Life seems simpler when we can stereotype and put people and things in a box. But when your mental caricature is challenged by hitherto unknown facts or up close and personal encounters you had better shift your paradigm. Ghana’s new vice-president and his wife are making many re-think what being Muslim could look like.
ORDINARY YET EXTRAORDINARY
My favourite political figures in the whole wide world right now, by far, are the Bawumias. H.E. Dr. Mahamudu and Mrs. Samira Bawumia, the new vice-president and second lady of the Republic of Ghana respectively, have won my heart for a number of reasons; some flimsy others substantial.
When I first met them—in 2007, I believe—there was no scent of active, partisan politics on them yet. They were decent, middle (or perhaps upper-middle?) class Ghanaians simply ‘minding their own business’ and ‘doing life’. Samira was a strikingly gorgeous young woman with her child on admission at my paediatric ward at the 37 Military Hospital in Accra, literally spending her life there while her very responsible, almost-always-suited-up husband was often around like a knight on duty. He was deputy governor of the Bank of Ghana then, I think.
Imagine my shock when I first interacted with her and right at the introductory phase she said, “I know you.”
“Huh?” was the puzzled expression on my face. “You do?” I inquired.
“I was at your wedding,” Samira continued. What? I was pleasantly surprised, I must confess.
I shall not divulge how this beauty queen and her respectable husband got invited to our special day on 12th August, 2006 in this blog lest I digress but suffice it to say I found them such a warm and lovely couple.
A lot has changed since then. By some stroke of fate Mahamudu got invited and accepted the challenge to become the vice presidential candidate for the ‘Republican’ New Patriotic Party in the country. I was on United Nations duty in Cote d’Ivoire during that electrifying two-round election in 2008 monitoring as much as I could from there and making phone calls to some prominent party members on both sides of the political divide. His party lost. In 2012, again they had to concede defeat. Last December things turned in their favour at the polls. Today, Mahamadu and Samira occupy the second most powerful position in the West African state of 26 million Ghanaians! Congratulations to them!
NOT WHAT YOU THINK
What one couldn’t tell by a cursory look at the estimable gentleman and a distraught but dazzling young mother was their intellectual fire power and how well-spoken they could be on a political campaign platform. In fact, many say Ghana finally has her version of Michelle Obama in Samira and I concur!
I’ve read, listened to and watched interview after interview of Dr. Bawumia and Samira and marveled at their rigorous analysis, depth of understanding of the issues affecting the ordinary Ghanaian, and their passion about the solutions they proffer while doing well to stay clear of the much-touted dirt which so often characterizes the politics of insults.
I admire the Bawumias but they baffle me too. I heard Samira, a practising Muslim, lead a Christian worship song the other day before her fiery speech on the campaign trail, not to mention how many of her paradigms and even some of her utterances are outright biblical, like “to whom much is given much is required.” The couple’s intellect, oratorical skills, solid educational background etc. are not in question but I’ve been asking myself, “are they just being ‘politically correct’ and playing to the gallery for the prize of political office?” And I know I’m not the only one wondering: “what manner of Muslims are these?”
I’ve had many close relationships with amazing Muslims. My roommate in my first couple of years at university was a practising Muslim. Abdul Razak will do his prayers in our room and all. We had a great friendship—we still do. [Shout out to “Westsiiiide!”] We both made it to the University of Ghana Medical School and graduated in 2005. Currently I still have several Muslim friends and acquaintances in different circles, including a teeming number of international students across Canada. By the way, Dr. Bawumiah was an international student right here in Canada where I currently serve. He did his PhD in Economics at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Considering my soft spot for international students, you shouldn’t be surprised this is yet another reason I’m fond of him.
Back in Ghana, even as I write this, my mom’s driver, Fahad, who practically lives with my parents as an ‘adopted son’ is Muslim. Many of my mentees I love most are Muslims like Pekan and Maimouna in Cote d’Ivoire (where I lived in the Muslim-majority city of Bouake). So are a significant number of the international students/scholars in Canada from Iran, Algeria, Libya (oh you should meet Hamza!) etc. that my staff and I at ISMC love dearly. Even now Miriam from Iran, who almost single-handedly organized a leadership summit at her university for me to address, comes to mind. So does Manal, a former work colleague and dear friend of our family who hails from Saudi Arabia. And oh, lest you think I’m naïve, I have also encountered those who frankly would’ve killed me for my Christian faith had we met under different circumstances.
Today many major world cities like Calgary (Canada) and London (Britain) have Muslim mayors while the Muslim name of the mayor of Atlanta (USA) didn’t seem to get in the way of his election and re-election. These, among others, have made nonsense of many people’s notion that “A Muslim is…,,” “every Muslim believes…,” “a Muslim does/does not…” Those I feel sorry for right now are the many people who have caricatures in their minds of what a Muslim looks like, especially since 9/11 and with the current ISIS pandemic and get confounded again and again by people and stories they cannot reconcile with their stereotype. This article calls us to think again.
NO ONE SIZE FITS ALL
There isn’t one kind of Muslim. Dr. John Azumah, erudite professor of World Christianity and Islam at Columbia Theological Seminary in the USA and Presbyterian minister is a very good friend and pastor of mine. Being a former Muslim himself and with many of his relatives still practicing Islam I love his wise and discerning approach to the subject.
