Boko Haram and the crippling of Islam in Africa

Radical movements in Africa are hurting the future of Islam on the continent.

Boko Haram seeks to opt out of modernity and herd Muslims back to metaphorical caves, writes Al-Effendi [EPA]

In the 1980s, there was much talk in Nigeria about the “Kaduna Mafia”, a mythical and not-so-secretive organisation said to be made up of influential northern Nigerian intellectuals, civil servants and businessmen, intent on the advancement of the interests of northern Nigerians. There is still plenty of that chatter about. The organisation almost certainly did not exist, and if it did, it does appear to have been a phenomenal success.

Prominent figures associated with it have repeatedly failed in obtaining electoral office, even in northern Nigeria. Nevertheless, there is a hint of reality behind the myth, in the sense that members of the northern Nigerian elite were acutely aware of how seriously disadvantaged the inhabitants of the region had been in newly independent Nigeria.

The handicap became a tragedy when the southern-led January 1966 coup decimated the cream of the northern elite in an atrocity perpetrated by the putschists. The casualties included Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Nigeria’s first post-independence prime minister, and Al-Haji Sir Ahmadu Bello, the premier of the Northern Region and, perhaps the most influential northern politician at the time, being a member of the revered royal family of Sokoto.

Struggling for education

This tragic loss, and the hate that inspired it, only helped heighten alarm about the larger problem: the economic and political marginalisation of Muslims since colonial days. As in most other colonised African countries, Muslims shunned the new educational institutions set up and run by Christian missionaries. They did not want their children to fall under foreign Christian influence, and kept them at home or sent them to traditional religious schools.

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As a result, a huge gap opened up between Muslims and their non-Muslim compatriots, who became proficient in the new languages of the administration, monopolising government jobs and key professional positions. By the time Muslims began to catch up, the hurdles they had to overcome were becoming more and more challenging. Secular government schools open to Muslims were few and far between. In some countries, the entrenched elites were not too keen on sharing with these “newcomers” previously looked down upon as “backward”.

The task which the mythical Kaduna Mafia was supposed to undertake was to redress this imbalance, mainly by improving educational opportunities for northern children, arranging for scholarships, and helping northerners advance in business or gain equal access to government jobs. The jury is out on whether these objectives have been fulfilled in any significant way.

It is not that easy to reverse the legacy of decades of colonial and post-colonial marginalisation. For the logic of things dictates that any progress made by Muslims in the education or in business would be more than matched by groups that have already forged ahead. One can just look at the difficulties still facing affirmative action for African Americans (some of them have, ironically, reverted to Islam as a tool of empowerment).

Radical movements further marginalisation

Imagine, therefore, the irony of the emergence, over a century and a half from the onset of colonialism, and over half a century after independence, of an “Islamic” group whose main objective is to deprive Muslims from modern education, again. It even calls itself “Boko Haram” (modern education is a sin).

Like its counterpart in Afghanistan (the Taliban), this movement seeks to opt out of modernity and herd Muslims back to metaphorical (and sometimes actual) caves, where they were supposed to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that modernity has never happened.

It is not contested that the violent turn of the ultra-traditionalist Boko Haram, which had operated peacefully after its establishment in Maidugri in 2002, was influenced mainly by the brutality of the police assault on its members in a 2009 crackdown. The group’s founding leader, Muhammad Yusuf, died in police custody a few day after his arrest in July 2009. Many videos also surfaced at the time of the police killing captured suspects.

This sparked anger and served as recruiting propaganda for the movement in its more recent violent phase. The group also follows on earlier, if mainly apolitical, religious-dissident groups such as the 1980s Maitatsine movement. The latter mobilised the marginalised lumpenproletariat left behind by Nigeria’s corrupt-infested oil boom and also engaged in violence. The two movements have often been compared, in spite of the obvious differences. But that is beside the point. The problem here is that this has always been a counter-productive way of protesting against corruption and marginalisation. Its outcome is usually to further enhance marginalisation.

Muslims in Africa have been caught into this vicious circle for generations. In many countries, they vent their anger at their marginalisation through violent rebellions, which result in more repression and exclusion, not to mention the devastation of livelihoods. The recent “religious turn” in protests, as we have witnessed in Somalia, Mali, Kenya, and some areas of North Africa, has made things much worse.

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These radical movements offer the young a false sense of empowerment, the thrill of “action”, a new sense of identity and a vent for their frustration. However, they also divert youth energies from constructive engagement in dealing with the new challenges of modernity, and trap them into the cul-de-sac of violence. They physically devastate Muslim countries and regions, setting them back decades.

Not only are schools devastated and destroyed, but even those lucky bright young African Muslims who make it, will find it more and more difficult to pursue coveted educational opportunities abroad. This is to say nothing of the bad name all Muslims acquire from association with the senseless barbarism of these groups. It is like colonialism all over again, but this time it is self-inflicted. African youths, who should be dragging their communities out of the trap of poverty and marginalisation, are busy dragging them back in.

The future of Islam in Africa

If this trend continues, it could be an even bigger disaster for Islam in Africa than colonialism. Islam was the dominant religion in Africa before colonialism, and by some miracle, it still is in spite of it. It continues to thrive precisely because it urges its adherent to seek knowledge. The word know/learn and its derivatives appear 856 times in the Quran, and its synonyms and related terms many times more.

It is specifically and repeatedly stressed that only truly learned people fear God, or can understand or appreciate the message of divine revelation. Only those “endowed with reason” ulu al-albab, can grasp that message. If there was any need for a further confirmation of this message about the value of knowledge and the detrimental consequences of ignorance, then the repulsive conduct of the self-avowed ignorant leaders of Boko Haram and similar groups is more than enough. One of the most unforgivable acts of so-called “Islamist” rebels who occupied Timbuktu last year was to set fire to a library containing priceless manuscripts that embody the valuable contribution of African Muslims to learning.

It would be a tragedy if a religion that has brought learning and dignity to generations of Africans, is devastated by the acts of its own presumed advocates, in particular its disaffected youth. This should not be permitted. If there was no “Kaduna Mafia”, maybe it is time to set up one, in every African country. And its first task should be to eliminate this threat to Islam’s future in Africa by providing genuine avenues of self-expression and self-advancement for the young people turning suicidal in despair, and in the absence of a credible leadership.

Abdelwahab El-Affendi is Reader in Politics and Co-ordinator of the Democracy and Islamic Programme at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster.