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Wednesday, December 9th 2015


Isis and its Expansion, part 5

This is the first of two entries that I’m uploading pretty much simultaneously. Once both of these two posts are up, I will start gathering all of the recent material into one website.

Introduction: Gratitude from an Ancient “Owl”

Barring any unexpected events or questions that merit a lengthy public reply, this entry should be the last one directly dealing with Islam. Exploring Boko Haram, its background, and its potential implications, has been a learning experience for me. And it has definitely not led me to marvel at the inherent goodness of human nature.

I mentioned Professor David Cook of the Baker Institute at Rice University before. Actually it was reading his summary in the glossy pages of an alumni pamphlet from the religion department that alerted me to the subject and its implications. [David Cook, “Boko Haram” Religion Matters 2 (Fall 2015):2-3.] ---Obviously, this is not the first time that I have profited from the teaching from a professor at this fabulous institution.---The insights he provided sent me off to pursue this track, and I’m glad that he motivated me to do so. As it is, the best I can produce here is a quick snapshot, when it really should take an entire movie of the length of “Gone with the Wind” to get a decent understanding of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa.  I still love learning, and I picked up more than I could accommodate in these entries, but I hope that what I have done will be helpful to you to see this dimension of Islam outside of the Middle East.

One of the things that I appreciate particularly about Prof. Cook’s little summary in the alumni magazine is that he did not seek to hide his feelings about the subject: the frustrations, the disgust, the disillusionment, and, at the time that he wrote the piece, the exultation over the fact that things were apparently starting to head in the right direction. Sometimes the subjective reactions become a part of the facts without which an objective account is incomplete. (It was at Rice that I really learned to appreciate the value of phenomenology.) Prof. Cook’s accounts consist of two pdf articles under the aegis of the Baker Institute: Boko Haram: A Prognosis, 2011 and Boko Haram: A New State in West Africa, 2014. They are available as pdf articles, so it is easier, once one has downloaded them, to refer to them simply by their year and page number, rather than to insert hyperlinks each time. To a certain extent they are the backbone of my summary, supplemented by other books and articles. However, and I don’t mean this just as the traditional formality, whatever errors I have committed or am committing are truly my own fault, and, as always, I am happy to receive kindly worded constructive critiques.  

The Protean Identity of Boko Haram

In the last entry I brought up the idea, promoted by a number of scholars, that establishing shari'a (Islamic jurisprudence) in the northern states of Nigeria was unsuccessful partially because it was unenforceable on local levels as well as unenforced by the federal government. Of course, a group seeking to attain that goal could possibly defy the government and take enforcement into its own hands. The group that has become known as Boko Haram is a case in point. 

Aside: If you pronounce the name as “bokoe haraam,” you’re close enough to an acceptable way of saying it. Haram is indeed the same word as “harem,” that is used to describe traditional women’s quarters, and I don’t advocate changing how we say that word in English, but we should make an effort to get closer in this context. In a video to which I make reference below, I heard it pronounced in this way.

So, who is this group? What are their core beliefs? What scholarly traditions of Qur’anic interpretation do they follow? We cannot say as much as we would like to in answer to the last two questions, not because we don’t know, but because there seems to be little to know. It appears to me that, beyond a rigid commitment to Islam as an unclarified exclusivist ideology and the drive to eliminate everyone who does not accept them as the only true Muslims in Nigeria, Boko Haram has shown itself to be a group in search of a permanent identity. If we try to understand its rather thin ideology, we can only do so by, first of all, recognizing that perceptions usually outstrip reality in radical movements, religious and otherwise.

A general classification of this group places them amidst other groups that are called Salafi-jihadi (Cook, 2011, 2).  The second part of the label, "jihadi," is clear enough: they do not shy away from using armed violence to promote their cause. "Salafi," as I have mentioned in the past, is not as easily accommodated. The basic meaning of the term is based on a particular perception of the first four caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali ibn Talid), who were known as the “Companions" (of Muhammad). They have been considered to be "rightly guided," and their teaching is treated as the only true and necessary understanding of Islam. But the content derived from their teaching and role modeling is not necessarily the same for groups that use it.

I noted in chapter 5 of the second edition of Neighboring Faiths that the Muslims of Sau'di Arabia reject being called Wahhabis and prefer to be called Salafis. Although I usually have little problem referring to groups of people by their preferred appellation, I said that in the case of the Wahhabis, the term Salafi is neither helpful nor really appropriate since there is no denying that the origin of their version of Islam lies with Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab (1703-1792)  and that, for that matter, they appear to follow the Hanbalite school of sharia. Here we see another reason: the term "Salafi" has been given to various other neo-Kharijite groups, including Boko Haram, who actually reckon Wahhabis with those who should be killed since they are tied to current power structures. The term Salafi simply does not say as much as might have been intended. In looking at whatever declarations and transcripts of interrogation I have been able to find, it strikes me that the leadership of Boko Haram has been steeped in folk Islam, but does not have a strong background in the study of the Qur'an, let alone its history of interpretation. I don't think that it is necessarily going too far to say that Boko Haram is driven by the desire to be seen as a major player in the Islamic world and might just be willing to accept any label that treats them as a major Islamic terrorist group to be reckoned with.

