INTERVIEW: Why Nigerian Shiites should be allowed to fully practise their faith — U.S. Envoy

U.S. President Barack Obama’s Special Representative to Muslim Communities, Shaarik Zafar, was in Nigeria recently as part of his maiden visit to sub-Saharan Africa to meet with government officials and civil society representatives on issues of promoting educational and economic opportunities and accountable governance. At the end of a workshop on anti-corruption tools for religious leaders, Mr. Zafar spoke exclusively with PREMIUM TIMES’ Bassey Udo and Sani Tukur on the role of religious leaders in combating corruption, promoting accountability, and encouraging transparency. Excerpts:

PT: You were in Kano for the workshop on corruption with religious leaders. How did it go?

Zafar: First, let me say it was terrific honour and privilege to visit Nigeria, both in Abuja and Kano in the north. I am the Special Representative to Muslim Communities. I report to President Obama and Secretary (John) Kerry. My job is to engage with Muslim communities around the world. A lot of the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world are here in Nigeria. You can’t be everywhere. You have to prioritize.

So, it’s obvious to anybody why one would want to be in Nigeria. It is an important country, with a large Muslim population, the largest economy in Africa. The visit to Kano was so interesting, because we saw a city that is over 1,000 years old, terrific history and tradition. I had the privilege of meeting His Highness, the Emir of Kano, Mohammed Sanusi II, as well as the state governor, Abdullahi Ganduje.

We had a range of very good conversations with religious leaders. The reason we were there was for a workshop on anti-corruption; engaging with religious leaders. U.S. is a secular government. But we are a very deeply religious country. Nigeria, obviously, is a very religious country. Religious leaders in both of our countries play pretty important roles in society.

This was an opportunity to engage them on the fight against corruption, which is something we identify with Nigeria. President (Muhammadu) Buhari has the kind of vision that is very important, and we want to play a supporting role on that. We also felt the religious leaders obviously have crucial roles to play.

So, it was a pretty successful workshop. They were very animated to participate in the workshop. I am sure from next month we will begin to see some progress.

PT: What were your takeaways from all these engagements?

Zafar: I think there is an enormous amount of pride in all of this. It’s a terrific country, and it’s understandable. There is a recognition of those challenges. It is not only the recognition of the challenge, but one they want to do something about.

For example, during the meeting, the religious leaders were not simply admiring the problem, or complaining about the problem of corruption. They rolled up their sleeves, men and women, most of them Christians, and decided to tackle the problem head on.

To me what that underscores is a willingness to improve the country for all Nigerians. That came away very clearly.

The tradition and history of the North was something that was terrific. I had the privilege to be in the Emir’s palace, the previous palace and other cultural locations; the very traditional home. That’s something I wish more Americans would have the opportunity to experience.

PT: On the willingness of the religious leaders to come together and work together to tackle the problem of corruption, how is the U.S. going to help in this regard?

Zafar: This is a Nigerian-led effort. The U.S. is not coming to help. Rather it is an effort where Nigerian Muslims have recognised the challenge of corruption. We have convened them. This is the second time. There was a previous workshop in the South, with the idea to establish the basic understanding about what is corruption.

How can they talk to their constituencies about the problem? Unless you are able to define the problem, you may not be able to solve it. The very first step is getting them to be able to explain to their constituents what the challenges are.

Our approach to partnering with and assisting Nigeria and other countries tackle corruption; the framework is very basic. The first is P – prevention.

We want to prevent a problem from taking place. That means helping financial institutions, banks, others have regular institutions in place to ensure monies are not diverted. We have a saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. But corruption does happen.

Then, you need to prosecute. That’s the second P. You need to send a message not only to the people that committed the crime, but others who could be considering doing the same thing.

Then the third P – pursue. We are working with Nigerians in getting money back that has been transferred to other countries. But, it’s a slow process. It could be very frustrating. But, we are very much committed.

Finally, we want to be a good partner, the last P. That means, while we want to encourage more American companies to invest in Nigeria, which is incredibly important, we will also make sure they are not paying bribe and complying with a foreign practices in business.

Those are the four Ps. But, the most important P is people. That is kind of in the heart of our workshop. I believe they will be able to engage their constituents on the current issues and empower them to ask questions to their governments.

