The Ecology of Tolerance
The New York Times look at what it portrays as a humane Sharia regime in Nigeria.
KANO, Nigeria — Just last year, the morality police roamed these streets in dusky blue uniforms and black berets, brandishing cudgels at prayer shirkers and dragging fornicators into Islamic courts to face sentences like death by public stoning.
But these days, the fearsome police officers, known as the Hisbah, are little more than glorified crossing guards. They have largely been confined to their barracks and assigned anodyne tasks like directing traffic and helping fans to their seats at soccer games.
And the reason for this change?
Facing backlash from citizens and criticism from human rights groups at home and abroad, state governments that had swiftly enacted Shariah and embraced its harshest tenets are now shifting the emphasis from the punishments and prohibitions to a softer approach that emphasizes other tenets of Muslim law, like charity, women’s rights and the duty of Muslims to keep their environment clean.
What exactly has this backlash been? News24.com explains:
Sharia courts were active in northern Nigeria for centuries before their power was reduced under British colonial rule. The decision to re-introduce the sharia penal code in 2000 alienated Christian minorities in the 12 states and sparked sporadic rioting that killed thousands.
One of those places was Kaduna.
Theresa Ola, a devout Christian in this majority-Muslim city, walks with me through the rubble of her church.
Only a shell remains of the imposing building. The walls are blackened, the windows smashed and the collapsed roof is open to the sky. Pages of the Bible blow in the wind across the floor. ...
Just as Christian communities have been devastated by the violence, so too have Muslims. Just a few miles away from the church is a feeding centre for many hundreds of Muslims who lost their homes and livelihoods during the riots.
The New York Times describes what it sees as a new Sharia, one open to secular education, the possibility of cleanliness and even environmentalism.
New programs have sprung up to encourage parents to send their daughters to hybrid public elementary schools that offer traditional Islamic education along with math and reading, in keeping with Islamic principles that call for the education of girls. In many of these classrooms, girls outnumber boys, and the United States Agency for International Development is so impressed with the potential of these programs that one third of the schools it supports across Nigeria are integrated Islamic and secular, according to officials at the agency.
State officials are using Islamic exhortations on cleanliness to encourage recycling of the plastic bags that choke landfills and gutters. One governor, citing the Islamic duty to care for the indigent, recently instituted a monthly stipend for disabled beggars.
“Our approach is a humane Shariah, not a punitive Shariah,” said Bala A. Muhammad, director of a state program in Kano called A Daidaita Sahu. The name, a Hausa commandment, means “straighten your rows,” a reference to the razor-sharp lines formed by Muslims as they line up to pray and a metaphor for the orderliness required in everyday life by the Koran.
If a kinder, gentler Sharia is evolving in Nigeria, to which would it primarily be due, "backlash from citizens" or "criticism from human rights groups"? My guess is "backlash from citizens". Whatever changes have been adopted have been probably been because of pressure from the grassroots. Everywhere a local resistance has been been effective against Islamic theocrats it has been forced to become more reasonable. Somalia and most recently Iraq are prime examples of this. An expert on Iran I recently heard speak said it is the only country in the region where crowds spontaneously gather each September 11th to mourn the attack on the World Trade Center. "Ayatollahs have to take off their turbans when they want to take a taxi. If elections were held today not a cleric would be elected for the next generation," he said.
The New York Times article on Sharia touches lightly on some of the reasons it has reformed, but it never goes further.
The shift reflects the fact that religious law did not transform society. Indeed, some of the most ardent Shariah-promoting politicians now find themselves under investigation for embezzling millions of dollars. Many early proponents of Shariah feel duped by politicians who rode its popular wave but failed to live by its tenets, enriching themselves and neglecting to improve the lives of ordinary people.
“Politicians started seeing Shariah as a gateway to political power,” said Abba Adam Koki, a conservative cleric here who has criticized the local government’s application of Shariah. “But they were insincere. We have been disappointed and never got what we had hoped.”
The transformation of hard-line Islamic regimes into softer ones in places as diverse as Anbar province and Nigeria suggests that if the world wants to see a more "moderate" Islam, it is far more effective to support those who take a principled stand against it's excesses than to pander to it's most extremist elements. Ironically, the West's disgusting groveling during the Danish cartoon riots and on many subsequent occasions may have done nothing to attract the "moderates" in Islam. Those moderates would have been far better empowered if Western leaders had told the radical theocrats to shove their demands, lashes, cutting knives and fatwas where the sun don't shine.
The "backlash from citizens" in Anbar Province and Nigeria probably counts for much more than "criticism from human rights groups". It may be possible for the Muslim and non-Muslim world to live in peace; but the odds improve when predators on either side understand that transgressions will not go unnoticed.