Boko Haram: A Manifestation of State Failure; Not the Nature of Islam, By Muhammad Sanusi II
Let me stress that I do not believe that every marginalised or poor Muslim is an extremist. However, I believe the point has been made that certain social and economic conditions are fertile ground for breeding violent movements — be they religious extremists or ethnic militia or just criminal gangs. All of these are present in contemporary northern Nigeria, therefore locating the violence of Boko Haram in religious doctrines misses the point.
I tend to be sympathetic to analyses that lay emphasis on material conditions. And this is the point here. I hold strongly to the view that many of the conflicts in the world — religious, ethnic, racial — tend to be caused, or at least inflamed, by grievances rooted in economics, poverty, unemployment, marginalisation and a general sense of being outsiders combine to bring together individuals who challenge the status quo, often violently.
Sometimes this violence is properly directed at the real oppressors, while often it is misdirected at those who are ‘not like us’, those we define as the ‘Other’. While vertical and horizontal inequalities are often the root cause of radicalisation, the actual definition of the ‘Other’ is often not predictable in a straightforward manner, shaped, as Gramsci has shown, by the manipulation of ethnic over class identities, and as Foucault reveals, by power relations that mould individual understanding.
The first point therefore is that I join…in the contention that any serious attempt at understanding Islamic radicalisation in northern Nigeria cannot avoid discussion of material conditions — poverty, lack of opportunity, hopelessness, and economic inequality in general. Poverty is a relative phenomenon. Extreme inequalities among individuals or groups or regions breed resentment that is much deeper and stronger than would exist in poor societies without extreme inequalities.
So to understand radicalisation in Nigeria, we need to look at structural adjustment policies, de-industrialisation and increased inequalities, beginning from the 1980s. The neglect of agriculture and industry, as Nigeria became a rentier state focused on the oil economy, led to huge economic inequalities. The North, once the richest part of the country, became the poorest, compounded by high fertility rates, rapid demographic growth, desertification and climate change. Indeed, Christians in the North, especially in Plateau, Taraba and Southern Kaduna, have also become more polarised or ‘radicalised’ than Christians in Yorubaland, where levels of poverty are far lower. By recognising this fact, we look for sources of radicalisation in objective conditions of material existence, rather than flawed understandings of Islam. This brings me to the generally-held idea that ‘radical Islam’ or fundamentalist/Salafi ideology is something new and imported into Northern Nigeria from the Gulf states. This is far from the truth.
First of all, Salafi thought, while being literal and unaccommodating of contrary views, is not in itself violent. Several commentators work from a simplistic dichotomy between a ‘pacifist’ Sufi tradition that has deep roots in West Africa, and a ‘radical’ Salafi tradition, which is foreign. But consider that Uthman Dan Fodio, the 19th century jihadist, was a Sufi of the Qadiriyya order. The success of his jihad lay largely in its ability to gather the support of a mass of the population who had faced marginalisation, oppressive taxation and oppression from unjust leaders. His contemporary, Al-hajj Umar ibn Sa’id al-Futi Tal, conqueror of the Bambara, was a Sufi Sheikh of the Tijaniyya order. Indeed, the various Muslim Futa settlements of the Niger basin — Futa, Bundu, Futa Jallon and Futa Toro — were established by radicalised Sufis.
The presumption of pacifism among Sufis and violence among Salafis is largely unfounded. Indeed, in the case of Boko Haram, strong evidence suggests that the group has been openly supported by Salafi scholars, and in fact Boko Haram most probably murdered prominent Salafi leaders like Jafar Adam in Kano and Sheikh Albani in Zaria. Having said that, certain attributes in Salafi thought and terminology make it amenable to appropriation and instrumentalisation in the process of classification of Muslims into orthodox and heterodox, rightly guided and deviant, and thus the construction of Self and Other as justification for action.
The literalism, the intolerance, the very narrow definition of what is the ‘straight path’ (al-sirat-al-mustaqim) are all there to be appropriated in the service of political action, by Salafis and non-Salafis alike. Ibn Taimiyyah used this Salafi heuristic in his othering of Sufis, Christians, Jews, philosophers and Shiites, etc. But to take one example, in spite of Ibn Taimiyyah’s reputation as a critic of Sufism, no one questions his sympathy and reverence of certain Sufi shiekhs like Abdulqadir Jilani, and indeed there is a body of scholarship that suggests that he accepted the khirqah (a cloak signifying initiation into the Sufi path) and was in fact a devotee and member of the Qadiriyya order.