People or citizens in any country; your country, my country, should feel comfortable to reach out to government and ask them about the budget. How much of the budget is going to health? How much money is going into social services?

They should feel empowered to ask questions to such a level that the government feels compelled to respond. On that front, I think this workshop is going to make the difference on people. I am optimistic that it will. This is not going to be issue. This is something we should see as a challenge.

But, let me tell you what is at stake. PriceWaterCoopers released a report recently. This is not U.S. government. This is one of the most prestigious important consultancy firms in the world. They said in that study that if Nigeria’s level of corruption can reduce to the level of Malaysia’s (we are not talking about eliminating corruption), it would add $500 billion to Nigeria’s gross domestic products (GDP) by 2030.

What do you think about that? How many hospitals can be built? How many children can be vaccinated? How many kids can be educated? How many kilometres of roads can be built? That’s what is at stake.

So, I am also realistic. This is going to take time. There is no silver bullet. This is not the only engagement with religious leaders. This is one of a number of approaches. We think it’s an important one. That’s why we are supporting it.

PT: Nigeria is a secular state like the United States. How does the U.S. deal with issues of its federalism and religion?

Zafar: I am not familiar with issues of federalism. I know much of the powers are with the state governments. But, the states are very independent. The question is not who controls the power between federal and state governments? Rather it is: what’s the proper roles for federal and state governments?

Each country is going to make its own decision on what they want. The U.S. system works for the Americans. I believe the Nigerian system will work for Nigeria.

America is deeply religious country, but under a secular government. Many of the founders of our country faced religious persecutions. We found that the best way to protect religion is not to leave it with government.

So, in U.S., when you leave the house, your religion comes with you. So, you have the full right to practice your religion. I work in the seventh Floor of State Department where Secretary Kerry is. Every Friday, I and all those who want to pray can walk down four, five, six stairs to pray.

So, religious freedom in many respects are first freedoms. So, if a state government or state institution is preventing the practice of religion, the job of the federal government is there to protect it. I am not asking because of the situation in the North. I don’t believe religious freedom in federalism are inconsistent. It’s possible to have a federal structure that fully appreciates a people who are given the freedom of choice to worship as they think.

PT: The challenge of cyber extremism is huge. It has not really come to Nigeria. But, the threat is real. May be the right time is now to prevent our youth from being indoctrinated in extremism through cyber networks.

Zafar: The reason extremists use social media, like the internet, is very simple. First, they are arousing a lot of people very easily. The sites are very stable, meaning they don’t crash. Even those based in places like Russia, are still relatively stable. But, also what they are allowed to do is that they use the sites young people are using.

In most cases, you will think they are dash. Most of their materials are in Arabic and Russian languages. But, they are recruiting in Hindi, English and other languages. They are trying to recruit young people using the internet. There is much we can do about that.

First, empower parents. Just as sexual predators, pedophiles recruit young people online. You don’t blame the community and parents. You try to inform the parents on what is happening. We need an honest conversation with another expert on that phenomenon here in Nigeria. We need to be mindful what we tell religious leaders and parents about what is happening, by sharing information.

We need to look at ways to counter that narrative. Government still has credibility to represent the Muslim communities. What I have to say about Islam as a religion as a government official is absolutely irrelevant. What we need to do is to empower religious leaders and other people who are credible to go online.

Oftentimes, how do religious leaders communicate? It’s through sermon. As extremists, they realise that the attention span of the people is shrinking. As young people, they are not going to pay attention to an hour-long sermon. That’s why they communicate through short videos.

And so what we need to get are those people who have the credibility and have stories to tell. Nigerian Muslims have stories to tell. Sometimes we need help to tell your stories.

Beyond countering them, we have to perform alternative positive thinking. Young people who have been frustrated, or living in poverty, or do not have the opportunity to leave Nigeria to either Syria or Iraq. What these extremists do is to offer a false mission. It is completely false, because it is a myth.

We need to inform, empower parents and others. We need to help counter by proactively investing in the positive. If we do that, then we can preventive.

PT: The leader of the Shiite Movement in Nigeria, El-Zakzaky, has been in detention for months now on the orders of the government. During your meetings with government officials and leaders in the Northern part of the country, did you have the opportunity of talking to them about the issue?

