A reader of last week’s column about Islamist extremism wrote, “It is not really about Islam. It is about things you understand all too well: poverty, alienation, disenfranchisement, and a search for meaning and identity. Identifying with Muslim extremist groups gives terrorists a package of support, doctrine, and legitimacy to draw on.” The writer commented that, while Boko Haram does not have “much to do with Islam,” through its militancy it is able to attract money and training from groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
The writer urged me to draw on my understanding of “black alienation in the inner city” for insight into the behavior of Boko Haram. A few other readers echoed that sentiment.
Indeed, I’m all too familiar with the mistrust, anger and sense of disconnection present in some communities marginalized on the basis of economic and social standing and race.
But is Boko Haram motivated by economic deprivation or feelings of victimization? Or is it something else? Something more akin to violent religious extremism?
Bishop Oliver Dashe Doeme, prelate of the Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri, in northeast Nigeria, doesn’t view Boko Haram as just an opportunistic bunch of hoodlums using religion as cover for their mercenary exploitation.
In an interview this week with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, Doeme said that, within five years, Boko Haram has decimated his diocese. Fifty churches have been destroyed, with 200 more abandoned, he said. The bishop stated that 1,000 of his congregants have been killed, many by Islamists. He said, “The [extremists] point a gun or a knife at them saying that if they do not convert they will be killed. Some of them have been killed for refusing to convert.”
Nigerian Christians certainly regard Boko Haram as religiously motivated.
Since 2009, the bishop said, nearly 70,000 of the 125,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Maiduguri have fled their homes. So have half of the diocese’s priests, with many seeking refuge in a neighboring diocese.
The situation is so dire in northern Nigeria that Doeme has asked for Western troops to help defeat Boko Haram. The Nigerian military, he said, ranges from inept to corrupt. “Among the soldiers there were sympathizers with Boko Haram — some of them were even Boko Haram members and many of them just ran away,” he said.
Boko Haram is about more than disenfranchisement and a quest for identity.
Its mission is to establish Islamic law — or at least Boko Haram’s version of it — over Nigeria. It is driven by a religious fundamentalism that sanctions the deliberate destruction of churches and the slaughter of worshipers.
On Christmas Day it targets churches. There’s nothing secular about Boko Haram.
No less than Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has said so himself. Claiming credit for a massacre that took place in the northeastern Nigerian town of Baga — in which hundreds were shot on sight or dragged from their homes and killed — Shekau said in a YouTube video, according to the Associated Press: “We are the ones who fought the people of Baga, and we have killed them with such a killing as he [Allah] commanded us in his book.”
Amnesty International said as many as 2,000 civilians were killed and 3,700 homes and businesses were destroyed in the Jan. 3 attack on Baga near Nigeria’s border with Cameroon.
“This is just the beginnings of the killings,” Shekau said. “What you’ve just witnessed is a tip of the iceberg. More deaths are coming.”
Sorry to all who think groups like Boko Haram don’t have much to do with religion. But something is loose in the land, and it’s a religious fundamentalism fueled by hatred, the likes of which most of us have never seen before.
It’s been a while since I visited ethnically and religiously diverse Nigeria. Ethnic strains were evident during my trips in the 1980s — the country fought a civil war in the ’60s. But today’s violent religious extremist threat was virtually nonexistent.
So, too, the case in Yemen, where I first heard the Islamic call to prayer, and in Egypt, Oman, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, where, in a previous profession, I visited on business.
Back then there was no al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Sanaa, no Islamic State receiving funding from supporters in Kuwait, no Saudi Arabian money flowing to 9/11 plotters and no reason for an Egyptian president to demand that imams help in the fight against terrorism.
This is a different time. “Alienation” and “a search for meaning” may be contributing factors.
So, too, hatred — leading to mayhem and massacres committed, albeit wrongly, in God’s name.
Sadly, it does have to do with religion.
Read more from Colbert King’s archive.