IRORO: JOURNAL OF ARTS. V0L.12, NO
RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM: A CHALLENGE TO NATIONAL UNITY
REV. FR. PROF. J.A. ONIMHAWO* &
PETER OGHENE .0 .. OTTUH*
Religion is one ofthe most prominent institutions in every human society Its
cohesive force is unbeatable. Its instructions are sacred and unquestionably
desired and accepted by members of society. Every religion has its good aspects as
well as its bad aspects. In every traditional society where religion or religions exist,
the existence of religious extremism is unavoidable. This trend is peculiar to those
religions that emphasize militant theology. Religious extremism or militancy is
caused by combinations of reasons. This paper identifies religious extremism with
religious violence, sectarianism and terrorism. The link between religious
extremism and terrorism in our society today seems obvious. Worse still, religious
extremists are willing to kill and be killed because they embrace theologies that
sanction violence in the service of God. They have no sympathy for their victims,
because they view those victims as enemies of God.
STATING THE PROBLEM
It can be safely said that in the 21st century, many countries of the world
including Nigeria are still living in great confusion that is greatly influenced by
religious extremism. In the recent past, most suicide bombings, violent and terrorist
attacks have been linked to religious organizations. One cannot easily understand
why religion should be involved in violence and militancy. The fact is that one cannot
comprehend the suicidal zealot apart from the self-sacrificing 'saint' - not because
they share a moral equivalence, but because the internal logic and social
foundations of religious extremism are much the same whether their goals are good,
The overwhelming majority of the
century's social scientists
had dismissed religious institutions as a dying vestige of our primitive, pre-scientific
past. But contemporary scholars have returned to Smith's insights on the trend'.
Religious extremism is viewed as an instance of rational choice, rather than an
exception to it.
Virtually all the countrids in the world are witnessing persistent intolerance,
discrimination and violence rooted in religion or belief, the proliferation of violence in
the name of religion, the manipulation of religion in the interest of political ideology
and revivalism, and increasing tensions and conflicts between religion and state
REV. FR. PROF.
A. ONIMHAWO, Dept. of Religious Management and Cultural Studies,
• MR. PETER OGHENE. O. OTTUH, Dept. of Religious Management and Cultural Studies,
IRORO: JOURNAL OF ARTS. V0L.12
NO 1&2. 2007.
Religious extremism is also detrimental to human rights and dignity. Such
violations have compromised among others, the right to religious freedom, right to
education, employment, peaceful assembly, citizenship, political participation,
health, and even life itself. Most alarming, is that leaders of religious institutions or
communities have failed in their responsibilities of guiding their followers in
embracing peaceful co-existence and preaching religious inclusivisirn. This trend
has given rise to the impression that nothing good can come out of religion.
The term "extremism" is easier described than defined. The term has its
root in the word "extreme" which means "the either end of anything; to do more than
is usually considered right or
Religious extremism is associated with
religious bigotism, fanaticism, fundamentalism and exclusivism. Its bye - products
are terrorism, violations, disunity under-development and other vices.
While some religious organizations devote much of their time and
resources developing noble activities, such as running schools, health centres, and
other social service agencies, others are engaged in the sponsorship of terrorist
groups and anti - government activities. Religious extremism often harps on
sentiment by offering the desire of the victims' hearts on a platter of gold. This claim
is however often found to be an illusion because the extremists soon pass away and
followers are left frustrated. Another side to it is that religious extremist group may
pitch itself against constituted authorities by practicing unlawful acts. On the other
hand, when such authorities demand an explanation or proscribe such groups, they
resist by either fighting to death or resorting to mass suicide. 5
In Nigeria today, the most predominant religions are Islam, Christianity and
African Traditional Religion (ATR). Islam one of the most populous religion in the
world has always been identified with religious extremism. Islam is known for its
militancy and radical puritanical theology. In this view, it scarcely knows any
difference between itself and Arabism. As such, wherever they meet, there is a
conflict of cultures and that of interests. Christianity and African Traditional
Religions are also guilty of religious extremism.
