Late last year the British television Channel 4 broadcast a programme about how sharia, the Islamic code of conduct, works in practice. A young female reporter had travelled to northern Nigeria to witness how sharia was being implemented since its establishment there as the highest legal authority in 1999. It was an engaging documentary. The reporter was a British-Asian Muslim woman, and one would have expected her to turn her face towards the East (say, Afghanistan), or Middle East (say, Saudi Arabia), to test the efficacy of sharia. But, as the documentary progressed, it was easy to see why she had chosen to go to northern Nigeria. Although one could see the sharia machine being cranked up here and there, it was hardly the dogmatic steamroller that people had expected. For most of the time the documentary zigzagged from the sublime to the ridiculous, and even the sublime was no more than sub-sublime.

The bestriding presence in the whole documentary was a sharia judge who had invited the reporter to see how he presided over civil cases, most of which had something to do with relationships. A divorce was clinched. An elopement was given a quirky gloss. Even the sight of a number of young men being flogged in a concourse seemed less shocking than it could have been. In a rare moment of black humour, a young man even expressed the wish that his hand be chopped off so that he would not steal again.

Despite the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York and
July 7, 2005 in London, and the general terrorist threat, Britain
remains one of the freest countries in the world, partly because of the
separation of church and state.

A couple of mock-sinister moments saw the judge snappily reminding the British reporter of her femaleness, a state that should be a cover for a multitude of virtues. The reporter had been rather modest in the way she dressed and appeared like any decent mum doing the school-run in England. The voluble judge was adamant about putting women in their place, though, and a few self-effacing women that were subliminally shown tacitly agreed that they had their fixed low place from which they must not budge. The judge was convinced that the reporter was not a true Muslim.

From all appearances, the young woman in question was happy not have been a Muslim woman in northern Nigeria. Even if the species of sharia enforced was not as baleful as one would expect, any viewer in the West would have come away with the impression that this style of dishing out justice was less than "modern", to put it mildly. I was born and I grew up in southern Nigeria, where people are predominantly Christians and where the train of modernity – as I know it now — moves faster than in the predominantly Islamic north. As in the Western world, we in the southern part of the country take our freedoms for granted. The hoopla over how a number of northern Nigerian states had decided to adopt sharia to complement codified state law would have made a lot of people who were not au fait with the complex geo-religious make-up of the country think that there were more Muslims in the country than there really are.

A close encounter with sharia

As someone from the Christian south and with Christian background, long before the introduction of sharia I paid a visit to the northern city of Kano a city in which the spirit of sharia has always been writ. I was almost stoned for holding hands with a girlfriend, a fellow southerner who had gone north for National Service. Within moments of our unwittingly bringing attention to ourselves a small crowd of young male moral policemen had begun to gather, fulminating over how close I had walked with the girl, how I had held her hand. Looking for more sins, they had also pointed at how high the hemline of the young woman's skirt had been, close as it was to her ankles. She was not wearing a burka, either. Since it was not during any of the sporadic outbreak of minor "religious wars", what the young men really wanted us kaffirs to do was apologise. We duly did this and we were sent on our way with a warning, on pain of stoning, that we should not hold hands again. I was about twenty-three and believing, even at the time, that humans cannot survive without tiny doses of liberties, I was miffed.

I was no longer living in Nigeria when sharia was introduced in the north. It gave me pause when I first heard the news in England. I knew there would be fallout. There might even be some disturbances. The lives of Nigerians have become so intertwined that there are millions of people of Christian persuasion living in the north, just as there are millions of Muslims in the south. Although it was emphasised that Christians would not be bound by sharia, would anyone believe this, and even if they believed, would sharia turn out to be as incestuously exercised as promised? A Nigerian does not need to be deeply thoughtful to know that sharia was introduced to the country for reasons more political than religious; after all, Christians in the south have no parallel body of law to impose. As someone who had tasted a small, if bitter, pill of religious extremism in the north, I was at first apprehensive as to how far the enforcers of sharia would go to prove its theo-political clout.

A sign soon came in the shape of a woman sentenced to stoning-until-dead for alleged adultery. Of course, this caught the attention of the world and cast Nigeria as a country stuck in the dark ages. There was no way of explaining to anyone that Lagos is no more or less a city of God than Sao Paulo or even London.

We do not need another Nigeria

To return to the British documentary: Unexpectedly, there were no rave post-mortems in the print media. Although relativists might have defended what they saw on TV as the way other people live, the majority of Britons had shrugged and mumbled that this was not their cup of tea. The Muslim reporter would also rather drink a different kind of tea than one spiked with sharia. Although there were Muslims in the UK who would want sharia placed alongside British laws these have always been isolated tentative voices.

Then a couple of weeks ago the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, voiced the opinion that it was "inevitable" Britain would come to recognise aspects of sharia law — and the country was up in arms. Many people believed the Archbishop had weighed in on the side of hard-line Muslims who would be very happy to see sharia sanctioned as part of British Law. The tabloids had had a good time, marshalling Byronic tropes to describe the Bishop: mad, bad and dangerous to British interests. "Archbishop Converts to Islam", announced one of the milder headlines.

Laymen and clergy alike called for his head. The Bishop of Rochester, Most Reverend Michael Nazir Ali, whose father had converted to Christianity from Islam, said the Archbishop's statement was unacceptable. Although the majority of Muslim clerics have chosen to remain silent, a Muslim MP also lashed out at the Archbishop. Most Muslims in the street, especially women, declared that they had rather live in a Britain with its secular laws than under sharia in any form. One wonders why the Archbishop had not anticipated what the reaction to his suggestion would be. Dr Williams, for his part, conceded the "unclarity" of his statement and explained that he was trying to broach the topic of greater accommodation for minorities in British society.

Dr Williams has always been outspoken on issues concerning church and state. Although I am a lapsed Anglican, I still follow issues in the Anglican Church with keen interest and I have often found myself erring on the side of the Archbishop's warmer and more reasonable theology over against the more conservative side. But having lived in this country for some time, even I would say that he may have spoken out of turn. If the Archbishop had made his comment before September 11, there would have been an outcry, but to voice such a thing after the events of the last eight years was careless. What it has done is force out latent resentments and fears, so that some Muslims fear a backlash.

Today if a Christian, in one of his more atavistic moments, describes England as "our country" I will easily pardon him. Despite the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York and July 7, 2005 in London, and the general terrorist threat, Britain remains one of the freest countries in the world, partly because of the separation of church and state. Muslims are free to have to own institutions, to build their mosques and even to amplify their calls to prayer. But a British Christian in Saudi Arabia may not even hold a private fellowship meeting with other Christians, let alone build a church.

Let us not build another Arabia, or even another Nigeria, in England's green and pleasant land. I am very happy to live by the British law and life as it is, as I believe the majority of Muslims in this country are also. Why go to the trouble of time-travelling to the fusty Middle Ages?

Adebowale Oriku is a freelance writer living in England.