A Case of Alleged Blasphemy in Kano, Nigeria

Around May 15, a Muslim preacher named Abdul Nyass gave a controversial sermon in Kano, the most populous city in northern Nigeria. Nyass belongs to the Tijaniyya Sufi order. He allegedly stated that Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (1900-1975), a Senegalese Muslim who revived and popularized the Tijaniyya across West Africa in the mid-twentieth century, was greater than the Prophet Muhammad. The remarks were made at a celebration of Ibrahim Niasse’s birthday. The incident set off an extended and ongoing intra-Muslim controversy in Kano.

Here is a timeline of events:

  • Circa May 15: Abdul Nyass’ alleged sermon glorifying Ibrahim Niasse over the Prophet. Conflict breaks out and Nyass, together with some of his followers, is arrested.
  • May 20: Two major Nigerian leaders of the Tijaniyya, Shaykhs Dahiru Usman Bauchi and Isyaku Rabiu, dissociate themselves and the Tijaniyya from Abdul Nyass and his statements.
  • May 22: “Thousands of youth” burn down the court in the Rijiyar Lemo neighborhood of Kano where Abdul Nyass and his followers are set to appear; other youth burn down Nyass’ house in Kano; other youths attempt to storm Government House and Emir Muhammadu Sanusi II’s palace.
  • May 29: Inauguration of Kano State’s new governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje
  • June 25: The Upper Shari’a Court in Kano sentences Abdul Nyass and eight of his followers to death for blasphemy; four others were acquitted.
  • June 29: Governor Ganduje announces his support for the court’s verdict.

Some context and reflections:

  • Kano is a significant site of inter-religious and intra-Muslim disputes. Such incidents do not happen on a monthly or even yearly basis, but this case is not the first: one example of Muslim-Christian conflict is the October 1991 riot that occurred in response to plans for a visit to Kano by the controversial Christian preacher Reinhard Bonnke, and one example of intra-Muslim conflict is the 2007 arson at Freedom Radio station.
  • The Tijaniyya is one of the largest Sufi orders in the world and one of the most important Muslim constituencies in Nigeria as a whole and Kano in particular. Emir Ado Bayero (1930-2014, ruled 1963-2014) belonged to the Tijaniyya, as did several Emirs before him. The order as a whole is mainstream in the Nigerian context. If Abdul Nyass did utter the remarks attributed to him, that would make him a fringe voice in the order. Many of his opponents have referred to his group as “yan hakika” (people of the truth, i.e. people who aspire to reach a mystical state), a Tijaniyya offshoot with some fringe beliefs. The mainstream Tijaniyya leaders are taking the case very seriously. Shaykh Dahiru Usman Bauchi essentially called Abdul Nyass an unbeliever (Hausa), and took pains to say that Tijanis are mainstream Muslims.
  • Even though the Tijaniyya as a whole is mainstream, there is a long history in Nigeria of opposition to the order, particularly among high-placed scholars. Shaykh Abubakar Gumi (1924-1992), who was Grand Qadi of Northern Nigeria (an administrative unit at the time of colonialism and decolonization) from 1962-1967, authored a harshly anti-Tijani book in 1972. Critics of the Tijaniyya have long accused the order of elevating its own texts and leaders over the central texts and leaders of Islam. The blasphemy case this year, then, activates long-standing suspicions of the Tijaniyya among some Nigerian Muslims, particularly Salafis.
  • Given this anti-Tijani precedent, the current case may allow some public officeholders to impose their views about what constitutes Islamic orthodoxy. For example, a major figure in this case is the Salafi leader Shaykh Aminu Daurawa, head of Kano’s Hisba, a governmental law enforcement body charged with upholding public Islamic morality. Daurawa has commented frequently on the case, including in terms that go beyond Abdul Nyass himself. In one Facebook post (Hausa), Daurawa wrote, “This is the truth of the [Sufi] order. There is a need to get rid of all [Sufi] orders, because the Prophet (Peace and Blessings Upon Him) is being insulted among them.” One important question about the case, then, is whether it and its aftermath will further empower the opponents of Sufism in Kano.
  • Many analysts in the West have come to believe Sufis are good and their opponents are bad. It’s never that simple. To my mind the analyst should neither caricature Sufis nor demonize their opponents. I don’t see this case as a sign of some “creeping radicalization” in northern Nigeria: I see it as the latest incident in a long-running intra-Muslim struggle to define doctrine and practice in Kano.
  • The case is also important because it will test the limits of what punishments shari’a courts can impose. As AFP writes, since the new shari’a penal codes were implemented starting in 1999, shari’a courts have sentenced various people to death – “but to date, no executions have been carried out.” Federal authorities may pressure Kano’s authorities to overturn the sentences. However, given that both Kano’s new Governor Ganduje and Nigeria’s new President Muhammadu Buhari are very new to their offices, they may decide to either drag their feet or even let the sentences stand. The sensitivity of the questions involved (blasphemy, intra-Muslim relations, public order, etc.), combined with the overall tense atmosphere (including because of Boko Haram’s violence), puts both state and federal authorities in a tricky position. That makes this case one to watch.

