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

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Is For Arab

For those who missed the "A Is For Arab" display, here are some photos I took this morning before the exhibition was taken down.

The Richard Ettinghausen Library at KEVO also screened the 1943 film Adventure in Iraq:

The film was shown parallel to the exhibit as a live reflection of anti-Arab depictions in mainstream American culture, especially in Hollywood - the most powerful of mediums.

The film certainly excels toward that end: Three Americans crashland their plane in the desert between Syria and Iraq and are welcomed by a perfidious sheikh. The sheikh is refined - the bejeweled, ostentatious Arab; he naturally harbors a harem but still maintains a flirting eye for the irresistible Western woman - but openly denigrates his people ("my people are primitive"); who are not even Muslims but devil worshippers who mouth a gibberish feigning as Arabic. The only Arab women are veiled and nearly ghost-like in their ephemeral motions, along with informing the American women that "the man has many wives".

The Americans are eager to leave (one of them inquiries how far they are from "civilization"), but the Sheikh is a Nazi collaborator eager to bargain them off to Hitler! Our courageous and civilized Americans plan their escape and naturally outsmart their capturers [Spoiler Alert!] until they're cornered in the desert, brought back to the palace and in the end saved by an army battalion that receives their coded message. The American officer stares down the Sheikh: the United States does not negotiate with gangsters (this line has been lifted into the contemporary "the U.S. does not negotiate with terrorists") and the cowardly Sheikh obliges. The Americans are free. Classic happy ending. The End.

Arab Nazi collaborators, devil worshippers, the cliched invisible harem hands...it sounds awful. And the depictions are, of course, crude Orientalist fantasies. But I really enjoyed the film as - and purely as - a work of art. It is offensive to Arabs, but such a high-class offense. I am, of course, being tongue-and-cheek. But compare Adventure in Iraq to, say, the exceptionally vulgar and imbecile True Lies and other recent Hollywood anti-Arab fare and you'll understand my affinity for the former. If Arabs are to be made to watch films that portray them as lascivious savages, then, please, let the dialogue and acting appeal to our finer taste and old Hollywood lore.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Exceptionality Between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia

Robert Vitalis' America's Kingdom is easily the best book I've read this semester. There is a lot to unravel in this American story set in Saudi Arabia - to paraphrase Vitalis. But I'll concentrate on one aspect: the rhetoric of exceptionalism.

At a Jadaliyya conference in earlier 2011, KEVO's Prof. Zach Lockman reminded the academic audience students do not enter the classroom with empty slates. They have been bombarded on the supposed sedimented past, present and very essentialist nature of the Middle East, Arabs and Islam. For Lockman, the first task is disarming students by "thinking about intersections we can exploit usefully" between the region and"students' own lives" in America in order "to critically locate [students] in the same social time and space." 

In a strong sense, Vitalis' America's Kingdom exemplifies Lockman's purposive instruction by going after the dual exceptionalism that categories American self-reflection, on one hand, and domestic discourse about the Mideast being uniquely or exceptionally fill-in-the-blank, on the other. Vitalis' illuminates the intersections and transnational currents that categorize U.S.-Saudi Arabian history. In this brief post, let me concentrate on three examples. 

1) ARAMCO structured its oil compounds - where laborers worked and lived - in Saudi Arabia according to a system of Jim Crow unequal separation: imported Americans were not allowed to mix with native Arabs, and the letter were paid less along with inferior housing. One of the common narratives that Vitalis debunks is that ARAMCO's segregated compound was due to Saudi Wahhabi exceptionalism which demanded separation between Muslims and non-Muslims. But this is fallacious since the precedent in an identical racial division and salaried hierarchy was set in the coal and oil landscape of the American West - far from Wahhabia - with Mexicans instead of Arabs. There was nothing exceptional about labor division in Arabia. 

2) Between the Wobblies and the "Tarikis" and "Ibn Muammars" there is the labor movement against transnational and later multinational energy firms, and the latter often acquired their ideas while studying in the United States. They both also share a common fate: In the end, the less radical factions won concessions with aspirations for a more consequential re-negotiation of the social contract between capital and labor left as a distant hope.

3) The history people tell about themselves. ARAMCO, the United States and Saudi Arabia both revel in the discourse of their exceptionality. 

Vitalis reminds us of the interminable intersections between peoples - in that he does a commendable service of compelling students to rethink their assumptions about "our" and "their" history.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Women's Rights & Islamic Family Law Reform in Bahrain

Bahrain is one of the only countries in the MENA/Gulf region without an Islamic family law code that applies to all of its Muslim citizens. In May 2009, Bahrain passed a family law code for the first time (Law No. 19) which applies only to its Sunni citizens.

