Unless you live in Nigeria, or take a special interest in that nation’s politics, you probably had never heard of Boko Haram until last Christmas Day when the group bombed several churches killing some 41 people. On the day when Christians celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, Boko Haram intruded with sectarian violence of the ugliest kind, premeditated and indiscriminate, the planned killing of women and children when they were harming no one.
At Catholic University next month, a symposium will be held to examine Boko Haram and the challenge the group poses to Nigeria’s national unity. I asked the symposium’s organizer, Fr. Aniedi Okure, O.P., how “Boko Haram” translates into English. “Western Education is Sinful,” he replied. "Actually, the word 'abomination' is closer to the meaning they intend."
Fr. Okure explained that the group is a relatively new Islamicist sect that first came to prominence in 2002 in northeastern Nigeria. They have a “Taliban mentality,” opposing the education of girls and wishing to impose Sharia law. At first, their efforts were mostly peaceful, seeking to exploit politically the long-simmering differences between the Muslim north of Nigeria and the Christian south, along with all the usual grievances that exist between provinces and the capital of any country. But, when reports grew that the group was arming itself, the Nigerian government took action. They arrested the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, and he was killed in police custody. “So, the members of the group became intent on revenge,” Okure explains, “and the violence escalated.”
Boko Haram is not an arm of Al-Qaeda, Fr, Okure points out. “If there are ties to outside terrorist organizations, those ties are subsequent,” he tells me. “This was an internally grown organization, not an off-shoot of Al-Qaeda or any other terrorist organization.” Okure even hesitates to call Boko Haram a terrorist organization, even though they are. “As soon as you say ‘terrorist,’ people think about the threat in terms of U.S. security,” Okure explains. “But, c’mon, these people are a threat to my family in Nigeria not to me here in Washington, D.C.”
Fr. Okure thinks that if the Nigerian government had handled the situation better, it might not have turned as violent as it has. I asked him if the attacks on Christians were because Christians are “Western”? He explained that while that is part of it, the fact is that now a whole host of ethnic, religious and political reasons for the violence have combined. Relatedly, the recourse to violence has spread both geographically and strategically. At first, the group tried to intimidate local officials in the northeastern part of the country. Now, their reach extends throughout the northern part of Nigeria and as far south as Abuja, the capital in the center of the country. Just as challenging as their geographic extension has been the constriction of their methods: Violence now appears as their first, not their last, recourse. In addition to the bombings of churches last Christmas day, they have bombed government buildings, a United Nations headquarters, and other sites with Western links.
The symposium will look at the history of Boko Haram, the current situation, and what can be done to meet the threat. In addition to Fr. Okure, the symposium will feature presentations by Professor Sulayman Nyang of Howard University, who is himself a Muslim, the State Department’s Augustine Fahey, who head the Nigeria desk, and Professor Carl LeVan of American University. Fr. Okure is especially glad Professor Nyang will be there because it is important to note that Boko Haram grew out of a fight within the Muslim community first, between those who sought some measure of assimilation and those who resisted any accommodation with Western ways.
The role of the United States in the conflict is something Fr. Okure especially wants to look at during the symposium. “Sometimes, the U.S. doesn’t understand that by getting involved, they turn a situation into an international conflict when it is really a local one.” He compares the situation to that facing the U.S. during the protests in Iran in 2009 after the Iranian regime rigged that nation’s elections. Some criticize the Obama administration for not doing more to defend the protesters, but they fail to see how U.S. involvement would have boomeranged in the regime’s favor. The easiest way for a regime to discredit a domestic protest movement is to label it an arm of the CIA. Ask Fidel, who has been singing that tune for fifty years.
The symposium, however, has something to say to those who do not have any particular interest in Nigeria, too. We are having our own debate in the West about the role of religion in society. Many of us are concerned about the increasingly dogmatic secularism of some who wish to banish religion from the public square, and rightly so. But, it is good for all of us to remember, too, that secularism has also provided a blessing on our nation. Our religious squabbles, and they have been great – think the Ursuline convent burning, Paul Blanshard, &c. – have not usually turned to widespread violence because there is little political oxygen, and even less constitutional oxygen, for such squabbles to gain traction. We are not wrong to worry about the downside of a secular state, but we are wrong to ignore its benefits. Unlike Boko Haram, the key is a sense of accommodation on all sides, a balancing act that recognizes both the positive contributions religion makes to society, but also recognizes the danger some religious zealots pose to the health of society. The absence of ontology from politics is dangerous, but the absence of ontology from politics has often been experienced as a blessing.
The symposium will be held at CUA’s Aquinas Hall on April 12, from 4:30-6:30, p.m. It is sponsored by the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, where Fr. Okure is a fellow and I am a visiting fellow. The event is free and open to the public. More information can be found by clicking here.