For at least the second time, suspected members of Boko Haram have assassinated a Muslim cleric who opposed their movement. On October 9, 2010, gunmen from Boko Haram shot Bashir Kashara, “a well-known wahabi cleric in Maiduguri, [who] ran a weekly Islamic programme on Borno state-run radio in which he criticised Boko Haram’s ideologies, especially one that tags Western education as a sin.” Yesterday, Boko Haram killed Imam Ibrahim Ahmed Abdullahi, “a Muslim cleric who embraced nonviolence and spoke out against the sectarian violence plaguing northeast Nigeria.” Abdullahi, like Kashara, had been involved directly in debates with Boko Haram’s leadership:
“We used to call the government and security agents to say that these people must be stopped from what they are doing because it must bring a lot of trouble,” Abdullahi told the AP in 2009 after the rioting that year. The imam knew the group’s former leader well and cautioned him against the violence Boko Haram later employed.
Abdullahi’s mosque, where believers gathered under the shade of a massive tree living in the dusts of the Sahara Desert’s edge, drew moderates in a city where violence has become the norm. Even after receiving threats, Abdullahi continued to talk with journalists and others in hope of bringing a lasting peace to the region.
Yet even he recognized that the crushing destitution most lived in drew them to a group that promised a more prosperous life at the end of a Kalashnikov rifle.
“People are living in absolute poverty,” Abdullahi told the AP in November 2010. “Whenever people are living in this type of poverty, if you start saying to them, `Look, come let us bring about change,’ … people must listen to you.”
The killing of these clerics comes as part of a larger pattern of assassinations Boko Haram has launched at religious rivals, security personnel, and at least one politician. Boko Haram’s targeted killings, like other acts of terrorism, aim to intimidate the opposition and cast the authorities as helpless.
The interactions between these Muslim preachers and Boko Haram also shed some light on relationships within Muslim communities in Northeastern Nigeria. The different Muslim tendencies in the region are diverse, but they share commonalities. For example, the term “Wahhabi” is overused and I am not sure precisely what the author meant when he used it in Kashara’s case, but presumably the label means that Kashara adhered to a fairly strict interpretation of Islam, an interpretation different from Boko Haram’s but similar enough to allow for real debate between the two positions. Meanwhile, Abdullahi disagreed vehemently with Boko Haram’s approach, but he empathized with the experiences of some of the poor and desperate Muslims who have joined the movement. From the lives and deaths of Kashara, Abdullahi, and Boko Haram’s leader Muhammad Yusuf, a blurry picture emerges concerning the intense debates taking place among Muslim leaders in Maiduguri and the surrounding areas. Kashara, Abdullahi, and Yusuf had major disagreements, but they also represented a range of viewpoints on shared problems: poverty, political marginalization, and the effort to apply Islamic teachings in the context of Nigeria’s turbulent politics. Tragically, disagreements over doctrine are moving from the minbar and the radio into the street, and major Muslim leaders of varying ideological stripes are paying the ultimate price for proclaiming their views in Maiduguri.
Two killings does not make a pattern, but I would not be surprised to see Boko Haram target other Muslim leaders who denounce them. Authorities already have their hands full in the military conflict with Boko Haram. Now that the rhetorical conflict is becoming militarized, preachers will be thinking twice about whether to combat Boko Haram in the mosque.