The Bahraini government has yet to implement a code for its Shīʿa citizens; this remains controversial, as family law has become of symbol of Islamic identity, and some Bahraini Shīʿa religious scholars view codification as a foreign imposition or an intrusion on Shīʿī religious authority. What are the implications? In Bahraini Jaʿfarī sharīʿa courts, personal status matters are still decided on a case-by-case basis by judges, who use their own discretion to interpret the Islamic tradition, drawing on Islamic sources like fatwās, legal manuals.

Above: a recent documentary advocates passing the family law code in Bahrain, where the Mālikī school and the Jaʿfarī schools are the predominant schools of Islamic law (madhāhib).

In Bahrain and elsewhere, women's rights activists, NGOs, international conventions like CEDAW have portrayed Islamic family law codification/reform as essential to empowering women, combating legal discrimination and unfair treatment of women, gender inequalities, corruption, court delays, etc.  Overall, codification is an integral part of modernizing statecraft.

Above: Bahraini women's rights activist Ghada Jamsheer discusses the family law code reform project in a 2005 interview on al-ʿArabīya TV. (Arabic)

The codification project in Bahrain is similar to recent family law codification projects in the Gulf region as well as family law reform in Egypt (i.e. Law No. 1 or 2000) and Morocco (i.e. the Mudawwana of 2004).

Family law codes (a.k.a. personal status codes) typically cover matters like marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, etc. Today, the vast majority of modern nation states in the Middle East, North Africa and the Arab Gulf employ a mix of transplanted European law codes and codified sharīʿa provisions. Many of these countries have already passed family law codes, which are often derived from Islamic sources.

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Is For Arab At KEVO

For those who wanted to attend the 'A Is For Arab' exhibit at NYU Abu Dhabi by Dr. Jack G. Shaheen and couldn't because the RSVP list quickly filled-up or did not hear about it until this moment and are now intrigued, the Hagop Kevorkian Center will be display the exhibit in its reception room this morning.

Shaheen has generously donated his life's work - an unequaled collection of material from films, television shows, and children's alphabet books (above) - to NYU and the collection is in the midst of being cataloged. For NYU Mideast grad students interested in cultural representation, questions of identity and the intersection between mass media, narrative and foreign affairs the archive is invaluable.

So, anyway, come in check it out.

Also the 2nd Floor at Bobst will be running American films Friday from 10-3 and Saturday 12:30-5:15 on the Middle East - some good, some bad - with recorded introductions by Shaheen.

Shaheen will also be speaking at the 'Guilty Until Proven Innocent' event today at 19 University Place, Rom 102 (RSVP by Feb 23, but you can try your luck). The event concerns the use of the inflammatory film "The Third Jihad" - which effectively portrays all Muslims as suspect - as training material for numerous NYPD officers. Panelists, including NYU's Faiza Patel (resident at the Brennan Center), will discuss the propagation of stereotypes within the broader context of declining civil rights protections for Arabs and Muslims.

For those who haven't read Shaheen's book Reel Bad Arabs, Google Video has a gratuitous screening of the accompanying documentary. 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Flag of Zion In Homs?

The Angry Arab News Service, the blog page of Middle East academic As'ad Abu Khalil, is known for its wry humor and indiscriminate aim against any and all reactionaries.

For that reason, Abu Khalil is no fan of the self-styled leaders of the Syrian opposition - Syrian National Council and its armed affiliate the Free Syrian Army, accusing both of being fronts for the conservative Muslim Brotherhood and the latter of including ultra-conservative Salafis.

Let there be no confusion: Abu Khalil is as adamant an opponent of the Syrian regime along with every Arab regime (and every Lebanese faction). He simultaneously calls for the downfall of the Syrian regime while criticizing the conservative and reaction groups he accuses of hijacking a sincere uprising (the latter have been able to present themselves as the revolutionary vanguard in great part due to the Syrian regime's widespread arrest of liberal and leftist dissidents).

For a supporter of the Syrian people, Abu Khalil often expresses his frustration that accurately tracking developments in Syria is increasingly harder as both the regime the "Ikhwan opposition" engage, according to him, in mendacious propaganda.

The Syrian regime, of course, has every motive to smear the opposition and deny the destruction and casualties of its unceasing assault. But political oppositions also have an incentive to be histrionic, to dissemble, and to cover their own illegalities. Abu Khalil is not about setting a parallel between the Syrian regime and the opposition, but to state that facts and facts and they should be reported free from charged agendas.