Sudan: A Cross-Amputation in Political Context

Q 5:33 is rendered, in Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation, “The punishment of those who wage war against God and His Apostle, and strive with might and main for mischief throughout the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land. That is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter.”

On February 14, Sudanese authorities carried out a “cross-amputation” against an accused highway robber named Adam al Muthna. According to Human Rights Watch, “Muthna was convicted of armed robbery (Haraba) under article 167 of the 1991 Sudanese Penal Code in relation to an armed attack on a truck carrying passengers between North Kordofan and East Darfur in March 2006.” HRW adds,

Article 168(b) of the Sudanese Penal Code provides cross amputation as a penalty for armed robbery when it results in grievous injury or involves the robbery of property equivalent to an amount decreed by the judiciary, currently set at 1500 Sudanese Pounds (approximately US$ 340).

Amputation as a form of corporal punishment was incorporated into Sudanese law in 1983 when then-President Gaffar Nimeiry introduced Islamic reforms known as the “September laws.” Although sentences imposing amputations have been handed down under those laws, there are no known cases since 2001 in which such sentences have been carried out. Human rights groups had hoped this signaled a de facto moratorium on the practice.

[…]

Sudanese authorities have imposed stoning sentences and routinely order flogging penalties. Both penalties are forms of corporal punishment justified as Sharia (Islamic law). In 2012, two sentences of death by stoning for adultery were imposed on women but were overturned following an international outcry.

Reuters discusses some of the political context that helps explain why the “de facto moratorium” has ended. Some argue that the cross-amputation represents a move to claim religious legitimacy amid domestic dissent. (Diverse forms of dissent in recent years have included armed rebellion in Blue Nile and South Kordofan, an alleged coup attempt, street protests motivated by economic and political grievances, etc.) Reuters also points out that the government has consistently pledged deeper Islamization of society, government, and law since the run-up to South Sudan’s secession.

[The cross-amputation] followed a pledge by President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to implement a “100%” Islamic constitution as a result of the secession in 2011 of the mainly non-Muslim south of Sudan.

Let’s flash back to December 2010:

Sudan’s president said the country would adopt an Islamic constitution if the south split away in a referendum due next month, in a speech on [19 December 2010] in which he also defended police filmed flogging a woman.

“If south Sudan secedes, we will change the constitution and at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity,” President Omar Hassan al-Bashir told supporters at a rally in the eastern city of Gedaref.

“Sharia (Islamic law) and Islam will be the main source for the constitution, Islam the official religion and Arabic the official language,” he said.

And to July 2012:

“We want to present a constitution that serves as a template to those around us. And our template is clear, a 100 percent Islamic constitution, without communism or secularism or Western (influences),” said Bashir [in a speech in Khartoum on 7 July 2012].

“And we tell non-Muslims, nothing will preserve your rights except for Islamic sharia because it is just,” he said.

Bashir, facing small-scale protests calling for him to step down, said a committee made up of “all parties, religious sects and Sufis” would be set up to draft a constitution.

That appeared to be a move to assuage resentment by other opposition parties – many of which are still dominated by Islamist figures – over Bashir’s reluctance to loosen the grip of the ruling National Congress Party.

He did not give a date for the new constitution.

As of last month, momentum toward a new constitution seemed to be growing.

I think the cross-amputation is a sign that the Bashir government’s statements and plans concerning deeper Islamization deserve to be taken seriously. It seems likely that there will be continued efforts by his government to design and carry out legislation based on the government’s reading of shari’a.

