The issue of Islamic extremism has been in the news a lot lately, and with very good reasons, ranging from the horrific executions carried out by the Islamic State, to the attacks and kidnappings carried out by Boko Haram, amongst many other groups. Everyone has an opinion to offer about these groups and how best to understand and to address them. I have heard opinions from Bill Maher, to Nicholas Kristof, to Sam Harris, to Reza Aslan, to Rula Jebreal, just to name a few. I have heard very simplistic views, very nuanced views, and just outright idiotic views that we would do well as a society to ignore, for the sake of our political, social, and moral sanity.
A lot of the propounded views contain half-truths, and many views strive closer and closer to the picture that we must look to if we are truly serious about addressing this wave of extremism. I have studied Boko Haram for a couple years now, and I have written about them as well, and so I think that I am in an informed position to offer my opinion about this wave of extremism, one that I do not claim to be the full truth, but one that does away with the dangerous simplicity of our dominant narrative.
Before I start off, I just want to state, explicitly, that we must identify these groups as Islamic extremist groups if we are going to have a serious conversation about them. It is true that their beliefs come from a very literal and corrupted interpretation of Islam, but it comes from Islam nonetheless, and it is important to acknowledge this truth. However, to acknowledge this is not to say that this is what Islam strives to teach, but it is affirm that we cannot marginalize this group from the ideology that feeds it, as that is just purely nonsensical. However, as I hope to show you in this article, their causes and their motivations are more complexly multifaceted, and so to assert that Islam is the sole problem is very unsophisticated, one-dimensional, and ultimately prejudicial.
My research on Boko Haram is what informs my views about Islamic extremism, and I do not want to extrapolate that it is the same for all Islamic extremist groups, lest I fall into the same thinking that I seek to condemn, one that flattens the dimensions of history and politics. But, I think that what we can take away from my article is that Islamic extremism is more complicated than Islam and we would do well to remember that for all insurgent groups.
Reza Aslan, who I think has presented one of the most nuanced views on religion to date, one that strives to align with the complex truths that I have discovered in my research on Boko Haram, wrote an article in New York Times. In his article he states, "No religion exists in a vacuum. On the contrary, every faith is rooted in the soil in which it is planted. It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true." I completely agree!
In Nigeria, a country with over 173-million people, about 60 per cent of those people live in absolute poverty, on less than a dollar a day. Nigeria is a country that has survived an oppressive colonial rule imposed upon us by the British, and it is still surviving the remnants of colonialism and the new wave of neocolonialism. Nigeria has also endured waves of brutal military coups and regimes that heightened the environment of fear in the country. In Nigeria, corruption is the force that rules the country's politics, institutions, and government, where security and the value of human rights can sometimes seem elusive.
The Islamization of politics in Nigeria has presented itself in waves, and its key goal and root cause has always been to address these gruelling circumstances that the country has been forced to endure. It is also important to note that these oppressive circumstances in Nigeria also led to a three-year civil war and the arousal of other militant groups, such as militant groups from Niger Delta. This is important to note so that one can understand that these factors that lie at the core of the social, political, and economic landscape in Nigeria is a fertile breeding ground for militancy of any kind.
However, I am not going to deny that Boko Haram is a particularly brutal group, the point of these aforementioned claims is to show that what informs their ideology is a lot more than religion, and such is the case for other militancy groups that exist in Nigeria and other parts of the world.
When Mohammed Yusuf founded Boko Haram in 2002 it was a somewhat peaceful group. Yusuf built mosques and schools, and he mobilized the marginalized, the unemployed youths, and the alienated poor. People were able to sympathize with his group and their ideologies because they were all vitalized and oppressed under the same circumstances. The group became increasingly militant but did not turn brutally violent until 2009 when their leader was arrested and killed. They were vying for control, however unjustifiable their actions were and still are, in a social and political environment that was increasingly becoming volatile.
The only reason Boko Haram wants to form an Islamic Caliphate is because they believe that their Caliphate would codify the morality that is lacking in Nigeria, and address the issues that I have mentioned. However, based on their actions, we can extrapolate that this will not be the case, but it does not change the fact that they truly believe it.
Boko Haram and other insurgent groups are not exclusively caused and motivated by their religion Islam, but as Reza Aslan so aptly put it, they are product of the environment that breeds them, and they put into their religion as much as they take out of it. If you do not believe me, let me walk you through a thought experiment. In this thought experiment every single militant group that exists today has been destroyed, and religion has been vanquished from our world, but all the oppressive political, social, and economic factors that I mentioned earlier have not been dealt with.
I can guarantee you, absolutely and categorically, that another militant group is going to arise, under the auspice of a different philosophy, but motivated by the same circumstances that breed extremism and radicalization. If we are truly serious about dealing with Islamic extremism, we must rid our minds of simplistic propaganda, and start to see the radicalization of Islam and the corruption of its sacred religious doctrine as part of a larger brutal oppression made possible by horrific political, social, and economic realities.
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