But the Syrian regime may be hard to beat. Abu Khalil recently posted the following image:
It is a doctored image of a rally in Homs where the opposition flag is, of course, mutated into the Israeliflag in keeping with regime discourse that the indigenous uprising is a plot by external enemies to undermine Syria.

Monday, February 20, 2012

How I Learned To Stop Worrying

Moroccan Terrorist Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Let The FBI Stop Its Own Plots.

Last week brought news of an attempted Capital Hill bombing plot. A Moroccan resident was planning on place a bomb somewhere in the Capital and kill at least 30 people. Expect he wasn't because in no way could he have. The entire time he was being monitored by the FBI in a playbook written by them, the suspect played the leading character, and delivered himself to the agents. The bomb was a dud.

Of course, this Moroccan is a dangerous religious extremist who made the conscious decision to execute a terrorist plot in order to deliberately kills innocent civilians. For that, he deserves the harshest punishment.

It is becoming a recurring headline where Americans are told about this or that domestic plot involving an American Muslim, citizen or resident, that was prevented at the last minute thanks to the FBI. The way it works is that the FBI finds some Muslim living in America with admittedly fundamentalist tendencies. They may have connected the individual with extremist websites, for instance. FBI agents then work over the individual (including providing material assistance) and induce them to undertake a plot drawn up by the agency. All the while the now initiated terrorist is under surveillance so while the culprit poses a threat - it is theoretical. There is no genuine threat when the entire scene is planned and the ending is scripted.

The FBI should, of course, monitor the activities of individuals engaged in suspect behavior. But not every such individual is a born terrorist. Some of these people are alienated, angry over American foreign policy, and many may suffer personal discrimination. Left to their own devices many of them may pose no threat. A lot of high schools kids fit the Columbine profile, but few are deranged enough to actually do anything expect feel miserable. This is why the agency often has to spend months playing to their anger and frustrations. Once convinced, they are given the material and walk right into agency hands.

In the 1990s, the Supreme Court addressed the legality of such tactics. Is is permissible for federal agents to entrap a suspect? The Court ruled in the affirmative provided that the suspect is given the opportunity to opt out. Therefore the suspect may be deemed a free agent.

These schemes are conducted by career ambitious agents eager to move up in the ranks and preventing, or appearing to, this or that terrorist attack is advantageous to one's advancement. They have an incentive to convince their suspects to carry out a plot rather than seeking to offer them console that may illuminate a peaceful venue for their (real or imagined) grievances. A last minute offer to ditch after months of crafting and internalization of rationale is likely to have few takers. The agency may know this and not mind. Thus the Supreme Court's qualification may be a mere caveat that does little to ameliorate the manipulation played by a federal agency.

This is not about going after committed terrorists. But about latching onto people who need genuine help, some of whom are really young, and instead of playing on their misguided views, agency personnel who worry about the trajectory of certain individuals should notify family and the locale Muslim community centers to offer that person the aid they need and, in addition, keep them under watch on the side of caution. But to string them along, to parlay extremist inquiry or tendencies into full-blown plots, for purposes of bureaucratic aggrandizement in announcing that the FBI has done another great job of stopping terrorists when the same end - aborting a potential plot - could have been averted earlier on is objectionable for three reasons. Isn't a common pronouncement that Muslims are not doing enough to stop "their" extremists?

1) It represents over-zealous state power that institutes structural manipulation. Individuals are agentive, but there is asymmetry in the relationship between the state and the lay suspect.

2) Otherwise rather innocuous people have their lives ruined. One such case involved a poor 20-year old descendent of Somali immigrants who may now face decades in jail after going along with an agency plot. It is, of course, speculation but not all agency plots would inevitable have risen on their own. As I write, many may be astray individuals. Not everyone who looks at extremist websites is determined to inflict violence. Some are just extremely lost and need proper direction. If given the right help, they may see both the abhorrence and futility of such crimes. Why play on them when the more humane thing is an intervention? I am not here talking about people who have initiated contact with terrorist groups, but the FBI often picks up suspects who have done nothing more than browse militant sites.

3) It further animates anti-Muslim prejudice. Americans are now seeing headlines about domestic plots with Muslims over here. When these plots are formulated they may ruin salvageable lives and certainly add to the fears of many Americans that the Muslim down the corner may be a terrorist, or at least one ready to go off at any moment. Anti-Muslim animus is already being fanned by professional agitators, and there are enough Muslim terrorists to play into the former's propaganda, the last thing needed is the government needlessly creating its own. The fact that the plots are coordinated is rarely made salient in the press.

