Responsibility in Crisis: Knowledge Politics and Global Publics

Immunity or Double Jeopardy?

Given the prominence of the religious voice in the debate, it is tempting to assume that all of it revolves around the case for individual tasdíq against that for public enforcement of Sharí'ah penal law. Yet the heart of the issue seems to be the role assigned to the state by each side. One side feels that the islamization of the state, with religion and government united in a single source, will assure immunity for God's truth, while the other side feels that such a step represents double jeopardy for political stability and religious integrity.

This intellectual cleavage has driven much of the momentum of the debate. The demand by Nigerian secularists, mostly from the south, for a constitutional separation of religion and government provokes in the Muslim north criticism on two fronts, first, that separation is a ruse to hand government a carte blanche to embark on innovation, and, second, that religion would be reduced to a personal and private option, having no standing in the public square. It is the major reason why the Council of 'Ulamá allege that secularism is a Christian Trojan horse deployed to attack Islam from within. The allegation, however, befuddles Christian Nigerians and others who have not the slightest notion of 'Christendom' as a political system. Typically, Christian Africans, such as Archbishop Onaiyekan of Kaduna, defend political secularism on pragmatic grounds of equality under the law, national stability, and participation in public life, not for religious reasons. The prominence, in contrast, of such religious reasons in the Muslim case creates a serious imbalance in the national debate, and polarizes attitudes. That secular pragmatism has been the Christian failure, though Muslims misunderstand it by attributing it to theological self-interest. Pragmatism as a relative ethic is its own reward.

Political innovation is the handmaid of secularism, and, for that reason, remains deeply suspect among Muslims. In Islamic terminology, 'innovation' is a code for heretical adding, subtracting, or alteration. Muslim activists recall that the Prophet Muhammad discharged his mission by claiming only that itPage  225 was a confirmation and continuation of earlier messages rather than a break with them. His successors felt they had, and should have, no different mandate with respect to his legacy.

In the secular scheme, by contrast, political innovation is the prerogative of the sovereign national state, with the elected legislature the inviolable shrine of the people's will. The argument by the secularists for constitutional separation belongs with that of popular sovereignty, and, as such, provokes among the Islamists a counterproposal of state-sponsored piety. Given the reality of weakened and ineffective government institutions and structures at both the federal and state levels in Nigeria and elsewhere, and of the accompanying widespread popular disenchantment with failed reforms, it is easy to see why Sharí'ah law has grass-roots appeal among the rank and file. The question, though, is whether even a Sharí'ah-mandated state can do better by offering a solution to the existing failures of mismanagement, public incompetence, judicial corruption, social injustice, the absence of safety and security, falling standards of living, and widespread loss of morale, or whether, instead, Sharí'ah would add just another twist to the discontent, and become thereby compromised. In the end, whatever the moral merit of a cargo, it cannot save a ship out of trim.

Government, by common consent, is necessary, and especially as necessary evil, for otherwise anarchy and mutual hostility would menace life and property. In the pragmatic view, say, in that of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935) or of Roscoe Pound (1870-1964), government is normative to the degree that it is publicly effective, or perceived to be effective, and not the other way round lest, as Holmes put it, puritan prudes muscle in to prevent pigs from putting their feet in the trough. (With that statement Holmes Junior disavowed all remaining traces of filial obedience to the humorous but also devout Holmes Senior (1808-1894), composer of the hymn, "O Love divine, that stooped to share.") Yet effectiveness does not insure against tyranny, and so theocratic power, as a reaction against secular monopoly of power, risks making effectiveness a sacrament of prescribed obedience, with prayer and politics commodities of widest common appeal. For sound religious as well as secular reasons, it is essential to separate obedience to God from submission to the instruments the state employs to enforce such obedience, [60] so that claims about God do not get reduced to matters of public enforcement, of impositionPage  226 of belief, and so that doctrine and political expedience do not become fused as constituency leverage. A predictable outcome of that gallery view of truth claims is the demagogic state, with or without religion. Those obfuscate the issue who fault religion for the despotic and intolerable consequences of its interchangeability with politics, and of politics with religion.

The plight of the much revered and pre-eminent jurist, Imám Málik ibn Anas, under the theocratic rule of the 'Abbásids, is instructive on this point. For his refusal to be sycophantic and for his scrupulous adherence to principle Málik brought on his head the wrath and fury of the rulers of the day. He received a severe flogging and was tortured by having his arm drawn out till his shoulder became dislocated, his moral stature being of no avail to him. [61] Such theocratic excesses against the keepers of the flame suggest that imposition of belief wrought under a theocracy is merely the flip side of the suppression of belief obligatory under an ideological national state, theocracy's secular nemesis, and represents little advantage, moral or political. Religion doing the bidding of the secular state as private disposition is little different from the state as public agent doing the bidding of religion. It should make Sharí'ah advocates pause; for it is Málik's legal tradition they now wish to make the rule of government in Nigeria. The current bitter anti-secular campaign is unlikely to spare the religion that inspires it.

The legal and normative tradition that has helped shape and define Islam's historical identity has depended crucially on the open borders the religious community has shared with its neighbors whose achievements and insights were reformulated and transcribed into the code. Customs and ideas that were once regarded as alien and remote, or as confusing and irrelevant, became by virtue of their proximity and familiarity no longer heretical and strange, and no longer feared and ignored, and so the canon expanded from cumulative experience and observance. Sharí'ah evolved in the crucible of life and experience.