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A case for Inter-Religious Schooling in Ghana - John Azumah, Phd

Ghanaian society is not only multi-religious, it is, in many ways, inter-religious. Nearly every Ghanaian has a classmate or an acquaintance of a different faith and many Ghanaians have joyfully participated in a religious service or event of another tradition involving a relation, neighbor or friend.

As an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana, I will never forget my ordination service at the Ramseyer Presbyterian Church in Kumasi in 1991 when my Muslim family, with most of the women covered, invaded the chapel in their numbers by 8:00am and took over the seating area of the church choir! They were later gently re-seated and when the Moderator processed, he joked whether the service was being conducted in a mosque to an uproar of laughter from the congregation! This is something we should all cherish and strive to protect. 

The recent controversy surrounding Muslim students in Christian schools is a perfect opportunity for open dialogue between Christians and Muslims in the quest to enhance rather than undermine Ghana’s inter-religious character. To that end, my first suggestion, indeed plea, is that all should work hard to de-politicize the issue and certainly not to party-politicize it.

The increasing polarization of Ghanaian society whereby every debate is conducted along party-political lines should be of concern to all truth seeking Ghanaians. The party-politicization of issues where every point of view is given a party political coloration and zealously defended or contemptuously rejected accordingly is the mother of all corruptions in our country. Objective, dispassionate commentators and journalists, apolitical professional bodies as well as true public and civil servants are all becoming oxymorons in contemporary Ghanaian society. Sadly, leading clergy and religious figures are neck-deep in the party-political muddy-waters. Under these circumstances, truth becomes the easy casualty!

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To start with, the tone of the initial statement from the office of the Chief Imam on the issue could have been better. The repeated use of “must” in the statement was unfortunate, to say the least. Similarly, with all due respect, the President made a huge mistake in his State of the Nation address. He should not have gone into the specifics of the case and should definitely not have come out guns blazing with veiled threats and innuendos. His tone was inflammatory even though his call to respect constitutional rights was valid. His Independence Day speech was clear evidence that the President had realized his earlier mistake. The Catholic Bishop’s Conference response, instead of dousing the flames, appeared to pour more fuel onto the fire lit by the President. Cooler heads have since called for sober and calmer dialogue and we thank God for that.  

Firstly, we have to be careful not to sleep-walk down the path of the West. In most western countries, there is an obsession with individual rights which makes perfect sense in individualistic and increasingly hedonistic societies. In Africa we need to be just as concerned about community or corporate rights as we are about individual rights. Do Muslims and Christians as communities have rights, and if they do, how does the Ghanaian constitution guarantee these? Individual students may well be within their constitutional rights to insist on not being compelled to participate in a worship service of another religion.

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But do the various religious bodies and denominations have a right to require worship as an integral formational piece of their education? When these two rights collide, as they seem to in this case, are there appropriate constitutional provisions to resolve them? The point is that the constitution and courts may not always have the answers to every issue as some appear to assume.

Secondly, it is simplistic to reference the use of tax-payers money as basis of denying mission schools the right to require Christian worship of all students as an integral part of their education. Is the implication of such arguments that as long as tax-payers money is not involved groups and individuals can offer any type of education they choose to Ghanaian children? All Ghanaians, Christians included, are tax-payers (even though we all know most Ghanaians don’t pay taxes!) and so taxes should not necessarily be the basis of exempting Muslim students from worship in Christian schools. Otherwise, very soon the same argument could be used to rid the curriculum of schools funded by tax money of all religious instruction. What should be criminalized is denial of education to students purely on the basis of their faith. And this should indeed apply to all schools, faith, state and private owned. 

Thirdly, it is simplistic to argue in favor of the status quo on the basis that Muslim students have in the past decades attended Christian schools and participated in worship services without any complaints. Similarly, the argument that if Muslims don’t want to participate in Christian worship they shouldn’t enroll in Christian schools is also unrealistic. For instance, in some places a Christian school may be the only school in the area or within walking distance. But more importantly, with the computerized system of placements into SSS, the choices wards and parents have are limited. 

A better argument for all students to participate in the religious activities of the school they attend can however be made on the educational and formational value of such experiences in an inter-religious country like Ghana. For Ghana to continue to enjoy its status of an inter-religious oasis in a turbulent region, it is imperative for young ones to be exposed to faiths other than their own. Inter-religious education is one clear way to reduce prejudicial and stereotypical views of the other and to forge inter-faith bonds and relations from an early age. There is no empirical evidence to support claims that such experiences are detrimental to the faith of students of different traditions. Two former Presbyterian Moderators are graduates of T. I. Ahmadiyya Secondary School in Kumasi and the Late Maulvi Wahab Adam, the immediate past Head of the Ahmadiyya Mission in Ghana, attended a Methodist school in the Central Region. 

However, the participation of students in worship services other than their own should be done within clearly defined boundaries. For instance, I don’t think a Christian school would require Muslim students to be served pork for meals or participate in Holy Communion. Neither should Christian students attending an Islamic school be required to participate in the Muslim ritual washing and prayers. These would be making a mockery of such religious services themselves. In other words, it is not practical to require students to participate in every aspect of a worship service that is not of his or her religion. These are matters of common sense and hospitality and the GES should be empowered to meet all stakeholders to clarify and define such boundaries.  

