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Vengeful flash mobs: rural third world nationals demonstrate facile use of technology


C3 (command, control, and communication) is becoming increasing inexpensive to the point that cell phones, pagers, and PDAs can produce human events of amazing speed. What came to be called a flash mob was a harmless creation in the US:

  • Flash mob: A group of people who are organized via various mass communications to appear from out of nowhere to come together at a specified place and time, to perform predetermined (usually whimsical) actions for a brief period of time, and then quickly disperse.

As we will see below, the harmless flash mob can turn deadly when passions are inflamed. As tools become more pervasive, the flash mob will mutate into a smart mob and then police, constabularies, peace keeping, and occupation forces will have their hands full in dealing with an opponent that likely has faster, flatter communications than they do:

  • Smart mob: "Mobile communication devices, peer to peer methods, and a computation-pervaded environment are making it possible for groups of people to organize collective actions on a scale never before possible."

And if that peace keeping or occupation force is from another culture where an unintentional slight can launch an action of which the peace keeper is unaware of the cause and thus deprived of a means to defuse, things will spiral quickly out of control.

My favorite example to date was the Nigerian flash mob that set out to kill a newspaper journalist -- and in this case the creators of the misstep were local nationals, just not of the same religion. In retrospect, it sounds daft: The wife of the president wants to improve tourism and so imports a Miss World beauty pageant to Lagos during Ramadan.

The trigger was a journalist's comment that, "Muslims thought it was immoral to bring ninety-two women to Nigeria and ask them to revel in vanity. When will Muhammad think? In all honesty, he would have chosen a wife from one of them."

Solidarity text messages began to fly on GSM phones to alert the nation's Muslims to the blasphemy. The journalist went into hiding under a death sentence, the paper's bureau chief escaped being hacked to death by machetes by minutes, the paper's offices were set ablaze, and an embargo was placed on the paper's circulation in northern Muslim states.

As the original article has scrolled into archive:

"Even before the staging of its grand finale, which has now been shifted to December 7, a seemingly sponsored publication on the licentious beauty parade has sparked off a violent protest in the country.

Irked by the publication of a provocative cover story titled "Miss World: The World on their feet," which cast aspersions on the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in ThisDay newspaper of Saturday November 16, Muslims came out en masse at the Kaduna State branch office of the newspaper, just as a fatwa (religious decree) has been passed for the beheading of the writer of the offensive story as stated in an anonymous letter signed by one Sheikh Abdulkareem Abdullahi and sent to Weekly Trust.

The fatwa states that: "Isioma Daniel has committed a blasphemy against our noble prophet (SAW). Her offence is no less severe than that of Salman Rushdie who wrote the Satanic Verses to defame our prophet (SAW). Therefore, any Muslim who finds her should behead her for the sake of Allah and His rasul (SAW)."

There is much to be learned from this sad story:

(1) Third world nationals can demonstrate a facile use of technology.

(2) A fatwa for execution can be passed at the drop of a hat, even in a non-majority Muslim country, in this case calling for the beheading of the female writer of the offending story.

(3) Local Muslims lamented the lack of a sharia governed state such that the fatwa could be carried out with dispatch. Nigerian politics still resonates from this outcome.

(4) Sensitivity training is in order for those dealing with Muslims. Holding a "wiggle and giggle" event during Ramadan is not ideal, even if the idea came from the president's wife, the contestants were imported, and the principal consumers were outside the nation.

(5) Western sensibilities can get us into severe trouble with Muslims such that we can ignite a religious war in what we thought was a modest tactical situation. That does not mean that one cannot fight but rather one must be able to bring much more force to bear if the situation requires it.

(6) Is it any wonder that the Islamic governments with which we are now dealing on terrorist matters, have to tiptoe around the opinions of their nationals and so move "slowly" on issues of paramount interest to the US and the West? The article is worth a read to drive home the point of the sensitive temperaments on the street in many of the Islamic states that are our putative allies.

(7) Nigeria lifts some of the finest (lightest and easiest to refine) crude oil about. A more contentious issue with more lasting effect could impact what has increasingly been relied upon by the US as a stable source.

When I think of the missteps we have occasioned in Iraq, I marvel that we escaped more violent flash mob events there.

As a postscript, the paper's apology had no effect:

"[E]minent Islamic scholars are insisting that the writer of the offensive story cannot jump death sentence for blasphemy. Malam Rufa'i Adamu, the administrative secretary of the Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs in Nigeria (NSCIA) who spoke in his capacity as a concerned Muslim told Weekly Trust that though the ordinary Muslim may be helpless as Nigeria is not a sharia state, under normal circumstances, the culprit should die. "You cannot escape death no matter the interpretation one may adopt. Of course, one is free to seek to repent, which scholars said may be accepted. But the truth is that death is the final punishment, he said."

The Miss World Pageant was moved to London.

Fury Trails Miss World Pageant
Weekly Trust (Kaduna)
By AbdulFatah Olajide & Aliyu Askira in Kaduna
Lagos & Kaduna
November 22, 2002

Gordon Housworth

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