EXTREMISM IN CHRISTIANITY
Religious extremism has been identified with Christianity right from the
early Christian era in the Bible and also during the Papal period. The High Priests,
Scribes, Zealots, Sadducees, Pharisees, etc. were the religious extremists in the
time Jesus Christ lived. They were religious puritans and militants. They did this by
going to the extreme. The Zealots, for instance, in Jesus time were both religious
and political fanatics whose main aim was to exterminate Roman and non - Jewish
leaders because they felt that the Jews were specially chosen by God to rule the
world. The period after the Apostles which ushered in the Papacy period was also
marked by religious extremism. Extremism during this period was manifest in the
sales of indulgence by the Roman Catholic Pope, the Christological debates,
murder of the clergies, ecumenical councils and counter- councils, etc. Religious
IRORO: JOURNAL OF ARTS. V0L.12, NO 1&2. 2007. 90
extremism was also displayed in the activities of the reformers of Christianity during
and after this period. Christianity in the medieval period was intolerant due to its
claim to be the religion with the sole
At that time its general claim was extra
ecclesia nulla salus (outside the church, no
These extremists fought
holy wars (crusades) in orderto give people salvation. .
The present situation of Christianity in our today's world is not too different
from experiences ofthe time past. Today, Christians still lay claim to the "whole truth"
and tend to exclude others from the scheme of things. Even within Christianity, we
have intra - religious crises as a result of extremism. This trend in Christianity is not
unconnected with the pre - warning of Apostle Paul, that some would use
Christianity for evil ends. Paul said:
Oppressive wolves will enter in among you and
will not treat the flock with tenderness, and from
among you yourselves men will rise and speak
twisted things to draw away the disciples after
themselves. (Acts 20:29)
Mostly guilty of this are the Pentecostal Christian denominations. In order to
perpetuate religious extremism, extremists usually quote out of context Jesus'
words in Luke 14:23! "Compel them to come in" to mean that it was alright to use
force of any kind in the work of converting people to Christianity. However, the Bible
says that such workers are nothing' but false apostles, deceitful workers,
transformers of evils and impostors (Matthew 28:19- 20, Acts 28:23-24, II
Corinthians 11:13 -15). The history of the Christian religion with all its wars,
inquisitions, crusade and religious hypocrisy, have not helped the cause of the
religion. Non - Christians and even atheists point to the moral corruption and
extremism in Christianity especially of the West to condemn the religion. Most
Christians and Christian nations have lost their moral credibility and have suffered
major set backs on the ground offaithlessness, greed, and self - indulgence.
Inspite of he clear warnings recorded in the Bible
Peter 3:1-2, 17,
Cor.6:14-17, Rev.18:2-5) apostate Christians still exist in the Christendom. Today
some Christians and churches go to the extreme to disobeying government laws
and civil rules. Some go to the extreme, especially 'apostate' preachers to acquire
'super' powers by involving themselves in human rituals.
The recent dramatic events unfolding the activities of Rev. Emeka Ezeuko,
a.k.a Rev. King, the General Overseer of the Christian Praying Assembly, Ajao
Estate, Lagos - Nigeria is another case of extremism in Christianity. It was reported
t~at Rev. King poured jerry cans of petrol on seven members of his congregation
and set them ablaze." The motive behind his action was purification from the sin of
fornication. This is just one of the known extremist acts committed by this man.
Presently, he is standing trial before a competent court of law. The recent visit of a
frontline Christian evangelist, Richard Bonke to Nigeria, also exhibited religious
extremism. During this crusade, it was reported that many persons were lost to
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EXTREMISM IN ISLAM
One cannot discuss religious extremism without discussing Islam. There is
no doubt that the most militant of all world religions is Islam. Interestingly, Islamic
countries hosting most militant sects of Islam are those most historically prone to
produce terrorism and also happen to be very rich countries. Islam, as noted by
Nwanaja is a religion to be reckoned with, not only in Nigeria and in Africa, but
throughout the whole world." Religious extremism in Islam was more pronounced in
the period immediately following the demise of the Holy Prophet Mohammed.
According to al- Shalrrastani, an Islamic issue which brought about more bloodshed
than ever isthe caliphate." This period was the darkest period in Islam.
The military expansion of Islam embarked upon by some of the orthodox
caliphs like Abu-Bar can be regarded as religious extrernisrn." These military
expeditions against the pagansand which were undertaken for the survival of Islam,
were known as the "Riddah" wars or wars of Apostasy. Most Jihads fought in Islam
were aimed atthe cleansing of Islam of its impurities.