In light of the educational and formational value of inter-religious education, the Muslim head covering (scarf), not the veil (face covering) can be considered a part of the uniform in Christian schools. For Christian students, such outward cultural/religious symbols could be educational as they visibly see and interact with religious diversity first hand. Questions and conversations among students on things they observe or hear during worship or why Muslim women wear the scarf can be profoundly formational. The scarf can therefore be seen for its educational value rather than a threat to Christian identity. After all the main purpose of schools is education, which means exposing students to new ideas and differences not insulating them. 

And talking about the scarf, it is in the interest of all women to make sure that the demands to wear it is coming from female Muslim students themselves and not from some ideological pressure group seeking to impose a dress code on Muslim women. It should be pointed out that there is not a single verse in the Qur’an requiring women to cover their heads or faces and there is no consensus among Muslim scholars on the qur’anic teaching on the subject. What the Qur’an requires for all believers to “guard their private parts” and the women to cover “their bosoms” (breasts) (Nur (24):30-31). In fact, in the recent past, in many parts of the world, the Islamic veil has become more of an ideological than a religious symbol. For a very long time, Turkey, a Muslim country, banned public and civil servants as well as students from wearing the head scarf in public institutions. Radical Islamist groups such as the Wahabiyya of Saudi Arabia are those who prescribe the full face covering (burqa) for women, including the color (black)! These groups exist in Ghana and during a recent visit to Tamale I was troubled to see toddlers who could barely walk fully covered!

And talking about troubling developments, Ghanaians should be worried, very worried, about private and single faith schools operating without any monitoring from the GES. The Ambariyya Islamic Institute in Tamale is an example (not the only one). It is a Muslim only school, the medium of instruction is Arabic, the school week runs from Saturday to Wednesday, their support is mainly from Saudi Arabia, overwhelming majority of the teachers are graduates from Saudi Universities. These graduates have imbibed the puritanical and radical Wahhabi/Salafi Islam of Saudi Arabia, returned home with pre-fabricated syllabi for use in the schools, and with personal libraries replete of works by key ideologues of radical Islam such as Ibn Taymiyyah, Abdul Wahhab, Abu A’la Maududi and Sayyid Qutb. For those who may not know, Al-Qaeda, ISIS, al-Shabab and Boko Haram are all products of Wahhabi/Salafi teaching.

As a student of Islam in Africa, I can say without sounding alarmist, that the recent developments in Ghana are eerily similar to those in Nigeria. The Yan Izala Movement of Nigeria emerged from the polemical teaching/preaching career of Mahmud Gumi, who himself was supported by Saudi Arabia. Izala orchestrated verbal and physical attacks against other Muslims, especially the Qadiriyya and Tijaniyya in northern Nigeria, founded their own mosques and established schools to teach their puritanical version of Islam. Over time, they sent their youth to study in Saudi Universities who then returned and started a network of Ahl ul-Sunna and various Islamic organizations. The intra-Muslim violence Izala engendered soon spilled into Muslim-Christian conflicts across Nigeria. Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram, was a student of a leading Ahl ul-Sunna cleric of Nigeria, Ja‘far Adam. Adam became the first prominent victim to be gunned down on Yusuf’s orders in 2007 inside a mosque in Kano during early morning prayers, marking the violent phase of Boko Haram in Nigeria. 

In Ghana, one Afa Ajura founded what evolved into the Ahl ul-Sunna in Ghana in the 1950s. Over time, they founded separate mosques and schools, sent young men to study in Saudi Universities, most of who are now teaching in Ambariyya and other Islamic schools across the country. Some have since founded their own Islamic organizations and NGOs, drawing their funds mainly from Arab countries. In the 1970s and 90s, the group’s verbal and physical attacks against the Tijaniyya and Ahmadiyya led to loss of lives and property. Tamale, Wa, Wenchi and Takoradi were the most affected. In Tamale, the sectarian battle lines morphed into the Dagbon chieftaincy crisis with the Abudu faction adhering to Tijaniyya and the Andani faction to Ahl ul-Sunna. The introduction of multi-party democracy in 1992 ushered in new fault-lines, the Tijaniyya/Abudus aligning with NPP and the Ahl ul-Sunna/Andanis with NDC. This mixture of sectarianism, chieftaincy and partisan politics is a dangerous cocktail that should worry every peace loving Ghanaian.  

This is in no way intended to scaremonger neither should it be used as an excuse to demonize all Muslims in Ghana. In fact, Muslims are always the first and main victims of radical/Islamist militancy. They all start “peaceful,” preaching their puritanical version of Islam, with sporadic violence and skirmishes, until a twisted zealot like Osama Bin Ladin or Mohammed Yusuf of Boko Haram emerges to launch a bloody Armageddon! What I am saying, therefore, is that “whoever has ears, let them hear,” both Muslims and Christians, and more importantly the authorities. As an African proverb puts it; “In difficult times, the foolish build walls while the wise build bridges.” If there was a time for Muslims and Christians in Ghana to build bridges instead of walls, that time is NOW! There are incalculable benefits in inter-religious education and inherent dangers in single faith schooling, especially those left to their own devices. It is in the long-term national interest to work towards an integrated education system and to discourage any retreat behind the walls of sectarian education ghetto's.  

John Azumah, PhD
Associate Professor of World Christianity and Islam
Columbia Theological Seminary
Decatur, GA – 30030 – USA