A few relevant resources:

Women, Motorbikes, and Shari’a in Nigeria and Indonesia

This Winter Quarter at Northwestern I’ll be teaching a course on Islam and politics in the contemporary world. Much of the course will focus on three cases: Egypt, Indonesia, and Nigeria. As I prepare for the course I’ve been paying much closer attention to news out of Indonesia. Nigeria and Indonesia are very different countries, and existing regional shari’a projects in the two countries are also different, but this:

A city in the Indonesian province of Aceh which follows Sharia has ordered female passengers not to straddle motorbikes behind male drivers.

Suaidi Yahya, mayor of Lhokseumawe, says it aims to save people’s “morals and behaviours”.

Leaflets have been sent out to government offices and residents to inform them about the regulation.

Aceh is the only Indonesian province that follows Sharia.

Under the new regulation, the mayor says that women passengers are only allowed to sit “side-saddle” because straddling the bike seat violates Islamic values.

reminded me a little of this (2005):

Motorbike taxi riders and religious marshals have clashed in the northern Nigerian state of Kano over a ban that stops women travelling on the bikes.
In accordance with Sharia law, men and women are not allowed to travel together on public transport.

Women have ignored the ban, being implemented this week, saying there are not enough transport alternatives.

A few scholars have mentioned to me their view that the “shari’a project” in northern Nigeria is/was aimed partly or even primarily at controlling women’s bodies in public space. I think there is much more to movements for shari’a implementation or re-implementation, but I do see why those scholars think that way. And I do not think these motorbike laws should be seen as the product of isolated officials’ eccentric thinking. The question of proper gender roles in public transportation is an issue that has provoked real debate in parts of northern Nigeria, and it seems in Aceh too. In that context, it’s interesting to think about the various things motorbikes can symbolize.

“When you see a woman straddle, she looks like a man. But if she sits side-saddle, she looks like a woman,” Suaidi said.

Finally, I think these laws and debates point to how broad the scope of shari’a implementation projects can be. Sometimes the international media gives us an image of shari’a as wholly concerned with cutting off thieves’ hands and stoning adulteresses. But on a day-to-day level in modern states that are working to practice a form of shari’a, the concerns are often quite different, and sometimes surprisingly mundane.

Vice President Biden’s Africa Trip

One big story I couldn’t cover while traveling last week was Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Egypt, Kenya, and South Africa. Biden traveled partly as Obama’s surrogate at the World Cup and other events, and partly to deliver messages urging reform and stability in different African countries, including not only Kenya but also its neighbors, particularly Sudan.

Biden traveled first to Egypt and met with President Hosni Mubarak. They discussed Gaza, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the situation in Sudan, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and next year’s elections in Egypt.

The Vice President spent the next two days in Kenya, where he gave a speech linking political reform with increased American investment. Biden also focused on Kenya’s role in East Africa. While in Kenya he met with Southern Sudanese officials and attended a discussion about Somalia.

Kenya’s East African sees regional worries trumping US concerns about Kenya’s internal politics.

US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Kenya can be seen as signaling a shift in the Obama administration’s approach to East Africa.

Comments by Mr Biden, coupled with reports of an expanding US “secret war” against Al Qaeda, suggest that Washington is now focusing more on Kenya’s strategic sub-regional role than on concerns about corruption and human rights abuses within the country.

The coalition government’s agreement on constitutional reforms represents a major reason for the marked change in Washington’s tone. But growing US trepidation over instability in the region – particularly in Somalia – has also contributed to the decision to cultivate a more co-operative relationship with Kenya.

NTV Kenya goes so far as to say that Biden “endorsed” the new Kenyan constitution, which has sparked controversy in Kenya because of provisions relating to shari’a courts.

On Thursday Biden traveled to South Africa to attend the World Cup. The South African leg of his visit, where Biden met with his counterpart Kgalema Motlanthe, seems to have focused less on substantive political discussions than on the political symbolism of an American presence at the World Cup, but in South African Biden talked Sudan, as he did elsewhere.

Biden’s trip to Africa is a clear sequel to Secretary Clinton’s seven-country journey to the continent last summer, which also included stops in Kenya and South Africa. Whereas Clinton’s approach sometimes seemed stern, Biden’s style has been called “cheerful.” But the same political issues and challenges remain in play, especially with regard to Kenya, where Washington wants to push for reforms but also preserve an alliance with a regional power. Kenya’s perceived importance to Washington has increased even more since last year, it seems, because of continued instability in Somalia but also because of the potential for serious disruption connected with the January 2011 referendum in Sudan.

