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Nigeria Turns from Harsher Side of Islamic Law

ICC Note

“There was burning of Christian churches. Christians were killed. So many people were displaced. But now, the tempo is cooling down.”

By Lydia Polgreen

December 1, 2007 Nigeria (The New York Times) — Just last year, the morality police roamed these streets in dusky blue uniforms and black berets, brandishing cudgels at prayer shirkers and dragging fornicators into Islamic courts to face sentences like death by public stoning.

But these days, the fearsome police officers, known as the Hisbah, are little more than glorified crossing guards. They have largely been confined to their barracks and assigned anodyne tasks like directing traffic and helping fans to their seats at soccer games.

The Islamic revolution that seemed so destined to transform northern Nigeria in recent years appears to have come and gone — or at least gone in a direction few here would have expected.

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The federal government cracked down on the Hisbah last year, enforcing a national ban on religious and ethnic militias, and the secular, federally controlled police force has little interest in enforcing the harshest strictures of Shariah. Violence between Muslims and Christians has also begun to subside in the north.

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The shift reflects the fact that religious law did not transform society. Indeed, some of the most ardent Shariah-promoting politicians now find themselves under investigation for embezzling millions of dollars. Many early proponents of Shariah feel duped by politicians who rode its popular wave but failed to live by its tenets, enriching themselves and neglecting to improve the lives of ordinary people.

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But the shift may also be helping to ease tensions between Muslims and Christians in a country where sectarian conflicts, often stoked by politicians to stir up support, have killed thousands over the past decade.

“The thing has caused a lot of harm,” said the Rev. Foster O. Ekeleme, a Methodist bishop in Kano who leads a flock of mostly Ibo tribespeople from southeastern Nigeria . “There was burning of Christian churches. Christians were killed. So many people were displaced. But now, the tempo is cooling down.”

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In Jigawa State , religious violence exploded in September 2006, amid political tensions before elections in 2007. A Muslim woman claimed that a Christian one had insulted the Prophet Muhammad, and mobs of Muslim youths descended on Christian churches in the state capital, Dutse, burning several to the ground.

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But these days tensions have cooled, said Garba Shehu, a former Muslim from Dutse who converted to evangelical Christianity. When the governor signed the law creating a stipend for beggars, he invited three Christian clergy members to pray alongside three Muslim clerics.

“We thank God we don’t see the same tensions as before,” Mr. Shehu said. “We are free to practice our faith without fear.”

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