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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 September, 2003, 12:08 GMT 13:08 UK
Islam in Nigeria: Your questions answered
You sent your questions to BBC correspondent Dan Isaacs in response to his piece 'Islam in Nigeria: Simmering tensions'. He answers a selection of them below.

Q. Wale Yusuf, Nigeria:
I am a young, liberal, Muslim who has travelled the length and breadth of Nigeria. I disagree with your view that Muslims and Christians are roughly of the same population. The north is predominantly Muslim and even in the west, there is a substantial Muslim population. How can we then have such a population distribution as you have espoused?

A. Dan Isaacs:
Nigeria's population and religious distribution has always been hotly contested, particularly as there has never been an accurate national census held to determine the religious make-up of the country. This has a great deal to do with politicians on all sides having strong vested interests in manipulating the results in order to gain influence and skew electoral boundaries. So the assertion that there are approximately the same number of Muslims as Christians is indeed only an estimate. It has however been used as a rough guide to the country's religions not only by successive Nigerian governments but also by international bodies that keep data on Nigeria's population.

Q. Ibrahim Abdullahi, Nigeria:
I strongly disagree with the view expressed in this article that recent religious upheavals are unconnected with events elsewhere. In fact recent events in the Middle East and Afghanistan have contributed immensely to radicalising a large percentage of Nigerian Muslims and further drawing a wedge between them and the Christian population. This was highly evident during the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq where you could see people of the two religions taking opposing sides. In fact to say recent world events have not radicalised the Nigerian Muslim is to deny the obvious. What is your reaction?

A. Dan Isaacs:
What I have tried to do in the article, is make the point that the increased tensions between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria in recent years have less to do with the radicalisation of either community, and far more to do with the opportunistic nature of some of the country's would-be political leaders exploiting existing tensions between communities over access to jobs and resources.

Not once, during the many inter-religious clashes I covered over the past two years, did I hear ordinary people on either side talk about the spark for conflict being over an ideological or theological disagreement. I heard this argument from religious leaders, certainly, but not from people within the opposing communities. That is not to deny many Nigerian Muslims have been angered and even radicalised by the US-led 'War on Terror', but the roots of conflict in Nigeria have always been economic and political, not religious.

Q. Chukwumerije Okeoma, New Zealand:
Your story is good, at least from an outsider's point of view. But the war in Afghanistan was also fought in Nigeria. A few days after the war started, some elements that saw the war as a war against Islam, went on the rampage in Kano, burning churches and a number of Christians were killed in the process. In other places in the world, only American flags and George Bush's lethargy were burnt, but in Nigeria innocent Christians were killed. To me, it was difficult to understand why a war fought in far away Afghanistan between coalition forces on one hand and Taleban and terrorist fighter on the other hand, would translate to Nigerians killing themselves. What effect did this have on relations between the Muslim and Christian communities?

A. Dan Isaacs:
I think the extent of anti-US protest by Nigeria's Muslims has been greatly exaggerated. There were indeed strong fears that the war in Iraq would inflame widespread conflict between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria. These fears were heightened because the war in Iraq coincided with the run-up to the Nigerian elections with all the instability that has previously entailed. However these fears were not realised, and the few protests that did occur were small and isolated. By Nigerian standards, these elections passed off remarkably peacefully.

What I find most revealing, is that in recent months the spate of so-called 'religious clashes' across northern Nigeria have effectively come to an end, despite the continued and no-less controversial presence of US-led forces in Iraq. If it were the case that Nigeria's Muslims had been 'radicalised', wouldn't there be signs of increased tensions now? I still strongly believe that despite attempts by some radical leaders to stir up tensions, ordinary Nigerians are more concerned with economic survival than taking on theological battles.

Q. Dan Gowon, Nigeria:
Dan Isaacs' article is well written but failed to outline any solutions or to find the root causes of the problem. Like many outsiders to Nigeria, he failed to point out that the whole problem can be linked to poverty and opportunists. Nigeria never had violent political struggles until recently (1984). The President of Nigeria, I believe, has failed the Nigerian people by allowing radicals to try and bring about a two-constitution country. The governors that implemented Sharia should have been tried for treason because this is what they did.