While it is true that many contemporary radical scholars of Salafi tendency construe that the majority of Salafis are violent or radical groups in Sunni Islam are Salafi, it is by no means true that the majority of Salafis are violent or radical. The majority of scholars of Salafi tendency condemn violence and bloodshed radicalism and in fact frown upon any kind of rebellion against established authority.
Certainly, when one reads the works of the school of Ibn Taimiyya, one wonders at the anti-Sufi label given to the school. His most famous student, Ibn al-qayyim al-Jawziyya, wrote a treatise, Madarij al-Salikin, which remains one of the greatest works of Sufism. Muhammad Ibn Abdulwahhab, the founder of Wahhabism, also appropriated Salafi terminology and used it as a basis for his revolt. He was strongly opposed, not just by mainstream Ottoman Sheikhs but by his own family. His father disagreed with him, and there is significant literature left behind by his brother, Sulayman Ibn Abdulwahab, denouncing Wahhabism as deviance, which is not consistent with Salafi doctrine.
In the end, Wahhabism was not so much established by its theological appeal but by a more political alliance between its adherents, the so called ‘Brotherhood of those obedient to God’ (Ikliwan Man Ta’a Allah) and the House of Saud, an alliance that was backed by Christian Britain in its war against Muslim Turkey. To explain the rise of Wahhabism in simple theological terms, without the geopolitical context of the post-World War I world, would miss the point completely.
The Sahel is not without its own examples of the political use of Salafi doctrines. In the late 15th century, Askia Muhammad Al-Hajj overthrew the reigning monarch, Sunni Baru, son of the first Songhai king, Sunni Ali, on the grounds that the Sunni dynasty kings were not faithful Muslims. Askia’s questions to scholar, Al-Maghilis, and the scholar’s answers, provide a classic case of using ‘Salafi’ arguments to justify political action, as the Sunni dynasty was accused of innovation, syncretism but also oppression and injustice against the Muslim poor. Al-Maghilis held religious views that would today be classified as Salafi.
The same arguments used by Askia to justify his coup were used by Uthman Dan Fodio to justify his jihad. In fact one very small but important pamphlet written by Uthman Dan Fodio, titled Siraj al-Ikhwan, was almost entirely a reproduction of Askia’s questions and al-Maghili’s answers. Clearly Uthman Dan Fodio, a Sufi, was not averse to basing his Jihad on Salafi premises. After his victory in the 1804 Jihad, he adopted a much more accommodating and moderate view in works like Najmul Ikhwan. In this sense, when Boko Haram characterises itself as Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teaching and Jihad), it is easy to see why some, especially Western scholars, interpret this as a continuation of a single radical theological chain from Askia Muhammad through Uthman Dan Fodio to Boko Haram and all the ‘radical Salafis’ in between.
But this is where the mistake is made. There is a certain failure to make a distinction between conjunction and causation. In the contemporary Sunni world, many radical political movements claim Salafism. This is because Salafism provides a convenient heuristic for defining a narrow band of correct, orthodox or rightly guided Muslims on the one hand, and a wide range of heterodox, deviant, syncretist, apostate, heretical others, who wrongly see themselves as Muslim. But this, in my mind, is where the association ends. Those who seek a religious justification for political or military action find in Salafism a convenient theological weapon that often conceals underlying political goals.
While it is true that many contemporary radical scholars of Salafi tendency construe that the majority of Salafis are violent or radical groups in Sunni Islam are Salafi, it is by no means true that the majority of Salafis are violent or radical. The majority of scholars of Salafi tendency condemn violence and bloodshed radicalism and in fact frown upon any kind of rebellion against established authority. In this they mirror the views of the majority of Muslims of all sects and schools who view Islam as a religion of peace and justice. In any event, it difficult to find any serious Salafi tract (or even Salafi-Jihadi tract) that recommends killing innocent people, suicide bombing or kidnapping of school girls. These are just criminal activities and have nothing to do with religion.
…a long term solution must look beyond military tactics to issues of governance, economic inequality, social exclusion and marginalisation and perceived injustices. As we reflect on the rise of religious extremism, ethnic conflict and criminal violence in Nigeria, we must not forget that explanations for Boko Haram lie in the failures of the state, not in the nature of Islam.
