Beliefnet

Three young Christian women in a predominantly Christian Nigerian townrecently took a taxi to a wedding. They wore bright pant suits, lipstick,and rouge. "Can you imagine sharia coming here?" I asked.

"If it did, we couldn't step out of the house in pants," said one. "And youwouldn't be able to ride with us in this taxi because you're a man."

Another said, "You wouldn't be able to comment on how pretty we look either.If you did, the police would probably arrest you."

The Christian women and the Muslim taxi driver laughed together.

This was the lighter side of the interaction between Christians and Muslimsin Nigeria. The darker side is that conflicts over sharia--strict Islamiclaw--have sparked riots, caused deaths, and threatened to destroy thedemocratic government Nigerians elected last year.

Sharia is the Islamic penal code. In countries like Iran and Afghanistan,Islamic clerics apply it under a theocracy. Under sharia, adulterers can bestoned to death and thieves can have their hands cut off. Less extreme measures are taken to stem a multitude of social ills.

In Africa, implementing sharia is rare. Most prefer Islam in the home, thestreet, and the mosque, not in parliament. They want to mix Western civilliberties with personal faith. Some elected officials in Nigeria, however,are trying to institute and enforce sharia now.

To understand the terror that's gripped several towns in this Texas-sizecountry of 110 million, onehas to understand Christian and Muslim interactions in Nigeria--arelationship whose difficulties are compounded by ethnic and tribaltensions, apart from religion.

Being from the "other" religion is the first risk a person runs from day today. Then comes ethnicity. There are three dominant language groups--Hausa,Yoruba, and Ibo. Four hundred smaller groups, mostly unrelated to the bigthree, break people further apart. Each has their own creation myth andrites of passage. Members of different groups have different scars and dyeson their faces. They are four hundred ancient nations seething within onemodern one.

In October, the governor of the northern Nigerian state of Zamfara--one thatis 90% Muslim--established sharia as a remedy for unemployment andimmorality."What I am trying to do is ensure that my society is very pure," he said."It is mostly drug-abusing people who are, you know, alcoholic and so onthat will take arms and go and kill somebody." Gambling and alcohol saleswere banned in the region. Boys and girls were put in separate schools.Muslim women in search of a ride have to wait until they see yellow taxiswith the symbol of a veiled woman painted on the doors. The fear is that menor women will get aroused when they are close to each other, and sex couldeasily follow. The governor and his supporters claim that fear ofpunishment will prevent people from breaking the law.

February was a bloody month. More than a thousand people were killed inclashes over sharia in different towns. People here kill either to prevent orto allow the law to come to their town. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjohas asked the pro-sharia politicians to stop, but they say they will continueand go to court if necessary.

The Zamfara governor has repeated his stance to the press. In late March,he approved the cutting off of a local man's hand. One morning, the man stoodin asharia court accused of stealing a cow. By the afternoon, his right handwas removed. The man is a Muslim, but tells newspapers in Nigeria that hewill appeal his case.

Other religious tensions are apparent in a scene from one of Nigeria'sovernight buses, which passengers board in the evening and ride until themorning. In Nigeria, bandits ambush vehicles in order to rob and kill, so aChristian bus rider makes an impromptu call for protection to ward off suchan attack.

"Can I hear hallelujah?" says the man, standing in the aisle,shouting into the microphone attached to the bus's public addresssystem.

"Hallelujah," say about half the passengers.

"May God bless this bus and cover its riders with the blood of Jesus. As wetravel on this road, are youprepared to put your life in the hands of Jesus?" Christian passengers beginsinging, clapping, and praying.

The next morning, when the bus driver refuses to let a passenger get offwherehe wants, a Muslim passenger yells, "Preaching in public places is illegal.You Christians are fanatics. May God bring sharia down on you, your children,and grandchildren." None of the other Muslims react. This Muslim, a university graduate, spent many years abroad. He later said that he doesn'tsupport sharia; frustration had simply overtaken him. It was also not clear whether the bus driver was discriminating against him. But the habit of distrusting others who don't belong to your mosque, church, or tribe threatens peace.

Sharia proponents say the president has no constitutional power to stop itsimplementation.And while politicians are still fighting with words, ordinary people arefighting with weapons.

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