Islam and Politics in Nigeria

“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” Antonio says to Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Religion is often used and misused by politicians to gain power. To understand the intricate relationship between Islam and politics, Brandon Kendhammer, a PhD candidate in political science at UW-Madison with focus on African Studies, went to Northern Nigeria and studied the implementation of sharia law in the region since the country’s democratic transition in 1999. He sat down with Inside Islam recently to share his experience and research findings. You can watch the whole interview by clicking on the video below.

Kendhammer grew up in Wisconsin, but became interested in Islam and Africa when he studied abroad in Cameroon and lived in a Muslim community, the city of Ngaoundéré. “I remember waking up in the morning and hearing the call to prayer.” It left a lasting impression on the then 20-year-old.

From September 2007 to July 2008, Kendhammer returned to Africa for his doctoral research, this time in Nigeria (1:20). After Nigeria’s democratic elections in 1999, politicians who took office in northern Nigeria, where a majority of the country’s Muslims live, sought to implement sharia law. After observing how people talk about Islamic law, debate its implementation, and think about democracy, Kendhammer concluded that ordinary citizens often are not sure what stand they should take on a new political issue based on their faith. Thus, politicians and other social and media elites have a disproportionate role in shaping what religion and politics mean to each other. “Politics, not theology, tends to explain the ways in which Islamic values and beliefs are translated into calls for political action, and ultimately into public opinion.”

Unfortunately, many Americans, including some academics, have a very simplistic notion of how Islam impacts politics, blaming the religion for many violent actions and brutal regimes in the Muslim world (3:40). “To assume that whatever theological or doctrinal reading you are making of Islam is how everybody thinks about Islam is just patently ridiculous,” said Kendhammer. “It’s not about what Islam says, it’s about what Muslims do with what’s available.” Religions don’t have monolithic effects on their adherents. That’s why he can’t use any word other than “diversity” to describe Islam.

French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal once said, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.” But maybe we are too quick to assume that religion motivates politics and not the other way around or in some more complicated relationship. How do you see the interaction between Islam and politics? If elites play such a substantial role in “framing” the relationship between religion and democracy, what does that have to say about the role of ordinary citizens? We welcome your comments.