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.
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.
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.
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.