On June 3, Amina Lawal appears before a sharia (Islamic law) appeals court in Katsina State in Nigeria. The court will decide whether to uphold her conviction for adultery and sentence to death by stoning. She is one of four women facing this fate.
Westerners usually notice the growth of radical Islam in Africa only when such hideous sentences occur, or when there are other travesties — such as the call for the death of journalist Isioma Daniel for allegedly insulting Mohammed in a newspaper article during the Miss World finals last October. However, Islamic extremism threatens not only individuals, but also Nigerian democracy itself.
Nigeria, which is about half Muslim, faces a nationwide campaign to install an extreme version of Islamic law reminiscent of Iran, Saudi Arabia, or the Taliban. Since 2000, the twelve northern states, which are majority Muslim, have introduced sharia, provoking religious violence in which over 10,000 people have died and a quarter of a million forced into refugee camps. President Olusegon Obasanjo, who was reelected in April, is opposed to extreme sharia. However, his victory may make little difference. So far he has failed to take effective action to counteract the extension of Islamic law, whose supporters have threatened to ignore both democracy and the constitution.
Since its proponents believe that the law has been handed down directly by God, they say that no legislature or any other democratic organ can be allowed to question or challenge it. As in Iran, there might still be elected officials, but they will have no power over the law or over religious judges, and critics may even be charged with blasphemy, a capital offense, as has happened in Sudan, Iran, and the new Afghanistan.
In Daniel's case, Mamuda Shinkafi, the deputy governor of Zamfara, the first Nigerian state to introduce strict sharia law, issued a religious decree that her "blood… can be shed." The Nigerian federal government responded that the decree would not be enforced, but it is not clear how they can stop it. Shinkafi ruled that killing Daniel is the "religious duty" of "all Muslims wherever they are." Like the similar fatwa against the novelist Salman Rushdie by the Ayatollah Khomeini, it claims to have universal jurisdiction so that any fanatic can kill her in any place at any time.
The push for sharia is now tearing apart the center of the country, which is equally divided between Christians and Muslims. In December, Lateef Adegbite, secretary general of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, said that sharia would also be introduced in the southwest, where Muslims are a minority. Officials in Kano, the major northern state, say their goal is to have 19 of Nigeria's 36 states adopt their version of Islamic law and then use this majority to impose it on the entire country.
If this happens, Nigerian democracy, already weak after years of military rule and manipulated elections, will have collapsed.
The U.S. has committed itself to supporting democracy in the Muslim world, one of the stated reasons for the Iraq war. This is a tough, and likely long and messy, job. But it will be longer and messier if, as we struggle to foster democracy among Muslims in one place, we stand by while it disappears in another part.
There are already democracies in the Islamic world. For all their defects, Muslim majority countries as disparate as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey, and Mali are democratic. But these states, like Nigeria, are challenged by the rise of extremist forms of Islam while the U.S. seems to pay little attention. Since preserving democracies is usually easier than creating them, this is a grave mistake.
U.S. concerns in West Africa have focused largely on oil. Nigeria is a major exporter itself and lies at the center of the world's fastest-growing exporting region. American companies are deeply committed to an oil pipeline along its eastern border in Cameroon, to bring oil from its northern neighbor Chad. Just offshore are perhaps the world's largest untouched oil basins. The U.S. gets 15 percent of its imported oil from Africa and this could rise to 25 percent in coming years.
America seems to have learned that it must be concerned about more than oil in the Arab world. If we do not apply that lesson in Africa as well, then, regardless of what happens in Iraq, the result may be fewer Muslims living under democracy than before.