BOB GARFIELD: Last week, amid protests by Northern Nigerian Muslims about the Miss World pageant being staged in Lagos, a young journalist named Isioma Daniel remarked in an article that the Prophet Mohammed might have taken a fetching Miss World contestant for a wife. The sentiment enraged fundamentalists in the town of Kaduna where subsequent rioting claimed more than 200 lives and sent both the pageant and the journalists scurrying out of the country. Ms. Daniel fled to the United States after a religious death sentence was issued on her own life. On Wednesday the decree was declared nul and void by Nigeria's central government, but not by the provincial officials who pronounced it, and tensions remain high. Joining me now is Nigeria expert Graham Furniss, dean of the faculty of languages and culture at the University of London. Professor Furniss, welcome to On the Media.
GRAHAM FURNISS: Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: It has been an extraordinary week in Nigeria. Let's begin with some context. What is the state of Christian/Muslim tension in Nigeria in general and, and how is it affecting the nation's politics?
GRAHAM FURNISS: It remains one of the main cleavages, fault lines, if you like, in terms of the politics of domestic life in Nigeria. Christian against Muslim is one of the most distinctive categorizations that people use when they're channeling all sorts of forms of economic and political competition.
BOB GARFIELD:The observation by Ms. Daniel was that Mohammed might have chosen one of these Miss World contestants as his wife. This set off the rioting. It was regarded as a slur against Mohammed. Was that a reckless piece of journalism by Nigerian standards? Was it surprising to you that this precipitated such violence?
GRAHAM FURNISS: I think you must understand what the Miss World contest represents for a northern Muslim. For them, what has seemed in a sense to, perhaps to you or me of a harmless flippant remark is essentially bringing into connection with the Prophet Mohammed something which is essentially both a distasteful and an inappropriate and an immoral series of events and activities.
BOB GARFIELD:So it wasn't just a flippant remark. It was the suggestion that Mohammed might have been attracted by all of the worldliness and lasciviousness that Islam strictly forbids.
GRAHAM FURNISS: I think that's a very useful summary.
BOB GARFIELD: If Ms. Daniel was incautious, do you believe that there is a corresponding level of, of caution that characterizes Nigerian journalism - that may keep journalists from being able to adequately, under normal circumstances, do their jobs fully? Do they pull their punches?
GRAHAM FURNISS: I wouldn't say they, they pull their punches. Nigerian journalists are a pugnacious bunch. They're a very brave and a very well-informed bunch. They investigate; they write on all the issues that concern ordinary Nigerians -corruption, misuse of government funds, the lack of basic facilities, clean water, water supplies, electricity, jobs, drugs in the clinics -- all of this is being discussed in Nigeria, and there are very brave journalists. But they would not gratuitously look to insult a religious community. It would be both uncalled for and would cause possible terrible reactions. Because everybody understands the difficulties of holding Nigeria together, and the fact that it is - it has stayed together for all these years is a remarkable tribute, really, to Nigerians' political skills. But it remains very tense, and make no mistake, Nigeria is, is flammable.
BOB GARFIELD:I'm, I'm just curious. Now that these events have played out to a shocked world, are the echoes of shock embarrassing Nigeria or what reaction are they having?
GRAHAM FURNISS: I think there is a sense of embarrassment. The Nigerian government was very keen to try and reconstruct a public profile for Nigeria which has had a very bad press for some time. There's a sense, I think, that for ordinary Nigerians, all of this was unnecessary. The real problems facing Nigeria are to do with schooling, housing, water, jobs -- these are the things they want the world to concentrate upon. Things are slowly improving, but the prospect that the further dislocation caused by this on top of the difficult economic circumstances that people are living in creates a real sense of despair for many ordinary Nigerians I think.
BOB GARFIELD:Let me ask you one last question. If you're a journalist in Nigeria and you write critically about the government or about corruption, you can wind up in jail. If you write about the Miss World pageant, you can wind up under a death sentence amid rioting and death. Can you be a journalist in, in the year 2002 in Nigeria and really expect to be able to do your job?
GRAHAM FURNISS: Well, that's a good question. What, what I would say to you is that there are a lot of very brave journalists doing a damn good job in Nigeria, and yes, they do tread a dangerous and a fine line sometimes. But they are working in a free society in the sense that they do not live with the threat of military government locking them up any minute. There are strong elements of civil society. But yes, it is a dangerous profession. It's not an easy profession by any means.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Graham Furniss, thank you very much.
GRAHAM FURNISS: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Graham Furniss is a professor of African language and literature at the University of London. [MUSIC]