Jackson Doughart
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Boko Haram threat extends beyond kidnapped schoolgirls

The National Post, 15 May 2014

In reading the mainstream coverage of the Chibok kidnapping in Nigeria, one would think that the root issue was the right of young women to attend school against the patriarchal wishes of Nigerian men. But while Boko Haram most certainly believes in the inferiority of women, this doesn’t make it a simple reincarnation of Mark Lépine. What animates this group is sectarian conflict in a country divided on religious lines, making its misogyny a means to a political end.

The victims are not just any girls, but the girls of a primarily Christian village in the country’s Islamic northeast. As Michael Rubin argues on the Commentary blog, “the target may have been the girls, but the motivation was not simply to prevent the girls from receiving education or a desire to attack Western education.” Rather, their intent is “to launch a much broader attack on Christianity.” He quotes Boko Haram leader Abubakr Shekau, who concluded his May 5 speech by saying:
To the people of the world, everybody should know his status: it is either you are with us Mujahedeen or you are with the Christians… We know what is happening in this world, it is a Jihad war against Christians and Christianity. It is a war against western education, democracy, and constitution.

So why are the media so eager to present Boko Haram as anti-female instead of anti-Christian? Perhaps they simply prefer the anti-feminist narrative to one of religious persecution, or perhaps they do not want to portray Christians as victims. But I think the best explanation concerns political correctness. For identifying the religious conflict involving Christians would force the media to name the other religious party: Muslims, whose political cause Boko Haram purports to advance.

Western political coverage tends to omit the religion of Islamic newsmakers, even when it relates to the story. The media deemphasized this element of the Westgate massacre in Nairobi last September, where al-Shabaab allowed Muslims to leave the shopping mall before proceeding with its mass shooting. The murderous rampage of Nidal Hassan at the Fort Hood base in Texas was categorized by the Obama Administration as an incidence of “workplace violence”, despite the fact that Major Hassan boasted of his Islamist motivations and shouted “Allahu Akbar” as he shot 13 American soldiers. Journalists invariably referred to the Boston Marathon bombers as “radicalized” without naming the creed to which they were radically adhering. And while one could regularly hear and read journalists noting that the Tsarnaev brothers were of Chechen background with strong ties to Caucasia, little context was given as to why this was relevant to their religious mania.

The Globe and Mail’s Elizabeth Renzetti wrote a whole column about the Chibok case last week without mentioning Islam, except to state that the children were “both Christian and Muslim,” giving no further detail. Importantly, however, the Christian Association of Nigeria says that a majority of the girls are Christian (a claim echoed by the BBC), and it is probably no coincidence that the mujahedeen targeted one of the few Christian villages in Borno State. The same argument has been made by the New Yorker’s Alexis Okeowo, who insists that the two religions don’t matter, but sex and secular values absolutely do.

In sum, journalists and politicians abstain at all cost from uttering the “M word”, largely to the effect of evading the truth. More importantly, though, this distorts our understanding of the present Nigerian calamity. Our efforts to explain the tenets and behaviour of an Islam-”ism” implies that we’re dealing with an ideology and not a religion, or with an ideological perversion of a religion, but not a religion itself. Surely faiths contain ideas insofar as they establish ways of life, surely they are subject to different interpretations, and surely Islam cannot be reduced to Boko Haram. But separating these things out completely misses not only the relationship between the religion and the ideas, but also between the religious group and its perceived enemy, which makes all the difference in determining its motives as well as the reasonable expectations for counter-action.

Portraying Boko Haram as independently ideological would make President Goodluck Jonathan appear as a feckless leader, unwilling to combat a small group of zealots. By contrast, presenting it as a violent religious organization on one side of a sectarian conflict shows how delicate a balance must be struck. It’s not just a matter of stamping out Boko Haram and saving those girls; it’s a matter of maintaining order in an increasingly-volatile state of ethnic conflict. Shocking as this might be, there are bigger stakes here than the fate of those schoolchildren, as a poorly-orchestrated response from the government could further provoke the forces of unrest in a region prime for civil war. To say the least, all of this portends the worst not only for the hostages, but also for the future of peace in Africa’s most-populous country.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com