Azumah presents at least five faces of Islam: missionary, mystical, ideological, militant, and progressive and is quick to add that “these are more like overlapping circles than compartmentalized boxes.” I will encourage you to read his written summary here or listen to a 10-minute summary by clicking here. Basically, the missionary face of Islam comprises those who are gung-ho about the Quaranic text that exhorts Muslims to “summon (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching” (Q. 16:125) thus they actively seeks converts. The mystical face is the “esoteric or spiritual expression of Islam” which “is rooted in a strong belief in the supernatural: the spirit world, miracles, faith healings, dreams, visions, and visitations.” Thirdly, ideological Muslims “emphasize the religion’s legal and political content” and because they believe that “Islam is a complete way of life” not only seek to “Islamize the public sphere” but “take an extreme stance against other worldviews, and teach a radical disassociation from and aversion toward anything non-Islamic.”
John’s description of militant Islam, which thanks to ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and others, has become the generally held view of Islam, is as follows: “Almost always inspired by the teachings of ideological Islam, militants seek to achieve political ends through violence. They draw inspiration from parts of the Qur’an, a romanticized Islamic history, and selected texts and traditions.” John and I are both catalysts for the Lausanne Movement: he for Islam and I for International Students. He has really educated me on how “It is important to note that just because jihadi groups cite Islamic scripture and texts, it does not necessarily make them Islamic.” You should read more on Militant Islam from Prof. Azumah.
Before proceeding any further, however, I must take a pause to comfort the persecuted and condemn the evil of radical Islamic terrorism. While the objective of my article is clear, seeking to dissolve Muslim stereotypes, I also want to be extremely sensitive to the vast numbers of my Christian brothers and sisters who have suffered all kinds of persecution for their faith due to religious extremism. I pray for God’s shalom, uncommon love and great courage and perserverance in their difficult reality. I want them to know that not only do I and many others around the world stand by them in solidarity but also call on the ‘silent majority’ of Muslims like the Bawumias to break their silence and denounce such barbaric acts lest the stereotype that “they are all like that at heart” continues to fester. Such religious aggression is always a lose-lose situation to all humanity.
Finally, the progressive face: “This is the face that genuinely seeks reformation within Islam. Progressive muslims engage in the critical reading of Islamic texts and sourcebooks. They call for independent critical thinking (ijtihad) in place of what they see as blind following (taqlid) by the vast majority of the faithful. Progressives are open to other worldviews and see themselves as engaged in a struggle for the soul of Islam. They defend the rights of minorities and promote gender equality in Muslim-majority countries,” among others.
EVEN AMONG THEMSELVES
As one leading Muslim scholar puts it:
“No one has seen ‘Islam’ in its transparent glory to really judge it. But what we have seen are Muslims: good Muslims and bad Muslims; ugly Muslims and pretty Muslims; just Muslims and unjust Muslims; Muslims who are oppressors, racists, bigots, misogynists, and criminals as well as Muslims who are compassionate, liberators, seekers of an end to racism and sexism, and [among] those who aspire for global justice and equity.”
Prof. Azumah is spot on: “In other words, there are as many “Islams” as there are Muslims.” Indeed, I chanced upon this screenshot (image on left) making the rounds on social media criticizing Samira about her apparel during her husband (vice-president elect) and the president’s swearing-in on 7th January, 2017. That Facebook post was such a stark reminder that even among Muslims (like in any other religion), there are stark differences in opinion and practice and sometimes the different strands don’t even like each other very much! Many commentators electronically rolled their eyes on Facebook in obvious disapproval of this comment.
I would say Ghana’s newest second couple largely present a progressive face of Islam. I don’t know them well enough to tell how much of the other four facets they possess in their minds and hearts. Besides, there is no telling what exactly may make one evolve from one face and phase to another or when that may occur. And again, who knows what agenda others around them, who may be of a different stock, may have in mind for ‘one of their own’?
Some of my own preconceptions about Muslims were blown out of the water in Indonesia (the most populous Muslim country in the world) last year. Some of the shortest skirts and highest heels I’ve seen was in Jakarta! At the Lausanne Younger Leaders conference I was privileged to serve as a mentor at, there in Jakarta, my friend Jason Mandryk, director of Operation World, shocked most of us with this sad and shameful researched fact that “81 percent of the world’s non-Christians don’t personally know a Christian.” In fact, Jason’s predecessor and mentor, Dr. Todd Johnson, even puts it at 86% for Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus who do not know any Christian. So where are the Christian neighbours in our communities and workplaces? This is a shame and this must shift.
This is how another dear friend and Lausanne leader Nana Yaw Offei-Awuku, immediate-past Lausanne regional director for English, Spanish and Portuguese-speaking Africa, feels about this article you’re reading right now: “a great piece that celebrates not only the Bawumias but Ghana as being a great example of ‘neighbourliness’ and calls on all of us to break down our stereotypes in building a global community where appreciation of our common human identity heals us from religious blindness.”
True, life just seems simpler to deal with when we can stereotype, classify and put people and stuff in a box. But when your mental caricature is challenged by an up close and personal encounter or hitherto unknown facts you had better shift your paradigm. First appreciate, respect and love people as the fellow humans that they are. Get to know them as people not just categories. People are people first, before Black/White, Hutu/Tutsi, Gay/Straight, Jew/Muslim, Republican/Democrat… whatever!
There isn’t one kind of Muslim—just like there isn’t one type of Christian. “By their fruit we will know them.”