Mon, 06 Mar 2000

Nigeria violence latest feud over Islam

By Paul Taylor

LONDON (Reuters): Inter-faith bloodshed over attempts to impose sharia law in Nigeria is the latest in a series of global clashes over the political role of Islam.

Disputes are raging in Africa and Asia both over the extent to which Muslim countries should be governed by religion, and over the relationship between Islam and other faiths on the fringes of the Muslim world.

But many analysts say the real causes are usually ethnic or regional divisions, the crumbling of central state authority or social tensions exacerbated by economic crisis.

"Ultimately the whole thing hangs on social and regional conflicts in an age of economic deregulation where growing sections of the population are alienated from the state," said Aziz al-Azmeh, a visiting professor at Yale University.

From Algeria to Afghanistan, from Sudan to Kashmir, religious militancy has been one of the drivers of conflict in the post- Cold War world.

But experts argue that political Islamism has passed its peak and reject the vision of a growing clash of civilizations painted by U.S. strategic thinker Samuel Huntington.

Hundreds of Nigerians have died in the last two weeks in violence triggered by plans, since dropped, to introduce a strict form of Islamic law in northern areas with a mixed-faith population. President Olusegun Obasanjo said it was the worst violence since Nigeria's civil war in the late 1960s.

The killings and maimings have raised concerns about the cohesion of the multi-ethnic nation of 108 million people.

Some experts see parallels between the sectarian bloodshed in Nigeria and in Indonesia, a sprawling mainly Muslim nation of 200 million.

In both cases, they say, the violence has arisen from centrifugal forces unleashed by the end of a long period of autocratic rule, with regions pressing for greater self-rule at a time of worsening economic dislocation.

More than 1,600 people have died in the past year in fighting between Muslims and Christians in Indonesia's Moluccas archipelago. Sectarian violence has also flared in other areas, although diplomats say it often seems driven by clan rivalries or by economic hardship.

Islamic radicals made some headway on the fringes of the former Soviet empire in the 1990s but gained power nowhere except, briefly, in the rebel Russian region of Chechnya.

Russian troops have just driven Muslim guerrillas out of most of Chechnya, although they are fighting a rearguard action in the southern mountains.

In most parts of the Muslim world, campaigns by radical Islamists to transform society along strict religious lines seem to have peaked, often because of ruthless suppression by incumbent governments.

Middle East expert Ibrahim Karawan, in a 1997 essay entitled The Islamist Impasse, argued that fundamentalist movements had failed to achieve most of their objectives despite their ability to mobilize mass support in many Arab states.

"This record of limited success is the result not of intellectual failure, but of fragmentation, political over- extension, effective state responses and the poor performance of self-proclaimed Islamic regimes," he said.

Since he wrote those words, Iran, which became the first theocratic state of the modern age in a 1979 Islamic revolution, has voted overwhelmingly for moderate reformers in parliamentary elections last month.

The new parliament is expected to help President Mohammad Khatami implement his program of greater individual and social freedom and a less intrusive imposition of Islamic rules, despite the residual power of hardline clerics.

In Sudan too, Islamist influence has waned somewhat since President Omar Hassan al-Bashir moved last December to curb the powers of his former ally and ideologue Hassan al-Turabi.

Algeria's civil war, triggered by military intervention in 1992 to prevent an Islamist party winning a general election, claimed more than 100,000 lives but has been reduced in the last year to a fringe revolt by a hard core of renegade guerrillas.

The main Islamic Salvation Army accepted an amnesty and disbanded last year, although the military powerbrokers behind President Abdelaziz Bouteflika have yet to allow banned or jailed Islamist leaders to return to public life.

Turkey's powerful military bounced elected Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan out of office two years ago and the Constitutional Court subsequently banned his Welfare party and banned him from politics.

The court is now contemplating whether to do the same to a successor party, Virtue, led by the mild-mannered Recai Kutan. The discovery of dozens of bodies of people allegedly killed by the shadowy Islamic radical group Hizbullah has further set back Islamist politics in Turkey.

Egypt, which quelled armed Muslim militant groups in a vicious struggle that cost more than 1,200 lives between 1992 and 1997, has suffered a recent bout of local bloodshed between Muslims and Coptic Christians.

But there too, Azmeh said clan rivalries in economic hard times rather than religious hatred appeared to be the underlying motive.

However, he said Islamist militants could still gain influence in Arab countries where succession problems undermined the legitimacy of the state, or economic frustrations overshadowed fragile democratization processes.

Syria, Jordan and Morocco were among the potential candidates, he said.