Even beauty contests could sometimes make one think hard. This year’s Miss World pageant was supposed to be held in early December in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. But an extraordinary outburst of sectarian violence has finally compelled the organizers to shift the venue to London. The attempt to put a poor African country — whose government has made the rite of passage from military to civilian only in 1999 — on the map of the free market seems to have failed rather horribly. More than a hundred people have been killed and at least 500 seriously injured in riots between Muslims and Christians over the last three days. Killing, looting and arson (of a kind that would be familiar to Indians) have spread from the cosmopolitan city of Kaduna to other cities in the north, including the capital.
Northern Nigeria is mostly Muslim, with a sizeable Christian minority. The conflict had started with some clerics denouncing the contest as sexually degrading and immoral. A local daily then carried a piece by a journalist from the other community, criticizing this reaction and making a rather frivolous and gratuitous reference to the prophet. In spite of apologies carried by the paper the next day, the editor of the daily has been arrested, while the violence remains out of control. Salman Rushdie, in a recent series of lectures on human values, has described “a new, short-fuse culture of easy offendedness” that turns free expression into acts of transgression with consequences which are entirely disproportionate and unpredictable. The situation in Nigeria is a spectacular instance of such a process.
But what is striking about Rushdie’s phrase is its universal applicability. The fanaticism inherent in every religion is inimical not only to the freedom of action and expression, but also to every human attempt at working out ideas of the right and the good without taking recourse to faith. An event like a beauty contest could naturally, and peacefully, be the focus of polemics and controversy, involving the participants, the public, activists and the media. In any sane civil society, which leaves room for choices made, values defined, defended and contradicted, this could only lead to a heightened vitality. The clash of ideas should enliven any democracy. But Christian, Hindu and Islamic fundamentalisms have turned several democracies into theatres of intolerance, where cycles of sectarian violence have become as endemic as poverty and corruption.
The Abuja and London chapters of this year’s Miss World contest show up some startling contradictions. First, several contestants pull out in protest against a Nigerian woman being sentenced to death by stoning for adultery. And now, there are riots everywhere. Yet, for the first time in the history of the contest, viewers everywhere can use SMS to vote for the most beautiful woman in the world, and also to protest against the Nigerian woman taken in adultery.