How Nigerian university uses social media to fight religious extremism

Students at the American University, Yola, have developed social media strategies to help drive the campaign against religious intolerance in Nigeria.

The initiative, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and Facebook, includes an #IAMaBeliever, aimed at fostering peaceful co-existence among people of diverse religious beliefs, and Beliepedia, a web application that uploads verses from the Quran and the Bible to see what they say on a particular topic.

“Many of the extremist views rise from religious texts and these religious beliefs are very deeply held by Nigerians. Nigerians are very religious people and it is based on these religious beliefs that people derive their extremist views,” says Zamiyat Abubakar, a student at the university and one of the drivers of the campaign.

“We saw that to counter those views by countering those beliefs will be impossible and will be met with some aggression because people are very personal about religion. So we decided to go another way, to instead show people that they are more than just their beliefs.”

For decades, adherents of Nigeria’s two major religions – Islam and Christianity – have frequently engaged each other in clashes that had created a chasm between the two faiths.

More than 15,700 people have been killed in inter-communal, political, and sectarian violence since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999, according to the Human Rights Watch.

In Kaduna State, for instance, a sectarian violence in 2000 killed at least 2,000 people, a clash sparked by Christian youth protesting the proposed introduction of Sharia law in the state.

In 2004, a sectarian violence caused by Muslim youth protesting the Miss World beauty contest billed to hold in Nigeria left about 250 people dead.

Ms. Abubakar says the #IAmABeliever campaign aims to tell people they are more than their beliefs.

“If you are a believer of whoever or whatever you choose to believe, if you are a believer in Christianity or Islam, you are also a friend, you are also someone’s mother, someone’s neighbour, you are also a teacher you are also a brother, you are several different things. All these different parts make up your identity.

“So another part of our campaign is to encourage people to honour and respect the beliefs of others same way they honour and respect their own. Basically helping people understand that everybody has different beliefs. But there is no reason for you to not be able to honour and respect those beliefs even though you might not understand them.”

To garner widespread appeal for both anti-extremism strategies among members of both faiths in Adamawa State, north-east Nigeria, the students sought out the endorsements of two leading religious leaders in the state – Stephen Mamza, the Catholic Bishop of Yola Diocese and Dauda Bello, a respected Imam in Yola.

Jacob Jacob, a lecturer at AUN, says in addition to serving as advisers to the campaign, the two religious leaders also vet the contents of the Beliepedia before they are published.

“We cannot ignore the religious leaders here because they are incredibly powerful,” says Mr. Jacob, the Dean of School of Arts and Sciences at AUN.

“As a matter of fact, the questionnaires we distributed we asked the people ‘what would it take for you to change your opinion?’ Most people said it will take a religious leader for them to change their opinion on this and this.”

Mr. Jacob said the Beliepedia is a tool created to enhance interaction and conversation between the Quran and the Bible.

“Essentially, for us, our intention is not so much to change religious beliefs, our intention really is to create a space for both religions to co-exist,” he said.

“And for people to look at themselves away from their beliefs, to see beliefs as distinct from their own identities. I’m a believer in Allah, in God, in anything you believe, but you are also a human being, a dad… basically the intention is to create space around your belief so that people can say their identities are different from their religious beliefs.”

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