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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.

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In the 1970s, 20 years after independence and a decade after Nigeria’s brutal civil war, a new fundamentalism, inspired and supported by Saudi Arabia’s Salafi (or, as Westerners know it, Wahhabi) sect, swept across north Nigeria. Nigerian Salafism, known locally as Izala, was at once fundamentalist and modernist. Like the Protestant reformers of Western history to whom they are sometimes compared, adherents of Izala rejected traditional Nigerian sects for practicing an impure form of Islam and called for a return to the ideas and lifestyles of the prophet Muhammad’s generation.

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The Izala movement took hold among north Nigeria’s incipient educated middle class – its professionals, merchants, and businessmen – in part because of the modern ideas it claimed to find in original texts. Against traditional hierarchies, Izala promoted individual learning and faith, modern business practices, and education that included Western subjects, arguing that none of these were forbidden (haram) in the Quran. It even encouraged some education for women. Nigerian Salafists, in other words, urged an Islamic rapprochement with modernity, a trend documented in numerous scholarly works.

To Westerners, who associate Salafism with the virulent Islam of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, this is a surprising mix. It has become common since 9/11 to distinguish between moderate and fundamentalist Islam and to see the latter as an enemy. That stereotype is inadequate for Nigeria even though northern Islam clearly fits the fundamentalist label.

The region’s past reveals a complex religious landscape. While northern fundamentalism is ubiquitous and deeply entrenched, it is not monolithic, but exhibits substantial diversity in cultural and political convictions, openness to outside collaboration, and sometimes progressive attitudes toward modern life.

Perhaps most striking, all of Nigeria’s dominant sects reject Boko Haram, which touts a violent, anti-Western ideology concocted mostly in the head of its founder Mohammed Yusuf, who was killed – alas, martyred – in 2009 while in police custody. His movement draws recruits from among the millions of desperate poor, many of them children, abandoned by an inept government and a collapsing economy. Rampant hopelessness and seething resentment win far more recruits to violence than do fundamentalist Islamic tenets.

Any successful counter-extremism measure in northern Nigeria must rely on conservative Muslim support. Yet sensitivity and mistrust of outsiders run high. If Western strategists repudiate fundamentalist Islam as intrinsically extremist and fail to recognize that most northern Muslims, including the Salafist Izala, share a rejection of violence, they risk alienating the only local allies available in the fight against Nigeria’s true extremists.

Michael Gubser is a professor of history at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. and an international development consultant. He is completing a study of recent USAID education programs in Kano, North Nigeria, where he spent part of last summer on research. He has published articles on development issues in Monday Developments, Development Policy Review, and the Journal of Development Studies.


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