During a recent trip to Nigeria, I traveled by road from Jos, a religiously mixed university town in the middle of the country, to Sokoto, seat of the 200-year-old Sufi caliphate that shapes the dominant Muslim culture in the country’s northwest. The most obvious indicator marking the transition into the nine-state region where both civil and criminal law conform to shari’a was the change in the wardrobe for the female models on the ubiquitous billboards advertising Ma Dish—a seasoning mix used in the spicy stews that anchor Nigerian cuisine. South of the city of Zaria, Ma wore a colorful head-tie typical of the Christian south. North of Zaria, she wore a hijab.
What didn’t change was the steady sprinkling of evangelical Christian churches along the road. Even when we reached Sokoto, where Christians compose a small minority of the population, outposts of the Assemblies of God and homegrown neo-Pentecostal movements were easy to spot.
While interreligious violence plagues other parts of Nigeria, relative comity between evangelicals and Muslims in contexts where shari’a governs daily life is not unique to Sokoto. In Indonesia, where a secular government is at least nominally committed to the ideals of the country’s pluralist constitution, minority Christians often support local shari’a-based ordinances that prescribe modest dress for women and that ban the sale of pornography and alcohol.
You could be forgiven for not knowing about these complexities if your main source of information about shari’a and non-Muslim minorities is the New York Times. This week, for example, the Times picked up an AP story (“Nigeria: Fashion Police Take on Cabbies”) that sensationalized the enforcement of a shari’a-based dress code. Other recent stories have traded on a largely unqualified association between shari’a and conflict in Indonesia, Egypt, Syria and Mali. Coverage in the last story is emblematic of the problem: While it’s true that the Tuareg rebels who briefly occupied Timbuktu favored a particularly brutal interpretation of shari’a, what’s missing from the piece is an acknowledgment that other interpretations of Islamic law are inseparable from the culture of a Muslim city long associated with tolerance and learning.
The Times, which did a good job of exposing the hysteria of the domestic anti-shari’a movement during the last presidential campaign, has a spottier record when it comes to reporting on Islamic law, conflict and pluralism abroad. Resources like Islawmix and explainers from scholarly experts (see posts from Haroon Moghul here and here) can help to clarify and nuance reporting around these issues. Readers of the Times may be surprised to read about Christians flourishing under shari’a in Nigeria, Indonesia and elsewhere—in any case, always leading with bleeding is misleading.