At Foreign Policy, in fact, Josh Rogin writes that the trip was “all about Sudan.” Rogin says that Biden’s meetings with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and with other African leaders show that concern about Sudan is moving up the hierarchy in the Obama administration. Apparently choosing whom to send to the inauguration ceremonies in Khartoum split Obama’s Africa/foreign policy team last month. Biden’s efforts on Sudan coincided with other US diplomatic moves, including a separate meeting between Scott Gration and Egyptian officials and a stronger strain of criticism toward Sudan coming from the State Department. The absence of Nigeria and Angola from Biden’s itinerary, countries Clinton visited last summer, also suggests that the trip was primarily focused on political stability in East Africa and not on broader US economic interests on the continent.

The Brookings Institution offered a number of perspectives on the trip as it started last week. Check them out and see what you agree or disagree with. Diplomatically, it seems to me that the trip was a success in terms of its stated and presumed aims. But I still feel that Washington’s approach to Africa is narrowly focused on attempts to engineer political outcomes, a strategy that often backfires and also distracts from other kinds of engagement, particularly economic partnership (the language is there, but is always tied to reform, and always overshadowed by politics) and cultural dialogue. In any case, Biden seems to have been a hit, though of course many African leaders are hoping for a visit by the Big Man himself.

Kenya’s Constitutional Controversy Turns Violent

Just returned from my trip, so I’m easing back into blogging today.

Provisions regarding shari’a courts in Kenya’s proposed new constitution have created legal controversy for weeks, but now they are also causing violence:

At least five people have died and dozens been injured in a stampede at a rally in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

The stampede followed two explosions, the cause of which is unknown.

The rally was organised by Christian groups opposed to a draft constitution because it retains recognition of existing Islamic courts and includes a clause on abortion.

Kenyans are due to vote on the new constitution in a referendum in August.

This is a real tragedy, and also a real reason to worry: people feel strongly about the issue, and August is still a ways off.

Kenya Islamic Courts Update

The controversy over the inclusion of Islamic courts in Kenya‘s proposed constitution continues to fascinate me. It brings into play so many issues about Christian-Muslim relations, constitutionalism, and Islamic law in Africa. One hell of a dissertation topic too, for anyone looking to do research on Kenya.

Matt Brown has an analysis of the controversy in The National and Eunice Machuhi and Jillo Kadida of The Daily Nation write, if I understand them correctly, that an earlier court ruling against shari’a courts will have no effect on the relevant provisions in the constitution:

On Monday, Law Society of Kenya chairman Kenneth Akide said the High Court ruling in Mombasa had clearly shown that the Judiciary has no powers to declare any section of the Constitution to be unconstitutional.

“The High Court ruling has recognised the fact that courts cannot interfere in constitution-making and emphasised the fact that this process is the preserve of Parliament,” he said.

“The Ruling puts the review process back on track and lays down the correct jurisprudence of constitution-making process in the country,” he said.

Mr Akide said the ruling had made it clear that the process of constitution-making was a preserve of the people and not courts.

NTV Kenya reports on poll results showing that 63% of Kenyans say they will vote for the constitution in the coming referendum, with voters fairly evenly divided around the shari’a courts issue. That suggests the shari’a courts will stay in the constitution. That means an end to the current round of controversy, perhaps, but maybe not an end to the issue in the long run.

Quick Thoughts: Kenya’s Islamic Courts, Arab Approval of US Leadership, Brain Gain

A few quick items:

  • The Christian Science Monitor looks at Kenya’s Islamic Courts controversy. Also at stake as Kenya moves toward approving a new constitution are issues related to abortion and land reform. Background here.
  • Gallup reports that Arab approval of US leadership is slipping. Especially sharp drops occurred in Egypt and Algeria.
  • The BBC reports on Africa’s “Brain Gain”: “Any number of Africans seek to cross the ocean and make their fortunes, never to be seen again. But when our team travelled around Africa recently to film a new TV documentary series, we found a different story. Many of the Africans I met had worked or been educated in the West and come back. Across nine African countries and a journey of 7,000 miles from Mali to South Africa, from Ghana to Ethiopia, the story was often the same. Africans were returning from working or studying abroad either for patriotic reasons or because of the growing opportunities back home.”

Feel free to treat this as an open thread for Africa news.