Wole Soyinka: Religion Doesn't Justify Mayhem

Your Take: A Nobel laureate says we must stop excusing religion's role in crimes against humanity.

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The most intense ethical education, including severe social sanctions, has not eradicated material corruption, exploitation, child defilement and murders in society, not even deterrents such as capital punishment. How, then, can anyone presume that there shall be no violations of the ideal state of religious tolerance to which we all aspire, or demand that the world stand still, cover its head in sackcloth and ashes, grovel in self-abasement or else prepare itself for earthly pestilence for failure to anticipate the occasional penetration of their self-ascribed carapace of inviolability?

What gives hope is the very special capacity of man for dialogue, and that arbiter is foreclosed, or endures interminable postponements as long as one side arrogates to itself the right to respond to a pebble thrown by an infantile hand in Papua New Guinea with attempts to demolish the Rock of Gibraltar. I use the word "infantile" deliberately, because these alleged insults to religion are no different from the infantile scribble we encounter in public toilets, the product of infantilism and retarded development. We have learned to ignore and walk away from them. They should not be answered by equally infantile responses that are, however, incendiary and homicidal in dimension, and largely directed against the innocent, since the originating hand is usually, in any case, beyond reach.

With the remorseless march of technology, we shall all be caught in a spiral of reprisals, tailored to wound, to draw virtual blood. The other side responds with real blood and gore, also clotting up the path to rational discourse. What we are witnesses to in recent times is that such proceeding is being accorded legitimacy on the grounds of religious sensibility. It is pathetic to demand what cannot be guaranteed. It is futile to attempt to rein in technology: The solution is to use that very technology to correct noxious conceptions in the minds of the perpetrators of abuse, and educate the ignorant.

I speak as one from a nation whose normal diet of economic disparity, corruption, marginalization and ethnic and political cleavages has been further compounded by the ascendancy of religious jingoism. It is a lamentable retrogression from the nearly forgotten state of harmonious coexistence that I lived in and enjoyed as a child.

One takes consolation in the fact that some of us did not wait to sound warnings until the plague of religious extremism entered our borders. Our concerns began and were articulated as a concern for others, still at remote distances. Now that the largest black habitation on the globe has joined the club of religious terror under the portentous name Boko Haram -- which means "the Book Is Taboo" -- we can morally demand help from others, but we only find them drowning in the rhetoric and rites of anger and/or contrition.

Today it is the heritage and humanity of Timbuktu. And tomorrow? The African continent must take back Mali -- not later but right now. The cost of further delay will be incalculable, and devastating.

The spiral of reprisals now appears to have been launched, what with the recent news that a French editor has also entered the lists with a fresh album of offensive cartoons. To break that spiral, there must be dialogue of frank, mature minds. Instant, comprehensive solutions do not exist -- only the arduous, painstaking path of dialogue, whose multitextured demands are not beyond the innovative, as opposed to the emotive, capacity of cultured societies.

So let that moving feast of regional dialogues -- which was inaugurated by former President Khatami of Iran in these very chambers -- be reinforced, emboldened and evenhanded. The destination should be a moratorium, but for this to be strong and enduring, it must be voluntary, based on a will to understanding and mental reorientation, not on menace, self-righteous indictments and destructive emotionalism. Perhaps we may yet rescue religion from its ultimate indictment: conscription into the ranks of provable enemies of humanity.

Wole Soyinka, a native of Nigeria, was the 1986 winner of the Nobel Prize in literature.

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