There is, I suspect, little sympathy for this view among many, if not most, Americans. The common reaction may be that if they're looking at suspect websites, they were liable to do something at one point, so the hell with them. But what many may fail to see is that unrestrained power is indiscriminate. It is easy to be indifferent when "the Muslims" are victims, but the undermining of rights will easily sting other Americans. The aforementioned Supreme Court case involved an African American man convinced to undertake a drug trade. Once a precedent is set, state employees - who are embedded with the same vain and greed calculations as all people - may turn that power against any foe. If a Muslim who looks at extremist websites may be given encouragement and material to undertake a terrorist act, why not convince a determined environmentalist to burn down a SUV car lot? Why not find bullied kids and convince them to go after their classmates? It is not that these individuals are helpless victims of state power, but there is the relation of power and manipulation that favors the state.

For all parties concerned, there is a better path that will stop committed terrorists, offer aid to alienated individuals, and build trust between American Muslims and the agency. And avoid the headlines that only add and cement prejudice.

Post Script: I normally would identify myself by name. But I will decline this time. You see the NYPD has been spying on Muslim students in the area and their tips are such innocuous matters as a rafting trip. Perhaps criticism of FBI policies would be cause for a (warrantless, I surmise) wiretap. Of course, such a matter would prove that I am NOT a terrorist since this is about as violent as I get.

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Sad End To A Great Career; Anthony Shadid, 43


Here at the Kevorkian Center there is a lot of criticism of the mainstream press' coverage and portrayal of the Middle East. A lot of journalists come under scrutiny for their inability to master the language of the people they seek to profile. Nuance, depth and basic knowledge are often lacking.  

But one journalist, it appeared to me, was the object of unanimous praise: The New York Times' Anthony Shadid. On Thursday night, the Times reported that Shadid passed away while reporting on the Syrian uprising due to an asthema attack. 
Anthony Shadid, a gifted foreign correspondent whose graceful dispatches for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The Associated Press covered nearly two decades of Middle East conflict and turmoil, died, apparently of an asthma attack, on Thursday while on a reporting assignment in Syria. Tyler Hicks, a Times photographer who was with Mr. Shadid, carried his body across the border to Turkey.
The Times has compiled excerpts from Shadid.

One not listed is Shadid's astute reading of the landscape after Tunisia's uprising and the departure of Ben Ali: 

"In Peril, the Arab Status Quo," Shadid wrote: 

For a while, the charisma and popularity of bygone leaders like Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and Abdel-Karim Qassem in Iraq might have masked the states’ failures. Though harsh and oppressive, they are still viewed with nostalgia in their countries, not least because their successors seem so timid and lackluster. The moment back then was headier, too, buoyed by post-colonial optimism. Whatever else can be said about Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia, it is hard to imagine an Arab leader ostentatiously drinking orange juice on television during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. “A modern nation cannot afford to stop for a month every year,” he declared. Right or wrong, the gesture was dramatic, though it earned him plenty of enemies.Today’s notion of drama is the man who overthrew him, Mr. Ben Ali, offering this concession to angry protesters: He would not serve as president for life. The protesters were not satisfied.The states have failed to foster pluralism and a universal sense of citizenship. Miserable governance fosters narrower identities as Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and so on. Lebanon’s illness — rigid identities that breed parochial chauvinisms — is becoming less and less the exception.More tangibly, the many educated young remain frustrated. They might have the basics a state provides, but no future, that bygone notion that tomorrow will be better than yesterday. That is Tunisia, in a potential glimpse ahead.

Shadid was the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes: 
In the 2004 citation, the Pulitzer Board praised “his extraordinary ability to capture, at personal peril, the voices and emotions of Iraqis as their country was invaded, their leader toppled and their way of life upended.” In the 2010 citation, the board praised “his rich, beautifully written series on Iraq as the United States departs and its people and leaders struggle to deal with the legacy of war and to shape the nation’s future.”
In a nation paradoxically highly invested but greatly uninformed about the Middle East, Shadid stood for an invaluable service in aspiring to educate his compatriots. 

At KEVO we were honored to host him in Fall 2010 for a discussion on the region. We will soon put online segments from that event, unfortunately under such sad circumstances. 

Shadid is survived by a wife and two children. 

