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Nigeria's window of opportunity

The Miss World Pageant controversy that set off deadly Muslim-Christian riots in northern Nigeria two weeks ago shows just how fragile the West African nation's political system remains three years after the return of civilian rule. More than 200 people were killed in rioting following a newspaper column suggesting that the prophet Muhammad might have chosen a wife from among the contestants. The writer of the piece has fled the country following a religious decree urging Muslims to kill her.

The eruption of sectarian violence - while unusual in the numbers killed and its visibility in the media abroad - highlights the typical daily social tensions Nigerians faced.

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A less well-known case abroad, but perhaps more typical, is the controversy over the sharia, or Islamic law, which sentenced Amina Lawal. In January, this 30-year-old Nigerian woman is scheduled to be buried in sand up to her neck and stoned to death by her neighbors. Her crime? She had a baby out of wedlock.

Ms. Lawal's sentence was handed down last March, causing an international outcry that forced Olusegun Obasanjo, president of Nigeria's secular government, to declare that the sentence won't be carried out. But his intentions are far from certain given that he hasn't legally overturned the conviction, and two more people have since been sentenced to die in the same manner.

At a time when people in some parts of the world are looking to scapegoat Muslims, there exists a window of opportunity for Nigeria to display the compassionate face of Islam.

As president of one of the world's most populous and diverse nations, Mr. Obasanjo is in a unique position to strike a workable balance between federal power and the rights of the individual states to govern certain aspects of their own affairs. He has the opportunity to preserve the independence of the sharia sentencing system, while complying with the international conventions and agreements to which Nigeria is a party.

The Nigerian government can make use of the moment at hand in several ways. It can initiate a dialogue with moderate representatives of the sharia courts and constructively negotiate sentencing guidelines that are in step with Nigerian and global norms. It can also appeal to other nations with large Muslim populations that have successfully balanced the needs of religion with the responsibilities of secular states to provide models for integrating the shariasystem.

Sharia encompasses four principal schools of Islamic legal thought developed over the past 1,400 years. These different strains of legal tradition reflect the differing needs of local circumstances as the religion spreads through the world. Islamic scholars and international human rights groups could aid Nigerian leaders in the effort to find a more acceptable form of sharia for the Nigerian circumstances. The advisers could seek to ensure that all cases being judged under sharia law meet internationally recognized human rights standards and conventions signed and ratified by Nigeria.

As this happens, the Nigerian government would need to demonstrate that it is not waging an attack on shariaitself, but focusing on those forms of punishment that national and international communities find intolerable. The government should actively support the moderate voices that best represent the essence of Islamic law.

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In turn, moderate Islamic leaders in traditionally Muslim northern Nigeria and sharia court officials should look to the complex and varied Islamic tradition that offers lawmakers a range of options and plenty of room for compassion and mercy in punishment. The death sentence is not always exercised by sharia judges; indeed, the call for repentance and subsequent leniency is often exercised in sentencing.

Upon concluding negotiations, the Nigerian government should put into place consistent and acceptable sentencing standards. Forcing each and every case through a lengthy appeals process serves to weaken government authority and compounds the suffering of those sentenced. It has forced Ms. Lawal into hiding, so that townspeople can't jump the gun and take the law into their own hands. It made Safiya Yakubu Hussaini wait for more than five months earlier this year with a death sentence hanging over her head until she learned that her conviction had been overturned.

The harsh sentence applied to Lawal has reinforced an image abroad - and even in Nigeria - of sharia as an inflexible code of law that perpetuates discrimination against women. The stakes are high, but the importance of the life of a young mother and the lives of those who could follow her is higher. If Amina Lawal is executed, it will be a grave loss not only to her child, but to Nigeria, Muslims, and the world. It will be a missed opportunity to show that shariacan be a viable system of justice, capable of fitting within established national and international legal frameworks.

Most people in the West do not realize that the most commonly evoked prayer in the Islamic tradition is the Fatihah, which appeals to Almighty God, the Merciful and the Compassionate and the Just. If the sharia system is to function effectively within a broader federal framework, the secular government of Nigeria must take the lead, and mercy, compassion, and justice given their proper place. Why not begin with the case of Amina Lawal?

Charles Adams Cogan is the Nigeria country specialist for Amnesty International USA.