US must seek conservative Muslims as allies in fight against Boko Haram terror
Boko Haram, the north Nigerian extremist group, has recently escalated its terror campaign with a string of deadly strikes against government and civilian targets. To combat the rising threat, the West must embrace conservative Muslims in the region as potential allies.
Over the past few months, Boko Haram, the north Nigerian extremist organization whose name means “Western education is forbidden,” has escalated its three-year terror campaign with a string of audacious, deadly strikes against both government affiliates and civilians. Most dramatic were late January’s bombings in the north Nigerian city of Kano, which killed nearly 200 people. As Boko Haram promises further attacks, the violence shows no sign of abating.Skip to next paragraph
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The group has drawn international concern – including American military, diplomatic, and development attention under the multi-agency Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative – focused on a remote and little-known region in western Africa, where not only Boko Haram but also Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) prey on some of the world’s poorest peoples.
To combat the rising threat, the West must embrace as potential allies the conservative Muslims who dominate this turbulent region. But there is a real danger that Western analysts will mistakenly identify north Nigeria’s conservative Islam with Boko Haram’s violent ideology, instead of seeing the extremists for who they are: violent groups espousing fringe views that most Nigerian Muslims reject.
Islam is the social and cultural glue of north Nigeria. In an impoverished and politically corrupt society with intense grievances against the southern-dominated government, conservative Islam provides essential moral and social bearing for people in the north of the country. At the start of the millennium, popular declarations of sharia law in all northern states underscored the religion’s importance to regional identity.
Islam has a deep history in north Nigeria, one punctuated by regular movements calling for purification and renewal. Usman dan Fodio’s 19th-century jihad established a conservative caliphate across the region. Although the caliphate’s capital was in Sokoto (now in northwestern Nigeria), the city of Kano became a center of commerce and Islamic learning that attracted migrants from across West Africa. To this day, northerners identify with the pre-colonial past, and traditional leaders such as the Emir of Kano adhere to Usman dan Fodio’s Qadriyya branch of Sufi Islam.
In the early 20th century, after the British conquest of north Nigeria in 1903, a purification movement challenged the dominant sect. The movement's adherents condemned traditional leaders for deviating from proper Islamic practice and – more damning – for compromising with imperial rulers.
The colonial experience established a persistent mistrust of Western motives that continues to this day, and a fear that Westerners seek to erode Islamic culture through Christian conversion. The vaccine crisis of 2003-05, when northerners rejected the polio inoculation as a plot to sterilize Muslims, was a recent expression of this fear.