There has been enough scholarly work, by both Muslims and non-Muslims, to show that there is no inherent reason to think that the principles of Shariahh set out in the Quran and the life of the Prophet contradict today’s legal and political ideals. The dynamic evolution of laws and regulations across Muslim-majority countries over the last 30 years attest that Shariah is highly adaptable and capable of meeting modern legal, social and economic needs. New interpretations and applications of Shariah are enabling Muslims to live freely according to their consciences within the realities of this century.
What we need to worry about, therefore, is not Shariah but its political utilization. We saw the detrimental outcomes of emotional Shariah politics in the 20th century that harmed Muslims and non-Muslims alike and created serious conflicts and suffering.
For the vast majority of Muslims living in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, cries for Shariah are cries for equality, justice, fairness and moral values in the face of corrupt politicians and regimes. But whenever such genuine calls were used by political elites to maintain their power by purporting to uphold Islam, or used by opposition movements to achieve power with claims of being Islam’s standard-bearers, the result was often disastrous. Few if any of the problems leading to calls for Shariah were solved and, in some cases, things became much worse.
The politicization of Shariah is especially dangerous in transitional contexts where state structures are not strong or are nonexistent. As there is not a single codified and agreed upon written reference as to what the Shariah laws are, when combined with ill-educated, self-declared sheikhs and chaotic political processes, what often follows is the exact opposite of the noble principles of Shariah.
Warning signs in Nigeria
The country that serves as the most important warning sign in this regard for today’s Middle East is Nigeria, where clashes between Christians and Muslims have caused the deaths of more than 15,000 people in the last decade alone and where corruption, inequality and injustice are pandemic problems.
Just as in the Middle East, calls to expand the application of Shariah in Nigeria first emerged in the 1970s. The issue was hotly debated in the Nigerian national assembly in 1978 to no conclusion. It emerged again in 1988, when a group of assembly members from Northern Nigeria demanded Shariah be applied across the entire country. Christians, who comprise half of the population, as well as tribes who hold traditional animist beliefs, refused the imposition of Shariah outside of Muslim-majority regions.
When military rule ended in 1999 with multiparty elections, the sociopolitical and religious tensions that had been brewing surfaced once again. In 2000, the governor of the state of Zamfara, following his electoral promises to do so, unilaterally expanded the application of Shariah beyond personal status matters to all aspects of the legal system, including the criminal code. Eleven other northern states quickly followed Zamfara’s example.
The result was serious human rights abuses and inhumane, hasty punishment -- including stoning, executions and amputations. More insidiously, the change led to the creation of semi-official religious enforcers called the hisba in Shariah states, who sought to regulate minute aspects of personal morality and lifestyle with minimum accountability. These developments triggered riots in Kaduna and Jos, causing serious damage, and set the stage for the widespread ethno-religious violence and political instability that have beset the country ever since.
What is clear in the Middle East is that the years of authoritarian pressure, low levels of education, isolation from global developments and denial of political and diplomatic experiences beyond grassroots opposition have frozen the political and religious horizons of the region. Dwelling on abstract religious discourse with no clear proposals as to how collapsing economies and corrupt political, judicial and security structures will be reformed, the new groups are developing angry politics that alienate and exclude everyone who does not support them. Unless the new political groups in the Middle East catch up with the substantial economic, theological, social and legal advancements achieved by Muslims in other parts of the world, their zealotry will only result in further instability, social tensions and chaos.
*Ziya Meral is a London-based Turkish researcher and academic.