Muslims Talking Politics: Framing Islam, Democracy, and Law in Northern Nigeria

Muslims Talking Politics: Framing Islam, Democracy, and Law in Northern Nigeria

by Brandon Kendhammer

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Muslims Talking Politics: Framing Islam, Democracy, and Law in Northern Nigeria by Brandon Kendhammer

For generations Islamic and Western intellectuals and policymakers have debated Islam’s compatibility with democratic government, usually with few solid conclusions. But where—Brandon Kendhammer asks in this book—have the voices of ordinary, working-class Muslims been in this conversation? Doesn’t the fate of democracy rest in their hands? Visiting with community members in northern Nigeria, he tells the complex story of the stunning return of democracy to a country that has also embraced Shariah law and endured the radical religious terrorism of Boko Haram.
Kendhammer argues that despite Nigeria’s struggles with jihadist insurgency, its recent history is really one of tenuous and fragile reconciliation between mass democratic aspirations and concerted popular efforts to preserve Islamic values in government and law. Combining an innovative analysis of Nigeria’s Islamic and political history with visits to the living rooms of working families, he sketches how this reconciliation has been constructed in the conversations, debates, and everyday experiences of Nigerian Muslims. In doing so, he uncovers valuable new lessons—ones rooted in the real politics of ordinary life—for how democracy might work alongside the legal recognition of Islamic values, a question that extends far beyond Nigeria and into the Muslim world at large. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226369174
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/22/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 825 KB

About the Author

Brandon Kendhammer is assistant professor of political science and the acting director of African Studies at Ohio University. 

Read an Excerpt

Muslims Talking Politics

Framing Islam, Democracy, and Law in Northern Nigeria

By Brandon Kendhammer

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-36917-4


Sharia Implementation and Democratic Discourse in Northern Nigeria

Obasanjo's Challenge

In August 2007, the recently "retired" first president of Nigeria's Fourth Republic, Olusegun Obasanjo, spoke at the convention of an evangelical Christian church in his home state of Ogun. The topic of his address was to be a discussion of the greatest challenge of his presidency and how he responded to it. Befitting both his audience and its venue — essentially, a tent revival — its cause was a supernatural one, as Obasanjo blamed "agents of darkness" for instigating what he called the defining crisis of his rule. The identity of the challenge was equally appropriate but less obvious.

The Obasanjo administration faced many problems when it took power in May 1999, most of which remain unresolved. Scarred by sixteen years of military mismanagement, the economy needed rebuilding; except for a few bright spots (telecommunications and the entertainment industry, in particular), many sectors remain deeply dysfunctional. Tensions in the Delta region, driven by conflicts over environmental degradation and the distribution of largesse from oil revenues, spiraled out of control under Obasanjo's stewardship. Despite an amnesty program for former militants that began in 2009, violence remains a part of daily life across the affected states. The president's failure to craft institutions capable of rooting out corruption and upholding the rule of law was highlighted by the scandals that repeatedly drove his fellow Peoples' Democratic Party (PDP) members from high office in shame. His own efforts to amend the constitution to extend his rule into a third term were thwarted in 2006, much to his public embarrassment. But on the day of his address, none of these earned top billing.

The crisis Obasanjo identified began in September 1999, when Ahmed Sani Yerima, the newly elected governor of Zamfara State and member of the opposition All Peoples' Party (APP), announced his intention to replace his state's penal code and legal system with a strict and comprehensive form of sharia. Between 2000 and 2003, twelve states in northern Nigeria — that part of Nigeria with a Muslim-majority population and deep historical roots as an Islamic society — took steps to enact some form of Islamic law for their Muslim citizens. The sharia controversy drew hundreds of thousands into the street in protest and support, garnered international scorn from human rights organizations, and implicated the country in discussions of Islamic radicalism and its expanding influence in Sahelian Africa. Obasanjo, who famously proclaimed that the sharia issue would "fizzle out" of its own accord, proved unable to act decisively to diffuse the conflict and prevent escalating religious violence. Many of the key legal, constitutional, and social questions around Islamic law in Nigeria are still unsettled nearly two decades later, much like the future of the country's democracy.

