Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Most Americans believe, when they think of the issue at all, that our disputes over the role of religion in public life and discourse are pretty heated—though for some of us they aren’t nearly hot enough. But in other places the complexity of the issues and the intensity of conflicts exceed anything Americans can imagine. Particularly in non-Western countries, where easy divisions between the sacred and the secular are unheard-of, religious turmoil can arise in strange ways. For instance, according to everyone I talked to in Nigeria last summer, the riots that have killed hundreds of people in the northern city of Bauchi over the past year arose from a dispute over fast food.

On the streets of every Nigerian city you can find vendors of soya—peppery slices of beef impaled on a bamboo skewer and cooked over an open fire—but it is especially popular in the Muslim-dominated north of the country. In the evenings the suya stands produce a tempting aroma, and men (rarely women) gather in the light of the fire to eat and talk well into the night. A year ago April in Bauchi, a Muslim aficionado of suya was told that his local purveyor, a Christian, was serving pork rather than beef—a clear violation of Muslim dietary prohibitions. The angry Muslim confronted the merchant, who denied the charge; but as more and more people became involved in the argument, the Muslims of Bauchi came to suspect, not an indiscreet merchant’s attempts at corner-cutting, but rather a deliberate affront to their faith—the sort of affront that would not happen if Nigeria were governed by Islamic law.

What happened next is a matter of dispute. The country’s military government insists that the violence was quickly brought under control, and that not more than 130 people were killed. Rumor and some Nigerian newspapers (sources often difficult to distinguish) claim that as many as a thousand people have been killed, and that the violence, though reduced, has not been stopped. Nigerian Christians say that the overwhelming majority of those killed were Christians; significantly, Muslims don’t seem to be contradicting the story. And a recent American visitor to Bauchi told me that he saw several churches that had been burned to the ground, but observed no damage to the city’s mosques.

As Nigeria begins its transition from a military to a civilian government—the process working its way up from local levels, where civilians are already in charge, to the national level, where elections are scheduled for next year—it faces the possibility of a crisis like the one that almost destroyed the country twenty-four years ago. But whereas the engines that drove the Biafran war were largely tribal (Biafra was in essence the creation of the Ibo people, the dominant tribe in eastern Nigeria), the current tensions are religious and thus cut across tribal lines.

Such conflicts provoke renewed inquiry into the Koran’s puzzling and apparently contradictory attitudes toward Christians and Jews, the “People of the Book”: Muslims are told in the same surah (“The Table”), virtually in the same breath, that Christians and Jews will attain salvation by following their own religion, but that if they deviate from true Koranic doctrine they are subject to earthly punishment and eternal damnation. And in the political sphere, such conflicts provide a fascinating glimpse into the problems of accommodating an increasingly large and confident Islamic community to the religiously pluralistic character of a secular state.

If you talk to Nigerian Christians, especially those who live north of the Niger River, you will find that what they think of as “the Islamic threat” is rarely far from their minds. When I would speak of my newfound cravings for suya, they would smile sadly, remembering Bauchi. (One man told me that he could no longer eat suya.) I found it difficult to understand their extravagant praise of the United States’ role in defeating Iraq—until I realized that they understood the conflict as between Christians and Muslims, with the Christians emerging victorious (a hopeful portent for their own situation). I had been told before coming to Nigeria that some of the traditional African enthusiasm for large families, especially among the educated, was abating; but the Christians I spoke to were anxious to have as many children as possible, in hopes that those children would be able to vote for Christians in future elections. They are very concerned that Muslims are out-reproducing them: some recent estimates fix the Nigerian population at 49 percent Muslim and 41 percent Christian (with the remainder practicing African traditional religions), so the Christians may have some catching up to do.

Moreover, Muslim influence in Nigerian public life is far disproportionate to the numbers: almost every major figure in the current military government, including the president and all but one cabinet member, is Muslim. It was this ruling cadre that arranged, in 1986, for Nigeria to join the Islamic Conference—a decision that sparked something approaching panic among Nigeria’s Christians, whose traditional inclination to scorn the political order they have now, however belatedly, begun to regret. The coup that threatened to topple General Ibrahim Babangida’s government in April of 1990 was by all accounts generated by Christians in the army—most of whom are still in place.

