National Review Online

Outside Encouragement: Sharia rules Nigeria—with the help of foreign Islamists.

Senior Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom

It is a pretty good rule of thumb that where you find Muslim extremism, Islamist terrorism, and women being sentenced to death by stoning, there you will find Saudi funds and Saudi-trained personnel. One exception to this rule has been Nigeria, but now evidence of Wahabbi mischief is surfacing there as well.

Since the governor of Zamfara State, Alhaji Ahmed Sani, introduced a draconian version of sharia in 1999, 11 of Nigeria's 36 states have followed suit. Five women have been sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, though no punishment has yet been carried out. Thieves have had their hands amputated by court order. One man had his eye removed after accidentally blinding a friend (he could have escaped this by paying 60 camels, but the injured party wasn't interested in the camels).

Under these sharia dictates, women are harshly subjugated. In northern Nigeria, they have been forbidden to rent houses and barred from riding motorbikes or traveling in the same vehicles as men. Taxi drivers have been caned for carrying female passengers. Zamfara requires all high-school girls to wear a hijab and bars them from wearing skirts and other "Western" forms of dress. State officials have advocated public flogging of those violating an "Islamic" dress code. Prostitution charges have been leveled at women merely for the crime of being unmarried after the age of 13. Judges in Bauchi State have told women to get married immediately or be sent to prison. One judge ordered four of them to pick out husbands from among the men in the court. Women are at a particular disadvantage in these criminal prosecutions since their testimony usually counts for only half that of a man.

Non-Muslims, usually Christians, have become second-class citizens. Their taxes pay for Islamic preachers, while hundreds of churches have been closed by government order. Last week, Sani announced that all "unauthorized" places of worship in Zamfara State would be demolished. Those who exercise their right under the Nigerian constitution to change their religion from Islam are threatened with death, a punishment for apostasy under sharia law. The Catholic and Anglican churches have had to set up protected centers for converts.

This spread of radical Islam has also led to riots, mob attacks, and vigilantes, producing the largest death toll in Nigeria since the civil war over Biafra in the 1960s. Over 10,000 people have died in the last four years in sharia-related violence — perhaps over 1,000 in the central states this year alone.

Recent months have seen the emergence of more organized militias. In early January, in Yobe State, there was an uprising by a group calling itself the "Taliban," led by a "Mullah Omar," and demanding an Islamic state. It took several hundred troops two weeks to put it down.

Foreign groups have been aiding the institutionalization of Islamic law. Saudi, Sudanese, Syrian, and Palestinian representatives appeared with Governor Sani in the days before he announced his plans for sharia. The Jigawa State government has sent Islamic judges for training in Malaysia and Sudan. The government of Katsina State has sent a delegation to Sudan to study its laws. Other states have been offered assistance from some these same countries as well as from Iran and Libya.

In January, the Saudi religious and cultural attaché in Nigeria, Sheik Abdul-Aziz, said that his government had been monitoring the implementation of sharia in Nigeria and noted the results "with delight."

There is also evidence of infiltration by foreign Islamic radicals. According to some reports, extremists from neighboring Chad were involved in the July 2001 violence in Bauchi State. In November 2001, Nigerian police arrested six Pakistani preachers, accusing them of inciting religious violence in Ogun state. The police have announced that scores of Pakistanis have been arrested in different parts of the country for allegedly fomenting religious trouble since 9/11. Church spokesmen in Plateau State said last month that local Muslim extremists have brought in thousands of mercenaries from Niger and Chad to invade Christian towns and villages.

However, despite repeated rumors, there has until this year been little evidence of organized foreign support for violence and domestic terrorism. Now such evidence is appearing. On February 3, the Nigerian government announced that an unnamed Iranian diplomat was arrested on January 23 in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, after he was found taking photographs of Churches, a presidential villa, the defense headquarters, and the Israeli, British, and American embassies.

The usually reliable news service Compass Direct reports that one of January's "Taliban" raiders, Muslim cleric Alhaji Sharu, confessed to police that he was a middleman between Nigerian extremists and the Al-Muntada Al-Islami Trust, a Saudi funded "charity" headquartered in Britain. Sharu said that the Trust's money had been used to propagate a Wahabist version of Islam in Nigeria and fund religious violence.

Subsequent investigation by Nigeria's police led to "the discovery of financial transactions running into millions of dollars" between Sharu and the Trust's local head, a Sudanese businessman named Muhiddeen Abdullahi. Authorities arrested Abdullahi on February 20, accusing him and the Trust of financing attacks on Christians, including the January Taliban uprising.

When authorities released Abdullahi 10 days after his arrest, more than 5,000 Qadiriyya Sufi Muslims, the largest tradition within Nigerian Islam, mounted a protest march. Chanting "Allahu Akbar" ("God is Great"), demanded that Wahabbis be banned from the country. Their spokesman, Abduljabbar Nasiru Kabara, told journalists, "As a matter of urgency, the state government should close the office of Al-Muntada Al-Islami because of its activities which have resulted in religious unrest in Nigeria."

If Nigeria's moderate Muslims can call for the rejection of Saudi interference, there is nothing stopping the Nigerian government from doing the same, and little stopping the U.S. government from encouraging it to do so.