ABUJA – Muslim and Christian leaders in Nigeria are raising their voices for an off-court settlement to the dispute on wearing hijab at schools, amid warnings that the legal battle on the headscarf would further polarize Nigerians along religious lines.
“Although court pronouncement would give legal backing to whoever wins the case, truth is that such pronouncement may in the end not help the cause of peace and brotherly relations among Christians and Muslims,” Rt. Rev John Abraham, a Catholic father, told OnIslam.net.
“For that reason I implore all parties to go home and resolve the case out of court.”
Muslims have sued the government on allowing Muslim students to wear the hijab at schools.
Muslim leaders say that banning the headscarf violates the religious rights of Muslim students as spelt out in the Constitution.
In response, a local chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has requested the court to make it a defendant in the case.
“I implore all parties to go home and resolve the case out of court,” Father Abraham said.
“I believe that is the point the trial judge himself was trying to make when our Christian brothers approached the court to be joined in the suit.
“This is particularly needed as we are both members of slightly different Abrahamic faith. We are brothers and it is not ideal for brothers to drag themselves before the court over a matter like headscarf which is not forbidden even by Christianity.”
Islam sees hijab as an obligatory code of dress, not a religious symbol displaying one’s affiliations.
The Muslim outfit has been in the eye of storm since France banned it at public schools in 2004.
Since then, several countries have followed suit.
Religious leaders lamented the decision to take the issue of hijab to court.
“I’m scandalized at the idea of dragging ourselves to court,” Bishop Bolanle Gbonigi, a leading Christian leader in Nigeria, told OnIslam.net.
“I think the government should call all the parties, Muslims and Christians, together and resolve the issue amicably, possibly out of court.”
The bishop stressed that Muslims have the right to observe their religious duties.
“If our Muslim brethren feel they want their kids to don hijab, why not, as long as they do not force those who do not want to wear it to do so,” he said.
“Basically I think all these arguments only point to the need for the country to look again at its federalism and see whether it is the ideal one or not.”
Disu Kamor, the executive chairman of the Muslim Public Affairs Centre (MPAC), an influential Muslim think-tank, agrees.
“This is more so when neither faith condones women’s exposure of their body and hair,” he told OnIslam.net.
“It is my opinion that we can in good faith resolve this issue among ourselves without necessarily dragging ourselves before the court.”
Kamor stressed that hijab is a religious duty for Muslim women.
"Forcing an observant Muslim woman to take off her hijab is similar to a blouse ripped off in public,” he said.
“It is most important that everyone understands this. If it would be a crime for anyone to enforce nudity in terms of ripping up a blouse in the public, it should be equally considered criminal to rip off hijab from anyone's head.”
Sheikh Sharafudeen Najimudeen, a popular Sufi scholar, appealed to both Muslims and Christians to practice self-restraint.
“It is my firm belief that Muslims and Christians should sit down and resolve this issue without allowing it to degenerate into unnecessary tension,” he said.
“I would like our Christian brothers to ask themselves: what harm will hijab-wearing by Muslim female children do to the Christian faith? If they answer that question genuinely then we will all see the futility of dragging ourselves before any court. On this case we should be looking at alternative dispute resolution mechanism.”
Nigeria, one of the world's most religiously committed nations, is divided between a Muslim north and a Christian south.
Muslims and Christians, who constitute 55 and 40 percent of Nigeria's 140 million population respectively, have lived in peace for the most part.But ethnic and religious tensions have bubbled for years, fuelled by decades of resentment between indigenous groups, mostly Christian or animist, who are vying for control of fertile farmlands with migrants and settlers from the Hausa-speaking Muslim north.
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