Of Footballers And Moral Boundaries

German-Tunisian footballer (soccer player) Sami Khedira is kind of a big deal back home. Not only does he play for the German National team, which placed third at the '06 World Cup and second at the '08 Euro Cup, but he's also on the pitch for Real Madrid - second only to FC Barcelona. And Tunisia's football obsessed. So it is natural that he would be profiled by a newspaper. Attounissia ran a story on Khedira accompanied with a photo of Khedira and his German supermodel wife from a GQ cover: 

That was enough to land the publisher, editor in chief and foreign affairs editor in jail after the so-called prosecutor of the republic ordered their detention on grounds of violating public morals, according to the AP. An investigation is pending. 

In the meantime, the paper is fighting back. In the last several hours it has published two editorials decrying the prosecution as a "shocking precedent" threatening censorship of the press and in another detailing the support the paper has received from the National Union of Journalists (which called for “the immediate release of all journalists and the rejection of intimidation against reporters.”), the Association of Culture and Technology, and the International Federation of Journalists, along with stating that the battleground of the "Revolution Is Back". (Both links in Arabic). 

For many Tunisians it is an omission sign about the intentions of the moderate Islamist-led government and speaks to larger fears over the minor but vocal Salafite movement that has threatened and even physically attacked liberal artists and broadcasters (the paper received a bomb threat likely emanating from this circle and is being guarded by police). Many fear that the ruling party, al Nahda, will clamp down on similar papers that cross the party's definition of public morality. 

Many have taken to Facebook - where more than a fifth of the nation congregates - to condemn the arrest as a throwback to the ancien regime. The page "For a free, moderate and tolerant Tunisia" even made a mock cover with obvious inference: 

The most popular radio station, MosaiqueFM, (known for its liberal line), attacked the government for acting so quickly against journalists in the name of a photo while still not prosecuting those responsible for killing over 200 Tunisian civilians during the December 2010-January 2011 uprising that toppled ex-president Ben Ali. 

All this raises questions as to where public moral boundaries will be drawn in the future. Few, if any, nations allow unfettered freedom - at least on public airways. America's FCC imposes prohibited fines that compel broadcasters - TV and radio - to follow guidelines on "indecency" without strictly engaging in censorship. And remember the outcry over the Janet Jackson Super Bowl haft time show that introduced the 5-minute delay and self-censorship by the networks, and exiled Howard Stern to satelliet radio? 

Of course, there is a line between fines and actual detention and prosecution. Tunisia's freedom of the press is not under threat (yet, anyhow). Public morals are a common theme in Western democracies (A 1949 French law, for instances, bans the favorable portray of cowardice in children's books). Tunisia's parameters of public printing and broadcasting will likely entail a long struggle involving courts and parliamentary debate, and occasional loosening and tightening of permissible imagery and discourse. 

Furthermore, it is a healthy sign that civil society and the paper have responded so forcefully in defending their rights. Such a robust counter-attack augurs well for securing freedom of expression. And legal rights are upheld so prosecution, if it goes forward, is likely to be fair and not arbitrary. 

In all, a snapshot as an Arab nation continues to define the boundaries of its nascent democracy. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Tunisia's Islamist Gov't Goes After Radical Islamists

Tunisian interior minister Ali Larayed announced Monday the break up of a "terrorist organization" with alleged links to al Qaeda in Libya and perhaps Algeria. The 12 men arrested had previously been jailed by the ancien regime but after Tunisia's uprising and the exile of former President Ben Ali, the interim government hastily released all political prisoners, which included radical fundamentalists. An additional 9 members escaped arrest and are believed to be in Libya.

As to their motive: "They were intending to establish an Islamist state," Larayed said.  

Larayed's statement merits reflection, if only for its ironic nature. Tunisia's elected government - a first in national history - is led by the moderate Islamist Hizb al Nahda (Party of the Renaissance), which won a plurality of 37% of the vote and leads a troika coalition with two secular, center-left parties. al Nahda had been banned under the previous regime. Much of its leadership, including Larayed, were jailed or forced into exile. 

The Ben Ali regime portrayed al Nahda as a threat to secular values and rather indistinguishable from militant Islamic movements, such as al Qaeda. This was a domestic and foreign ploy: Only Ben Ali stood between Tunisia and harsh Islamic theocracy. It was such a common line that many secularist Tunisians internalized the discourse and at times casually defended the regime as the best option in a bad lot. 