Some believe that Christian fears should be lessened by the fact that the decision to join the Islamic Conference was motivated by economic rather than religious concerns. Nigeria’s economy, despite its substantial oil production (it is the fourth-leading supplier of oil to the U.S.), declined precipitously in the 1980s: at the beginning of that decade a naira was worth more than a dollar, while today’s going rate values the naira at less than a dime. Given this devaluation, the government has sought hard currency outside Nigeria, and has found a willing sugar daddy in Saudi Arabia. Saudi money may keep the country from becoming one of the world’s chronic debtors, but in exchange the Saudis encourage Nigerian leaders to favor the causes of the country’s Islamic population, and they take all available opportunities to build mosques. Every Nigerian city that I saw has its meager skyline overwhelmed by enormous mosques constructed by the Saudis.

Thus the economic and the religious issues are not clearly distinguishable in Nigeria; and that’s why the country’s Christians—though there has been no indication whatsoever that their right to worship might be curtailed—are worried about their future. It is not so much the possible recurrence of the Bauchi riots that they fear; a more pressing long-term concern is what underlay the riots, the changing attitude of Nigeria’s Muslims toward the relations between civil law and the sharia, the Islamic legal code.

In the late 1950s, as Nigeria was preparing for independence, questions arose about what kind of legal system could be instituted that would be acceptable to the new country’s Muslims. (The British colonial government hadn’t asked them, or any other Nigerians, what kind of law they wanted.) The problem proved nearly intractable, since in the Muslim view sharia is divinely instituted and not open to compromise. Eventually, after protracted wrangling—involving such issues as whether civil law should extend the Muslim ban on drinking alcohol to all Nigerians—the parties agreed to adopt a legal code that, while secular in its language and universal in its application, would not contradict the provisions of sharia.

In recent years, however, this vague and probably incoherent compromise—is the decision to allow non-Muslims to buy and drink alcohol consistent with sharia?—has come under greater and greater attack from the Muslim community. In 1989, for example, a convention of Muslim university students produced a manifesto demanding the full implementation of sharia in Nigerian law and rejecting as unacceptable to the Muslim conscience any compromise made in the name of merely national unity.

Perhaps more disturbing, not only to Christians but to all supporters of secular government in Nigeria, is the testimony I heard from a prominent solicitor in the city of Ilorin, the capital of Kwara state in west-central Nigeria. This man—a former official of the Second Republic (the previous civilian government, overthrown by the military in 1983) who was once imprisoned by the current regime—told me that in many places in the north, where he often tries cases, Nigerian civil law has become a dead letter: judges regularly turn cases over to the sharia courts even if only one party to the case is a Muslim. The problems resulting from such decisions are particularly acute, the solicitor told me, when the cases involved are marital disputes or divorce petitions involving a Muslim husband and a non-Muslim wife. In such cases, he claimed, the woman has no chance at all for a fair hearing.

Despite such practices, and the widespread controversy I have described, this solicitor is still hopeful. “The military government has made a mess of things,” he says. “Civilians are better at handling such problems. They have a more subtle touch. They know how to avert conflicts, instead of simply cracking down violently after trouble occurs. And the Muslim leaders, even in the north, want to make the compromises necessary to hold this nation together.”

But not everyone is so confident. I spoke to one young man, a graduate student in chemistry at a northern university and a leader of a Christian student organization (in an area where Christians are not numerous). During the Bauchi riots, he told me, Muslim students at his university attacked Christian students, seriously injuring several, and burned a couple of houses. But this young man used his knowledge of chemistry to teach his friends how to build kerosene bombs, and it didn’t take many of those, he said, to convince the Muslims to leave the Christians alone. “That’s liberation theology,” he said, with some heat. “And it works.”

All these things I discovered while teaching at a seminary located in Ighaja, a small town some forty miles from Ilorin. After listening, at a gathering in a friend’s house, to the young chemist’s passionate declaration, I headed home across the dark compound, shining a flashlight’s beam ahead of me in case snakes were about. Then I heard the two strange sounds I still associate with evenings in Igbaja: first, fruit bats pinging in the dense mango trees overhead, and then, from the big mosque in the center of town, the distorted hiss and crackle of the recorded muezzin, calling the Muslim faithful to evening prayer and—I couldn’t help thinking—if necessary, to holy war.

Alan Jacobs teaches in the English Department at Wheaton College.