How to understand Boko Haram

Residents arrange under a white sheet victims of a suicide bombing in Koffa on June 19, 2017. At least 16 people were killed in suicide bomb attacks near a camp for those made homeless by Boko Haram violence in northeast Nigeria, emergency services said on June 19, 2017. (AFP/Getty Images)

The rise of northern Nigerian Islamic extremist group Boko Haram has garnered a great deal of attention from American policymakers in recent years. That interest compounded after the 2014 kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, an event that galvanized grass-roots anger and demands for an international response around the globe. As attention to the crisis grew, however, misunderstandings about the group’s origins, motives and connections (or lack thereof) to international Islamist extremist organizations have abounded.

Several new books provide important correctives to the many misperceptions about Boko Haram. In the next two installments of our African politics summer reading series, we’ll examine three of these books to try to develop a better understanding of the movement, its supporters and critics, and how ordinary northerners see themselves as Muslims and Nigerian citizens. We’ll start today with two excellent new books by political scientist Brandon Kendhammer and religious studies scholar Alexander Thurston, respectively.

Brandon Kendhammer’s “Muslims Talking Politics: Framing Islam, Democracy, and Law in Northern Nigeria” seeks to explain how northern Nigerians understand the relationship between their faith and Nigeria’s at times unsteady democracy. Kendhammer’s bona fides on this subject are solid; he speaks Hausa and was the last Fulbright scholar in northern Nigeria before security conditions became prohibitive for the program. In the book, he analyzes an astonishing range of historical and modern discourses from the 19th-century Sokoto Caliphate through the colonial period and the tumult of early post-colonial years to the present day to argue that most Nigerian Muslims see Islamic religious values and sharia law as compliments to, not detractors from, democratic institutions.

How does Kendhammer reach this conclusion? He argues that Nigeria’s repeated descents into authoritarian rule, especially the most recent period in the 1990s, created the conditions “for a broader reconsideration of the relationship between religion and state.” From the uncertainty of the post-authoritarian transition period emerged more support for the implementation of a moderate form of sharia law, which Nigerian states can choose to use as a formal legal system under Nigeria’s federal system, which grants a high degree of autonomy to its states. Citizens see the use of Islamic law and customs as a way of bringing order to an uncertain emergence from a period of oppression and chaos. However, Kendhammer notes that the vast majority of northern Nigerians are emphatically not in support of the harsh, fundamentalist efforts to establish a new, “pure” caliphate. Nigerian Muslims support sharia law as a way to strengthen democracy and avoid the kind of society envisioned by Boko Haram and its ilk.

Modern-day Nigerians frame the use of sharia law in northern Nigeria as the protector of religious freedom and rights under Nigeria’s federal system, as a unifier in faith and the preservation of Islamic norms, and as a means of holding elites accountable and solving social and development problems. As one subject told Kendhammer, “Sharia is about justice. When you have sharia, you have development.”

While the perception that Islamic customs and laws have provided needed stability in a newly-established democracy is certainly accurate, importantly, Kendhammer finds that citizens may not have gotten quite what they expected from this arrangement between mosque and state:

“But if what most Muslims seem to want from sharia is justice and better governance, what they have gotten is a centralized, bureaucratized form of Islamic law that puts great power in the hands of the very state apparatus they have so little faith in.”

Like Kendhammer, Alexander Thurston seeks to understand how religion and societal values intersect. Thurston examines northern Nigerian religious values with a deep dive into the history and development of particular strains of Islam in northern Nigeria in “Salafism in Nigeria: Islam, Preaching, and Politics.”  Based on extensive fieldwork in Nigeria’s north, Thurston’s fascinating book examines how the Salafi strain of conservative Islam made its way to the region and how the development of a canon of religious texts and thoughts affects the way that Nigerian Muslims might encounter Salafism.

Thurston examines the teachings of Nigerian Islamic leaders who studied under Salafi scholars in Saudi Arabia’s Islamic University of Medina in the 1980s, then brought those interpretations of the Koran and Islamic teaching back to Nigeria. He makes an important distinction between the Salafi understanding of Islam and its use of non-Koranic texts and the interpretations of other puritanical movements within Islam, some of whom reject the use of non-Koranic sources for understanding Islamic teaching. Thurston’s work offers a very important explanation of the ways that Islam has morphed in Nigeria as well as its ties to global Islam. In doing so, he bridges the gap between Middle Eastern Studies and African Studies in a way that shows the often-artificial distinction between the two regions that leads to gaps in both scholarly literatures.

“Salafism in Nigeria” focuses on the canon of Salafi Islam, by which Thurston means the collection of texts, ideas, and interpretations by historical Islamic figures from which Salafi Muslims derive understandings of their identity, law, and practice of Islam. Critically, Thurston argues that the canon:

“…allows contemporary Salafis to retroactively portray earlier figures as part of a cohesive community. Canonization elides disagreements among these figures and strips away elements of their identities that might make contemporary Salafis uneasy.”

Thus, the canon provides a normative means of interpretation and is a distinctive for Salafis from other purist movements. Why does this matter? For one, if we want to understand Boko Haram’s origins and current posture, it is critical to know that the movement has progressively narrowed and ultimately “deemphasized” the Salafi canon. Thurston traces in detail the ways that Boko Haram’s theology evolved over time and shows that Boko Haram’s leadership separated itself from the mainstream of northern Nigerian Salafi thought after 2009.

This move ultimately made Boko Haram at least as much of a political movement as it is a religious one. More importantly, however, it makes Boko Haram a competing voice to Nigerian Salafi preachers who do not embrace the group or its violent ideology. These preachers, whom Thurston refers to as “mainstream Salafis” have thus been able to reclaim the Salafi canon and present an alternative of religious piety for young Muslim men in the region. As he notes, “…by teaching the canon, mainstream Nigerian Salafis now also equip their students with the tools to refute Boko Haram.” Those preachers also savvily use technology to spread their message, reinforcing their ideals and unifying their movement while policing and rejecting the teaching of the extremists.

Both Kenhammer’s and Thurston’s analyses strongly suggest that Boko Haram’s vision of Islam’s role in society does not garner popular support in Nigeria. This implies that U.S. policy makers’ concerns about mass recruitment of potential members through mosques or social media are greatly exaggerated, and that some of the more offbeat ideas to counter violent extremism there are ill-conceived and unnecessary. The non-canonical and non-democratic interpretation of sharia law preferred by Boko Haram is a departure from what ordinary Nigerian Muslims believe, and there are strong efforts underway in local mosques and schools to ensure that young, northern Nigerians have the theological grounding to avoid being seduced by Boko Haram’s promises. That Boko Haram still has rely heavily on kidnapping and forcing children to be suicide bombers suggests that these efforts are working, even as the group’s horrific human rights abuses continue. Western policymakers would be well-served by spending less on unneeded efforts to counter recruitment and more on actually defeating Boko Haram.

Laura Seay is an Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College. She studies African politics, conflict, and development, with a focus on central Africa. She has also written for Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Guernica, and Al Jazeera English.

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