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Nigerian nightmare

Religion | Who will defend press freedom from the passions of the Islamic street?

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 2002," Dec. 7, 2002

What will it take for liberal U.S. journalists to stop calling Muslim and Christian "fundamentalists" similar threats to freedom of speech and freedom of the press? (See WORLD, April 27.) And when will American editors draft resolutions attacking the suppression of freedom now going on in Nigeria?

The horror of Nigerian developments may make us miss what's happening to press liberty there. In case you missed the story, mid-November Muslim anger over a newspaper article about the Miss World beauty pageant touched off riots that left 220 people dead and over 1,000 seriously injured, with numerous churches burned to the ground.

How bad was it? Los Angeles Times correspondent Davan Maharaj reported that "thousands of Muslim youths armed with knives and machetes [were] burning cars and assaulting bystanders they suspected were Christian. Rioters pulled a local journalist off a motorcycle and told him he would be killed unless he could recite verses from Islam's holy book, the Quran. The crowd released him unharmed when they realized he was Muslim."

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Christian fundamentalists did not act that way when writers depicted Jesus as a homosexual, or when an artist submerged a cross in urine. But perhaps we should look at the huge provocation that led to so many deaths: A writer for the Nigerian newspaper ThisDay, speculating on how Muhammad would react to the beauty pageant, stated that "he would have probably chosen a wife from one of them."

That's it? Sure, given the tinderbox that Islamic extremists have made of northern Nigeria, it was a dumb comment to make. But it's also a reasonable speculation, for stories about Muhammad's life that have semi-sacred status within Islam show the religion's founder appreciating and sometimes appropriating to himself the beauties of his time.

Book eight, numbers 3325 and 3328, of the sayings and deeds collected by the esteemed ninth-century editor Abul Husain Muslim bin al-Hajjaj al-Nisapuri records how Muhammad heard that a young woman was so beautiful that a disciple said, "She is worthy of you only." Muhammad had her brought to him and was so enraptured that he "granted her emancipation and married her."

ThisDay could have footnoted its story with these and other references-but that would have increased tension. Nigeria's Islamic "fundamentalists" don't want anyone to raise questions about how Muhammad actually lived, because that might hurt their effort to set up an extreme Islamic regime. Some countries under Christian influence were like that centuries ago, but they eventually adopted John Milton's view from the 1640s that we should "let [truth] and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter."

Milton's prescription is still suspect in much of the world. The enemies of journalistic freedom used to have their capital in Moscow; now it's Mecca. American Muslims usually appreciate journalistic freedom, but hardcore Islam has now replaced Communism as the world's most potent hater of press liberty. Christians, confident about God's providence, should defend Milton's view.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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