Cablegate: Report On International Conference

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.




E.O. 12958: N/A

1. SUMMARY: Nigeria's introduction of Sharia
criminal law in 12 northern states beginning in
1999 remains a contentious issue in Nigeria.
Consequently, Nigeria has experienced sporadic
social and religious tensions - occasionally
erupting in violence -- which have continued to
impact negatively on Christians-Muslim relations.
The January Jos Sharia conference, organized by
the Universities of Jos (Nigeria) and Bayreuth
(Germany) was funded by the Volkswagon Foundation
and brought together Nigerian and international
academics to explore the issue from a comparative
legal and religious standpoint. Efforts before,
during, and after the conference by Muslim
hardliners to discredit what was an open academic
exchange of viewpoints between a whole spectrum of
Muslim Nigerians, Christians, and international
experts underscores the need to continue such
apolitical dialogue if moderate voices in Nigeria
are to be encouraged. END SUMMARY.

Sharia in Nigeria: Still a Flashpoint

2. Since the 1999/2000 implementation of Sharia in
northern Nigeria, meaningful dialogue has been lacking
between Sharia's proponents and critics, and broad
segments of civil society. Given its large population,
Nigeria accommodates more Christians and Muslims than
any African state. In recognition of the importance of
Sharia to Nigeria's stability, Volkswagen Foundation
provided financial support to the University of Jos to
host an International Conference on "Comparative
Perspectives on Sharia in Nigeria," January 15 - 17,
2004. With funds provided by the Volkswagen
Foundation, the conference was the culmination of a
yearlong research project by scholars of the two
institutions on "The Sharia Debate and the Shaping of
Muslim and Christian Identities in Northern Nigeria."
The conference attracted presenters and commentators
versed in issues related to constitutional law and
religion from the United States, Germany, the
Netherlands, and Nigeria. The EU, U.S., and German
Missions were represented at the event as audience
members. Sharia advisory and implementation committees
from the 12 northern Sharia States, Christian leaders,
civil society organizations, judges, journalists and
representatives of the military and the police also
participated actively in the conference. PAS Abuja
facilitated the participation of Professor Cole Durham
from Brigham Young University International Center for
Law and Religious Studies, Provo, Utah, in the
conference. The conference was well attended with an
average daily attendance of 600 - 700 people.

3. Although the U.S. Mission only helped recruit a speaker
for the conference, some Muslim participants and at least
one daily newspaper alleged USG sponsorship of the event.
Two faculty members at the University of Jos, who helped
organize the event and are U.S. citizens, were described as
"anti-Sharia and agents of western civilization." Following
the conference, one of the Kano State Sharia Implementation
Committee members who observed the Jos meeting posted an
article on the popular Nigerian website,,
stating that the U.S. Government had sponsored the
conference. Post subsequently posted a correction
clarifying the issue of U.S. sponsorship.

4. The Jos Sharia conference was intended to create a
genuine dialogue between Nigerian Christians and Muslims on
the Sharia debate by bringing in comparative perspectives
from experiences in other countries. Despite this
intention, the dialogue often degenerated into a
confrontation between the West and the Muslim world. In his
paper titled "The West and the Rest: Reflections on the
Intercultural Dialogue About Sharia," Mr. Sanusi Lamido
Sanusi, a prominent Lagos-based Muslim leader, argued that
the problem with Western criticisms of Sharia was that such
criticisms have always "failed to take into account the
wider global context of the perceived confrontation between
the West and the Muslim world." He added that the dominance
of the United States as a superpower and its ideologically-
inspired promotion of globalization has led to a perception
by Muslims that every criticism of the Muslim world by the
West is "American inspired." Commenting further, Mr. Lamido
stressed the notion that "Muslims detest America because
America detests Islam and Muslims."

5. Perhaps the most controversial paper presented during
the conference was by a Sudanese-born American citizen,
Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, a Professor of law at Emory Law
School in Atlanta, Georgia. In his paper entitled "The
Future of Shari'ah," An-Na'im categorically condemned the
process of the implementation of Sharia by Nigeria's 12
northern states. Professor An-Na'im argued that there is no
historical precedent for a so-called "Islamic State" in
Islamic history, a statement that generated great discontent
among many Muslim audience members. Commenting again on the
Sharia debate in Nigeria, An-Na'im advised Nigerians Muslims
to learn from the Sudanese experience with regard to
enforcement of Sharia as a state policy. According to
Professor An-Na'im, "the Islamic legitimacy of the state has
always been a cause of conflict and civil war since the
death of Prophet Mohammed in 632 AD." An-Na'im, therefore,
cautioned Sharia protagonists in Nigeria to be cautious in
their demands to avoid a civil war in their country. These
comments deeply angered many of the Muslim participants at
the conference. Sheikh Ibrahim Umar Kabo, Chairman, Sharia
Advisory and Implementation Committee for Kano State,
responded to An-Na'im's paper. He spoke in Arabic for about
ten minutes after which he led a walkout, and more than half
of the Muslim participants left the hall without allowing An-
Na'im to respond.

5. Muslims moderates who stayed until the end of An-Na'im's
presentation condemned the action of Sheikh Kabo. Sheikh
Kabo's attitude, they said, was rude and totally devoid of
the usual Muslim brotherhood. In his comments, Sheikh Kabo
is said to have described An-Na'im as an "atheist and agent
of Western values." After his presentation, An-Na'im
received death threats and had to be taken to a secure place
by the conference organizers. Professor An-Na'im was
scheduled to deliver a public lecture at end of the
conference on the Sharia debate in Nigeria at Bayero
University in Kano. His widely publicized lecture was
cancelled due to security concerns based on the views An-
Na'im had expressed at the Jos conference.

