The Magazine

Radical Islam in Nigeria

From the April 15, 2002 issue: The Talibanization of West Africa.

Apr 15, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 30 • By PAUL MARSHALL
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AFTER SAFIYA HUSEINI was sentenced to death by stoning last October 9 by an Islamic sharia court in northern Nigeria, her case drew international attention. The New York Times Magazine profiled her, and European members of parliament protested to Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo. When, in March, an appeals court overturned the death sentence on a technicality, much of the world sighed with relief and lost interest in the growth of militant Islam in Africa's most populous country.

But the extremism to which Huseini's case drew attention--she had gone to the police to complain of being raped, then was arrested and tried for adultery--remains a growing threat to human rights in the dozen Nigerian states that have adopted a hard-line interpretation of Islamic law. Especially at risk are women and religious minorities, not to mention democracy and stability in West Africa.

Thus, three days before Huseini's conviction was overturned in Sokoto state, a sharia court in neighboring Katsina state condemned Amina Lawal Kurami to be stoned to death for adultery, and another court is considering the same for 18-year-old Hafsatu Abubakar. (This mode of execution, incidentally, involves immobilizing the person to be stoned by first burying her up to her chest.)

Men are invariably let off for their part in these sexual crimes because sharia courts require a higher standard of evidence to convict them. But men face notable brutality for other offenses. In May 2001, an Islamic court ordered the removal of Ahmed Tijjan's left eye after he was found guilty of partially blinding a friend. Another ordered 15-year-old Abubakar Aliyu's hand amputated for stealing. Ahmed Sani, the governor of Zamfara, the first state to introduce this form of sharia, told Freedom House that "without amputations there is no sharia."

The growth of radical Islam has effects far wider than these draconian punishments. Nigeria is about equally divided between Christians and Muslims, with a small number of animists. If radical Islam is left unchecked, it will continue to provoke widespread inter-religious conflict that, combined with endemic ethnic strife, may fragment the country. This could make the giant of sub-Saharan Africa--a major oil exporter to the United States and a new, struggling democracy--into a haven for Islamism, linked to foreign extremists.

As in much of Africa, family law in Nigeria has long drawn on sharia, the body of Islamic law and precedent. But the versions of sharia introduced in the last two years are closer to those imposed by the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia. Since 1999, Zamfara state has sexually segregated buses, taxis, and many public places, banned alcohol, enforced a dress code on women, and closed non-Muslim schools. Its hizbah (religious enforcers) mete out immediate, harsh punishments for "un-Islamic" activities such as questioning Islamic teaching or women's wearing pants.

In some states Muslims are subject to sharia even if they prefer civil courts that have protections under Nigeria's bill of rights. Non-Muslims are barred from being judges, prosecutors, and lawyers in the courts to which they may be subject. Sharia state governments have destroyed dozens of churches.

Sani told Freedom House that the Koran requires Muslims to kill family members who leave Islam, and indicated that his state will not prosecute such killings. Trying to appeal a sharia verdict to one of Nigeria's higher civil courts could be taken as a sign of such apostasy.

The new laws are not subject to democratic control. Since proponents of the new code say that it is divinely ordained, no constitution or election is allowed to challenge it. Sani says that sharia supercedes the Nigerian constitution, and Zamfara's legislative assembly suspended two democratically elected Muslim members because they did not fully support the new laws. Governor Bukar Ibrahim of Yobe, another sharia state, said that he was prepared to fight a civil war to preserve it.

The new laws have precipitated riots throughout the country. February 2000 saw the worst violence since Nigeria's civil war 30 years ago. In Kaduna City, whole neighborhoods were destroyed. Police conservatively estimate that 600 people died; human rights groups say as many as 3,000. Perhaps 6,000 have been killed in the last two years in religion-related violence nationwide.

After September 11, some Islamist violence took on a distinctly anti-American tone. In the cities of Jos and Kano, hundreds died in riots in September and October, with Muslims observed waving bin Laden posters and Christians waving American flags. Bin Laden remains a hero in much of the north.

While no evidence has surfaced of al Qaeda operations in Nigeria, the extremism from which it draws support is spreading rapidly, and is encouraged by radical Islamic groups and foreign regimes. Nigerian police say that dozens of Pakistanis have been involved in religious riots, and visiting Pakistani "scholars" have been ejected from the country. Before Zamfara instituted sharia, officials from Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Syria, and even Palestinian representatives, visited. Sudan, which has already supplied Chechnya's criminal code, is running training programs for Nigeria's sharia judges.

The Nigerian federal government's response has been tentative. Its justice minister has written that the new sharia is unconstitutional but has failed to mount a legal challenge.

Nigeria is further proof, if any were needed, that radical Islam is not created or driven by opposition to U.S. policy on Israel. It is an aggressive, worldwide ideological movement with its sights set on Africa and Asia as much as the Middle East. The situation in Nigeria also provides an additional reason for the United States to drop its 30-year practice of downplaying demands for human rights and democracy in Muslim societies. The United States should urge Nigeria to oppose extremist sharia vigorously and help it to do so. Even hardheaded realists should see the importance of aiding the country to reform its troubled legal system nationwide and provide education that includes modern knowledge and promotes freedom as an alternative to Islamist schools.

Otherwise this fledgling democracy, regional power, and U.S. ally is bound to face further religious violence. As Nigerian novelist and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka laments, "The roof is already burning over our head--the prelude to civil war."

Paul Marshall is a senior fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House, which has just released his book-length report "The Talibanization of Nigeria: Sharia Law and Religious Freedom."