Nigeria isn't the first place that comes to mind when most Westerners think about Islamic law, and as a nation split nearly equally (if not exactly neatly) between Muslims and Christians, it's hardly at the center of the Islamic world as we normally think of it. But with about 85 million Muslims (nearly the same size as the entire population of Egypt) out of a population of 170 million, a fifty-year history of democratic experiments, and a key strategic position in regional religious networks, Nigeria represents a crucial case for understanding the relationship between Islam and democracy. Religious identities play a central role in the lives of an overwhelming majority of Nigerians — one survey found that 91 percent of citizens (and 96 percent of Muslims) identify their religion as "very important" to them — and the politics of religion are situated firmly at the center of Nigerian public life. Nigeria is above all else a "multireligious" state, and almost all of its religious communities actively promote a greater role for religious values in the nation's politics. Perhaps more than anywhere else, Muslims and Christians in Nigeria depend on each other to find a durable solution for sectarian conflict, ideally one that provides for both vibrant public religion and competitive democracy.

The Puzzling Politics of Sharia in New Democracies

More broadly, northern Nigeria's sharia experiment is the largest example of the growing trend toward "sharia politics" in new and uncertain Muslim-majority democracies. In the West, sharia politics is usually associated with radical militants (in Afghanistan, Somalia, and most recently the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq) willing to make use of horrific violence and destroy thousands of years of "un-Islamic" history to advance their cause, or with autocratic governments (Pakistan and Sudan in the 1980s, for example) seeking regime-preserving bargains with Islamist movements. Yet over the past twenty years, a wave of political openings across the Muslim world have generated new demands for the codification and application of Islamic law in the public and private lives of citizens. In countries as different as Nigeria, Indonesia, and Pakistan, campaigns to extend or defend sharia-inspired law and public policies have been a major feature in electoral politics, pursued not only by "classic" Islamist parties but also by religious actors working within otherwise secular or even multireligious electoral coalitions. From debates over family law reform and women's rights legislation in Mali, Niger, and Palestine to local officials in Indonesia implementing sharia-style community ordinances and bylaws, making the law more Islamic is a goal many Muslims actively pursue via the ballot box.

What should we make of these demands? From one perspective, the answer is obvious, and not particularly optimistic. Few honest observers were sad to see the likes of Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Gaddafi fall during the revolutions of 2011. Many, however, believed that the fate of the new regimes would be determined not by the secular protests of January and February but by the demonstrations of July, when Islamists occupied Tahrir Square with slogans like "the people want God's law" and "the Quran is our constitution." As public Islam came to the forefront, fears first expressed about Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front in the early 1990s — that Islamists' commitment to electoral democracy goes no deeper than the desire to win power — returned with a vengeance. Similarly, Nigeria's sharia activists were widely depicted by both local Christian activists and the international press as radical Islamists in democrats' clothes, leading a march toward the "Talibanization" of their communities with a national Islamic state soon to follow. The meteoric rise of Boko Haram (roughly, "Westernization is forbidden"), a homegrown radical Islamist insurgency that rejects democracy and the authority of the Nigerian state and demands the "full" implementation of sharia nationwide by way of an extraordinary campaign of violence against Christians and Muslims, has further reinforced the notion that the sharia movement was merely the tip of a very dangerous iceberg.

Globally, most efforts to understand the place of Islamic law in the modern world begin with the "compatibility question": Is Islam, a religious tradition with a unique theological and historical experience dating back fourteen centuries to the Arabian Desert, compatible with democracy, a philosophy and set of institutions with origins in the political evolution of Western European society? If Islamists and social scientists have anything in common, it's that they both often treat Islam and democracy as stable, separate, and ultimately competing visions of social life. But whether directed at theology or civilizational values, this approach delivers an inconclusive view of how Muslims actually think and feel about democracy. Indeed, despite being motivated by strong prior assumptions about the "theological pervasiveness" of Islam and the absence of a "distinction between the worldly and the divine" in Islamic culture, research in the political culture tradition has struggled to find empirical evidence that individual piety or overt commitments to Islamist ideology predict or even influence pro- or antidemocratic values.

