By Farooq A. Kperogi
Yemi Osinbajo has stirred negative emotions in northern Muslims twice in less than a month when he wore shoes to enter a mosque and to enter the bedroom of the mother of the late President Umaru Musa Yar’adua.
That was avoidably boneheaded cultural indiscretion.
From my perspective, it seems highly unlikely that Osinbajo deliberately wanted to outrage the sensibilities of northern Muslims by what comes across as his arrogance and cultural insensitivity.
After all, his visit to a mosque in Kano and to Yar’adua’s aged mother in Katsina were mere political performances designed to court the favor (and, of course, votes) of northern, particularly Hausaphone, Muslims. A man seeking to win your vote is unlikely to go out of his way to offend you.
So, here’s what I suspect happened. Being from southwest Nigeria, which is the most religiously plural part of Nigeria, I’m willing to wager that he knows enough about Muslim cultural practices to know that shoes are mostly unwelcome in mosques and in homes, particularly in bedrooms.
He probably took off—or attempted to take off— his shoes when he entered the mosque and Yar’adua’s mother’s bedroom.
His hosts then probably told him to not bother not because they thought he was too important to take off his shoes but for the fear that his shoes could be stolen, which would be really embarrassing.
Theft of expensive shoes in mosques has become a scourge lately in the entire Muslim world.
Type “shoe theft in mosques” on Google and see what comes up. Even prosperous UAE isn’t exempt from the plague of shoe theft in mosques.
If my suspicion is correct, Osinbajo is emotionally unintelligent and isn’t ready for prime time. An emotionally intelligent politician, conscious of the optics of a pastor-politician wearing shoes inside a mosques and inside an old Muslim woman’s bedroom, would ask that one of his aides hold his shoes while he is barefooted. Of course, if he were a private person that won’t be necessary.
If that isn’t what happened, then he is an even way worse person than I thought he was.
Perhaps, he grew up in what I call ecumenical deserts in southwest Nigeria, by which I mean atypically religiously insular places where, in spite of the religious pluralism of the mainstream society, people grow up knowing only their faith.
Ecumenical deserts are scarce in Yoruba land (which is why I call them “deserts”), but they exist in both Christian and Muslim families.
An intelligent politician would go out of his way to step out of his cultural desert and understand the cultural quiddities of others, which was why Muhammadu Buhari’s decision to not take off his cap when he visited a church drew condemnation sometime ago.
That Buhari grew up in Katsina where there are hardly any Christians is no excuse.
I’ve seen people invoke photos of Muhammadu Buhari wearing shoes in a mosque to explain away or justify Osinbajo’s own inexcusable cultural folly. But this misses many things.
First, it ignores what’s called in-group privilege. For example, the fact that Black Americans call each other “nigga” is no reason a white person should use the term— and then be shocked that Black people’s reaction to it is negative.
Second, the photo of Buhari wearing shoes inside a mosque caused quite a stir in Muslim Nigeria when it first appeared because it’s unusual.
I’d never seen anyone wearing shoes in the mosque until I saw photos of Buhari. It later emerged that Buhari wore shoes inside the mosque—and sat on a chair while everybody else sat on mats—because of health challenges.
Until his health challenges, he never wore shoes to the mosque and never sat on a chair. To compare his wearing shoes to Osinbajo’s is to betray both ignorance and a lack of critical judgment.
It was the debate that Buhari’s photo inspired that led me to realize that although most Muslims don’t wear shoes inside the mosque there is no scriptural requirement that Muslims take off their shoes before they enter a mosque.
I also got to know that because of the incidence of the theft of expensive shoes in mosques, some Middle Eastern Muslims occasionally wear their shoes to pray in mosques after ensuring that the shoes are clean.
But it’s still something of a cultural taboo to wear shoes inside a mosque—and even in people’s living rooms— in most parts of the Muslim world, including in Nigeria.
In Muslim culture, for the most part, the shoe symbolizes filth. In a December 15, 2013, news report titled “Bush shoe-ing worst Arab insult” after an Iraqi journalist threw shoes at former U.S. president George W. Bush during a news conference in Iraq in 2013, the BBC wrote that “The sensitivity is related to the fact [that] shoes are considered ritually unclean in the Muslim faith.”
It added: “In addition to ritual ablutions before prayer, Muslims must take off their shoes to pray, and wearing shoes inside a mosque is forbidden. Shoes should either be left at the door of the mosque, or carried (preferably in the left hand with the soles pressed together).”
You can search the internet for deviations from this norm all you want, but remember that you have no right to tell people what they can be and can’t be offended by.
Osinbajo’s shoe wearing inside a mosque and inside an old woman’s bedroom is causing deep offense all over Muslim Northern Nigeria.
An emotionally intelligent person who is seeking the affection—and votes— of a people should not inflict cultural violence on the people and then try to validate it by saying someone else did it, or that what he did is acceptable in similar communities elsewhere.
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