Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Terrorism, Myth and Propaganda

Terrorists use narratives and myths to justify their acts of mass murder and to create enabling psychological environments for their campaigns. They do this frequently by couching their criminal acts in revolutionary or revivalist rhetoric. The effect of this is to create a permissive climate of moral ambiguity around them.

During the 1980s, Lawrence Anini’s gang robbed banks and distributed the loot to Benin City market women creating a diversionary debate as to whether Anini was a modern day Robin Hood provoked into a life of violent crime when the police extra-judicially killed his brother or whether he was a narcissistic gangster who wrote letters to the press and reveled in his notoriety. In the same way, gangs in the Niger Delta, less interested in resource control than in cashing in on oil bunkering and piracy, were romanticized as militants in some sections of the media.  

In weaving mythical narratives, criminals undermine official resolve by leveraging psychological capital in the form of public sympathy. A lack of moral clarity clouds our interpretation of obvious crimes. We begin to ask whether we are dealing with terrorists or freedom fighters; mass murderers or rebels with a cause; homicidal nihilists or overzealous activists that just need lessons in anger management. Between each definition is a patina of myth that serves to rationalize the devaluation of human life.

Boko Haram’s narrative in the last two years has been one of grievance. In June 2009, seventeen of its members in a funeral procession were shot by highway policemen allegedly because they were not wearing regulation motorcycle helmets. Its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, and scores of sect members were later extra-judicially executed by the police. This narrative of unprovoked injustice and justifiable vengeance has been used by some to explain Boko Haram’s terror campaign. There is also a grander narrative in which the sect seeks to establish an Islamic state.

These narratives are false. Assuredly, Boko Haram was destined to wage war on the federal government and serve as a proxy for Al Qaeda. The caliber of weaponry that the security services unearthed in the group’s hideouts before and during the 2009 confrontation did not suggest a passive posture awaiting circumstantial provocation. Boko Haram at the time was already radicalized and militarized. As at 2004, a group called the Black Taliban, thought to be an affiliate or prototype of Boko Haram was already staging blitz attacks on police stations and local government secretariats in Yobe state. Boko Haram’s battle readiness suggested a prior intent to levy war on the state and the killing of its members, while heinous, was not the catalyst for its uprising. It simply pre-empted the sect, causing them to launch their war earlier than originally planned.

Boko Haram casts itself as a sort of Islamic revivalist vanguard when, in fact, it is a fringe movement espousing a neo-Wahhabi theology which many Muslims find repulsive. That a Muslim wants to live under Sharia does not mean that he wants to live under the Taliban-esque rule of Boko Haram. But because Nigeria is a religious country, evenly split between Christians and Muslims, with a high degree of ignorance about both faiths, the danger is that Boko Haram’s narrow quest could be interpreted by the uninformed as being synonymous with the Islamic faith thereby escalating the group’s agenda into a broader sectarian conflict. Boko Haram will surely benefit from the larger chaos and strengthen itself even as security forces are stretched thin.

The federal government has been slow thus far to undertake the rhetorical aspects of its combat with Boko Haram. It must distinguish the group from mainstream Islam in the public mind by emphasizing its extremist psycho-pathologies. It must distinguish between Islamism which is a political ideology and the religion of Islam. These distinctions might sound academic or over-intellectual but terrorism is now part of the fabric of our social reality and it is prudent for us to understand the nature of this threat.

The federal government must make much more of the brave Islamic clerics that have been killed by the sect for opposing it. The sect’s indiscriminate murder of Muslims and Christians makes it a peculiar threat to national security. The federal government must also counter the stereotypical reporting in the local and international media that often forces every incident of unrest into the silly “Muslim north versus Christian south” cliché. Muslims are not at war with Nigeria; Boko Haram is.

Boko Haram’s immediate goal seems to be to perpetuate itself in Maiduguri but a larger consequence is the poisoning of public life with fear, paranoia and anti-Muslim hysteria. When all Christians and Muslims view each other through lenses of mutual suspicion, the extremists would have won an even greater victory. The group does not have the numbers to militarily challenge the state but it does not need them; it can spread hate, bigotry and fear and watch the country unravel as its fault lines are inflamed.

This is why the government and civil society must work to create forums for inter-faith dialogue where voices of reason rather than extremists shape the conversation. The media can aid this effort by avoiding sensationalism in its reportage and seriously moderating its online platforms where vile hate speech, Islamophobic slander and rumours are circulating virtually uninhibited. It is also important to avoid conflating different conflict scenarios thereby creating artificial correspondences. For example, the conflicts in Plateau State and Borno State are rooted in distinct factors. It is unhelpful to conflate both and suggest connections where none exist. In this regard, politicians, religious leaders and the rest of us should be more circumspect in our comments.

But it is not enough to simply counter Boko Haram’s propaganda. The Nigerian state must create a superior narrative. A nation is a moral consciousness, an idea and a myth of human community actualized by the state. The purpose of governance is to give material meaning to the intangible property of national identity by providing tangible social goods – healthcare, security, education, employment and all other means of self-actualization. In the absence of a grand national myth to accommodate the breadth of our aspirations, people are taking refuge in the most powerful myth of all – that supplied by religion. This is the basis of religious extremism which evolves when religion increasingly explains and compensates for the failures of the nation-state. It does so by offering a more coherent narrative with which young people especially make sense of their dire existential conditions. Religious extremism offers the meaning that Nigerian citizenship has failed to provide for its teeming youths. This is also why terrorism thrives in failed or weak states.

Accordingly, we must see the fight against terror as an ideological conflict. Hence, the necessity of crafting a national myth that gives renewed meaning to Nigerian citizenship in the 21st century. In this regard, the government’s vast broadcast infrastructure and agencies like the National Orientation Agency could be put to better use.

A new mythos requires that we exorcise the colonial instinct and the culture of violence that characterizes relations between the citizenry and the state’s security forces. The extra-judicial killing of Yusuf and his cohorts was not only wrong; it was short-sighted and foolish.  It created a martyr and transfigured a fringe sect into a movement convinced that its cause had been validated by the martyrdom of its founder. The culture of thoughtless police brutality played into the terrorists’ psychology by creating for them an inspirational figure immortalized by an early death.

From the northeast to the Niger Delta, insurgencies have sprouted wherever security forces have acted like lawless bandits thereby providing facile justification for the democratization of violence. In this respect, the behaviour of the state is itself often a threat to national security.

This brings us to a philosophical yet fundamental point. Governance is largely represented in the 
Nigerian imagination as the exhibition of raw power dramatized by the sirened convoys and motorcades that frequently intimidate other road users. Public insecurity actually increases whenever a VIP is on the road. These negative atmospherics of official terrorism brutalize the Nigerian psyche. Therefore, the anti-terror campaign must include changing the visuals and the language of officialdom from that of vulgar belligerence to one of reverence for life and public safety. One does not need to be a terrorist sympathizer to understand that violence, even if only symbolic, begets violence.