On the other side, a large body of research suggests that popular support for sharia is driven by a diverse range of motives, goals, and concerns. For one, as in American politics, where citizens have long expressed the desire for general budget reductions and tax cuts even as they prefer spending increases in specific policy realms, Muslims globally offer far more support for the generic proposition that governments should implement "only the laws of the sharia" than for any particular policies or proposals. For another, surveys that ask Muslims to define the characteristics of a sharia-inspired "government" find that most respondents cite issues like public goods provision, the elimination of corruption, and improved security far more often than the application of harsh physical punishments or restrictions on women's appearance in public spaces — the practices associated with sharia in the global media. And scholars working around the world have found that the electoral advantage Islamist parties generally enjoy following a transition to multiparty competition owes less to popular religious fervor than to the "institutional and social landscapes" that give them initial advantages in organizational capacity and the opportunity to develop reputations as providers of social goods and services. Given the recent political successes of Islamist movements in the Middle East and North Africa offering visions of an "Islamic state" in which sharia is a central pillar, this is a point worth reinforcing.

Moreover, many of the same citizens who wish to see sharia formally incorporated in their state's laws and lawmaking process also express strong, even unequivocal, support for democratic forms of government. In a 2007 poll looking at four large Muslim-majority nations around the globe (Morocco, Egypt, Indonesia, and Pakistan), the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) found that most of the Muslims surveyed favored both democratic rule (67 percent) and the "strict" application of sharia (71 percent). In 2010, a survey by Pew (again focused on a global sample of Muslim-majority states, both democratic and nondemocratic) found that many of the same Muslims who endorse corporal and even capital punishments drawn from the Islamic legal tradition also prefer democratic government to the alternative. In northern Nigeria too, support for democracy, at least in abstract terms, has hovered around 70 percent during the Fourth Republic era. Whatever else the rise of Islamist political ideologies might portend, the global Muslim community has largely concluded that state-sponsored sharia and democracy are compatible endeavors.

Sharia, Democracy, and the Politics of Public Reasoning

In taking mass Muslim support for both sharia and democracy seriously, this book proposes to approach an otherwise well-worn topic (the relationship between Islam and democracy) from an unconventional perspective. Rather than arguing about whether or not particular Islamic values, doctrines, or institutions are compatible with liberal democracy, I ask how the relationship between Islam and democracy is constructed in practice — in the debates, conversations, and conflicts Nigerian Muslims engage in about sharia and democracy in societies where corruption, poor governance, and inequality are ever-present concerns. My argument builds on a growing body of research focused on the relationship between sharia institutions and politics at the local level, particularly in the context of courts and dispute resolution. It's not, however, a study of particular institutions, legal questions, or movements, nor does it focus primarily on the thought of religious leaders and jurisprudents. Instead, it offers a broad account of how Muslims in northern Nigeria reason about Islam and democracy in public life, arriving at a local (and, as we'll see, often incomplete) understanding of what "Muslim democracy" might look like.

