Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Sharīʿa in Northern Nigeria: Interpreting the Boko Haram Group

The Boko Haram have claimed responsibility for a series of bombings, suicide attacks, assassinations directed against targets in Nigeria like churches, the UN headquarters, diplomats, foreign aid workers, police stations, government buildings, political figures, clerics, etc.

The name "Boko Haram" means that Western civilization or education is forbidden and sinful; it is not clear whether the name is self-designated, or alternatively, as Joe Boyle writes, "a term of ridicule used by people in Maiduguri, the city (located in the Nigerian state of Borno) where they were founded." David Cook suggests that the correct name for the group might be 'Jama'at Ahl al-Sunna li-Da'wa wa-l-Jihad,' or the Yusufiyya (named after the founder), or the Nigerian Taliban.

The Boko Haram was supposedly founded by Muhammad Yusuf (d. 2009), a cleric, in 2002. Other accounts suggest that the group has been around longer under different leadership and different names; one possibility is that the group was founded by Muhammad Yusuf's father.

A great deal of the analysis regarding Boko Haram's violent acts in northern Nigeria either:

(1) emphasizes socio-economic factors like unemployment, corruption, poor governance, inequality, widespread poverty, etc. which bolster grievances among residents of northern Nigeria. "Vociferous religious ideology often obscures violence driven more by economic factors," write Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, and James J.F. Forest, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. "For example, migration by the ethnic Hausa Fulani into Yoruba lands in northern Nigeria has produced conflict. The fact that the Yoruba are predominately Christians and the Hausa Fulani Muslims matters only secondarily. Rather, the Hausa-Fulani Boko Haram is infusing religion into a long-churning brew of grievances about wealth and power distribution, corruption and injustice." An article published in the The Economist suggests that poverty drives unemployed Nigerian youths towards extremism: "the Boko Haram has built a cult-like following by playing on people's frustrations. Many of its members are disillusioned youths, unemployed and living in poverty, according to security experts."

(2) or, portrays the Boko Haram as an extremist, fundamentalist group connected to al-Qaeda or the Shabaab in Somalia and dedicated to imposing sharīʿa in Nigeria. (see footnote #2 for an interesting account on the origins of the term "fundamentalism.")

While both points above are helpful, in my view neither suffices in understanding the Boko Haram. An angle more of interest to me is as follows: how might members of the Boko Haram group perceive themselves? While it is impossible to fully answer that question, I will address it in my next post, drawing on David Cook's recently published Boko Haram: A Prognosis (2011). 

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