Members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) take part in a demonstration against the detention of their leader Ibrahim Zakzaky in Abuja, Nigeria, on Jan. 22. (Sodiq Adelakun/AFP/Getty Images)

The Nigerian government appears to be taking a hard line on religious opposition — though not against the usual suspects. Even as the Boko Haram insurgency persists in the north, peaceful demonstrations by the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) sparked a recent round of state repression.

In late October, protests in and around the capital left at least 45 IMN members dead and more than another 100 wounded after Nigerian security forces used automatic weapons to disperse the crowds. Government officials claim they were responding to the protesters’ assault on a military convoy. IMN rejects this account and insists its members were engaged in peaceful demonstrations calling for the release of their ailing leader, Ibrahim Zakzaky, from prison.

The government crackdown is puzzling 

IMN is a Shiite Muslim group that has dissented peacefully for decades. Unlike Boko Haram, the group has no history of attacking civilian and military targets. Nevertheless this is not the first time it has experienced a government crackdown with fatal consequences. In 2015, the Nigerian military killed several hundred IMN supporters during a raid on their mosque and community center in the city of Zaria. A clash with police in Kano State during a 2016 religious procession left at least eight members dead.

One answer analysts have been quick to offer for these disturbances is “confessional differences” — Nigeria’s diverse population includes Christian, Muslim and other religious communities. The federal constitution officially prohibits a state religion and religious discrimination; however, religious identities remain a source of political mobilization and tension. Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, a Sunni Muslim, became the first opposition candidate in the country’s history to defeat a sitting president — largely thanks to support from Sunni voters.

With Nigeria’s general elections taking place on Feb. 16, Buhari may be stirring up divisions with Shiite members of IMN to reinforce his Sunni base. There are at least two reasons to be skeptical of that view, however. First, Buhari’s repression of the IMN dates back to almost his first days in office. Second, the IMN fared no better under President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the southern part of the country who led Nigeria from 2010 to 2015.

If Sunni-Shiite divisions do not fully explain persecution of the IMN, what does? In our new paper in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, Peter Henne and I suggest one alternative. Our research finds that a regime’s experience with religious violence can lead it to repress faith communities — even those that don’t engage in armed opposition.

This appears to be the case in Nigeria. The IMN has peacefully demonstrated its opposition to the secular Nigerian government since the 1980s. Yet repression of the group intensified after the start of the Boko Haram insurgency in 2009. Our paper suggests these events are part of a larger pattern.

Here’s how we did our research

To better understand the link between religious violence and repression, we analyzed cross-national data on religious civil wars and government restrictions on religion from 1990 to 2009. We coded a civil war as “religious” if at least one conflict party mobilized supporters along confessional lines or explicitly issued religious demands, such as to create a state ruled by sharia law. An example of the latter is Boko Haram’s aim to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state with sharia criminal courts in northern Nigeria.

Our information came primarily from the UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict data set and Isak Svensson’s Fighting With Faith data set. We focused primarily on religious civil wars because they are an increasingly common form of religious violence — and because they provided a direct comparison to studies that instead argue that religious violence leads to civil war.

To evaluate government repression of religion, we relied on data from the Religion and State Project. In particular, we looked at official restrictions on religion, restrictions on minority religions and restrictions on religious practices.

Even when controlling for other reasons a government might repress a faith community, we found that the type and severity of government restrictions on religion increased following religious civil wars. Perhaps most interestingly, these regulations were not limited to the faith tradition associated with the fighting. Rather, a regime’s experience with religious armed opposition was associated with greater regulation of all faith communities.

What this means for Nigeria and beyond

Our study has important implications for how we think about recent events in Nigeria, but also sheds light on a global increase in government restrictions on religion. Local patterns of violence, rather than divisions based on faith, appear to be an important driver of religious repression.

In Nigeria, this means both Muslim and Christian communities can expect additional regulations as long as the Boko Haram insurgency endures. This appears to be taking place already — a recent bill in Kaduna state, for instance, requires Muslim and Christian preachers to obtain a local license and restricts the playing of religious recordings in public.

A similar story is playing out in other contexts. Russian authorities have curtailed an ever-growing number of religious protections as Salafi militants continue to fight in the North Caucasus. Likewise, the Chinese Communist Party has tightened its grip on religious minorities in the wake of militant attacks in Xinjiang. In the State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report for 2017, six of the 10 countries labeled as “countries of particular concern” for their lack of religious freedoms were countries that have faced or are facing religious rebellions.

Are there ways to avoid the government backlash produced by religious violence? Advocates of religious liberty frequently make their case by pointing to the economic and social advantages associated with the free exercise of religion. But in many countries, including Nigeria, ruling parties appear willing to sacrifice such benefits in the interest of security.

A more promising starting point might be to think about how to end and prevent the recurrence of religious civil wars. Otherwise, states will continue to exert significant effort to keep tight control over all religious communities — even those engaged in peaceful protests — within their borders.

Jason Klocek is a Global Religion Research Initiative Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society. Follow him at @jaklocek.