Today's news is a press release rebuffing that old line: An Islamist government fighting radicals seeking to establish an Islamic state, a goal previously (and often still) attributed to al Nahda which has been portrayed as the natural allies of the very latter now being arrested by the former. Whatever one may think of al Nahda, today's news illustrates once again just how unfounded the propagated fear of the "Muslim Brotherhood" wrecking havoc, and thus justifying secular dictatorship, has been all along. And how broad the spectrum of contemporary Islamists movements is. 

Hamza Kashgari Deported to Saudi Arabia, May Face Death Penalty

Last week a major brouhaha erupted in response to several tweets of Hamza Kashgari, a 23 year old Saudi journalist; his tweets were deemed insulting to the Prophet Muhammad (PBBUH). Fearing for his safety, Kashgari subsequently fled Saudi Arabia, hoping to claim asylum elsewhere.
He was unsuccessful. On Sunday, Kashgari was deported from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia back to Saudi Arabia, where he could face the death penalty on charges of apostasy or blasphemy, according to the BBC.

Amnesty International, Freedom House and other NGOs expressed major concerns about Kashgari's well-being. Amnesty International presented an unfavorable view of the Saudi legal system: "court proceedings in Saudi Arabia fall far short of international standards for fair trial. Defendants are rarely allowed formal representation by a lawyer, and in many cases are not informed of the progress of legal proceedings against them. They may be convicted solely on the basis of confessions obtained under duress or deception."

Saudi Arabia has a unique legal system. The Kingdom lacks uniform, Western style rational law codes, although the King has already initiated a controversial codification project; at present, royal decrees on the one hand coexist with semi-independent religious scholars who interpret the sharīʿa based on their individual discretion. As Saudi Arabia becomes increasingly enmeshed in the global economy, legal reforms have become necessary in areas like international finance. "The Saudi state," writes Nathan Brown, "has been driven to create a series of ad hoc structures to govern areas where it has a more definite set of rules it wants to see implemented."

It is not clear how the case will play out, perhaps he could receive a pardon (or perhaps more realistically a reduced sentence) if there is sufficient international pressure.

The debate continues on social media platforms. While many have called for Kashgari's death, others have championed the right to freedom of expression (see #FreeHamza on Twitter), evoking past controversies. In Morocco, a teenager was arrested for posting unbecoming caricatures of the King on Facebook.

Ironically (and perhaps only tangentially related) Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal has invested approximately $300 million in Twitter, according to Forbes magazine…

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Sharīʿa in Northern Nigeria: Ambiguity and the Boko Haram

My point in this post is as follows: reading for consistency, or assuming that the Boko Haram have a solid intellectual base, is not helpful in understanding the group. Terms like fundamentalist, Islamist, radical, extremist, terrorist, jihādī and Salafist are all used to describe the Boko Haram, however these remain vague. Cook writes, "what can be stated absolutely about Boko Haram is that it represents an element of northern Nigerian Muslim dominationism […] that has not been satisfied with the current state of the imposition of sharīʿa since 2000."

While violent acts perpetrated by the Boko Haram group in Nigeria have continued during the past month, it remains unclear what specifically the group stands for, especially since it does not profess a concrete ideology nor has ever published an official charter or a statement of principles. The Boko Haram are said to want to impose sharīʿa in all of Nigeria, and eliminate Western style education. (sharīʿa was implemented in 12 of 19 states in northern Nigeria in 1999 under the auspices of the federal constitutional system)

It is not even clear if there is a unified Boko Haram group under one leadership, or rather that the attacks in Northern Nigeria have been carried out by disparate individuals with differing goals and sources of funding, spread out among Nigeria's neighbors like Niger and Chad.

The Boko Haram have been called Nigerian Taliban by some and are possibly connected with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, yet are virtually absent from most jihādī websites, according to Cook. President Jonathan Goodluck (who placed Nigeria in a state of emergency) stated that the Boko Haram have political and financial support among some government officials.

Cook enumerates some possible influences to the group. These include Salafi Wahhabism, based on a statement of the group's leader Muhammad Yusuf against science in a BBC interview -- including evolution, the process of rain and the notion of a round earth -- although they have also expressed opposition to the Yan Izala, a Wahhabi group and assassinated a Wahabbi-influenced cleric. "We believe [rain] is a creation of God rather than an evaporation caused by the sun," said Muhammad Yusuf in an interview with the BBC.

Finally, the Boko Haram are not part of a supposed conflict between tradition and modernity: the Boko Haram reject Western technology and oppose vaccinations, yet have made use of the internet to publish videos and to claim responsibility for bombings. The point here is that everyone embraces aspects of modernity to a certain extent. (or that everyone is modern)