It is with deep sadness that I read the news of the trouble that has erupted in Mbagala. Pictures (some here and here) show a disturbing break down in religious relations between Tanzanians who submit to Allah and his prophet, Muhammad through the words of the Qur’an and those that also submit to the will of the same Allah and somewhat differently, the teachings of Jesus Christ through the Gospel.
Now, to recap what is going I will recount the story as I have read about it from various sources (A good summary can be found here). Boys being boys play various games together. On this unfortunate occasion, the games had widespread consequences beyond just the game itself, and its players. A fourteen-year old boy named Emmanuel Josephat, urinated on the Qur’an. The other boy duly reported the matter to his parents, who were rightly appalled by the news. The issue became a social-wide issue when churches were attacked, burnt, and in general, vandalized. The reason Emmanuel urinated on the sacred book is because he was engaged in a debate with the other boy on whether desecrating the Qu’ran would bring calamity to him, i.e. Emmanuel. In particular, Emmanuel was skeptical that desecration by urination of the sacred book would lead to his insanity. He proceeded to test whether or not this would result. Now, some sources claim the Muslim boy dared Emmanuel to urinate on the sacred book, should he want to become insane. This, however, is irrelevant to the day’s events.
In discussing this issue, I will focus on three things. The first being, every Tanzanian’s right to be free of conscience, belief or faith, as provided under the Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania. I will also argue that this sacred contract that provides for the conduct of our Union, also protects Emmanuel from harm by the mob; the protection of private and private property, which in this case would include private and public vehicles, church property, and other private property damaged or destroyed because of this unfortunate incident. Further still, this same Constitution motivates my discussion as to the civil duties that we all have by the very virtue of being citizens of this great Union that should drive people to act in accordance with not only human dignity but also legal jurisprudence. I will refer collectively to these points as my legal argument. Secondly, I will speculate in general about the source of the discord between Muslims and Christians that compelled Emmanuel and his colleagues to engage in such misguided pastime. And finally, I will discuss possible ways that we can move forward with a national discourse on religion and how we can avoid such escalation of violence from such unfortunate incidents.
Let me begin by saying that I do not condone nor support Emmanuel’s actions of urinating on the Qu’ran. However, I no more support Emmanuel’s actions than I support the actions of the mob that is calling for the police to surrender Emmanuel over to them so that they may kill him. Yes. That was not a typo. I repeat: the mob has requested the police to surrender Emmanuel over to them, so that they may kill him. Now, I did not support the Egyptian-American idiot‘s vulgar movie that not only depicted the Prophet Muhammad, but did it in the most distasteful manner imaginable. In that occasion, and in this one, however, I do not support violent reactions to such desecration of one’s religion. Like the American Constitution, ours also provides for the protection of one’s right to be free to express their opinions, and their conscience, belief or faith. Articles 14 and 19 of our Constitution provide for every Tanzanian’s right to life and right to religion, respectively. The former provides young Emmanuel protection by the State and the latter protects his act of urination (although arguably his act does not translate to his practice of his religion, because Christianity certainly does not prescribe urinating on any book, let alone the Qu’ran). The provision of these rights, however, does not excuse him for his actions. Any discourse that the State is somehow favoring Christians by protecting Emmanuel from certain death at the hands of the angry mob is simply not true. It is in the contract that drives the organization of our society. In fact, Article 29 stipulates that the right to State protection will be provided equally, irrespective of one’s lineage, tradition or descent. A suitable amendment would explicitly include, irrespective of their religion, however, this is certainly implicit in the Article itself and does suffice.
Article 24 provides for the right to protection of one’s private property and grants the right, indeed outlines the procedure for legal action should one’s property be damaged, destroyed, or appropriated. This would provide for protection of the property of the Lutheran Church or KKKT, the Tanzania Assemblies of God or TAG, and the Anglican Church that were damaged or destroyed by the mob violence. Other property destroyed including public police vehicles, private vehicles, and homes, among other property are all protected by our Constitution. The State is thus compelled to act towards protecting further damage or destruction of said property, and should the property holders seek litigation in the courts in compensation, the State is also compelled to hear and judge these claims, through legal due process. The State cannot be seen as favoring Christian churches if they were to administer what the Constitution compels it to do. Any discussion to the contrary is factually false and not going to be productive towards more amiable relations between the two religious groups at best, and is dangerous at worst.
