tolerant of the excesses and neglect of its leaders and the systems that have held us back. If we have the energy to hound Rahama Sadau, it means we are not docile, we are just not raising our voices over the state of this region, over the persistent poverty and the killings, over the stagnant education and social development. We will do well to tell ourselves the truth instead of throwing insults are those who draw our attention to this.
One of these truths is that often, we are offended, not by what is said, but by our opinion of what is said. Our propensity, here in the north, to take offence easily, and to brand any argument we do not like or the bearer of this view as an apostate or bigot just so we can shut them up is inimical to our growth. Some of us, like that second fighter in the night, will not be silent when someone cries wolf to summon the lynch mob.