In most traditional societies, especially in Islamic communities, Islamic
religious precepts are claimed to be the empowerment of Muslim extremists. Based
on this, they unleashed untold pains on Moslem women and the poor. In most cases,
women have been the prime victims of Islamic extremism both in the past and in the
present. In Islamic societies such as Pakistani, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Saudi
Arabia, Northern Nigeria, etc. radical Muslims batter and kill people with virtual
impurity in the name of reliqion." In Pakistan, Zahida Pervecn, a husband of a 32
years old pregnant woman, gouged out her eyes and sliced off her earlobes and
nose because he suspected her for adultery'S In another instance, in Jordan, a
young Palestinian was reported to have stabbed a 19 years old sister 40 times in
order to cleanse the family honour, and_another man ran over his 23 year old sister
with his truck because of her immoral acts." The above cited instances amount to a
small percentage of the dangerous and pitiable situation to which nationsinfested
with religious extremism are exposed.
In Nigeria today, Islamic extremism is virtually present in the operation of
Sharia legal system particularly in some northern States. In the name of Sharia,
people's hands and legs are amputated, flogged in the public, and even beheaded
for trivial offenses." It has been asserted that contrary to Usman dan Fodio's
philosophy of holy wars, he could be regarded as a religious extremist due to his
involvement in bloody and violent jihad expeditions. Generally, there is an inherent
implication of the Machiavellian principle of 'might is right' in Islamism. Since
independence, Nigeria as a nation has witnessed series of religious crises which
are linked to Islamic groups. In these crises, both material and human causalities
have been recorded in their thousands. All these had happened as a result of the
activities of some Muslim extremists.
EXTREMISM IN AFRICAN TRADITIONAL RELIGION (ATR)
African Traditional Religion is the religion of the Africans. It is rooted in the
IRORO: JOURNAL OF ARTS. V0L.12, NO 1&2. 2007. 92
culture and traditions of the Africans. African religion manifests in African arts,
dances, festivals, coronations, etc. Religious extremism manifests from the above
Sometimes, most chief priests of this religion go to the extreme by using
human beings to perform ritual sacrifices. At the death of a king or installation of a
new king, some African societies use human beings as sacrifice to perfect such
ceremony. Most chief priests in this religion are corrupt. They take bribe and deceive
theirworshippers, and even pervertjustice."
At the death of a man, the widow is subjected to inhuman treatments by
forcibly allowing her to perform cleansing rituals in order to appease the gods and
the dead husband. During the celebration of some African festivals, movements are
restricted. And some times, persons in such communities are also restricted to the
consumption of a certain kind of food. This extremism can be detrimental to one's
fundamental human rights and freedom. Extremism in African religion has led to
unnecessary tribal wars and loss of lives in the name of 'sacred' revelations from the
gods. Extremism in African traditional religion is evident in the religious activities
of the popular Okija Shrine in Anambra State of Niqeria." Here it was reported that
victims' corpses littered the surroundings of the shrine with the belief that they
cannot be buried in their respective traditional homes. This is because; they
(corpses) are the properties of the gods.
REASONS FOR RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM
Extremism in religious is caused by some combinations of factors. This
includes religious fundamentalism, exclusivism, fanaticism, bigotism, ignorance,
Religious fundamentalism promotes religious extremism. Among the
religions of the world, the three Semitic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam
have a more complex fundamentalist attitude. This is so because these religions are
not just monotheistic, but are exclusivistic and absolutists in their claims to religious
truth. Destructive forces seem to have been let loose among men of extreme
religiosity, with each claiming the 'sole' truth. Fundamentalism is peculiar to Islam.
The well - known form of fundamentalism in Islam is militant Islamic
'" fundamentalism. In Nigeria, some of the atrocities arising from the militant
fundamentalists are evident in the religious riots in Northern Nigeria both in the past
and in the present. 20
Another factor responsible for religious extremism is the present economic
and political revivalism going on in the world. Today, people use religion to score
political goals. Poverty in many societies has driven many people to commit crimes
in the name of religion. On the other hand, most religious leaders have failed in their
responsibilities of giving spiritual guidance to their followers. Often times, those
claiming to be religious leaders have founded the flames of hatred and fanaticism,
themselves serving as the greatest obstacles in the path ofpeace and harmony.
Religious exclusivism is another contributory factor to religious
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extremism". For instance, in Nigeria like other countries, the most prevalent
problem confronting religious life is the absolute claim to religious truth. The
Christian and Islamic religions are guilty of this. The sole claim to religious truth has
been the dichotomizing drive for the Christians and Muslims. The show of religious
exclusivism between religions breeds extremism in religion.
