Beauty and Death

 25 November 2002

Beauty and Death

By Gwynne Dyer

“These girls will be wearing swimwear dripping with blood,” said British writer Muriel Gray as 92 shaken Miss World contestants arrived in London from Nigeria on 24 November. The organisers had pulled the beauty pageant out of Nigeria after at least 215 people died in riots led by Islamic extremists — but who actually put the blood on the swimsuits?

Some blame attaches to organiser Julia Morley, whose late husband, impresario Eric Morley, founded the Miss World event 51 years ago. She should not have let it go to a country half of whose 120 million people are Muslims, especially since the contest was scheduled for the holy month of Ramadan and it was predictable that extremists would try to exploit it. On the other hand, most Nigerians welcomed the contest, which was being touted locally as the biggest international event to be held in Nigeria since independence in 1960, and the choice of venue was automatic anyway because last year’s Miss World, Agbani Darego, was Nigerian.

As greater sophistication and feminist criticism eroded the contest’s old audience in the West, the Miss World organisers have responded by concentrating on Third World countries that saw the event as an opportunity to raise their profile internationally. This was bound to lead to controversy and cultural clashes: the contrast between Miss World glitz and local poverty was embarrassing, and conservative local values were often offended. The clashes duly occurred (generating useful publicity) over recent contests in India and South Africa, but not until Nigeria did they lead to mass murder.

Even before the contestants arrived in Nigeria, the political temperature was rising fast. Scandalised Muslim clerics denounced the contest as a “parade of nudity”, and human rights campaigners seized the opportunity to highlight the plight of Amina Lawal, a Muslim woman sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery by one of the recently introduced Sharia (Islamic law) courts in northern Nigeria. A number of contestants refused to come, and in mid-November President Olusegun Obasanjo, a southern Christian who needs substantial Muslim support to win re-election in 2003, cancelled a scheduled meet-and-greet session with those who did.

What put the fat in the fire, however, was an article in ‘ThisDay’, Nigeria’s leading up-market newspaper, on 18 November. Defending the decision to hold the Miss World contest in Nigeria, staff journalist Isioma Daniel wrote: “The Muslims thought it was immoral to bring 92 women to Nigeria and ask them to revel in vanity. What would (the Prophet) Mohammed think? In all honesty he would probably have chosen a wife from among them.” It was the sort of too-clever comment that journalists with a deadline looming sometimes resort to in lieu of a real conclusion, but in a country where over 3,000 people were killed in Muslim-Christian riots only three years ago it was dynamite.

Usually this sort of gaffe would be caught in the editorial process, but it was Friday night for the Saturday paper and it slipped through. Hardly any of the young Muslim men in the northern city of Kaduna who burned down ThisDay’s local office and began killing Christians and burning churches the following Tuesday would have read the offending article, but the Nigerian Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs declared a “serious religious emergency” and local preachers spread the message in the mosques. ThisDay apologised four times during the week, but the riots spread to the capital, Abuja, and the Miss World organisers pulled out.

No sane person, Muslim or non-Muslim, would defend the murder of over 200 people, with 1,200 more injured and 12,000 homeless, as an appropriate response to the tasteless remark of a single ignorant journalist. But many non-Muslims will see it as just another instance of the growing phenomenon of violent Islamism. More knowledgeable observers of African affairs will see it as yet another example of trouble along the Muslim-Christian fracture line that runs through so many African countries from Ivory Coast (recently split in two along that frontier) to Sudan (mired in a north-south war for the past generation). They are both only half right.

‘Religious’ clashes around the world usually have their roots in political power struggles, and Nigeria’s certainly do. This round dates from 1999, when the northern-based military regimes that ruled the country for most of the time since independence gave way to civilian democracy and a Christian southerner was elected president. The alliance between Muslim army officers from the north and the traditional northern aristocracy finally lost control — and immediately began plotting to get it back.

Suddenly, in 2000, one state government after another across the north began to bring in Sharia law, causing great unease among the non-Muslim minorities in their midst. It was a recipe for religious conflict, and it was no coincidence at all that the twelve states which have adopted Sharia are precisely the ones where many Muslim voters broke away from their traditional religious loyalties last election and gave their votes to Obasanjo, a Christian.

Sharia law and the conflicts it causes are part of an attempt to herd northern Muslim voters back into their old voting patterns, and Obasanjo has not dared to enforce the constitution which declares Nigeria a secular state for fear of losing next year’s election. Along come the Miss World contest, and of course the conspiracy to restore northern control exploits the event for all it’s worth. It’s ugly and it’s extremely dangerous, but it’s not really about Islam and Christianity. It’s about power.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and . (“As greater…murder”; and “No sane…right”)