London conference’s short-sighted celebration of partial shari’ah in northern Nigeria

Developing Just Leadership

Iqbal Siddiqui

Safar 07, 1422 2001-05-01

Islamic Movement

by Iqbal Siddiqui (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 5, Safar, 1422)

Over the past eighteen months, several Muslim states in northern Nigeria have introduced shari’ah, to Muslim jubilation and non-Muslim consternation. Last month, IQBAL SIDDIQUI attended a conference in London to discuss the ‘Restoration of Shari’ah in Nigeria: Challenges and Benefits’.

When Ahmed Sani, governor of Zamfara State, Nigeria, announced in October 1999 that he would shortly be introducing Shari’ah, most people were taken by surprise. Sani, a wealthy former director general of the state finance ministry, and a career government official, was not regarded as an Islamic figure by any definition; indeed, he had had close links with the military governor of the state under the previous Nigerian regime of Sani Abacha, who had been arrested following the restoration of civilian rule and the election of Olesugan Obasanjo as president. When Sani made his surprise announcement, four months after being elected leader of Zamfara, which itself had been established as a separate state from Sokoto by federal decree less than four years earlier, many cynics suggested that he was playing the Islam card to rally popular support, and possibly to avert his own arrest.

If so, he has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Sani was guest of honour at an International Conference on Shari’ah in Nigeria in London on April 14, along with governors of other Nigerian states who have jumped on the shari’ah bandwagon, including Sokoto and Niger. The theme of the conference, organized by the Nigerian Muslim Conference (UK), was officially Restoration of Shari’ah in Nigeria: Challenges and Benefits, but the mood was much more of triumphal celebration than sober reflection. In fairness, it should be said, this mood owed much to the natural excitement and exuberance of the Nigerian Muslim community in London; but the politicians were happy to encourage it. By the end, they were happy enough to be committing thousands of dollars for the promotion of similar conferences in other parts of the world.

This is not to say that there were no serious contributions, for several speakers — Professor Awwalu Yadadu of Beyero University, Kano, in particular, in his paper Benefits of Shari’ah and the Challenges of Reclaiming a Heritage — discussed the issue in some depth. But most contributions focused on the problems of establishing shari’ah in Nigeria’s states in the context of the federal constitution, rather than discussing the shari’ah itself, and the possibility — even validity — of a partial implementation of some of its laws within the framework of a secular political system.

More typical of the tone of the event, however, was the paper presented by Professor Ali Mazrui of the State University of New York, and a Trustee of the Oxford Centre of Islamic Studies. His paper, Shariacracy and Federal Models in the Era of Globalization: Nigeria in Comparative Perspective, sought to present the movement for shari’ah in northern Nigeria as a reaction to globalizing economic and social factors, particularly the “enlargement of economic scale” and “fragmentation of cultural identities”. He implicitly questioned the position of shari’ah in the “modern” world, and suggested that hudud punishments were out of date and had effectively been declared so by the consensus of modern, secular Muslim states.

In its tone and content, Mazrui’s paper flew in the face of the mood of the conference, which had applauded an earlier speaker’s reminder that a cattle-thief’s arm had been amputated in Zamfara last year. Like other secular Muslims who rise to the top of the West’s academic hierarchy, however, Mazrui is skilled in playing to his audience’s mood, and disguising his true sentiments behind disingenuous words and a jocular tone. That, combined with the audience’s irrational pleasure at having a ‘VIP’ address them, ensured that he was not seriously challenged for his views.

Only two speakers during the day addressed the issue of the processes by which the shari’ah was being introduced, and the problems these raise, and both did so only briefly, as discussants invited to comment on major papers. Dr Abdelwahab El-Affendi of Westminster University, London, questioned Mazrui’s suggestion that the shari’ah movement was a reaction against globalization, and also highlighted the problem of trying to implement shari’ah as part of an “asymmetrical federation” — in other words, within a secular federal state. This, he suggested, was clearly inconsistent with the demand that shari’ah be the dominant force in a community.

He also implicitly questioned the role of the Muslim politicians responsible for introducing shari’ah, suggesting that the shari’ah movement was in reality an “intifada” of Nigerian Muslims: the people were leading their leaders instead of the other way round. The result of this was, he said, a partial implementation of shari’ah that left Nigerian Muslims with the worst of both worlds: they were attacked for supposedly implementing the shari’ah, without getting the benefits of it. He was frankly pessimistic for the future, expressing a vague hope that leaders might emerge to fill the vacuum.

The only speaker all day who explicitly raised the point that shari’ah cannot operate purely in the legal sphere, but needs also to define the political agenda, was Dr Ibrahim Na’iya Sada, of Ahmed Bello University, Zaria, speaking briefly as a discussant during the session on Shari’ah, Federalism and the Nigerian Constitution. Dr Sada pointed out that the separation of law and politics in Nigeria had been instituted under British rule, and had not yet been reversed as shari’ah was operating only within an un-Islamic political system. The key benefit of shari’ah to date, he said, was psychological, the removal of an inferiority complex. What remains to be achieved is the establishment of “a shari’ah agenda in the political sphere” and the articulation of the priorities of Muslims in all aspects of constitutional arrangements in line with shari’ah.

Dr El-Affendi’s measured points were largely lost in the general air of bonhomie generated by Mazrui’s polished and jocular performance. Dr Sada’s bluntness, however, was greeted with cold silence from the platform and muted takbeerat from the audience, many of whom recognised that his points represented a major challenge to the bigwigs claiming credit for their political achievements. They, however, were unfazed, being seasoned politicians used to steamrollering, by-passing or disarming critics with smooth public performances. The final session of the conference opened with Ahmed Sani and other state governors present addressing the conference. Any questions raised in the minds of participants were evidently forgotten, and the session ended on a triumphantly high note.

A week before this conference, Shaikh Ibrahim al-Zakzaky, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Nigeria’s largest Islamic movement, had been in London and had addressed a meeting organized by the Islamic Human Rights Committee. His freedom of action remains restricted since he was released from jail in December 1998, after more than 2 years incarceration. The question of shari’ah inevitably arose during a wide-ranging discussion on the position of Muslims in Nigeria. He pointed out that the so-called introduction of shari’ah was largely cosmetic, representing only minor changes to the legal situation that had previously existed in Muslim areas.

He also pointed out that one effect of the partial and selective implementation of shari’ah was to re-define the word in punitive terms: even non-Muslims in Nigeria now sometimes demand that criminals be “Shari’ah-ed” in serious cases — meaning that they should be harshly treated. Instead of being seen as an instrument for social justice and the ordering of a good society, shari’ah was being given a bad reputation, not least because of its implementation against the weakest and poorest in society, while the privileged are apparently above the law.

Shaikh Zakzaky also pointed out that non-Muslim opposition to the shari’ah had abated, as even they recognised that, in the form it was being implemented in northern Nigerian states, it poses no challenge to the status quo. He quoted one Christian politician as saying that they had nothing to fear from political shari’ah, only from Islamic shari’ah, and there would be nothing to worry about as long as Shari’ah was in the hands of Muslim politicians, rather than Islamic leaders.

Shaikh Zakzaky, of course, was not invited to the celebration of political shari’ah at the Commonwealth Institute a week later. Had he been, the abuse and exploitation of the Shari’ah by Nigeria’s Muslim politicians might have been more effectively challenged. As it is, more conferences of this kind, organized by sincere but misguided Nigerian Muslims to promote a process that ultimately will do nothing for them or for Islam, can be expected in other parts of the world.

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