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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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."