Zealotry Is Never A Pretty Picture by Salim Muwakkil

The tragic events surrounding the beauty pageant in Nigeria would appear to confirm the Rev. Jerry Falwell's assertion that violence is inherent to Islam. On Nov. 20 in Kaduna, a city in northern Nigeria, Muslims began rioting over a newspaper article they said blasphemed Prophet Muhammad, by writing he might have married a contestant.

By the time it was over, the violence had claimed at least 220 lives and injured more than 500 people. The Nigerian Red Cross estimated that more than 30,000 people were displaced.

The offending article focused on the Miss World pageant, scheduled to take place in Nigeria because it is the home of last year's winner. The pageant was hastily relocated to London and will take place as originally scheduled on Dec. 7.

In his article in ThisDay, a young reporter named Isioma Daniel, among other things, dismissed Muslims' criticisms that the pageant was immoral, and suggested that Prophet Muhammad probably would have chosen a wife from the contestants.

It took a few days for the words to sink in and then, according to accounts in various news services, a group of Muslim youths torched the newspaper's offices and then attacked churches and other Christian establishments. At least 58 churches in Kaduna reportedly suffered damage in the attacks.

Christians began retaliating two days later, "giving Kaduna's mosques similar treatment," The New York Times noted. Nigerian Muslims said the article blasphemed Prophet Muhammad and the government of the neighboring, mostly Muslim, Zamfara state issued a "fatwa," or Islamic religious decree, calling for Daniel's death.

"It's a fact that Islam prescribes the death penalty on anybody, no matter his faith, who insults the prophet," said Umar Dangladima, Zamfara's information minister. Sectarian violence is becoming more frequent in this northern region of Nigeria, over the imposition of Islamic Sharia law, in many of the nation's northern states.

Kaduna, which has a Christian population of about 40 percent, is no stranger to faith-based bloodshed; riots over Sharia killed about 2,500 people in 2000. Prior to the most recent explosion, Nigeria had been enmeshed in controversy after a Sharia court in another northern state sentenced a woman convicted of adultery to be stoned to death.

Some members of the Miss World entourage had criticized the court's verdict, and that added to the enmity Muslims already felt about the skin-baring pageant. Nigerian officials had struggled mightily to host the widely celebrated event. Tarnished by tales of corruption, inefficiency, sectarian violence and now, medieval methods of punishment, Nigeria desperately needed the kind of good publicity a successful pageant could provide.

Instead, the troubled nation became Exhibit A for demagogues like Falwell who seek to portray Islam as inherently intolerant and violent. Muslims likely will dismiss people like Falwell as irredeemable bigots and attribute the events in Nigeria to the behavior of immature fanatics.

But until Muslim leaders begin denouncing such savagery in unequivocal terms and presenting alternative images of Islam, Falwell's views will find fertile soil.

In fact, Islam has no monopoly on violent adherents. Adherents of Jesus Christ and Moses also have their own atrocities to live down. The anti-Muslim riots by Muslims in the Gujarat region of India reminded us that followers of Vedic scripture also are susceptible to the disease of religious violence. But there's no denying that the events in Nigeria--combined with the recent links between some radical Muslims and terrorist attacks--put Islam in the global spotlight.

The real question behind these concerns about terrorism is this: Is Islamic piety compatible with the pluralistic values essential for multicultural societies?

This is not an easy question for any religion. Christian fundamentalists in this country have consistently argued that America's secular culture is an evil imposition on their way of life; they insist this is a Christian nation and should act like it.

All believers are convinced that their particular faith is God's word. In a nation of varying belief systems, those sectarian convictions can clash: see Nigeria, Belfast, and Indonesia. But if we are to survive these zealous, sometimes jealous belief systems, we are obligated to maintain pluralist civil societies where sectarian differences can be peacefully mediated. Nigeria's violence is an important lesson for the world's 1.2 billion Muslims; humanity's future depends on whether they are able to learn it.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times and a regular contributor to The Chicago Tribune and can be reached via e-mail at: Salim4x@aol.com

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Note: This article originally appeared in The Chicago Tribune on Monday, December 2, 2002

Salim Muwakkil

Wednesday, December 4, 2002