Wole Soyinka: Religion Doesn’t Justify Mayhem

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

Islamic demonstrators in Kaduna, Nigeria (AFP/Getty Images)
Islamic demonstrators in Kaduna, Nigeria (AFP/Getty Images)

The following is the text of an address titled “Religion Against Humanity,” given by Nobel Prize-winning writer Wole Soyinka, a member of UNESCO’s International High Panel, at the 2012 Conference on the Culture of Peace and Non-Violence at the United Nations headquarters in New York on Sept. 21, 2012.

(Special to The Root) — To such a degree has religion fueled conflict, complicated politics, retarded social development and impaired human relations across the world that one is often tempted to propose that religion is innately an enemy of humanity, if not indeed of itself a crime against humanity. Certainly it cannot be denied that religion has proved again and again a spur, a motivator and a justification for the commission of some of the most horrifying crimes against humanity, despite its fervent affirmations of peace. Let us, however, steer away from hyperbolic propositions and simply settle for this moderating moral imperative: that it is time that the world adopt a position that refuses to countenance religion as an acceptable justification for, excuse or extenuation of crimes against humanity.

While it should be mandatory that states justify their place as members of a world community by educating their citizens on the entitlement of religion to a place within society and the obligations of mutual acceptance and respect, it should be deemed unacceptable that the world is held to ransom for the uneducated conduct of a few, and placed in a condition of fear, apprehension, leading to a culture of appeasement. 

There are critical issues of human well-being and survival that deserve the undivided attention of leaders all over the world. Let us recall that it is not anti-Islamists who have lately desecrated and destroyed — and with such fiendish self-righteousness — the tombs of Moslem saints in Timbuktu, most notoriously the mausoleum of the Imam Moussa al-Khadin, declared a world heritage under the protection of UNESCO and accorded pride of place in African patrimony. The orientation — backed by declarations — of these violators leaves us with a foreboding that the invaluable library treasures of Timbuktu may be next.

The truth, alas, is that the science fiction archetype of the mad scientist who craves to dominate the world has been replaced by the mad cleric who can only conceive of the world in his own image, proudly flaunting Bond’s Double-0-7 credentials — Licensed to Kill. The sooner national leaders and genuine religious leaders understand this and admit that no nation has any lack of its own dangerous loonies, be they known as Ansar-Dine of Mali or Terry Jones of Florida, the earlier they will turn their attention to real issues truly deserving human priority.

These cited clerics and their ilk are descendants of the ancient line of iconoclasts of Islamic, Christian and other religious molds who have destroyed the antecedent spirituality and divine emblems of the African peoples over centuries. Adherents of those African religions, who remain passionately attached to their beliefs, all the way across the Atlantic — in Brazil and across other parts of Latin America — have not taken to wreaking vengeance on their presumed violators in far-off lands.