A prominent Nigerian Shi’a Muslim leader, killings, prison, politics, and a daughter’s unknown future.
“I imagine most people only even heard about my father because of the massacre in 2014 and 2015, and a lot is missing after that. He’s always been a very involved parent, I would say, and a very understanding parent. He has been imprisoned many times, but when he was present, he was really there for us.” — Suhaila Zakzaky
Ibrahim Yaqoub El Zakzaky, is an imprisoned prominent Shi’a Muslim leader in Nigeria, married with nine children. His wife is also in prison, with only three of his nine children still alive.
His only surviving son, Mohammed Zakzaky, seems to have the closest access to his parents and the prison, updating local media on the state of his parent’s health and their court case. Dr. Nusaiba Zakzaky, his oldest living daughter, a soft-spoken woman, seen on various television programs campaigning for his release in multiple languages. And his youngest living daughter, Suhaila Zakzaky, a student, is now living in Iran in a self-imposed exile until it’s “safe” to return to Nigeria.
Besides their DNA, they have two things in common: their high level of education and love for their parents. They all speak multiple languages very well, easily blending in from New York to London, Iran, or Nigeria, and they are all outspoken advocates for their father’s plight and the movement he founded.
Last week, I caught up with Suhaila in a virtual interview to learn more about her parents and her situation.
Zakzaky’s claim to fame is the founding of Nigeria’s Islamic Movement in the 1970s, during the Iranian revolution when Ayatollah Khomeini took control of the Islamic republic. The “movement” is now referred to as the Islamic Movement Nigeria (IMN), inspired by Iranian influences and closely aligned with prominent Iranian leaders.
The movement is a minority amongst Nigeria’s Muslim population, estimated at 15% of 100-million. They propagate a nonviolent approach, Western education, charity work, and women’s education. So, why all the trouble?
He’s been jailed and violently attacked, his wife has been jailed (guilt by association), his children murdered, and hundreds of his followers have been killed. — Politics
“From the very beginning of my parent’s imprisonment and the initial attack on the Islamic Movement and our home, it has always been politically motivated. It wasn’t purely based on religious differences” — Suhaila Zakzaky
You see, the Nigerian President, Buhari, is aligned with Saudi Arabia’s Islam. The Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), which advocates for an Iranian-style republic in Nigeria, is at least partially funded by Iran. Nigeria’s Muslim population is mainly Sunni and IMN is Shi’a. This is a big problem because the fundamental ideas conflict, and because Saudi Arabia is not a friend of Iran and a group like IMN is “low hanging fruit.” (for more on this watch the interview below)
As a minority religious group that travels in and out of Iran, gets money from Iran, and has the president of Iran calling the president of Nigeria on the IMN’s behalf (2015), it’s been obvious that Iran cares about the success of this group.
Countries that don’t like Iran can work from the outside-in and pick away at groups like this to set back Iran’s global reach, but I use the words “pick away” for a reason.
I’ve asked myself if the IMN is a terrorist group, as the Nigerian government claims, and if they’re so bad, why don’t they kill the prominent Shi’a Muslim leader, Zakzaky? They’ve already killed most of his children, his brother, and many of the IMN members. Then, I think, “bargaining chip?”
Maybe it’s just a wild theory to think that keeping the leader alive is more valuable than killing him. And now that the U.S. is trying to secure a Nuclear Deal with Iran, the Biden Administration goes so far as to designate Zakzaky and his wife the only notable “Political Prisoner” in Nigeria, going against the Nigerian government who claims he is a murderous terrorist.
Religion and War
When I interviewed Ibrahim Musa, the spokesperson for the Islamic Movement in Nigeria in January of this year, I questioned his groups visits to Iran and the very nature of the visits, because there is a conflict between being a peaceful organization and defending the organization. That’s where things move to the “gray” area.
When we spoke, around the time of the anniversary of the murder of Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian military officer targeted by the United States, Musa explained the IMN believes he is a hero. That led us into a conversation about IMN as a peaceful organization or an organization willing to kill if they believe it’s justified.
Musa said, “In Islam, people who do not carry arms are not killed. In a battlefield if someone carries arms against you Islam allows you to fight back, and if you kill him in that process you are not wrong. But, if he drops his weapon and you kill him, you kill him unjustly.” He went on to say that Soleimani, because he is a Shi’a, would not kill anyone for no reason at all.
The idea that there is a “just” cause to kill, even in the name of self-defense, always means that there will be killings. This brings up a lot of questions about why they’re even on a battlefield, where they’re getting weapons and training from, and so many other questions.
At the same time, there really is such a thing as self-defense. If you’re life is being threatened and someone must die, what do you do. The whole situation is not black and white and muddied by politics, religion, and war.
I’ll also note that in my interview with Musa, he tried to connect the political dots and explain why the IMN is under attack and, therefore, must be defended.
Suhaila Zakzaky, youngest daughter of Nigeria’s most prominent minority religious leader, plans to complete her studies and, one day, return to Nigeria to support the movement.
And despite her brave front, there is no doubt she is still reckoning with the trauma of losing her siblings in a violent way, having her Nigerian home burned to the ground, seeing her parents jailed and labeled terrorists, and then having to stay abroad because it’s not safe to come home.