Boko Haram: A Religious or Ethnic Insurgency?

Global Challenges Counter-extremism

Boko Haram: A Religious or Ethnic Insurgency?

Posted on: 15th September 2014
Ian Linden
Senior Advisor

Ethnicity or Religion? Two recessive genes that are expressed when the body politic is in turmoil. Both can be catalysts for violent extremism. A double dose can be lethal – like sickle-cell anemia.

But the analogy should not be taken too far. Ethnicity is often constructed, imagined, becoming real in a complex process of identity formation. In much of sub-Saharan Africa for example, ethnicity is an extremely important identity marker, but also a fluid one, changing throughout an individual's or a group's life depending on circumstances, external events and pressures and the costs and benefits of identity with one ethnicity over another.

Religion, though, is part of the cultural soil, embedded and rarely chosen, until it grows into a consciously asserted fixed identity. It is not imagined as somehow in the blood, in physical features or attributes, or in the language, though certain languages take on a sacred dimension. It is all about right-living and right-thinking about ultimate concerns.

In Nigeria, ethnicity and religion have episodically been catalysts of contention and outright conflict. Since independence the experiment of building a nation-state from a population of striking ethnic diversity and equally split between Christianity and Islam, has often been tragic. During the 1967-70 civil war, attempts by Biafra to portray its secessionist struggle against Federal Nigeria as a religious conflict between a Muslim north and a Christian Biafra failed. Ibo ethnic identity and nationalism were all too obviously the dominant motivation. A visit to a museum in Enugu State even five years after the war ended would reveal in the visitors' book both "Nigerian" and "Ibo" under "nationality".

Religious ideology has become a key dimension of conflict and extremism.

But fifty years later religion has emerged as an identity strong enough to motivate conflict. It has not superseded ethnicity, rather the divisions are often along the same lines. Increasingly religious ideology has become a key dimension of conflict and extremism. Grievances are presented through a pernicious form of religious rather than ethnic identity.

This is clearly also the case with Boko Haram. Imam Muhammad Yusuf headed the original movement, his first followers were from a variety of ethnic groups. They lived first in the hills around the town of Maiduguri in Borno state. When a government development scheme there failed, Yusuf took responsibility for them. This was as much a religious as a socio-economic relationship. His radical teaching attracted a diverse clientele to his mosque in the town's Railway Quarter. He provided them with one meal a day, employment as street traders and marriage partners without the normal high costs involved.

The University of Maiduguri in the early 1990s produced a Salafi Muslim student movement, the Jama'at Ahl al-Sunna wal-Jama'a wal-Hijra (People of the Way of the Prophet and the Community and Migration). It sought an authentic Islamic lifestyle, as its name implies, modeled on the Medina community. The movement was taken over in 2002 by Yusuf, who gained notoriety for his radicalism and a strong following at the town's Muhammad Ndimi Mosque. His followers called themselves the Shabab-al-Islam, "the Islam Boys".

Yusuf had been a pupil of the radical Yan Izala movement's Sheikh Alhaji Gummi, and studied at the University of Medina, Saudi Arabia, where he was attracted by the thinking of one of the medieval sources of Wahabi thought, Ibn Tamiyya. His other influence, the Nigerian scholar, Sheikh Jafar Mahmoud Adam parted company with him over the movement's increasing violence; he was murdered in 2007. Arrested on a number of occasions, Yusuf seemed to have friends in high places who procured his release.

Yusuf's chosen scholarly expertise was the hadith collection, Riyadh-al-Salihin by the 13th century scholar, Muhyi al-Din al-Nawawi. These were sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammed emphasizing the moral obligation–and divine rewards–of undertaking jihad. Such texts, a complete repudiation of unbelievers as well as Muslims who did not accept his teaching (takfir), taken out of context provided legitimacy for Yusuf's followers to reject any intra or interfaith pluralism and all modern governance, and for preparation for jihad. The Nigerian state and all its agencies were identified as the source of infidelity. Democracy was betrayal of Islam.

Yusuf's extra-judicial murder at a police station in 2009 led to the rise of Abubakar Shekau as the leader of what became known widely as Boko Haram. The poverty and neglect of the north-eastern states; the indigence and pauperisation of its youth; and the corruption of political elites were the tinderbox. Religious ideology was the spark. Boko Haram will almost certainly be reaching out to IS in Syria and Iraq. It is encircling Maiduguri and may try to make it the African Mosul. An ethnically based insurgency? I don't think so.

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