A. Dan Isaacs:
I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment of this email that many, if not all, of the tensions within Nigeria can be linked to extreme inequalities of wealth and the greed of opportunist politicians. This message is fairly explicit in my piece and indeed it concludes with the sentiment that 'the economic and social divisions within Nigerian society remain as wide as ever, providing fertile ground for future tension and unrest'.

As for Mr Obasanjo's stand on Sharia, many of his critics have challenged him to tackle important human rights issues relating to the criminal punishments of stoning and amputation. Mr Obasanjo's defence of his position: that all faiths have the right to live within their own belief-system in Nigeria's multi-religious society, sits very uneasily with the human rights values enshrined in the constitution. Moreover, if an appeal against a conviction for death-by-stoning does eventually reach the Supreme Court in Abuja, then the constitution and more to the point, the non-interventionist position of Nigeria's federal government will be seriously challenged.

Q. Ebube Chukwunonso, Italy:
If Nigeria is a secular state as we are meant to believe, where is the room for adoption of Sharia in some states? Also, if today we presume Sharia is binding only on Muslims, who is sure of what will happen tomorrow, and what the position of the Nigerian constitution in those Sharia states will be? Could the adoption of Sharia in some states not be understood to imply: "Nigeria, a united nation in diversity", and if so, is it not better to separate the different cultural ethnic groups so as to give freedom to the Islamic fanatics?

A. Dan Isaacs:
The Nigerian constitution allows for the different faiths to practice their religion freely. It is this that has allowed radical Muslims to adopt laws in 12 northern states that extend Sharia into their criminal justice systems. These Islamic laws do not extend to non-Muslims, who are bound by the existing criminal laws of the state and federation. However, many Christians in the north do certainly fear what they perceive as the steady Islamisation of the north as a result of the adoption of Sharia.

It should also be recognised that many ordinary Muslims are becoming disenchanted with the implementation of Sharia. They were promised by the politicians a fairer system of justice, but now see Sharia as little more than another means by which the poor suffer and the rich escape punishment.

The idea of separating Nigeria's ethnic or religious groups in order to solve its tensions is certainly not new, and the consequences would be appalling. Nigeria's ethnic and religious communities are so inextricably intertwined across the nation's 36 states, that any attempt to 'give freedom to the Islamic fanatics' would effectively provide an opportunity for ethnic or religious cleansing, and force a mass population movement with devastating consequences. Fortunately for Nigerian unity, there is no sense in which the politicians or religious leaders of the north want to be 'separate', since this part of Nigeria derives most of its income through the oil revenues of the southern states.

Q. Abu Abdurrahmaan, Australia:
Unfortunately journalists in the West today continue to align themselves with Christian fundamentalists. If you think that Sharia law is too strict when it imposes the stoning to death of married women or married men who actually committed adultery then let me ask you one question: How do you account for all the moral failings in the West? There needs to be a strict set of values imposed upon society. Hope you'll think a little more about the world around you and I invite you to search for the truth!

A. Dan Isaacs:
The only response I have to this is to say that any Muslim who truly believes in the Sharia punishment of death-by-stoning for adultery should consider this: why are all those convicted in Nigeria from poor rural backgrounds; why are almost all of them women; and why is the justice system that convicts them repeatedly exposed as being as corrupt and poorly managed as the system it replaced? If Sharia is the imposition of a moral set of values, where then is the welfare system that Sharia espouses? The politicians that have extended the Sharia system in northern Nigeria over the past few years have hardly even paid lip-service to this central moral tenet of Sharia.

Q. Nancy Herring, USA:
I would like to have a couple of issues addressed: First, what exactly does the imposition of Sharia entail? I know that it is the legal code of Islam but what are its contents? I understand that there are several schools of Islamic jurisprudence, but how do they differ? Are there any interpreters of Sharia that are explicitly trying to harmonize Sharia with ideas about rights of women, non-believers and other human rights questions like punishment?

