Pantami and the Charge of Extremism, By Mohammed Dahiru Aminu

I read some of the recent commentaries in the social media that describes Nigeria’s Communications and Digital Economy Minister, Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, as an extremist who is in support of terrorism, judging from his past utterances as an Islamic cleric and preacher of several decades. In truth, Muslims around the world, and many in Nigeria, including those in the North and South, held controversial and divisive views like Pantami’s, especially in the early 2000s.

In higher institutions of learning across Nigeria, there were many members of the Muslim Students’ Society of Nigeria (MSSN) who subscribed to those views. Even local Imams in various mosques around the country held those views, which they voiced out publicly from the pulpit. Those resentments were out of the overall anti-Bush, anti-invasion, and anti-America sentiments that prevailed at the time.

Even some non-Muslims, and academic scholars, held views that appeared to be sympathetic to Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Many Islamic scholars thought they were truly fighting for Islam against its enemies. With the Iraq and Libya invasions, anti-America sentiments were pervasive in Nigeria and many parts of the Muslim world.

Today, many Muslim scholars and everyday Muslims in Nigeria have evolved and reviewed their positions, especially in view of the evils perpetrated by Boko Haram. This is possibly why Pantami campaigned against the Boko Haram ideology in his subsequent sermons. While it can be legitimate to hold Pantami for views expressed nearly two decades ago, it is only fair to also consider more recent views like his debate with the Boko Haram leader, Muhammad Yusuf, and other lectures in the past few years in which he condemned extremism to the extent that he became a prime target of Boko Haram, as declared by its present leader, Abubakar Shekau.

These days, many Muslim scholars in Nigeria might even be of the view that America is more accommodating of Islam and Muslims than say, its competitor, China, as more recent events would suggest. But unlike Pantami, the trick here is that others who held those views at the time and have now revised them may be fortunate to go scot-free because the views of the early 2000s were not all publicly documented, as they would be today.

Yet, for those advocates of controversial and divisive views who are today consequential, like Pantami, it does not matter to cynics that there is evidence that Pantami no longer holds those views. If he held those views, he would have been barred from the United Kingdom, especially as he was the Chief Imam of the Robert Gordon University mosque at the time he was studying for a doctoral degree, which he completed in 2014. Pantami also delivered sermons in several city mosques and was a discernable and strident voice in conferences organised by the Nigerian Muslim Forum of the United Kingdom (NMFUK).

I attended the NMFUK conference of December 2012, which was held in Leicester, with the theme, “Poverty Alleviation and Good Governance as Tools for Conflict Resolution.” At that conference, several speakers put forward brilliant ideas for improving the livelihoods of Nigeria’s poor and Pantami discussed extensively on the need for Nigeria to bring forth strong institutions that promote justice, equity, and fairness for all citizens. He reiterated the fact that although the world’s great religions, such as Islam and Christianity, promote justice and equity and encourage leaders across all spheres of the society to be just and equitable toward their subjects, however the belief in and worship of God, on its own, alone, without recognising and inculcating the interest of justice within our devotions, would not yield a just society. Taking instances of Nigeria and the U.K., Pantami compared the religiosity of the two countries vis-à-vis the subsistence of justice.

What is more? Earning a doctorate in the West would undeniably have broadened Pantami’s mind and moderated his views. Once more, the popular Pantami-Yusuf debate, where the former continuously pointed out the misguidance of the latter is considerable proof of a moderated view, especially as it happened before Yusuf went out of hand in 2009, by transforming his sect into a murderous one. Due to how much of a problem Pantami became for Boko Haram, his blood was declared ‘halal’ or ‘lawful’, necessitating the award of a foreign scholarship by the Nigerian government to take him out of harm’s way. But with all the traceable evidence, it is interesting how opponents selectively promote a narrative by the convenient cherry-picking of events. Even though one divisive evidence held against Pantami was more of a disapproval of extrajudicial killings than a support for Boko Haram; yet, in the heat of politics, the nuances do not seem to matter as perceptions become either black or white, rather than different shades of gray.

Many of Pantami’s present views are remarkably progressive for a Muslim scholar. Thus, for any neutral person, there are enough grounds to believe that Pantami no longer holds controversial and divisive views. It is also important to state that Boko Haram has always been a fringe extremist group with Kharijite tendencies and was opposed at the very beginning by many Muslim scholars in Nigeria, such as Ja’afar Mahmud Adam, Muhammad Auwal Albani Zaria, etc.

After the Iranian revolution in 1979, which overthrew the Pahlavi dynasty, many young Muslims in Nigeria were to various degrees radicalised; seeing the Islamic State as a third force to capitalism and socialism, especially as this coincided with the Cold War era. Many Muslims in Nigeria not only idealised Iran, they equally hero-worshipped its political and religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. In time, many people realised that Iran was less interested in improving the development of African nations or Muslims, but more interested in spreading a specific Shi’ite doctrine across the Sunni world. Many of those who idealised Iran later became its strongest opponents. For example, some of the staunchest defenders of Sunni Islam in Nigeria today were disciples of the Shia Muslim leader, Ibrahim Zakzaky.

Many moderate people who have spent their lives fighting immoderation were young extremist radicals in the past and some of them were expelled as students of Ahmadu Bello University on Zakzaky’s inspiration. Should any of these people be judged by views held as teenagers over four decades ago, without an attempt to revisit what later became of their lives and subsequent views?

It is not in doubt that Pantami is one of the most powerful ministers in Nigeria today; being part of the exclusive group close to the centre of power. Therefore, those who think that the concerns of extremism pertaining to him are raised at this moment because Pantami might have stepped on some powerful toes or is considered a political threat, may not be altogether wrong. The extremism campaign has done a significant harm to Pantami, which is what it might have been premeditated to do. But where it goes from here depends on what direction the narrative takes.

The menace is that beyond Pantami the man, the opposition can make him an epitome of the Buhari administration. Thus, there is a real risk of the campaign being appropriated to depict the government as a supporter of extremism, which could feed into an earlier and discredited narrative. Perhaps instances like this reminds us of the need to take a step back and reflect on the threat of the social media, where matters could easily spin out of control, far beyond where it started. All being well, Pantami can deal with this and move on.

Mohammed Dahiru Aminu is an Assistant Professor of Petroleum Chemistry at the American University of Nigeria. He can be reached via mohd.aminu@gmail.com

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