When, last week, Amina Lawal was acquitted of charges of adultery by an Islamic-law (sharia) appeals court in Nigeria, much of the world breathed a sigh of relief. If ultimately convicted, she would have been buried up to her chest and then stoned to death.
While we should be extremely thankful about what the verdict means for the poor woman herself, any relief over the place of radical Islam in Nigeria is misplaced. Extreme versions of Islamic law continue to spread in Nigeria and there is pressure throughout Africa for more such laws.
Lawal was acquitted only on procedural grounds, that she had not had the opportunity to give an adequate defense. A similar acquittal occurred earlier in the case of Safiya Tudu. But, in neither instance did the courts say anything that would prevent Nigerian women from being stoned in the future if correct legal procedures are followed. Another woman, Fatima Usman, is currently under death sentence for adultery.
Other cases involve men. Ahmad Ibrahim has been sentenced death by stoning for adultery with Usman, a verdict that was handed down in their absence by an appeals court. Yunusa Chiwaya has been sentenced to be stoned after he confessed to living with his neighbor’s pregnant wife for two weeks. On Tuesday, a 21-year-old man in Bauchi State was condemned to death for sodomy. Ado Baranda has been sentenced to be stoned for rape.
While no stonings have yet been carried out, other inhuman punishments have been. Ahmed Tejsan’s left eye was surgically removed after he had partially blinded a friend. Abubakar Ali’s hand was amputated for stealing. In Zamfara State alone, seven more people are currently under sentence of amputation of their right wrists.
The effects of this extreme version of Islamic law go beyond such draconian punishments. Kano State is demanding that all girls wear a hijab headscarf, and has demolished dozens of churches. After writing an article understood to be critical of Mohammed, journalist Isioma Daniel had a fatwa pronounced against her declaring that all Muslims had a duty to kill her. Over 10,000 people have died in riots and mob attacks protesting sharia since it was first introduced three years ago.
The spread of sharia has gone beyond the twelve northern states that have Muslim majorities. Even where governments have resisted the introduction of Islamic law, Muslim militants have vowed to enforce it through their own organizations. Bolsa Tinubu, governor of Lagos State, and a Muslim, has condemned the new laws and resisted their introduction in his area. In response, local militants in the supreme council for Sharia in Nigeria have set up a “Lagos independent sharia panel” and said that they will enforce the laws themselves.
These new laws also spell the end of any kind of democracy. Their proponents say that they are given directly by God, so that any opposition to them, or to the politicians who introduce them, can be treated as blasphemy or apostasy, both of which could be lead to execution.
Ahmed Sani, the governor of Zamfara, the first state to institute this repressive form of sharia, said in August that his legislation can never be altered. He reacted to the human-rights pleas of a delegation from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch by saying that holy law, which he equated with his own legislation, is beyond alteration by any group or individual. He has threatened to arrest any Muslim preacher who criticized his government’s implementation of sharia.
Meanwhile, many Muslims in Kano have held parties on the anniversary of September 11 to celebrate the attacks on the United States. Nigerian newspapers have reported that Osama bin Laden is more popular than George Bush. Bin Laden himself has called Nigeria’s president, Olusegon Obasanjo, an “apostate.”
The Amina Lawal decision does not show that radical Islam is in retreat in Nigeria. Rather, it shows that sufficient international pressure, including from the United States, can cause the militants to back off for a time.
If relief at the verdict leads to a lessening of international attention, then less humane judgments will soon follow. If external pressure is confined to cases of stoning, without similar attention to the more pervasive destructive effects of reactionary forms of Islamic law, then Nigeria will continue to slide down a road of conflict and chaos.
–Paul Marshall is senior fellow at Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom. He’s reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.