What is even more restrictive in this situation is laid out in the section in the Constitution that talks about our duties as citizens. Article 26 of our Constitution explicitly asks each and every Tanzanian to observe and to abide by [the] Constitution and the laws of the United Republic [of Tanzania]. This somber fact cedes responsibility for the mob violence to each and every member of that mob that was engaged in violent and criminal activity. Emmanuel’s actions do not absolve these individuals from their failures to adhere to the laws of the land, and the State should uphold the Constitution by protecting Emmanuel’s life, private as well as public property, apprehension and prosecution of those guilty of violence and vandalism, irrespective of the actors involved. If the State were to fail to do either one of these things, they would be failing the Constitution and the organization of our society would unravel. Okay, maybe am being too melodramatic with that last statement, but you get my point.
Now unto my second and third points about the source of this incident and ways to move ahead as a nation. First of all, I would like to commend both boys involved in this incident. The fact that these boys who are just at the genesis of their teenage years would be involved in theological discussions is something very commendable. It reflects their very mature intellect and their complex interests simply beyond the trivial things that fourteen-year old boys do. At their age, you would have probably found me playing soccer, or watching Bollywood movies, or worst still playing Super Mario on my generic game station, euphemistically called family game station. I certainly would not have been engaged in discourse with my colleagues about the inviolability of the Qu’ran or the timelessness of the Vedas for that matter. The fact that Emmanuel and colleagues were even discussing theological matters that are complex even for learned Theologians is testament to their intellects, their interests for religion, and indeed their pious convictions as to the veracity of their different religious dogmas. We should at the very least consider this fact a positive from this largely negative situation.
However laudable this fact is though, it is indeed the source of the problem. These issues are far too complex and venerable for anyone, let alone fourteen-year old boys. It all boils down to their parents or guardians. Emmanuel’s parents should have intimated to him the virtues of his faith, and by all means propagated that faith through him, but they should have also taught him other faiths. Emmanuel should have been exposed to the general ideas and teachings that his Muslim colleagues are exposed to. For only then, would Emmanuel have known that in Islam, it is sacrilegious to desecrate the Qu’ran, among other things. But this reasoning is symmetric. Emmanuel’s Muslim colleague should also have been exposed to Christian teachings, among other religious teachings. For only then, would he have known not to have dared (if at all, he did so) Emmanuel to urinate on the sacred book. He would have known that Emmanuel’s religion teaches him that the true path is through Jesus Christ, and that as long as he professed his allegiance to that, he was immune to any harm. So for Emmanuel, the dare was an easy one, while for his Muslim friend, it was unimaginable. Both should have realized the fatality of their provocation.
That brings me to my third and final point. As a nation, religious discourse needs to be encouraged. Children need to be aware not only of their own religions but that of others. Condemnation of each other’s religious actions are born out of ignorance of each other’s religions. I do not support the unilateral religious education that solely educates the child on Islam, or on Christianity, but I understand and tolerate their existence and I celebrate the protection the State provides for their right to exist. My personal convictions, religious, philosophical or otherwise, do not detract for my respect for their beliefs and my avid support for their right to exist, stipulated under our Constitution. I cannot emphasize the importance to the reader of this point, but I digress. These Islamic schools as well as Christian schools should strive to teach their students of the other’s religion. This juxtaposition does not weaken one’s conviction as to the correctness of their own faith, indeed it could (and might) strengthen one’s religious convictions. In learning about the other religions, one is more able to frame, understand and appreciate one’s own faith. However, the State should not sanction the religious education of our children. Our Constitution, rightfully, bars it from doing so.
