I would not be writing this defence had it not been for my Muslim community— one community that I hold so dear — joining voices against the Nyege Nyege festival.
And I do not blame them: the things that Nyege Nyege has come to be associated with, rightly or wrongly (sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, binge drinking, erotic dressing and dancing, weed smoking, etc.), are abhorred in the Islamic tradition.
Indeed, Nyege Nyege has come to be understood as the reincarnation of the Greek festival of Dionysus at Mt Olympus, celebrating the god of wine and festival where orgies were a signature act. This past Sunday, churches never missed the opportunity to remind ‘the children of God’ about their obligation to shun evil—such as the upcoming Nyege Nyege festival.
Earlier in the week, during a TV broadcast, I argued for Nyege Nyege. But while I thought mine were simple scholarly positions, my religious affiliation could not be lost on my interlocutors and listeners. Cutting a religious moral hue, John Grace Musila, a proud Rastafarian (ironical?) sternly challenged my decision—as a Muslim—to side with a rather immoral festival.
Yet, he continued to my pride, Muslims remained the most morally-upright people in our time. But it wasn’t Hon. Musila alone. More Muslim friends challenged my position: why would a Muslim take sides with a sexually-promiscuous festival?
While questions of morality tend to be difficult in supposedly “secular” communities, as one would quickly ask “whose morality?” my Muslim interlocutors were speaking from a mutually agreeable discursive field — the Islamic tradition — where right and wrong are explicitly spelled out. But while I take their criticism as firm points of contention, my clarification does not seek to meddle in matters of religious ethic but, rather, the thing called the ‘modern state’ in which we live these religious lives, and savour these sinful festivals.
The modern state has tended to define, regulate and legislate our lives in ways that we continue to find problematic. With the state claiming to have the final word on what is moral, evil, wrong or right, good and bad, it has tended to use this power to include and exclude and oftentimes deny minorities access to the same state to which they so rightly belong.
Sadly, while this modern state has often claimed to be secular, it finds problems accommodating non-conforming traditions, minority groups, and any alternative articulations of our private and public lives.
Just one example: not too long ago — especially after 9/11— to be Muslim was to be backward, barbaric, unethical, and dangerous, needing to be killed if not reformed. Among the other things pointed to as indicative of our backwardness included our ritual five daily prayers, women fashion especially the hijab, ablution (specifically cleaning our underbodies with water after excretion), and polygamy (which is strictly illegal in the articulation of the modern state in most of the Western world), among others.
To this end, in the articulation of this modern state, Muslims did not belong, and states continue to help save or reform these Muslims. How then does my Islamic-inspired morality thrive without prejudice and inhibition in this modern state? The beginning point is actually getting the state away from the otherwise private (but also public) articulations of the lives of individuals or individual groups.
By the individual, I do not mean the individualism of capitalism, nor the individualism of the 1600s European Enlightenment (The arrogance of claiming to liberate an individual from religion and culture only to deliver them to the shackles of the market, slavery and colonialism). But rather, the individual understood as a minority or groups. By this, the individual then becomes a set of practices espoused by moral communities, and these communities could be cultural, legal, religious or simply market-determined.
I am not arguing for secularism (although this would be a good cover if understood as a modernity that guarantees equal access). However, the deception of a secular modern state is that it is actually the ideations of the majority, the interests of the powerful — often inspired by a Christian modernity, and sometimes power or the market.
Thus, as we have seen in France, and the United States, with Muslim women being forced to remove their veils, and black-Americans not only being shot for sport but also structurally disenfranchised, respectively, the secular state terribly fails to overcome its history. It simply becomes a technology of government.
Thus, as a Muslim, interested in protecting ethical articulations of minority groups including my own — especially in a neoliberal modernity — I am unwilling to invite the state to define and legislate morality as regards Nyege Nyege. Or anything.
Let the concerned groups define, regulate and defend their morality. Just as I am unwilling to allow the state define and legislate marriage for Muslims or define and legislate on the practice of inheritance in ways that contravene my Islamic tradition.
This is my business as a Muslim, as the other is the business of the Nyege Nyege moral community. If these Nyege Nyege folks were going to schools and kidnapping our children forcing them to attend their event; if they were going into people’s homes and clobbering them into going to Jinja, that would be absolutely worrisome.
One might ask: what then would be left of the state if it cannot define public and private lives? Upon what does law and order hinge? My contention is not doing away with the state for an anarchic Hobbesian world. Across history, anthropological literature has showed us that humans living together have capacity for generating order, ethics, while at the same time creating space for their minorities without necessarily coercing them into one hostile line.
The author is a political theorist based at Makerere University.