Opinion by Muhammad Nizami- Muslims are unendingly criticised for remaining reserved on issues seemingly pertaining to us, from the actions of Boko Haram in Nigeria to the silly diatribes of insignificant sects closer to home, as if our disinclination indicates some sort of tacit approval. Having been on the receiving end of dishonest and negative press, with sensationalist stories intended to demonise groups of people with few facts to support news reports, the idea that we should be uninhibited in our condemnations without having nominally ascertained the facts would be naive. Even if politicians themselves have jumped on the bandwagon that really means little, given the current Islamic Trojan horse debacle in Birmingham and Gove’s response of sending in counter-terrorism detectives, British Muslims are becoming quite used to taking everything with large buckets of salt.
So in reference to the increasing operations of Boko Haram, British Muslims are caught between two very human sentiments due to the unbelievable barbarity of what’s been reported. Either we question the actual reports of what is happening given the media’s proclivity to make everything Muslim seem negative – take the recent exposé of halal chicken at Pizza Express (as if it was our fault they made a business decision), or we’re simply caught off guard when we’re told of barbarisms that are claimed to have religious motive. We’ve been singing the ‘but it’s not Islam’ song for so long that even we’ve become jaded.
Nonetheless, our ongoing timidity must come to an end especially since it serves as fuel for those who would portray us as approving tyranny. That doesn’t mean that whenever we are called upon we sing a sycophantic hymn that articulates the desired narrative; of course we must submit mature and intelligent responses, both in what we say and how we say it, clearly articulating the Islamic ethic in every such situation. Indeed we need not feel uneasy but respond with the same buoyancy and conviction as displayed by the Prophetic Companion Salman al-Farsi upon being probed by a polytheist.
So how should we respond to the current incidents involving Boko Haram? Well firstly, our responses shouldn’t fall into the trap of completely accommodating the media account. Simultaneously we should keep in mind that often such questions come out of media-driven apprehensions of a Boko Haram-style takeover of Britain, anxieties we should treat with care no matter how absurd. Perhaps the best response should be that which resembles the reply of Abu Bakr when the pagans questioned him about the Prophet’s ascension (mi’raj): “If he said that, then he is truthful…” Similarly, it is commonly found that Islamic jurists will state when discussing conceivable legal interpretations: “If the hadith is sound then…” with the veracity of the antecedent (the first half of the proposition) being the basis of the view. If our deliberations begin with a clause, we judiciously contextualise our position founding it on a certain situation rather than making unreserved judgments only having to backtrack when further facts come to light (as is usually the case).
So, if what has been reported about Boko Haram is true, then no sensible person can deny the outrage that is recent events. Neither the law of God nor the rational intellect sees legitimacy in killing and kidnapping scores of innocent civilians. In being asked about what Islam says, we should be vigilant of language that preserves the idea that we are members of a social group that includes Boko haram – Islam doesn’t say anything since it is an act, the unaffected submission of one’s passions to the Most High, and it is He who has ordered a righteous demeanour, noble etiquette, elevated moral conduct and impartial justice. The Lord God did not create man to shed blood but to effect peace, established in scripture as being a key catalyst for godliness and prosperity. That is what God ordains and that is what those who believe in the ways of Abraham must personify.
Now beyond the pointed clarification that might be required on occasion, it befits us as believers to hold informed views rather than run with popular trends. God told the Prophet:
If you obey most of those on earth, they would lead you away from the path of God. They follow nothing but speculation; they are merely guessing.
With regards to the media, a conclusive verse instructs:
Believers, if a troublemaker brings you news, check it first.
It is astonishing to see how many people have virulently censured Boko Haram without any context to the Nigerian predicament.
To offer a brief account, it seems that the original members of Boko Haram were followers of Muhammad Yusuf, an eccentric but conservative and peaceful imam who preached adherence to the Quran. Amongst the rural poor in the north he managed to build a disciplined following that provided free food, education and hope. The nickname Boko Haram arose after he established a mosque and school ‘as an alternative to the government schools he regarded as both alien to Muslims and tools of the elite.’ Political engagement was ineffectual for the people of Borno who had no recourse to democratic expression; the elections were known ‘for their thuggishness and dishonesty.’
The achievements of Yusuf weren’t lost on the then governor of one of Nigeria’s most mismanaged and corrupt states; feeling threatened, in 2002 he set out to destroy the movement killing hundreds of members along with bystanders. ‘In one episode, security forces killed 19 motorcyclists for not wearing helmets. As with most crackdowns, people revered Yusuf all the more. His simple call for social justice in the context of faith attracted new followers including some that had been in touch with Muslim militants abroad. By 2009, when the group had decided to arm themselves in response to state oppression, the governor brought in extra security forces who killed around 1,000 people and rounded up even more holding them without trial. Yusuf was shot dead while in custody and the survivors fled to neighbouring countries. Following this, it was in late 2010 that a strangely different Boko Haram arose. Rather than being the original religious protest movement calling for social justice it was now a full-blown insurgency with all the trappings of jihadist rhetoric.