Political leaders of all faiths should encourage peaceful religious discourse, but not legislate it or authorize it in any way, because this is not their domain. The President, especially given his Muslim faith, should on this occasion use the prestige of his office to engage both Christian and Muslim religious leaders in motivating this discourse (I do not know yet whether he has already said something either for or against the mob action, but I imagine as an official sworn to defend the Constitution, he would do nothing but condemn violent action). I forget the source of the quote that eschews the point that the minute we all stop talking with each other is the minute we start killing each other (I think this quote comes from a movie, perhaps of a war movie where there was a need for negotiation. I tried Googling it to find the exact source but could not find it, so if it rings a bell to anyone, please cite the source in the comments section below, but I digress…). We should not stop talking.
In the end though it all boils down to each and every one of us to uphold the relative peace that Tanzania enjoys and prides itself for. Emmanuel Josephat has made a mistake. He has not, however, committed a crime. Certainly not one that would warrant his execution. But ultimately, it is his parents, the parents of Emmanuel’s Muslim friend, other parents, religious leaders, community leaders, political leaders and all Tanzanians in general that have failed Emmanuel, and many others like him across this great land.
Many of my Muslim friends have argued that Muslim children would never dare desecrate the Bible the way Emmanuel desecrated the Qu’ran. I agree with them 100%. Islam teaches us that the book is sacred and should not be desecrated in any way. Islam teaches us that the Prophet Muhammad should not be depicted, nor should Allah. I remind my Muslim brothers and sisters though that burning and destroying churches also desecrates what is sacred to Christians. Impulses for revenge do not negate this fundamental principle so passionately and rightfully so, protected under Islam. Further still, Islam regards Christians, along with Jews and Sabians as Ahl-Al -Kitab or People of the Book. As such, Islam accords Christians tolerance and autonomy even in societies governed under sharia law.
So for me, the destruction of property and the call for Emmanuel’s death goes against not only the Islamic principle of the reverence accorded to the Qu’ran, Allah, and the Prophet, but also Islam’s amiable relationship to Christianity. Now, of course, admittedly, Christianity does not respond in kind to this preferential treatment. And Christians should acknowledge this partiality. But Muslim brothers and sisters should feel vindicated that their religion’s view of Christians is even more amiable than Christianity’s view of theirs. They should shame their Christian brothers into realizing this fact. It should not be a source of violence against Christianity. Emmanuel’s unfortunate act should not be excused, but it should also not be an opportunity for Muslims to forget their tolerant view of Christians. I find this view to be superior to the alternative view that Christianity holds — which is to reject even the slightest divinity of Muhammad, utility of Islamic teachings, and indeed amiable relations with Islam.
We have all made mistakes in our lives. And we will continue to make mistakes so long as we shall live on this wonderful planet. Although Alexander Pope reminds us that to err is human; to forgive, divine we need not forgive Emmanuel for his err, but let us not execute him for it. Let us not let Emmanuel’s mistake be his last. Let us not forget that irrespective of our religions, we all respect human life and celebrate our shared wonderful nationality. We forget that our Constitution‘s protection of one’s right to freely express themselves allows both sides to express themselves. Many times when I engage in a discussion with an idiot Tanzanian who will claim falsities about some religion, I respect, in fact I revere his right to freely express that opinion, however false it might be, but I also freely express my rebuttal. That is the beauty of living in a country where that right is protected under law. Let us fight bigotry, misguided rhetoric, violent expression with open-minded discourse, balanced rhetoric, and peaceful and loving expression.
It is a damp and frigid evening in northern California where I write this from, and I realize that it is in the late hours of the night (early morning hours if you are strict on semantics) in Dar es Salaam, and so I hope, in fact I pray that Mbagala, and the rest of the Tanzanian nation sleeps peacefully. And that the morning will bring even more tranquility. And constructive, but peaceful discourse on religion, among other things Tanzanian. May God continue to bless Tanzania, its people and its hopes, and to paraphrase the late Rodney King, can we all just get along.