Even more than other Muslim groups, Boko Haram’s biggest target has been "Western learning," pejoratively called BokoHaram means forbidden, so this group became known under the negative label, "Western learning is forbidden.” Its original name was probably Jamā'atu Ahli is-Sunnah lid-Da'wati wal-Jihād, "People Committed to the Prophet's Teachings for Propagation and Jihad.” Cook (2011, 8) transliterates the name as Jama`at ahl al-sunna li-da `wa wal-l-jihad and clarifies that this choice of name (i.e. Jama`at) would place them alongside other similar groups in various parts of the world. The overall strategy of a jama group is to postpone overt violence until the movement has spread itself throughout an entire country over a long period of time. Since Boko Haram’s existence began almost immediately with violence, this formal name does not truly reveal the nature of the group. We need to consider another name that the group adopted a little further below.

In the absence of finding much material concerning the conceptual basis of Boko Haram in its early years, it seems to have become customary—if not obligatory—to present the following statement made by Muhammad Yusuf in a rare interview on the BBC:

There are prominent Islamic preachers who have seen and understood that the present Western-style education is mixed with issues that run contrary to our beliefs in Islam. ---Like rain. We believe it is a creation of God rather than an evaporation caused by the sun that condenses and becomes rain. --- Like saying the world is a sphere. If it runs contrary to the teachings of Allah, we reject it. We also reject the theory of Darwinism. (Cook, 2011, 8)

Hardly the stuff to go to war over, we might say. But things do run a little deeper than that. Abu Zayd, a frequent spokesman for Abubakar Shekau (Cook, 2014, 4), the group’s new leader after Yusuf’s death, explained that “Western learning” actually means "Western civilization," the perceived acme of everything that is false and perverted, in contrast to the purity of Islamic learning and Islamic civilization. Well, as Christians, we might be tempted to try to build a bridge and respond that we, too, do not like the immoral aspects that have made themselves at home in contemporary Western culture. But the term "boko" includes some items that we might want to acclaim as some of the better advances in the history of humanity, such as government by democracy. As far as I can tell, from Boko Haram's perspective democracy is not just a form of government, but also a deliberate means rationalize away the need for an Islamic  . And, furthermore, unfortunately a bridge is not of much use if it does not connect both shores of a river, and Boko Haram’s mission can be visualized as doing away with any potential bridge heads. Their policy, called takfiri, falls in line with other neo-Karijite groups, as it refers to cleansing Islam of impurity by use of the sword, but exceeds most of them in their brutality and lack of discernment. 

Concerning present rulers, Abu Zayd put forward the following statement, which astute students of logic could use as an example of the fallacy of composition and division.

This is a government that is not Islamic. Therefore, all of its employees, Muslims and non-Muslims, are Infidels (Cook, 2011, 11).

Since the United States is (rightly or wrongly) seen by many people as the strongest bulwark of Western democracy, it is the archenemy, even if it does not have a strong palpable presence in Nigeria. The Qutbi doctrine of the illegitimacy of any contemporary government seems to be highly visible. In fact, several times Abu Zayd stated as a goal of Boko Haram to render the country “ungovernable,” (Cook, 2011, 11 & 18) so that then the solution of a genuine Islamic government will be the obvious one. However, their recent support of a present caliphate does not fit in with the true agenda of Qutbism, and, with all of this ambiguity, I'm not sure that any presently available word (Salafi, neo-Kharijites, Qutbi, etc.) really captures their nature.

Aside: As my ever-faithful readers know, I think that the term "fundamentalist," particularly if it is used to lump together evangelical Christians, Hassidic Jews, and Islamic terrorists, combines far too many cultural and religious forms to be anything but an empty label. Someone somewhere decided to use the term beyond its original setting, journalists and scholars picked it up uncritically, and they now debate its true meaning as an overall category as though “being fundamentalist” were an objective attribute claimed by all the of the groups in question. I would suggest that a better alternative is to drop using it outside of its original Christian setting where it has a very concrete meaning derived from the book series called The Fundamentals, published from 1910-1915. 

All-in all, it's probably not very helpful to place Boko Haram into any neatly designed conceptual box. Pace Hegel, in this case the real and the rational are not identical; or, more specifically for this case, the perception of the real and the rational do not necessarily coincide. 

The final installment should be up in just a few minutes. 

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