6. All the international paper presenters and
commentators at the conference stressed the need for
state neutrality in matters of religion and underscored
the value of cooperation and accommodation by religious
groups within a state. In her paper entitled
"Rethinking the Role of Religion in the Public Sphere:
Local and Global Perspectives," Professor Rosalind
Hackett of the Department of Religious Studies, the
University of Tennessee, said that the development of
civil values of tolerance, cooperation and civility can
easily be subordinated to the logic of the market, or
the pressures of religious and political
fundamentalism. She therefore advised Nigerians either
as members of "majoritarian or minoritarian" groups to
ensure that the call for more public expressions of
religion is conducted in the most equitable way

7. Professor Ruud Peter's presentation on "The
Enforcement of God's Law: The Sharia in the Present
World of Islam" attracted critical comments from both
Christians and Muslims. Some Christians questioned his
use of the word "God" and demanded to know if he was
referring to "God the Father, the Son or the Holy
Spirit." Muslim critics said that outsiders have no
business and are not equally competent to determine for
them what Islam and the Sharia are. Other questions
were raised such as: "Is the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict religious, political, or both?" "Why is the
United States behind Israel in the conflict?" `Why is
the U.S. against Islam and Muslim?" In his own paper,
Cole Durham, School of Law, Brigham Young University,
stressed the need for cooperation and accommodation
among different religious groups in pluralistic
societies including Nigeria.

8. Other international paper presenters at the
conference included John Reitz, Professor of
International and Comparative Law, University of Iowa;
Professor Abdulkader Tayob, International Institute for
the Study of Islam in Modern World, University of
Nijmegen; and Gerrie ter Haar, Professor of Religion,
Human Rights and Social Studies, The Hague. In his
paper entitled "Freedom of Religion and its
Limitations: Judicial Standards for Deciding Particular
Cases" Professor Reitz provided strong arguments on how
adherents of various religions in the United States
have always invoked their rights to the "free exercise"
of religion as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. In
his contribution, Professor Tayob said that the main
protagonists of Sharia in Nigeria are a "new class of
Muslim youth groups, Imams and intellectuals who aim to
invest the civil religion of Nigeria with Islamic
symbols." In her assessment of the Sharia debate in
Nigeria, Professor Haar said, "Without reducing the
degree of social and economic inequality in the world,
showing willingness to share the world's resources,
there will always be a breeding ground for extremism,
whether religious or secular in its orientation."

9. The only paper that did not generate any
controversy was Dr. Danny McCain's keynote address.
Dr. McCain's road map for religious harmony in Nigeria
well received by the Christian and Muslim participants.
McCain challenged Christian and Muslim leaders to come
together and mutually work out the best way for Muslims
to observe the tenets of Sharia without infringing upon
Christian rights. This, he said, should be done in "a
spirit of peace and harmony and not suspicion and
anger." Optimistic about Nigeria, Professor McCain
said that "Sharia is not the death knell" for the
country. Therefore, to get beyond the Sharia
controversy, Nigerians need not just talk but must
actively cooperate in different ways to move their
country forward. Unfortunately, the second keynote
speaker, Hajia Saudatu Shehu Mahdi, a Muslim female
activist, was vilified. Her Muslim colleagues accused
her of expressing her views on Sharia under the
influence of "fabricated" Western women's rights

U.S. References

10. Given the sensitivity of the Sharia debate in
Nigeria, security concerns nearly marred the hosting of
the conference. Christians and Muslims perceived the
purpose of the event differently. The Christians
thought that the event was pro-Sharia while their
Muslim counterparts viewed it as anti-Sharia. That the
conference proceedings ended peacefully was a major
achievement. The conference succeeded in opening the
minds of Nigerians regarding the complexities of the
Sharia debate in their country. References to the
United States and USG foreign policy as it affects the
Muslim world crept into the dialogue and added nothing
to the conference other than to seemingly enhance one's
Islamic credentials. Unfortunately, Some Nigerian
Muslims believe that gratuitous swipes at the U.S. are
mandatory to establish oneself as a good Muslim, and
were a common fixture during the conference. Moreover,
the general feeling of Muslims at the conference was
that while international academics and non-governmental
organizations have important comparative contributions
to make on the Sharia debate, the United States and its
Western allies should stay out of the Sharia
controversy in Nigeria.


11. The conference provided a useful opportunity for
U.S. scholars and other Western participants to share
their expertise on matters of law and religion and open
the minds of the Nigerian audience to how this debate
can be viewed intellectually, rather than simply at the
emotional and domestic Nigerian political levels. It
afforded international experts the opportunity to
explain how the lack of a designated state religion has
facilitated continued harmonious relationships among
religious groups in the United States and Europe. The
international scholars also stressed the need for state
accommodation on matters of religion and the need for
all religions to respect and protect the rights and
feelings of the minorities.

12. The Jos Conference underscored how poorly schooled
in Islam many of Nigeria's Sharia proponents really
are, and how easily they can be overshadowed by experts
within and outside of Nigeria. Nigerian Muslim
hardliners, unable to discredit the conference and many
of the arguments presented on an intellectual basis,
resorted to labeling any speaker or presenter at odds
with their viewpoints as "pro-Western," "un-Islamic" or
"tools of the U.S. or the West." They claimed U.S.
sponsorship of the conference in order to diminish
interest in the conference proceedings among Nigerian
Muslims. Such tactics illustrate the need for similar
dialogues and opportunities for Nigerian Muslims to
debate and learn more about their place in the Islamic
world - and to learn more about Islam from respected
scholars outside Nigeria rather than ceding the stage
exclusively to hardliners within Nigeria. END COMMENT.


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