To my mind, this is the point missed by those who think radicalisation is a product of Salafism. As this book shows, radicalisation is caused by other factors in social conditions and then Salafism is appropriated as the legitimator for political action. We know from Vaclav Havel’s reading of Karl Popper’s Open Society, for example, that when faced with insecurity and fear, people tend to agglomerate into ‘tribes’ and see the world in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Emmanuel Sivan understands Ibn Taimiyya’s radicalisation in the context of the disintegrating late Abbasid Caliphate, under siege from the Christian crusaders in the West and Mongol hordes from the East. In such a situation, Salafism is a strong tool for defining and uniting a Muslim Ummah to fight external enemies.
This calls for reflection on a further source of popular insecurity and resentment in contemporary northern Nigeria. The very term ‘Boko Haram’ (western education is forbidden) is often attributed to the backwardness and xenophobia of members of the group. In dismissing this matter so superficially, we are in danger of failing to address the underlying confrontation and contestation between an Islamic system of education and an imported colonial one.
For a Muslim, the Qur’an is the most sacred of texts. When we go to Qur’anic School we write the Qur’an on a tablet or writing board. We sit on the floor before our teacher. We are not allowed to touch the Qur’an without purification, we do not keep it on the ground or any unclean place. When we finish learning what was written, we wash off the ink and drink it for closeness to God. On completion of training to recite the entire Qu’ran, we are treated to a ‘Walima’, a party celebrating this feat, and he who has memorised the Qur’an (a haafidh) has a special place in the eyes of Muslims. It is the highest honour. This is how a student of Qur’an sees himself.
But how is he seen by the wider society? The children who spend years studying the Qur’an are classified as ‘out-of-school’. Those who have learnt to read and write the whole Qur’an and even memorised it are classified as ‘illiterate’ because they do not read and write in the Latin alphabet. They are viewed as poor and disdained as itinerant beggars’. They are not mainstreamed into modern schools. If they were in an Arab country they would be ‘literate’, and with literacy in Arabic they can become doctors or engineers or computer scientists through educational mainstreaming. In Nigeria they can only teach the Qur’an or be part of what is now called a ‘prayer economy’, praying for rich politicians and merchants in return for cash. Beginning with British imperialism and continuing with the neo-colonial post-independence elite, there has been a systematic debasement of Qur’anic education, and marginalisation and devaluation of Qur’anic scholars. The elite in Nigeria do not see how the system of inclusion constructed in the image of the West has excluded the majority of the northern Muslim population, deprived the masses of opportunity and created resentment against the political system.
Let me stress that I do not believe that every marginalised or poor Muslim is an extremist. However, I believe the point has been made that certain social and economic conditions are fertile ground for breeding violent movements — be they religious extremists or ethnic militia or just criminal gangs. All of these are present in contemporary northern Nigeria, therefore locating the violence of Boko Haram in religious doctrines misses the point. The group in the short-term must be defeated militarily. But…a long term solution must look beyond military tactics to issues of governance, economic inequality, social exclusion and marginalisation and perceived injustices. As we reflect on the rise of religious extremism, ethnic conflict and criminal violence in Nigeria, we must not forget that explanations for Boko Haram lie in the failures of the state, not in the nature of Islam.
It was the struggle for control of political power and resources among the Nigerian political elite that led to the emergence of a ‘Sharia Movement’ in northern Nigeria. Beginning with Zamfara State in 1999, twelve states in northern Nigeria adopted ‘full implementation’ of Sharia, including its criminal code. But this was also accompanied by a general politicisation of religion, intensifying the polarised construction of Muslim and Christian identities in the North. This process of identity construction has had two mutually reinforcing effects that contributed to the emergence of Boko Haram. At the level of ideas, the sharp construction of an orthodox Muslim identity and the Othering of Muslims and non-Muslims alike created the space for the thriving of radical and divisive discourses. At the level of economics, the diversion of resources away from development needs (education, health, agriculture and industry) to the religious sector (Hisbah, Pilgrimage, Preaching, etc.) led to a perverse process of deprivation and the commodification of piety within the northern Nigerian Muslim population. This is an area that merits further attention.
Muhammad Sanusi II (CON) was until recently the Sarkin Kano.
This is excerpted from the Preface to the West African edition of Overcoming Boko Haram by Abdul Raufu Mustapha and Kate Meagher, and published by Premium Times books.