Religious fanaticism breeds religious extremism. The 'father' of religious
extremism is religious fanaticism. Closely associated with religions fanaticism is
religious bigotism. To be a reliqious fanatic is to be wild and excessive about matters
that relate to one's belief A religious bigot is a person who is blindly and obstinately
devoted to a particular
For instance, fanaticism and bigotism manifested in
the issue of Sharia that was raised by the Muslims during the time of the constitution
drafting process in Nigeria in 1977/1978. The Muslims from all indications wanted
Nigeria as a nation to become an Islamic state. The secret membership of Nigeria in
the Organization of Islamic Conference through the instrumentality of the Muslims is
another clear indication of religious fanaticism.
Nigeria witnessed another religious fanaticism in Kano in 1981 when a
certain Matiaitsine led a Muslim revolution against political authorities. To quell the
problem, lives of some government soldiers and most of the followers of this fanatic
and his own life as well were lost to deaths.
In this manner many religious wars
have received their impetus from the promise of a ticket to heaven, should the
fighters die in wars; the Islamic jihads and Christian crusades were based on this
principle. Fanaticism in most cases, places sentiments above reason and makes
the fanatics slaves of emotions.
Another reason for religious extremism is ignorance and negative use of
history." These two have contributed to unnecessary rivalry and tension among the
adherents of religions. For instance, adherents of Islam, Christianity and Judaism
ought to have remembered that they have common ancestors. They have also
forgotten to live according to the basic tenets of their religions. When people fail to
have adequate information or ideas about their religious dogmas, they tend to
engage on the contraries. Thus, they misrepresent their religious institutions. This
misconception, has led some adherents being anti-social and extremist in their
modes of association, dressing, and actions.
THE CHALLENGE TO NATIONAL UNITY AND DEVELOPMENT
Religious Extremism is a major obstacle to national unity and development.
In any nation what is needed for rapid development is peace, security and unity. In
this sense, National development implies economic growth, modernization in terms
of scientific and technological development, socio-economic transformation, and
better still, distributive justice. Development is a process of social change in which
development is the economic component. National development is necessary in
orderto sustain real material life.
In every society the poor conventionally tries to be more devout. And
because the poor have are often marginalised, they entrust their lives to the
IRORO: JOURNAL OF ARTS. V0L.12, NO 1&2. 2007. 94
supernatural Being whom they consider as the highest power. More interestingly at
the outbreak of religious hostilities the poor also are the highest casualties.
Extremism in religion has led to fundamental erosion of human values including
human rights, political and social freedom. Religion may have served as the best
one source for the unity and peace of a nation, yet its possible extremism can
liquidate in a faster rate the national economic growth, state cohesion, national
cultures and national identity." While religion can become a very powerful vehicle
for the resistance of exploited peripheral groups, it can be itself destructive and
exploitive. In otherword, religion is a powerful exploitation tool.
In most societies, new tensions and conflicts emerge between political and
religious institutions. In this sense, religious leaders have become national actors.
The position given to religion in society has allowed it to exhibit extremism. That is
why religion in its forms, somehow is influencing the definition of the national
situation and orders." In most nations, conservative anti - systemic movements,
such as Islamic fundamentalism, have always opposed constituted authorities, thus
creating fears, acrimony and insecurity. Religious radicalism does not promote
national growth. It does not encourage patriotism and nationalism. It is egocentric
and barbaric. Religious extremism is like the whirl-wind that blows no one any good.
However, all religions are under pressure to see themselves as universal in
principle and in practice. Hence they may not be divided in conflicts. It is note worthy
that the ecumenical context of religions makes them resourceful for criticizing the
state and her policies for failing to live to expectations. Their approach towards this
has been rather rational and radical instead of persuasion. In all these, we can say
that religious extremism is a threat to national unity, security, socio-cultural
economic and political growth of a nation. Besides, religious extremism distorts
national identity and nationhood. Itcauses retrogression in public and private lives.
In order to control religious extremism and promote unity and development
this paper presents the following recommendations:
1. The roles of religious leaders in molding the behaviors of adherents should
be emphasized and revived. The roles of religious leaders as partners in
word and deed in the creation of a culture of respect for human dignity,
rights and freedoms must not be underestimated in the management of
religious extremism. Religious leaders must uphold the sacred nature of the
human conscience and unreservedly accord each individual in a society the
freedom to search for truth of their choice. This will promote peace and unity
and national development.
