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Nigerian Scholar Calls for Religious Tolerance - 2004-10-15

As Muslims throughout the world begin observing the holy month of Ramadan, a Nigerian scholar urges Muslim religious leaders to use the holiday to teach religious tolerance.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, encompasses many ethnic and religious groups, and the divisions have led to clashes between Muslims and Christians for decades. A scholar from the predominantly Muslim north, Shehu Sani, has written a book on the religious strife in Nigeria, called "The Killing Fields: Sectarian Violence in Northern Nigeria." Mr. Sani says Ramadan is an opportunity for Islamic leaders to teach peace.

"During the period of fasting, you have people more interested and more committed to their faith," he said. "And it is at this time that religious preachers have the largest audience. What these religious leaders say and what they do at this very time here is very critical."

Mr. Sani says during his research, he traced the history of the clashes in northern Nigeria back to the late 1970s when the country began experiencing an economic decline. He says growing poverty has ignited the strife between the Muslims and the Christians and, more recently, among diverse Islamic groups operating in Nigeria.

"Like the ones we have in Kano and Kaduna, some followers of one religious scholar whose son was killed and then he felt he should unleash violence and he used the platform to seek revenge," he said. "He felt like attacking the police and then from there it went on to what he called a jihad. And then you have another type, which is led by people that are actually educated in the ways of other Islamic revolutionary activities in other parts of the world. And then you have another type which is coming up here in the northeastern part of the country with some young men calling themselves the Taliban that are inspired by what happened in Afghanistan."

Mr. Sani says the introduction of Islamic Sharia law in northern Nigeria has created new frictions in the region. "When the Sharia law came, when it was launched, the politicians exploited the religious fervor among the people and their disillusionment with the successive regimes in the country," he said. "And they made a lot of promises that this Sharia law would deliver. And Sharia, instead of achieving what it was said to achieve, was rather politicized."

Mr. Sani says to stem the rise of sectarian violence in northern Nigeria, religious leaders should use the holy days of Ramadan to spread the message of peace and religious tolerance.