Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- It is not every day that one dines with the Sultan of Sokoto -- a direct descendant of Usman Dan Fodio, who was declared "Commander of the Faithful" in 1804 and founded a caliphate that reached from what is now Burkina Faso to Cameroon.

His Eminence Alhaji Muhammad Sa'adu Abubakar III is a thoroughly modern man of military bearing -- and perhaps the most influential religious figure you have never heard of. The sultan is spiritual leader to 70 million Nigerian Muslims. At home, he points out, a dinner at a restaurant is "quite impossible," because he would be mobbed by coreligionists. He speaks quietly, condemning religious "firebrands," and only showing unguarded enthusiasm when speaking of the Nigerian military, in which he served for decades as an officer, peacekeeper and military attache.

In America, religious leaders have difficulty making news even if they disrobe and juggle in the pulpit. In Nigeria -- half-Muslim, half-Christian and prone to violent rioting -- the wrong word from a religious leader could result in the death of thousands.

So it is symbolic that we are also dining in Washington with Dr. John Onaiyekan, the Catholic archbishop of Abuja. Together, as co-chairs of the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council, the sultan and the archbishop represent about 95 percent of their countrymen. They have known each other since Abubakar was a young officer ("We met soon after the attempted coup," reminisces the sultan). Now they travel together to speak on interfaith cooperation and tend to complete one another's sentences.

The two leaders are often forced to act as theological firemen, putting out the sparks of local conflict in Nigeria before they blaze. "When people start fighting," explains the archbishop, "it is rarely for religious reasons." The immediate causes have ranged from local politics to an altercation over a parking space. Police overreaction often makes things worse. But disorder can quickly take on religious overtones, requiring the leaders to intervene with traditional rulers and local religious leaders to keep the peace.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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