A. Dan Isaacs:
These are important but very large issues. I am not an expert in Islamic law, and all I can do here is point you in the right general direction. Of the several schools of Islamic jurisprudence, Nigeria has adopted the 'Maliki' interpretation. This school has the strictest view of the most controversial of all the Sharia punishments - the stoning to death of a woman for adultery. The burden of proof is on the court only to prove that a previously married woman has conceived a child of wedlock. No witnesses are required no other evidence need be brought to the court. However, for the man involved in such a case, no less than four male witnesses are required to have witnessed the actual act of adultery - a burden of proof designed to make it virtually impossible for him to be convicted without an actual confession.

As for attempts to harmonise Sharia with the rights of women, some of the legal teams appealing Sharia convictions see their work as that of reforming the laws so that women are treated fairly under Sharia. Typically these are Muslim lawyers, some of them women, working for NGOs funded by international human rights organisations. But it has to be said that these lawyers are few and far between, and it's generally recognised that a lawyer who gets involved with the Sharia appeal courts is not doing his or her career any favours, in what is an extremely conservative profession.

Q. Sakina Rawther, 15, Malaysia:
In the past Muslim countries all around the world have had very few problems regarding theft and corruption, due to the fact that they exercise Sharia law. People in the West fail to understand that when adultery has been committed the people cannot stone the woman or man who committed the sin unless he/she confessed to the wrongdoing or there were several witnesses. The same goes with theft, if the thief does not admit his wrongdoing or if there were not any witnesses his arms cannot be amputated. Islam is a very just belief, it is you who chooses whether you want to see it as good or bad. Is there an agenda in the West to misrepresent Sharia?

A. Dan Isaacs:
I can only be specific about Nigeria's implementation of Sharia, and much of what you say does not apply in Nigeria's northern states. For the conviction of a woman for adultery, there is no need for a confession. As stated earlier, evidence of pregnancy is all that is required. And as is becoming clear from the various appeal hearings for those convicted of adultery, the legal system in Nigeria is extremely weak and judges poorly trained. This is not a criticism against Sharia or Islam, but rather against the inadequacy of Nigeria's justice system.

Q. Adiele Nwachuku, USA:
Why didn't you point out to your readers that President Obasanjo erred in not fighting the introduction of Sharia hard enough? People need to realize that 30 to 40% of the residents of northern Nigeria are not Muslims, and so having two separate codes of justice there is wrong. Nigeria is a secular country, and should be governed in accordance with the constitution, which guaranties freedom of religion to all its citizens.

A. Dan Isaacs:
It's certainly a valid point that Mr Obasanjo has resisted challenging Sharia right from the beginning. He has said that the constitution does not allow the federal government to intervene in the state legal system, and that since Sharia has been adopted at state and not federal level, he does not have the power to intervene. However, this is an extremely controversial position, and members of his own government have directly challenged it. For now, however, Mr Obasanjo, a devout Christian, appears set to allow the Sharia states to consolidate their position. To challenge them, he believes, would be to undermine his delicate position balanced between Muslim and non-Muslim camps. As this email suggests, many non-Muslims in the north feel threatened by the imposition of Sharia laws in their states, but it is not something Mr Obasanjo appears likely to address during his remaining time in office.

Q. Gerard, Europe:
Could you detail the demands of politicised Islam in Nigeria and how these have been addressed by President Obasanjo's administration? Your article leaves me with the strong impression that Nigeria has stabilised as a result. Is there any sense in which this stability can be a model for other African and Islamic nations such as Chad or Indonesia?

A. Dan Isaacs:
I'm not sure how I give the impression that Nigeria has 'stabilised' as a result of the extension of Sharia in the north. Three years down the road, there is substantial disillusion expressed by many ordinary Muslims about the Sharia project, and increasing fears from Christians in the north that they are becoming increasingly marginalised as a community. If that's stability then it's not a particularly progressive form of it. 'The demands of politicised Islam'? For that I think should be read, rather cynically, the demands of politicians in the north, who have successfully achieved or maintained power through the introduction of a Sharia system which they promised would bring greater justice and equality but which has in practice brought little change to the lives or ordinary people. And in answer to how these demands have been addressed by Mr Obasanjo's government, quite simply they have been tolerated in order to get Mr Obasanjo into the position he's in today and to allow him to remain there. Without the support of northern Muslim politicians, Mr Obasanjo would never have been elected in 1999 nor re-elected in 2003.


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