2. On the part of government, urgent action should be taken to reaffirm equal
rights and freedoms for all citizens without discrimination on the basis of
religion. The declarations of the individuals' rights on matters of religion
under the international law should be adhered to. 27
3. The international community should support religious freedom, moderate
IRORO: JOURNAL OF ARTS. V0L.12, NO 1&2. 2007.
religious militancy and oppose religious extremists' movements around the
4. Illiteracy breeds ignorance and restiveness in society, as such, formal
education for citizens at affordable cost will surely reduce religious
5. All religions should preach tolerance in order to promote peaceful
coexistence and unity in society. This will also enhance national and
6. Inter-religious and intra-religious dialogues are necessary tools towards
achieving religious peace and harmony. We call on all religions and intra-
religions to embrace dialogue since dialogue is the 'father' of all conflicts
Virtually all religionshave the potentials to exhibit extremism. Religious
extremism breeds violence, intolerance, disunity, and underdevelopment. It is a
threat to national unity and security. Despite these painful manifestations, religions
have imparted vast spiritual and moral values, which continue to succor and guide
people in this troubled world. Indeed, religions are meant to lift peoples' vision
beyond purely material conceptions of reality to embrace higher notions of justice,
reconciliation, love, and selflessness in the service ofthe common good of society.
1. Adam Smith is an Economist who laid the foundation for the economic
analysis of religion in 1776. He tries to equate economic and politics with
Smith, The WealthofNations_(London: n.p., 1965),740-766.
3. Internet: http://statements,bahiaorgI05-040/. him, 2006.
Hornby, Oxford Advanced Dictionary of Current Enqlist), (London: OUP,
5. Baptist Adults Church Training Lesson Programmes (Ibadan: Nigerian
Baptist convention, Jan - December, 1985),69.
6. Cf H. Netland, "Exclusivism, "Tolerance and Truth" in Missiology - An
International Review, XV:2,( April, 1987),77 - 93.
8. Cf The Punch, Oct. 13,2006,1 Os
9. The Guardian, 22 August,2002.
10 S. Nwanaja, Christian - Muslim Relations in Nigeria (Lagos: Free Enterprise
Pub., 2005), 75
11. AI- Shalnarstani quoted in Mankind Search for God (New York: Watchtower
Bible and Tracts society, Inc., 1990),293.
IRORO: JOURNAL OF ARTS. V0L.12, NO 1&2. 2007. 96
13. P.K. Hith, History of the Arabs (London: Macmillan Pub, 1970),140
14. J. Vincent and E. Jouriles, Domestic Violence: Guidelines for Research
Informed Practice (London: Jessica Kingsley Pub, 2002),10
15. Gulf News in K. Hymowitz, "Why feminism is Awol on Islam" Unpublished
17. PO.O. Ottuh, "Sharia law and Human Values in Nigeria" MA. Dissertation,
Ekpoma: Ambrose Alii University, 2005, chapters 4 & 5.
18. O.U. Kalu, "Gods in Retreat: Model of Religious changes in Africa" Nigerian
Journal of Humanities vol. 1, NO.1. 42.
19. Newswatch, august23, 2004, 14ft..
20. GA Oshitelu, "Religious Fundamentalism in a Pluralistic Society" Orita:
Ibadan Journal of Religious Studies, XXX1 /1-2/ June and Dec.1999, 88.
21. JA Onimhawo & PO.O. Ottuh, "The Role of Religion Towards Peaceful
Co-existence in Nigeria", Epha:Ekpoma Journal of Religious Studies"
Vo1.5,Nos. 1&2, (June, 2003),113-116.
22. J. Onaiyekan, "The Strategies for lIamic Expression in Nigeria: Notes
Reflections", A paper presented at the 3,d Meeting of the Ecumenical
Association Theologians, Onitsha, 16 May, 1987.
23. Baptist Adults Church Training Lesson Programmes
25. R. Wuthnow, The Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion (Wn. D.c:
Congressional Quarterly, 1998),211
26. Internet: http://statementsbahai. Orgl05 -0401 - htm of 10/3/2006.
27. P.Uzoatu, The Way we Are: A Human Right Education Training Manual on
Democracy (Lagos: CLO, 2002), 60.