Nigeria and Islamic Extremism

I am in DC this week visiting friends, doing research, and attending a few events. Yesterday I went to the US Institute of Peace for a presentation by Dr. John Paden entitled, “Is Nigeria a Hotbed of Islamic Extremism?”

The answer turned out to be no. Dr. Paden stressed that “ninety-nine percent” of Nigerian Muslims are “moderates,” especially the traditional Northern Nigerian rulers who still constitute the religious establishment in the region. The moderates, he argued, have the power and the numbers to sideline extremists. Throughout his talk, Dr. Paden stressed the importance of understanding historical context when analyzing recent events in Nigeria. The Boko Haram movement, the Muslim-Christian violence in Jos, and the Christmas Day bomber are not expressions of a single Islamic radicalism, he said, but rather unique situations reflecting historical and local forces.

At the end of the Q&A session, a Nigerian man implored USIP to do more to raise awareness about the complexities of the situation in Nigeria. Such calls are worth heeding. One can and should always do more. But the very fact that USIP held the panel – and drew a substantial turnout – says to me that some people in Washington are already thinking beyond the narrow categories presented in popular news treatments. Dr. Paden said, moreover, that he had been impressed by the nuanced discussion of Nigeria in a recent Senate hearing (this one?). So perhaps the conversation about Nigeria inside the US is moving in the right direction.

Problems inside Nigeria, however, are continuing. Is it ironic that on the same day USIP held an event on Islamic extremism in Nigeria, oil rebels from the Movement from the Emancipation for the Niger Delta (MEND) set off a bomb in the southern part of the country? These attacks remind us that violence in Nigeria, as elsewhere, occurs for a variety of reasons: politics, economics, resources, etc. Islamic ideology can drive violence – it certainly played a part in the Boko Haram attacks – but even in areas like Jos where Muslims engaged in violence, Islam may not be the largest factor.

The greatest challenge for Nigeria, Dr. Paden stressed, is preserving national unity. Viewed in that context, the country’s problems seem more political than religious, though obviously the two aspects are intertwined.

More context on the MEND bombings here and here.

6 thoughts on “Nigeria and Islamic Extremism

  1. Did he mean only this 1% has a proclivity towards violence ? While I agree with the his main argument, 1% of Nigerian muslims still accounts for about 400.000 people.

  2. Interestingly, I just a few weeks a go read through the 2004 special issue of the African Studies Review that William Miles (no relation) put together on ‘Islamism’ in several West African nations, Nigeria included.

    I of course focused on Rober Charlick’s piece on Niger, which broke down rather nicely the differences between Wahhabi inspired political Islam and the many other politically active Muslim groups, who form the vast majority not only of believers, but those newly active in national politics.

    The example of the Nigerien attempt to pass a Marriage and Families Law – it failed – is a direct parent of the struggle in Mali right now, both in the creation of a basically conservative front against it and the law’s genesis under foreign pressure. The second interesting bit is his recasting of conservative – especially Hausa – ‘new’ Islamism as not a resistance to globalism but an alternate form of globalism, Not linking so much to Arab radicals but Hausa trade and religious networks that extend all the way to Saudi and the US.

    Anyhow, Paden cites this article, and the themes are apparently more fully developed in a 2007 volume called “Political Islam in West Africa: State-Society Relations Transformed” which I have not read, but certainly intend to.

    • The Miles book on Political Islam in West Africa is pretty useful. The chapter on Mauritania leaves out some important actors but all the chapters are really well informed and useful for situating a lot of recent trends. Strongly recommended.

      • Guess I better pick that up too! I read something else by him, but haven’t looked at this volume yet.

  3. His “Hausaland Divided” is one of my favorite books, and really elucidates the state vs. nation pull in ways that are somewhat different to someone initially trained in Western European concepts and history.

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