Zafar: Yes, we raised the issue. In U.S., we believe freedom of religion is paramount and the people should be able to fully practice and organise their religion as a matter of human rights. I made that very clear.

PT: What did the government say?

Zafar: I am not going to speak for them. That’s not my job. But, we had an honest and candid conversation. They asked me: “What is the perception of American Muslims of Shiites’?” What I told them was that the U.S. has perhaps the most diverse Muslim community anywhere in the world.

A third of them are African-American Muslims – Malcom X, Muhammad Ali, truly great Americans and great Muslims who just passed away recently.

When you have Shiites, Sunni, Sufi, and people like me from Pakistan, South Asia, Iranians and others, this is incredibly diverse community. Everybody is Muslim at the end of the day. That, to me, is something that is a strength.

Just take a step beyond these Muslims. U.S. has race, ethnicity, religion, nationality as part of our citizenry. This is a national asset. That makes our country stronger. If you look at the number of start-ups in the Silicon Valley, something like 34 per cent come from people who are living in the background. This is the strength economically, socially and politically.

The same is true for Nigeria. Nigeria has an incredible amount of diversity. Over 370 something languages of different ethnic groups. The fact that Nigeria exists is a testimony to the strength of the Nigerian people. It’s not easy. But, people get along. That diversity is something that is great about Nigeria.

So, whether you are Shia, Sunni or Sufi or Christian; whether you are Catholic, Anglican or Pentecostal, you should have freedom of worship.

PT: Recently, Secretary Kerry was here to meet with the Muslim community. Now, you are here for the same purpose. Why is the U.S. government interested in Nigeria?

Zafar: This is a very easy question. It’s not only Muslim communities, but on Nigeria. This country is incredibly important to the U.S. relations. It is the largest economy in Africa. It has the largest population in Africa. It has so much potential. It is incredibly important as security and economic partner.
President Obama had a very important meeting with President Buhari when he visited the U.S. for the UN meeting.

Then, Secretary Kerry came. Now, I have the opportunity to meet with the Emir. But, I was also meeting with Christian leaders as well. Apart from the Bishop of Kano, I also met with the Christian leaders.

Let’s be honest, one thing the U.S. is concerned about is the troops operating in the North East. Terrorism is a shared challenge.

The reason we are engaging is that we have a shared interest in tackling this problem. But, we are engaging religious communities, including Muslim communities, not because they are a problem, but because they represent so many opportunities.

PT: Talk more about the opportunities.

Zafar: May be the opportunity to fight corruption, which is incredibly important. When you think of the role religious leaders play in anti-corruption, promoting health, vaccination, development, education, religious leaders, including Muslim religious leaders, have a big role to play.

This is not a silver bullet. This is an important strategy in the U.S. programme to address the challenge. But, when Secretary Kerry visited, a meeting was held with religious leaders in the South, including Christians, and southern legislators immediately after the Secretary’s trip to the North.

So, it’s not meeting one religious group over another, but looking at the country’s problem and the best way to tackle it. We are very sensitive about these issues.

This is our second workshop on fighting corruption. The first one we did was actually in the South, and because it was successful in the South, we decided to do it in the North. So, it is important to let the people know this is something that is in their interest, because this is too important a country to focus on one religion over another. It has nothing to do with Nigeria’s domestic politics.

PT: In your meetings with the religious leaders, what were your takeaways about the situation in Nigeria?

Zafar: There was no separate conversation between Christians and Muslims. We had one conversation. And I had only one takeaway, which is that the many men and women in that room, whether Muslims or Christians, were very committed to tackling corruption. There was no difference between the Christians and Muslims. They were all Nigerians united to fight against a common enemy. They realised there is a problem they must do something about.

PT: During your meeting with government officials, could you share with us your recommendation on how the El Zakzaky and Shiites crisis could be resolved?

Zafar: This is a Nigerian issue that can be solved through a Nigerian solution. My view is that you can have freedom of religion and freedom of association and also have the rule of law and security. They are not distinct.

The U.S. has such a multiplicity of faith, including Shiites, like in other countries, with incredible diversities. We should not always, on the basis of security, prevent people from practicing the very basic and fundamental right to religion. As a first principle, I think it is not only possible, I think it is the right thing to do.


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