By: Sani Suleiman
I have just spent five months in Rome where I came for a course at the Angelicum University in order to deepen my understanding of the Catholic perspective on Inter-religious Dialogue and on Christianity in general. This experience has exposed me to new insights and perspectives about the work of justice and peace. My stay with the Missionaries of Africa has been another learning experience. I have been blessed to be their guest and associate. Yes, I am a practicing Muslim and they are committed Catholics, yet I saw the common humanity and the common mission of working for a just, fair, peaceful and better society for all people of God.
I was born in a devoted Muslim family in the city of Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria. I started attending Qur’anic school and learning about other Islamic traditions at the age of four. My primary, secondary, polytechnic and university studies were in Jos. My father had no formal schooling but gave me the opportunity that shaped my life. He died in 1985 and my mother continued from where he stopped.
Jos was a beautiful city with very good weather so it was no wonder it came to be known as “Home of Peace and Tourism.” Its inhabitants coexisted peacefully for decades in spite of their different tribal and religious backgrounds. I grew up with Christian neighbors and friends both at home and in school. My best friend at secondary school, Anthony, was Christian. During my secondary school studies, I attended compulsory lessons on Christian Religious Studies and this gave me the chance to learn about the Bible and Christianity.
I remember one Christian girl in my class who wanted to tell me something but never dared to say it. One day I insisted that she tells it to me. She said, “I love you so much and the way you do your things but I wish you would receive Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, then you would be complete!” I smiled and thanked her for her courage and kind words. I then said to her, “I am a Muslim and all that you mentioned about me were taught to me by Islam!” We remained good friends until our graduation. Surely all these experiences have marked my life.
In 2001, Jos experienced the first major violent conflict of its history. We had violent conflicts before but of lesser magnitude in terms of material destruction and loss of lives. Unfortunately, these conflicts often take ethnic and religious dimensions even though the deep root causes are economic and political. The city, which was hitherto referred to as the “Home of Peace and Tourism,” became the theater of bloodshed and destruction for a decade!
During that time, I was the chairperson and coordinator of the Muslim Youth Council in Plateau State and its National Assistant Secretary General. These roles made me believe that the Christians were the bad guys and the Muslims were always the victims. This belief became even stronger when I lost a childhood friend and a male cousin who were killed in one of the violent conflicts. Therefore, whenever there was any opportunity for me to appear in any gathering or on a radio or a TV, about this conflict, I made sure that I used it to assert and defend the position of the Muslims. As a leader, that is what my group and community expected of me. I became very famous among my people and was seen as a very brave and brilliant young leader.
In 2002, I attended a workshop on conflict management and peace building organized by a non-governmental organization in Jos. Among the participants, there was a Catholic priest from the Justice, Development and Peace (JDPC) office of the Catholic Archdiocese of Jos. The first day was tense, each side, Christians and Muslims, asserting themselves in opposition to the other. Towards the end of the workshop, the priest and myself became closer to one another and we started talking to each other. We had understood that both Muslims and Christians were affected in the same way by this incessant conflict. We realized that our communities were both victims and perpetrators of violence and needed to do something together to salvage the situation. We were able to see beyond our primary zone, hence the commitment to work together.
Subsequently, we started Muslim-Christian collaboration, on voluntary basis, in the areas of relief work for the internally displaced persons in the various camps across the State. We began monitoring early warning signs of conflict, training our members in peace and conflict management and organizing inter communal dialogue . All these activities help in reducing tension in our communities.
In 2007, after consultation with my Imam and family, I accepted the invitation to work full time with the JDPC. My decision received mixed reactions from my Muslim community. For some it was a compromise to my faith while for others it was a courageous initiative.
My work as the Program Manager of the “Peace Building and Conflict Transformation” project involves working with communities and groups across religious, ethnic and gender lines; building bridges, building capacity, creating awareness and providing platforms for constructive engagement for peace and peaceful co- existence. I am closely working with the Chief Imam and the Catholic Archbishop of Jos on dialogue, peace and reconciliation efforts.
I continue to draw my inspiration and motivation from the Qur’anic teachings that encourage Muslims to stand for justice and peace, acknowledge all humanity as creatures of God and to collaborate in promoting what is good and discouraging what is evil.
I am greatly motivated by my family. Without the support, understanding, and prayers of my mother, wife, and two daughters, it would not have been possible. The passion that continues to animate my heart, especially whenever I see hope rekindle on the faces of individuals and groups that I am working with, keeps me moving.
There are many challenges and obstacles, which include increasing violence due to radicalization and politicization of religion, bad governance, corruption and other systemic/structural imbalances in our society. However, in spite of that, I continue to see success and hope in the work that I am doing because hearts are still connecting across conflict fault-lines. Interfaith effort is a powerful tool and an integral part of justice and peace.