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.