A PARADE of pretty faces, a swirl of chiffon, a heartfelt
plea for world peace and a burning desire to work with children
and animals. The bright smiles of the annual Miss World pageant,
held this year in Kaduna, Nigeria, contorted into masks of hate
and violence last month, when a comment made by a Nigerian journalist
sparked riots which resulted in more than 200 deaths and left many
more fleeing for their lives.
The pageant itself was to be held over a number of weeks in Nigeria,
but primarily in the southern, largely Christian parts of the country.
However, the northern regions of the country are, for the most part,
Islamic states, governed by Sharia law.
Sharia is a code of practice, laid down by the Koran, by which
orthodox Muslims lead their lives. It governs every aspect of a
Muslim’s life, from prayer and fasting, to the conduct and
acceptable dress of women. However, in some Islamic countries and
states, such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the Zamfara province
of Nigeria, Sharia has been implemented as statutory law.
When Zamfara governor Ahmed Sani introduced Sharia law in January
2001, he told sceptics that it was intended to curb drunkenness,
gambling and prostitution, and insisted that the country had nothing
to fear. However, the introduction of Sharia has been controversial,
and has seen Nigeria become a country divided. Punishments under
Sharia are severe, including amputations for thieves and the stoning
to death of those accused of adultery.
Controversy first raged when the decision was made to hold this
year’s pageant in Nigeria, home of last year’s triumphant
beauty queen. Islamic clerics raged against the immorality of the
event, and the contest was further soured by a walk-out by four
of the contestants, protesting on behalf of Amina Lawal, a young
woman sentenced to death by stoning under Sharia law.
Reporting on the dispute, Isioma Daniel of Nigeria’s This
Day newspaper, remarked that, far from being affronted at the show
of vanity, the prophet Mohammed would most likely have chosen a
wife from amongst the participants.
Alhaji Mahmud Aliyu, deputy governor of the Zamfara province,
immediately called for a fatwa to be issued against Miss Daniel,
a Christian. ‘Fatwa’ loosely translates as ‘holy
war’, a term made infamous though the death sentence pronounced
against novelist Salman Rushdie by the Iranian leader Ayatollah
Khomeini in 1988 following the publication of Rushdie’s book,
‘The Satanic Verses.’
Tensions ran high in Kaduna, the political capital of Nigeria,
as four days of rioting between Christians and Muslims resulted
in the deaths of 215 people, with many more fleeing for their lives.
However, the issuing of the fatwa has been dismissed as invalid
by other Muslim countries, as Miss Daniel is a Christian and is
therefore not subject to Islamic law. The Nigerian government has
stated that it will not allow a death sentence to be carried out
on Miss Daniels; a politically delicate situation, as relations
between the secular government and the Islamic states are tense.
The pageant has been relocated to London, and the situation in
Kaduna has been quelled, though many residents of the city are still
too afraid to return to their homes.
The issuing of the fatwa against Miss Daniel, whether it is valid
or not, highlights the issues of interpretation of free speech:
It can be argued that Miss Daniel, as a journalist, employed a phenomenal
lack of tact and judgement in carelessly remarking on such a tempestuous
issue, but what are the implications of this, both in terms of restrictions
on a so-called free press and for those in the West?
At the end of the day, when religious and secular cultures collide,
as in Nigeria, a lack of diplomacy can result in the death of hundreds
of people. Religious bigotry cannot be allowed to impose a climate
of fear upon those who wish to live according to secular laws, but
similarly it is morally indefensible to ride roughshod over the
beliefs of others.
Nigeria is a country in the grip of turmoil: while the West cannot
turn its back upon the plight of those such as Amina Lawal, proceeding
with the location of the Miss World contest - against an unfortunately
realised possibility of death and disorder – cannot be defended
as any more than a morally bankrupt decision.