Guiding youth to an Islamic future

Mark Huband in Zaria ends a two-part series on religious violence in Nigeria

The Guardian, 7 May 1991

VAST flat rocks rise out of the bare earth next to the once-painted arch which marks the beginning of the Muslim quarter in the northern Nigerian town of Zaria. Everybody knows where Mallam Ibraheem El Zakzaky can be found.

At a small mosque, Mallam Zakzaky, the key figure in Nigeria’s swing towards Islamic teaching, was at prayer with a group of his followers. Outside the mosque, two boys strained under the weight of a bucket of mud which they carried between them. A third boy ran around in circles joking as they struggled, pulling down his trousers to make them laugh.

After a while, the men emerged. An interview would be fine, but they were worried about being misquoted. Sincere assurances were met with good-humoured scepticism: “Each journalist always tells us that he will be the one who will tell the truth,” said one of the calm followers of the Mallam, smiling. The spiritual leader came out and was happy to talk.

The Mallam sped through the dry streets of the Muslim quarter in his metallic green Volkswagen Beetle. At his office, a miniature of the Ayatollah Khomeini sat on his desk, another watched from a bookshelf.

Mallam Zakzaky has been accused by the Nigerian press of fomenting a religious riot, which left up to 200 people dead two weeks ago in the central Nigerian town of Bauchi. The unrest flared when Muslims demanded that Christians not kill pigs and dogs in an abattoir in the nearby town of Tafawa Belewa, which is also used by Muslims.

Both Islam and Christianity have been growing steadily among Nigeria’s population of 120 million. As Islam becomes more influential among the country’s political leaders, Christians believe they are being deliberately prevented from establishing churches. Muslims, they say, find land more easily available.

The vibrancy of Islam and its non-Western character have attracted many followers. Nigerian Christians accuse Muslims of teaching their followers simply to recite, rather than understand, the Koran, while Muslims say Christianity has little more to offer than the social occasion of church on Sunday.

In the Muslim-dominated north, British colonialists incorporated the traditional chiefs, emirs and sultans into the administration. Ever since, they have been the most powerful elements in the north, particularly under post-independence military regimes.

But, inspired by the Islamic revolution in Iran, Nigerian Muslims, especially the young, are rejecting both the political authority and the religious role of the traditional rulers. The youth regard their political power as a creation of imperialism, and say they ought to adopt the holistic religious approach of Iran under the Ayatollahs.

Calmly crossing his legs beneath him, Mallam Zakzaky outlined the intention of Nigeria’s Islamic Movement: “The traditional rulers represent the religious system within the overall system controlling the country, yes? Whereas in our own case, we seek to do away with the present system completely and have another system entirely based on Islam.

“The government has narrowed religion to how the West understands it. In Islam we do not understand religion to be a separate part of our life, but the whole of life itself.

“Eventually the movement will swallow up all the Muslim population. And when finally the Islamic system triumphs, the Christians will find that it is much better than the present set up,” he said.

Christians had nothing to fear from this, as their religion expressed no views on the political, economic and social aspects of daily life, he claimed, gently throwing in his most controversial claim – that Muslims are in a majority of 60 per cent. Christian leaders deny that the Muslim population is above 40 per cent.

“What do you understand by the word fundamentalism?” I asked. He chuckled, and asked one of his followers to find an English dictionary: “It’s a Christian concept,” he replied, pointing to the definition provided by the scholars of Oxford. “They shouldn’t use the word for Muslims at all.”



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