I found Epicurus very late in my belated acquaintance with philosophy. I did not receive formal training in the discipline but nothing has been more impactful on my intellectual being. Epicurean philosophy teaches that pleasure is the highest good, and pain the greatest evil. This teaching, according to the British philosopher A.C. Grayling is “epitomiSed in the injunction to pursue the former and avoid the latter”.
Ironically, even as I set out to make a case for Mohammadan faith, Epicurus – a man whose belief in the existence of God is unclear – draws no challenge from the venerable prophet of Islam on who is my lord. I have hardly any disagreement with the latter. Influenced by Epicurus, I live by my own maxim that: humans are robbed of the peacefulness of non-existence and forced into sentience. Therefore, on issues that deny pleasure, peace and comfort to people, let us oppose with vehemence, and aggressively.
Religions of different persuasions attempt a contrarian view of this position. They purport that there is something mightier than ourselves. That we are not here by chance. That our agonies may pay off when we are no more. If you suspended critique for a moment, and accepted this view for a second, it would follow that you ask: how then could we still make one another happy here while we wait? The answer is in Mark 12:31. But even if you deem others lost, let Romans 14:1-4 be your guide. These appear lost on the Christian elite and its masses in Ghana, a former colony of British imperialism, a black nation and long-standing victim of racism.
This intersectional experience of oppression makes Ghana a model of all that is wrong about a tyrannical and intolerant majority of any creed. And so when we assert ourselves as Ghana, in the beautiful paradox of secularity and interfaith harmony, we must ensure that it is not merely rhetorical. We should see to it that it is manifestly true.
Recent developments from Wesley Girls’ Senior High School involving a young Muslim woman denied her right to practise a part of her faith (fasting in Ramadan), coupled with the series of harrowing accounts of Islamophobic policies, have attracted attention in public debates. For the record, the school insists that the “no fasting” policy is faith-blind.
They say it is applicable to all their students and primarily instituted on health grounds. As to the several accounts of a ban on Islamic prayer and articles of prayer (tasbih, even butta) while in the school, the response has been a deafening silence. The Methodist Church that partly manages the school is joined by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference and the Christian Council in this blatant abuse of rights. The logic goes like this: “Our decision to deny Muslims a basic religious right is not a religious one. It is medical. We are not medical experts. In fact, we are not objected to fasting in principle because it is a practice encouraged in Christianity too. We just would like to say that as a church, we don’t like that others would come here and practice their faith so casually. So we reject it on health grounds. Nothing personal”.
Our pride in interfaith tolerance and mutual respect is a façade. A façade built on the quietude and compromises of religious minorities – in this case I speak for Muslims as I am one. If we would take time to reflect, and to complain about all of it, we would have enough evidence that not only rubbish the falsehood of interfaith tolerance but also ground, without doubt, a tyranny of the Christian majority in Ghana. Do not lose me. This is not about you. This is about the broader social system, a coagulation of the daily experiences and interactions of both the good and bad, the tolerant and those not. The American Sociologist C. Wright Mills calls it sociological imagination. It is what this is.
In peeling the veneer of bigotry and contempt that pervades Christian majority ranks, join me on an ethnographic tour of the life of a Muslim in Ghana. I hope that it gives you a perspective you are not privy to.
My parents are Muslims. My mom, previously Christian. My extended family is split in two; maternally Christian and paternally Muslim. Catholic, Pentecost, and the Mosama Disco Christo Church, are places I have visited or more accurately fellowshipped with one family member or the other before. I am also Asante. I am Moshi. I am many more things. I appreciate what diversity is like because I live it.
Growing up Muslim in Ghana is pretty one-way for many of us. The best amenities; schools and social centres, even secular ones are often owned, controlled or managed by Christians. It is only reasonable that Christian values and ethos would define these institutions. For many of us, our only true contact with Islamic systems are at home, at the mosque, the “weekend only” Madrassas or Makaranta, and then Zongos broadly. We are therefore integrated into dominant Christian or non-Muslim culture very early in life. I started life in a school owned and run by a Jehovah’s Witness. I moved to Oxford International founded on strong Christian principles, then to Konongo Odumasi Senior High School that was no missionary’s yet Christian to the core, and then to the University of Ghana where you could be harassed by any random evangelist in your room or elsewhere with the word of God. I learned the Lord’s Prayer before I could recite Surattul Fathia. This is why Muslims survive in the hyper-Christian environment. We are assimilated early. Christianity is ubiquitous. The experience is beautiful.
I found out the hard way that being Muslim was truly different when I went to the boarding house. I had never had to do my spiritual aerobics (Salat) in an open, non-Muslim or Zongo setting before. For many of my Christian classmates, they had never seen through the walls of a mosque and so they had a lot of funny ideas as to what went on in there. When my classmates saw me stand on the little piece of concrete in the open surrounded by stones in front of House 4 because I had nothing like a mosque to pray in, they crowded themselves by the windows to watch me with tourist mystery and curiosity. It was awkward and difficult. It felt naked praying. But they were just curious and meant no harm. There are many of you who are completely ignorant of what it is like to be Muslim and would run in Jesus’ from an invitation to the mosque even if to simply observe. I do not discount the many who also make genuine requests to try. I guess what I am saying is that, for many, the children of God simply have no business there. And so their knowledge, worldview, scope of Muslim religiosity are barely grander than the penises of ancient Greek men.
