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THE SHARI`A DEBATE:
RELIGION AND POLITICS IN NIGERIA
Interview with Rosalind I. J. Hackett


Born in Birmingham, England, Rosalind Hackett is Professor at the Department of Religious Studies of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and Adjunct Professor at the Department of Anthropology of the same University. She is also the Vice President of the International Association for the History of Religions, a founding member of the African Association for the Study of Religions, and is active as well in a number of other professional associations, such as the American Academy of Religion.

Rosalind Hackett began researching religion in Nigeria in 1975. One of the leading experts on religion in Africa, she is currently writing a book on religious conflict in Nigeria.

Homepage: http://web.utk.edu/~rhackett/


Religioscope - When reading one of your books such as Religion in Calabar (1989),an ethnographic and historical analysis of religious pluralism in the town of Calabar in south-eastern Nigeria, one can see how amazingly diverse the religious landscape in Nigeria can be. This is obviously to a large extent the result of missionary activities by a variety of indigenous or foreign groups, isn't it? And is it correct to conclude that religion really matters in Nigeria?

Rosalind Hackett - The religious diversity and vibrancy of Nigeria can be attributed to a number of factors: it is Africa’s most populous country (it is said that one in every six Africans is a Nigerian); there are at least 250 different ethnic groups with their own languages, cultures, and religious systems; in addition to this indigenous cultural bedrock Islam and Christianity have expanded and taken root since the eleventh and nineteenth centuries respectively.  Then as now Nigerians have been exposed to a variety of Islams and Christianities whether from the Middle East or North or East Africa, or Europe, North America, Korea, South Africa, etc.  But it should be noted that Nigerians are very mobile in search of education and employment, and not only take their religion with them to other parts of their world (the largest church in London these days is a Pentecostal church run by a Nigerian evangelist, Matthew Ashimolowo), but also bring back new ideas and connections.  In this regard, there is a considerable range of spiritual science, usually Eastern-related, esoteric and metaphysical movements, such as the Rosicrucians, Eckankar, Holy Grail, the Aetherius Society.

Religion is indeed part of the fabric of people’s lives, and strongly tied in to their cultural identities, as well as their efforts to survive amidst life’s contingencies and the insecurities of the Nigerian state.  It is difficult to find an atheist in Nigeria!  I would say that the majority of Nigerians support Nigeria’s secular status as articulated in the Constitution.  However this is interpreted to mean that Nigeria is a multi-religious state.  The government must remain neutral with regard to religious organizations but that does not mean non-involvement.  For example, the government provides money to support pilgrimage, and religious buildings.  However the whole issue of “secularism” is increasingly contentious and subject to varying interpretations.

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Religioscope - Islam has been present for a long time already in Nigeria. However, since the late 1970s, there have been increasing tensions and conflicts, and the drive to introduce the Shari'a in several States of Northern Nigeria is deeply resented by Christians. How do you explain this rise in religious militancy? Does it reflect local circumstances, or should one see it within a wider context of "resurgent Islam"?

Rosalind Hackett - It is explained partly by local circumstances, namely political and economic problems, which have driven, people to more revivalist and in some cases more radical forms of Islam.  These are particularly appealing to the youth who are particularly affected by Nigeria’s periods of military rule.  The rise of these types of groups can also be seen in the context of the resurgence of more militant forms of Christianity also.   One can see how they are affected by each other’s strengths and gains, e.g. Christian students becoming more politicized and Muslim students becoming more active in their use of the modern mass media.  There is also a moral dimension to the growth of this more radical Islam and Christianity, namely the protest of the youth against corrupt politicians and the mismanagement of the country’s resources.

Naturally Nigerian Muslims are aware of wider developments in the Islamic world.  I was told by a Muslim university lecturer last August that perhaps up to 10% of all Muslims go the Middle East for some aspect of their education. 

The drive to implement full Shari`a in several northern states in the last three years has been attributed to political ambition, secessionist tendencies, concerns about moral degradation, and religious renewal.  As with everything in Nigeria there is no simple answer.  Just as the political ramifications of this religious initiative were becoming more obvious and the whole thing seemed to be dying down along came September 11 and it picked up steam again.  One has to have a historical perspective though—the call for a full Shari`a has been made in previous republics, particularly at times of constitutional revision, but to no avail.

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Religioscope - While most reports focus on Islam, what is the role and what are the responsibilities of militant Christian groups? More than once, evangelical missionary activities seem to have created serious turmoil in some areas of Nigeria. Does this mean that we might increasingly see Muslim and Christian activist groups opposing each other?

Rosalind Hackett - It is true that we tend to hear more about Muslim violence on Christians but aggressive Christian proselytizing on the part of the newer Pentecostal and evangelical churches and movements, particularly using the mass media, has angered Muslims on a number of occasions.  These newer groups are often self-determined and do not respect the protocols of earlier times in terms of territory, authority, etc.  They see converting Muslims as a real challenge and make much of their ‘trophies’.

The recent report of Human Rights Watch on the Jos riots in early September 2001 indicates that fighting and destruction occurred on a general scale and that it was impossible to determine who initiated the violence.

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Religioscope - The highly publicized case of Safiya Hussaini has sparked outrage from human rights groups and women's organizations worldwide. The verdict has now been overturned on March 25, 2002. In addition, the Federal Ministry of Justice declared on March 21 Shari'a to be unconstitutional, since it is discriminatory (i.e. applies only to Muslims). Why now? Do you see those moves as a direct result of international pressure?

Rosalind Hackett - From what I learned from a recent conference on Nigeria at Harvard Law School which involved several human rights activists, the decision to overturn the verdict on Safiya Hussaini was influenced by the views of moderate Muslims who saw the sentence as too harsh, as well as international public opinion.

The declaration by the new Attorney General that full Shari`a discriminated against Muslims was an interesting twist.  Some state governors have already said they would ignore this citing certain sections of the Constitution which grant powers to the states, e.g. Section 4 (6), Section 4 (7), Section 6 (1), Section 6 (4) Section 277 (1).

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Religioscope - But what are the consequences for the country and the future of internal conflicts? A total of 12 of 19 States in Nigeria's Northern region have extended the jurisdiction of Shari'a law to criminal matters and moral offences in the past two years. The issue seems to be bound to escalate, since it is made a symbol of Muslim self-affirmation.

Rosalind Hackett - It has indeed led to talk of the creation of a separate northern and Islamic state but there are probably far more voices for national integration than for secession.  It is unclear whether it will expand to more states and whether it will become a major issue in the 2003 elections for which electioneering has already heated up.  At any rate it remains a very sensitive issue which most of the participants, including a Chief Judge, were very reluctant to discuss at the above-mentioned conference at Harvard last week.

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Religioscope - In a recent paper, you mention the fact that media have played a role in fanning religious conflict in Nigeria, and that the growth of media coverage and production has accentuated the perception of religious fault lines by projecting them to a national or even international level. According to your observations, this would mean that media coverage could actually contribute to transform local tensions into something much wider?

Rosalind Hackett - There is plenty of evidence of how local conflicts get transformed into national issues by virtue of media coverage, especially if that coverage is particularly biased and provocative which it often can be.  It is important to note that the coverage may be determined by media ownership—i.e. Muslim or Christian.  These incidents of ethnic and religious violence also get reported more internationally because Nigeria is seen by many as a barometer of what is going on in the rest of Africa, and because it represents an interesting case of a country which has moved from being renowned for its religious tolerance up to about 30 years ago to one known the world over for its interreligious tensions and conflict.


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26.04.2002 - Modified 12 May 2002

© 2002 www.religioscope.com
Permission granted to use the article, providing acknowledgment is given.


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