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By Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka is the Nigerian Nobel laureate for literature. Late Friday (Nov. 22) the organizers of the Miss World pageant moved the contest from Nigeria to London. They said, ''This decision was taken after careful consideration of the overall interest of Nigeria and the contestants participating in this year's edition.''

LAGOS, Nigeria
-- In order to stop the Miss World pageant from taking place on Nigerian soil, the fundamentalist agenda mounted a rampage. It was not sufficient that the organizers agreed to shift the date for the finale out of respect for the season of Ramadan, the Muslim season of fasting and purification and -- lest it be forgotten -- peace. It was not sufficient that, as yet another concession, the absurd decision was taken that the competitors would not appear in swimsuits in the finale.
Additionally, the head of state, President Olusegun Obasanjo, had earlier agreed to receive the contestants in a courtesy call; he withdrew in deference to Muslim sensibilities. All these merely whetted the appetite of the beast of intolerance, to whom a superficial loss of face can only be assuaged by a loss of lives.

The newspaper that allegedly committed the offense, ThisDay, published fulsome apologies and retraction of the publication that gave offense. This apology was sententiously accepted by Muslim leaders and the Supreme Islamic Council, laying emphasis that the newspaper in question showed contrition and remorse.

Nothing in the statement of the Muslim leaders, however, considered an expression of remorse necessary for the loss of innocent lives nor administered a stern rebuke to the fanatic hordes that swept through the streets of Kaduna, burning and butchering.

The pattern has become wearisomely familiar -- an imagined slight or disrespect, even governmental failure to promptly acquiesce in unreasonable demands that infringe on the civic rights of others, and the response is violence unleashed on an unsuspecting populace!

I shall withhold comment for now on the appropriateness of the apology of ThisDay, the indicted newspaper, since my intention is not to fan awake the embers of mayhem whose flare-up now appears to have been temporarily doused. Sooner or later, the issue of the freedom of expression must be addressed within societies such as mine, and the nature of due response that is permissible when such freedoms are held to have wounded the sensibilities of others. A society that tolerates the murder of innocents, or incitement to murder, as the interpretation of due and legitimate response is a society that is breaking apart beyond all remedy.

For now, let this be clearly understood: the alleged offense by the newspaper -- which merely reported the comment made by a citizen -- was only an excuse. Anything at all, anything or nothing, would have served as the trigger of a predictable rioting. If an ''offending statement'' had not conveniently appeared, the rioters would have invented one or rioted without one. The minds that we are dealing with feel obliged to prove, time and time again, that they would go to any lengths to impose their concept of appropriate human conduct on their immediate society and even on the world.

The parameters of ''offense'' are now totally without definition and have turned infinitely expansible. While they deny others the right of freedom of expression, they exercise theirs in the form of bloodletting. The streets of the ancient city of Kaduna are awash with blood because of a group of bigoted murderers who will not accept that it is the right of others to express themselves in the glorification of the human body.

Perhaps at this point it is necessary for me to repeat my views on beauty pageants in general. I have always considered them a frivolity that does nothing to enhance the condition of womanhood. However, this 2002 edition, its originally scheduled location in a nation whose mostly peaceful secular coexistence has been brutally shattered, not once but repeatedly in recent times, has been a critical event. Nigeria, in case anyone has forgotten, is that nation of more than 30 states where a calculating political animal suddenly unsheathed the sword of religious fundamentalism for purely political gains, setting a dangerous example that has been followed by eight other states.

The governor of that state, Zamfara, declared his intention to rule the state on strictly Sharia principles. This, as I stated repeatedly, was an act of secession, and the various violent manifestations that we have witnessed since then, stemming from that declaration, mostly engineered, have been a pursuit of a secessionist political agenda that attempts to disguise itself in religious robes. The amputation of the hands of thieves followed shortly, in defiance of the provisions of the nation's criminal code which -- let this be emphasized -- does grant Sharia laws their legitimacy, but sets unambiguous limits on its application in the administration of justice.

The most notorious punitive measure of the Sharia states, however, has been the sentencing of two women to death for alleged adultery. The first was acquitted on appeal, on a technicality, while the latter, Safiyat, remains under that threat of judicial murder of the utmost sadism -- to be buried up to her neck and stoned to death. This will not happen, however.

No, the sentence will not be carried out. The Nigerian government has assured the world that it will not, and the Sharia states understand this. To kill Safiyat is to step beyond the line of no return and, for a number of reasons, none of the seceding states is prepared to go that far. So what we are witnessing are simply sanguinary incursions into the cohesion of the Nigerian nation, acts of defiance intended to warn the government that the rebellious states are determined to assert a degree of autonomy that is not enjoyed by the rest of the member states and need not be compatible with the provisions of the constitution that define the state known as Nigeria. When a state acts outside a constitution, it has effectively seceded from the entity that is governed by that constitution.

Yes, a beauty pageant is a trivial indulgence, and some may argue that it even diminishes the status of womanhood. However, given a choice between the bearded wannabe Taliban face of any protagonist governor of Sharia, uttering his imprecations against the beauty contest on television, and the sight of sylphid aspirations of femininity on parade, I have no hesitation in opting for the latter. Unfortunately, our world is infested by minds to whom lissome limbs only evoke dreams of amputation. A lovely face makes them fantasize, even salivate on the messy pulp that will be left at the end of some Stone Age stoning ritual.

In any case, Mr. Universe contests are equally ludicrous exercises in exhibitionism, and I have yet to hear of any riots taking place on account of the exposure of those grotesque abdominal muscles and the flexing of improbable biceps. Mr. Universe competitors wear skimpy pants with recognizable bulges, only slightly less assertive and literal than the tightly packaged crotches of the male ballet dancer.

From the moment that I learned of sectarian opposition to the female Universe version being held in Nigeria, it became something other than a beauty contest and assumed serious sociopolitical dimensions. Whenever my travels took me to any place where a boycott was threatened -- such as South Africa, Italy and the United States -- I deliberately took time off to argue against the boycott. Never has a frivolity acquired such profundity in the pluralist character that is the very essence of the Nigerian nation!
Destruction of property and human massacres are always traumatic events in a community, saddening and enraging, but the organizers of the beauty contest, as well as the participants, must understand that they are totally free of guilt. The guilty are the storm troopers of intolerance, the manipulators of feeble-minded but murderous hordes of fanaticism.

The nation will mourn the dead and render aid to the maimed and bereaved, but that same nation must understand that it will itself join the graveyard of nations if it fails to uphold the principles of plurality, choice, and tolerance. The phenomenon of intolerance is eating up a world that can only survive on peaceful coexistence. The accommodating are in retreat on so many fronts, little understanding that every abandoned space of coexistence is immediately occupied by the aggressive agenda of fanatics. They advance again and again to demand and seize more concessions, more demands on the way of life of others. The mind of the zealot is an insatiable dark hole, engorging all that makes life light and bearable.

(c) 2002, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 11/22/02)