When I read veteran journalist Kweku-Sakyi Addo's recollection of events in his days at Achimota School on the issue of religious intolerance in our public schools and the sheer Islamophobic policies of Wesley Girls School, I remembered a similar thing from my basic school in Konongo. Some of the teachers who knew about and respected Islamic practices around Ramadan, refrained from caning us (Muslims) when we fasted. The belief is that — I still don't know fully, the raison d'etre — tears end your fast. In essence, avoid it. It is the same with blood I believe. I suppose, to my secular mind, that you are simply required to be in good spirits free from emotional burdens and pain. Mr Asamoah, a Christian, accorded us this privilege with grace and devotion. This is what respect looks like.
It would appear that all the lovey-dovey posturing between Christian elites and the National Chief Imam seemingly anchored on tolerance and religious diversity in Ghana is merely performative. They are quick to point to the National Chief Imam's grace and respectability and invite him to church, rightly, for photo-ops, celebrate his birthday with pomp and then turn around to exhibit contempt for his faith. It is quite often insinuated that if Muslims could not oblige the repressive and Islamophobic policies of so-called missionary schools like; ban on Islamic prayers, prohibition of the Quran, forceful attendance and participation in Christian church services, etc., they should find Muslim schools to attend – whatever that means. This rather absurd view exposes the degree of intolerance to the extent that it endorses education-apartheid. It ignores the power dynamics between the religious population in Ghana and the disproportionality in number and quality of schools as though it were self-imposed. Worse, it glosses over state investment in the so-called missionary schools and just almost every other community school from our collective taxes. Even more ironic is the passionate appropriation of “legacies” of colonialism and European religious imperialism and the subsequent otherising of religious minorities for the reason that other early evangelicals did not plunder to build schools of their own. If anything at all, we can all lay claim to the so-called missionary schools because they are proceeds of the unjust acquisition of resources by religious imperialists, done on the back of the collective sweat of our forebears. But we are not going to ridicule ourselves any further than we already have with maintaining a pedagogy of religious fanatism and colonial thought. We would do better to channel that energy into decolonising and repurposing these institutions.
Of course, one cannot overlook the fact that all religions are similar in their contempt for one another. The underlying ethos of evangelism betrays any commitment to tolerance. In many parts of the world, Islam still contends with the barbarism of anti-apostasy laws. All religions like to, as they call it, "win souls", except that some Christians in Ghana have an unusually condescending and forceful way they go about it. Sometimes, it is totally disrespectful. We are bombarded in public transport, schools and everywhere possible [including mosque enclaves — I say this with experience] about how all others [and sometimes they boldly mention Muslims] are doomed for hell if they didn't accept Christ as lord. Muslims may be guilty of this too, but I speak of my experiences in a largely Christian society that often gaslights this reality.
Several times, I have been approached by preachers, and many times in the University of Ghana, who either invite me to church service or simply ask me to give my life to Christ. On each occasion, I have exercised decorum to simply decline by saying: "Oh, I'm Muslim and I'm not interested". But almost all the time, they retorted; "Oh, it doesn't matter!" When I asked them if they would take up a similar request to join me in the mosque or convert to Islam, they found it strange. They always never expected that because how dare I? why would anyone leave Christianity for something like that? Evangelism or "soul-winning" is core to Christianity. Islam has its versions, too. But I could swear on my life that it wouldn't end well in a Troski if I stood up one day with my Qur’an and shouted, "Shall we all recite Suratul Fathia as I share the word of Allah with you sinful, lost Christians". This is the crux of the matter. Stop being obtuse and dishonest about it.
Simply on the account of population dynamics, Ghana is predominantly Christian and that is okay. However, the manifestation of this identity, when it happens at the expense and suppression of minority groups, erodes our credentials as mutually respectful and tolerant people. The onus lies on the majority to introspect deeply and recognise the humanity of others and treat them with respect and dignity.
Elsewhere, religious extremism and intransigence is an unfortunate label Muslims carry alone. However, in Ghana, Christian elites are running home and dry with the baton. It comes as no surprise therefore that Wesley Girls backed by the Methodist Church, Catholic Bishops Conference and Christian Council, defied the directive by the Ghana Education Service with such disdain. They know too well how to weaponise their numbers against a political elite whose convictions and principles hardly go beyond electoral considerations. And so just like the Achimota School blatantly disregarded the orders of the regulatory institution on the Rastafari student saga, they too have, knowing there shall be no dreadful consequences. This is what majoritarian impunity looks like. After all was it not only recently, in 2019, that the Ghana Health Service directed that Muslim nurses be allowed to wear their veil (hijab) at work. Catholic nuns had been doing that freely for years. The blatant disregard for religious rights protected under our constitution is only made possible by the creeping culture of extremism of the majority. We owe a duty to resist it.
“We would have no reason to find fault with religious intemperance – apologies to Epicurus – if the things that produce their pleasures were able to drive away their fears about death, and pain, and to teach the limits of their desires” [to oppress – emphasis mine].
Besides, as I noted in a May 3rd 2019 post on Facebook [when]: “a Christian brother took the Shahada to become a Muslim. [I] worked out the maths and it turned out that all things being equal, [a] heaven had gained a soul from hell and [a] heaven had lost a soul to hell”.
Is this the logic you want to get behind to deny others happiness? What would Epicurus do? Or maybe Jesus. Ask yourself.
The writer, Abul Karim Ibrahim is a radio producer and presenter on Class91.3 FM.