According to the Economist and other outlets, there are legitimate grievances that northerners feel such as the tyranny of security forces, state oppression and crippling poverty owing to misrule coupled with the widespread corruption of the political elite. Of course, these problems do not justify kidnap and murder, but knowledge of these realities gives context to the situation. In fact Josiah Idow-Fearon, the Anglican bishop of Kaduna, one of Nigeria’s biggest northern cities told the Economist: “Boko Haram is a resistance movement against misrule rather than a purely Islamic group.” The Economist notes that it ‘covers a wide spectrum. It comprises an ever-greater number of malcontents with a variety of aims. Some are criminals using the Boko Haram label to disguise the motives for attacks. Rival nightclub owners in Kano are said to have bombed each other’s venues and then posted bogus radical-sounding claims of responsibility, hoping to fool the police.’
Boko Haram has neither a defined leadership nor objectives; many in the northern states, where conspiracy theories abound, actually doubt that they even exist or whether they are who they claim to be. Thus to accept the claim of one man (Abubakr Shekau) professing to be the group’s leader, especially when most opine it to be a loose movement, is somewhat naive. There have been little meaningful probes into Boko Haram’s motivations save for their supposedly religious ones, clearly we have fallen into the trap of making quick and rudimentary conclusions.
Since its beginnings, Boko Haram has undeniably viewed western education as an undesirable remnant of the colonial era (although it hasn’t been its main preoccupation despite its nickname), a view reinforced by the colonial legacy that has led to the economic disparities between the North and South and exacerbated by the presence of oil off the South coast along with widespread mismanagement of resources by political elites. One simply cannot overlook the primacy of anti-imperialism and widespread corruption that has lead to suffering as a motivating factor for the movement. State oppression has undoubtedly been the galvanising force: arbitrary detention and torture, extra-judicial killings, and extortion. In June last year, a Nigerian human rights watchdog released a report that said security forces are killing, torturing, illegally detaining and raping civilians in a fight to halt an Islamic uprising in northeast Nigeria that has killed nearly 2,000 people since 2010. ‘Bala Abdullahi of the Civil Society Forum in Kano says, “We have seen an unprecedented rise in rights violations this year”…Anyone thought rude is made to do painful exercises known as “frog-jumps”. Others are forced to roll in the gutter. “I’d rather live under Boko Haram if this is how it goes,” says a university teacher. Curfews are imposed without warning and shops are then broken into, often—it is thought—by soldiers…’
But our prime minister would rather gloss over the actualities and instead demonstrate his unequivocal support for Africa’s biggest oil exporter. Cameron has been foremost in offering military personnel to find the kidnapped girls, but the humanitarian sensibilities of western leaders seems to have missed the almost normalised violence against women in various African countries where they are routinely raped and killed en mass. The right-wing media with its unfettered Islamophobia disseminates the view that Boko Haram is an expression of the Islamic faith. But where is the same absurd sentiment applied to Christianity when reporting on the Lord’s Resistance Army, a savage cult in northern Uganda that has kidnapped girls en masse for the past 25 years, led by a Christian warlord who claims to talk with the Almighty? Of course, neither have any legitimate claim to either faith, but with the media left to disseminate vile distortions and another British prime minister willing to support corrupt and oppressive governments, something is amiss.
In all of this, religion is (mis)used both by Shekau to justify his actions and the right-wing media to further demonise Islam and its adherents. Just as politicians use left-wing rhetoric to win over socialists or anti-immigration stances to win over the right, with the use of any rhetoric true motives are very murky and we the public shouldn’t be so naive as to fall for the superficiality we’ve been offered by anyone.
We all desire the immediate and safe return of the girls as well as greater protection for the many women of Africa who are habitually stripped of their dignity, incredibly violated, and the principal victims of both poverty and war. Notwithstanding, we must question what we have been offered – the kidnapper’s video doesn’t portray a solemn religious zealot committed to a rather myopic war against western education; his demeanour isn’t one of a sombre man who believes he is at war with an enemy but an uncouth gang member relishing the limelight, puerilely taunting his audience in an attempt to provoke retaliation. Even Time magazine picked up on the farce stating that ‘Shekau comes off as a parody of an African warlord, standing in front of an armored personnel carrier, scratching his head idly as he speaks, amused by the fuss. “Just because I took some little girls who were in Western education everybody is making noise,” he says, and chuckles. A few moments later, the warlord declares, “Either you are with us—I mean real Muslims, who are following Salafism—or you are with Obama, Francoise Hollande, George Bush—Bush!—Clinton.” He pauses to turn a page in a sheaf of what appeared to be prepared remarks, then adds: “I’ve forgot not Abraham Lincoln.”’
Now beyond his deluded fancies and warmongering, like many others his calls for shariah is not a belief in the rule of law and civilised society but rhetoric meant to galvanise support for his own despotic and bloodthirsty aspirations. No right-minded person could ever believe that a war between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria could possibly amount to anything beyond the utter destruction of the country and tremendously violating the sanctity of human life and wealth. But in a world of ever-evolving rationales and foreign interests, especially those in the form of the United States Africa Command – the American military body that is responsible for advancing US national security and oil interests, it is highly notable that Shekau’s performance leaves us with two viable conclusions: either he’s insane, or, he’s far more than a misguided religious zealot: much of his behaviour has the hallmarks of an agent provocateur. Islamicate