As Robert Hefner has suggested, even when they are couched in the language of reviving the religious practices of 1,400 years ago, conversations about the compatibility of Islamic law and democracy are "thoroughly contemporary," in the sense that they take place in late modern societies defined by "pluralization, social fragmentation, and heightened debates over the common good." They emerge, he argues, not out of some "backward-looking civilizational impulse ... but from Muslims' engagement with the central political and ethical questions of our age," including "what makes life really worth living?" And as Noah Feldman has argued, one of the things that makes both Islam and democracy such powerful ideas in these conversations is that they are fundamentally "mobile," having spread throughout the world precisely because they are so susceptible to negotiation and synthesis with other worldviews. Of course, this isn't always how their proponents see them. An increasingly large percentage of Muslims believe that there is a single, correct interpretation of sharia, an idea that flies directly in the face of more than a millennium of pluralistic legal jurisprudence. Meanwhile, advocates of liberal democracy often treat the possibility of other forms of democratic practice as illegitimate or naïve — fundamentally less than the original model. But as Frederic Schaffer argues in his remarkable study of the language of democracy, a diversity of meanings and opinions about exactly what democracy is and how such a vision might be given institutional form is the norm, even in long-standing democratic states. Indeed, Schaffer points out that even a cursory glance at everyday popular discourse in the United States reveals the idea of "democracy" being used to describe everything from the availability of gourmet ice cream at neighborhood food trucks ("street-corner democracy in action," as in one Washington Post story he mentions) to the on-court action of a basketball game ("one man, one shot," as a Los Angeles Times columnist he refers to described it). While it's possible to dismiss these metaphorical appropriations as nothing more than loose talk, Schaffer argues for understanding them as evidence of the basic attributes Americans associate with democratic practice — in this case, "the leveling or discounting of difference" and "the availability of meaningful options."

So too has Islam given birth to an extraordinary diversity of practices, experiences, identities, and institutional forms, all of which serve as fodder for juxtaposing, extending, and reconciling it with other ideas. The global Islamic tradition has long been characterized by both the fact of pluralism (in expressions of belief, the production of religious knowledge, the theory and practice of jurisprudence) and an intense struggle to make sense of what that pluralism means for the community of the faithful. For a wide range of Muslim thinkers, democracy serves as a foil in these struggles, engaged with as a means of making sense of how the Islamic tradition might best preserve and protect the role of public religion in an increasingly pluralized world. Increasingly, these issues are debated within self-consciously styled "Muslim publics," drawn together by a breakdown in hierarchies of knowledge authority and the growing confidence with which many Muslims offer their own interpretations of Islamic identity, values, and practice. These publics and the "Muslim public spheres" they produce have little in common with the bourgeois (and desacralized) public spheres described by Jürgen Habermas, but they are important arenas in which claims about religious authority, authenticity, and the state's role in religious life are contested by a diverse set of participants. My approach is to focus on these conversations and the places they happen as sites for what John Bowen calls "public reasoning" ("processes of reasoning about apparently incompatible ideas, towards workable arrangements to govern everyday social life") about the theoretical and practical consequences of democratic government for Muslim citizens.


Excerpted from Muslims Talking Politics by Brandon Kendhammer. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1      Sharia Implementation and Democratic Discourse in Northern Nigeria
2      What We Talk about When We Talk about Islam and Democracy
3      Envisioning Sharia, Imagining the Past
4      Democracy, Federalism, and the Sharia Question
5      Sharia in a Time of Transition
6      Framing Sharia and Democracy
7      Muslims Talking Politics
8      All Sharia Is Local: Islamic Law and Democracy in Practice

Appendix: Methodology


What People are Saying About This

Leonardo A. Villalón

“Kendhammer’s book explores the relationship between Islam and democracy in one of the most complex and intriguing contexts where that relationship is being debated and negotiated. To the surprise of many, the politics of democratization across the Muslim world have been accompanied by a rise of religious activism in the public sphere. The simultaneous return to democracy and adoption of sharia in northern Nigeria beginning in 1999 is one of the most consequential examples of this phenomenon, yet one that remains poorly understood. Kendhammer’s pathbreaking work makes a huge contribution in helping to fill this gap. Based on long and careful fieldwork, the book explores the ways in which the people whose lives are at stake themselves struggle to define what a just, moral, and democratic society might entail. Empirically rich, theoretically sophisticated, and with important policy implications, this book is sure to be widely considered as one of the most important of the spate of works on Islam and democracy to appear in recent years.”

Paul M Lubeck

“An original, very much-needed, and outstanding contribution to the analysis of the intersection of sharia law and electoral democracy in Muslim majority countries. This is a rich, empirically grounded work that links structural questions about political democracy with the actions and thoughts of elite and popular actors on the meaning of democracy and the role of Muslim law in contributing to justice and good governance.”

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