“These girls will be wearing swimwear dripping with blood,” said the British writer, Muriel Gray, as 92 shaken Miss World contestants arrived in London on November 24. The organizers had pulled the beauty pageant out of Nigeria after at least 215 people died in riots led by Islamic extremists — but who actually put the blood on the swimsuits'
Some blame attaches to Julia Morley, whose late husband, Eric Morley, founded the event 51 years ago. She should not have let it go to a country half of whose 120 million people are Muslims, especially since the contest was scheduled for the holy month of Ramadan and it was predictable that extremists would try to exploit it. However, most Nigerians welcomed the contest, touted locally as the biggest international event to be held in Nigeria since its independence in 1960. The choice of venue was automatic anyway because last year’s Miss World, Agbani Darego, was Nigerian.
Even before the contestants arrived in Nigeria, the political temperature had begun to rise. Scandalized Muslim clerics denounced the contest as a “parade of nudity”, and human rights campaigners seized the opportunity to highlight the plight of Amina Lawal, a Muslim woman sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery by one of the recently introduced sharia courts in northern Nigeria. A number of contestants refused to come, and in mid-November, President Olusegun Obasanjo, a southern Christian who needs substantial Muslim support to win re-election in 2003, cancelled a scheduled meet-and-greet session with those who did.
What put the fat in the fire, however, was an article in ThisDay, Nigeria’s leading upmarket newspaper, on November 18, which said: “The Muslims thought it was immoral to bring 92 women to Nigeria and ask them to revel in vanity. What would (the Prophet) Mohammed think' In all honesty he would probably have chosen a wife from among them.” It was the sort of too-clever comment that journalists with a deadline looming sometimes resort to in lieu of a real conclusion. But in a country where over 3,000 people were killed in Muslim-Christian riots only three years ago, it was dynamite.
Usually, this sort of gaffe would be caught in the editorial process, but it was Friday night, and it slipped through. Hardly any of the young Muslim men in the northern city of Kaduna who burned down ThisDay’s local office and began killing Christians and burning churches the following Tuesday would have read the article, but the Nigerian Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs declared a “serious religious emergency” and local preachers spread the message in the mosques. ThisDay apologized four times during the week, but the riots spread to the capital, Abuja, and the Miss World organizers pulled out.
“Religious” clashes around the world usually have their roots in political power struggles, and Nigeria’s certainly do. This round dates from 1999, when the northern-based military regimes that ruled the country for most of the time since independence gave way to civilian democracy and a Christian southerner was elected president. The alliance between Muslim army officers from the north and the traditional northern aristocracy finally lost control — and immediately began plotting to get it back.
Suddenly, in 2000, one state government after another across the north began to bring in sharia law, causing great unease among the non-Muslim minorities. It was no coincidence that the 12 states which have adopted sharia are precisely the ones where many Muslim voters broke away from their traditional religious loyalties last election and gave their votes to Obasanjo, a Christian.
Obasanjo, for fear of losing next year’s election, has not dared to enforce the constitution which declares Nigeria a secular state. Along come the Miss World contest, and of course, the conspiracy to restore northern control exploits the event for all it is worth. It is ugly and it is extremely dangerous, but it is not really about Islam and Christianity. It’s about power.