The Next Hotbed Of Islamic Radicalism
Most international attention to extreme Islam in Nigeria has focused on the treatment of women. Amina Lawal and Fatima Usman have been sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery, while another woman, Hafsatu Abubakar, awaits a possible similar verdict. Cyprus has given refuge to pregnant and unmarried Atanda Fatimo lest she suffer the same fate.
But the hard-line version of sharia now being implemented in the dozen states of Nigeria's largely Muslim north has far wider consequences. It is also a threat to men, to democracy and to Nigeria itself.
Previously men have escaped conviction for sexual crimes because Nigeria's sharia courts usually require four reliable witnesses to testify that they saw the act. But Ahmad Ibrahim has been sentenced to stoning because he confessed to adultery with Usman, while Ado Baranda has received the same sentence for rape. The left eye of a man named Ahmed Tejan was removed as punishment for his partially blinding a friend. Abubakar Ali's hand was amputated for stealing.
Since Nigeria's independence, sharia has regulated family and personal law, but the newer versions, introduced largely from the Middle East, are far more restrictive and wider in scope. Since 1999, Zamfara state has required "Islamic" dress and sexually segregated public transportation. It has banned alcohol and closed churches and non-Muslim schools. These regulations are enforced by hizbah (religious police). In July the governor, Ahmed Sani, announced that all residents, including non-Muslims, must begin using Arabic, a language few speak.
Zamfara's state assembly has suspended democratically elected Muslim members who oppose these new laws. The religious police act outside of Nigeria's criminal justice system. The governor has said that sharia supersedes the Nigerian constitution and indicated that Islam requires Muslims to kill any apostate, which could include a Muslim seeking a trial in a civil court. Ruud Peters, who reported on Nigeria's sharia for the European Commission, fears that the new laws are "irreversible," because anyone trying to change them could be charged with attacking Islam.
This extreme version of sharia is provoking the worst violence since Nigeria's civil war 30 years ago. In the past three years, some 6,000 people have been killed in sharia-related conflict nationwide. The governor of Yobe state has said he will keep the new laws even at the cost of civil war. Zamfara has begun buying arms, something only the federal government can legally do, and Sani has called for the sharia states to form their own army to defend Muslims and promote Islam. Coming on top of Nigeria's already deep political divisions and widespread ethnic strife, this could splinter the country, Africa's most populous nation.
This type of sharia is more typical of extreme Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran but has been spreading in Africa, to Sudan, Somalia and now Nigeria. Saudi and Sudanese, as well as Palestinian and Syrian, representatives have visited Nigeria's sharia states and offered them aid.
There are encouraging signs that, in the Middle East, the United States is now less reluctant to push for human rights in Muslim settings. It needs to do the same with Nigeria, encouraging and helping it to oppose extremist sharia. The country needs U.S. aid to reform its troubled legal system and provide an alternative to Islamist education.
There are national-interest as well as humanitarian reasons for doing this. Nigeria has returned to democracy, is the giant of sub-Saharan Africa and is a regional peacekeeper and major oil exporter. The U.S. attempt to substitute West African for Middle Eastern oil will be self-defeating if half of Nigeria succumbs to Islamic radicalism from that same Middle East.
The writer is a senior fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom.
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.