The headlines do not lie. There is an ongoing war between Nigeria and Boko Haram, an ultraviolent jihadist group seeking to establish its own version of an Islamic state. What the headlines frequently fail to capture is the other dimension of the same conflict – an ongoing battle to define Islam in Nigeria. This is an invisible conflict largely unreported by the media and unexplored by pundits.
Long before its outrages earned it transnational infamy, Boko Haram was killing mostly Muslim ward heads and community leaders in Northeastern Nigeria, and it has made a special point of murdering opposing Islamic clerics. Since then, Boko Haram has bombed churches and killed Christians; it has also killed emirs, imams, agents of the state and civilians. Like all jihadist groups, it claims the right to solely define what Islam is. As Reza Aslan has observed, “Jihadism is a puritanical movement in the sense that its members consider themselves to be the only true Muslims. All other Muslims are impostors or apostates who must repent of their hypocrisy or be abandoned to their fate.”
In 2004, Boko Haram’s leader Mohammed Yusuf established the Ibn Taymiyyah Mosque in Maiduguri, an ominously named separate centre for his then fledgling sect. Ibn Taymiyyah was a 13th century Islamic theologian, revered in Jihadist circles, who famously broke with the traditional view that the leader of an Islamic state, whether a caliph, a sultan or an imam, is divinely-ordained and must therefore be obeyed regardless of his deeds. Ibn Taymiyyah argued that if a Muslim leader failed to uphold Islamic principles then he was not really a Muslim but an unbeliever and his rule was invalid. Rebellion against such an impious ruler was a religious duty. Indeed, he declared that any Muslim who was willing to abide by the rule of an infidel was also an infidel. By choosing this name for his mosque, Yusuf served notice to the Northern Muslim ruling class which he saw as apostate.
Boko Haram’s attack on the Kano Central Mosque in late November which claimed over a hundred lives was a significant signpost. It was clearly a response to the call by the Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, to communities to arm and defend themselves against the insurgents. Since his ascension to the throne, his vocal opposition to Boko Haram and his emergence as an advocate of popular resistance against the insurgents has placed him in their crosshairs.
In parts of the northeast, most notably Maiduguri, citizen-led self-defence and vigilante units have been instrumental to repelling Boko Haram. The key to militarily defeating the group lies in strategic cooperation between the Nigerian military and such local self-defence groups. Popular resistance may throttle the insurgents in the same way that Iraq’s Sunni awakening defeated al Qaeda in 2008.
Sanusi embodies everything that Boko Haram reviles; an Islamic scholar yet also a yan boko (western-educated) former banker, urbane, learned and savvy in the ways of the West and the East, dangerously comfortable with pluralism and unjustifiably cosy with infidels. In the extremists’ eyes, he has drunk too deeply from the fountains of Western decadence and his acumen as an intellectual in the Western and Eastern sense compounded by his authority as an Emir, makes him symbolic of the sort of apostate mongrelism that the group seeks to eradicate. In the Emir, the insurgents’ dastardly thesis has located an antithesis. In a recent video, Boko Haram threatened to kill him. The battle lines could not be any clearer.
Kano was once an ancient cosmopolitan terminal on the trans-Saharan trade route making it a cultural and commercial confluence of sub-Saharan, Sahelian and Maghrebian influences and migrations. For centuries, Kano has retained this pluralistic character until recent decades. From the mid 1980s onwards, Kano became identified with a violent prejudice. Chronic eruptions of sectarian violence were seared into its reputation. Extremism rose against a background of deindustrialization, urban poverty and economic collapse with opportunistic politicians cynically playing the religious card.
In a 2004 lecture in Kano, Sanusi lamented the “creeping parochialism in Kano” which contradicted its “accommodating and cosmopolitan character” and its traditional demonstration of “the best Islamic values of tolerance, of diversity and hospitality to guests and travellers.” He identified lack of education as a key factor in Kano’s, and by extension, Northern Nigeria’s, decline and urged his audience to “fight against parochialism and retrieve our Nigerian identity, and realize that a narrow mind closes off opportunities to excellence.” Sanusi has since signaled his willingness to spearhead this fight as Emir.
Boko Haram is violently opposed to nation-states, national boundaries, democracy, pluralism, western education and civic diversity – all concepts that are affirmed by Nigeria. Thus, the current conflict is also about what sort of Islam will prevail in Northern Nigeria. Will it be progressive and tolerant? Will its future be written in the ink of scholars or the blood of martyrs? Will it overcome the residual distrust of Western education and empower millions of Muslims to be productive citizens and yet remain true their faith? Or will Boko Haram’s nihilistic atavism prevail?
It is important to highlight this invisible conflict, to support leaders like the Emir of Kano, to encourage mainstream Muslims in their ideological struggle for hearts and minds. The federal government should promote and protect moderate clerics who are at the frontlines of this battle of ideas. We must also condemn the sort of Islamophobic paranoia and bigotry in non-Muslim circles which inadvertently strengthen Boko Haram. In the contest between moderation and extremism, we should be vigorously backing the former.
(Images sourced from www.osundefender.com and www. nigerreporters.com)