On Doctrine, Politics, and Boko Haram

I’ve published a paper with the Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, entitled “‘The Disease Is Unbelief’: Boko Haram’s Religious and Political Worldview.” It deals with the Boko Haram crisis, which has caused untold damage in northeastern Nigeria and surrounding regions over the past six years and more. The paper’s title derives from a video where Boko Haram’s (deceased?) leader, Abubakar Shekau, responded to former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s denunciation of Boko Haram as a “cancer.”

The paper is the length of a journal article, so I won’t say too much to summarize it here. I do want to emphasize that it’s an attempt to take Boko Haram’s religious discourses seriously: not to excuse those messages or the violence, of course, but to try to understand them and even to give the group’s ideology *some* analytical weight in the quest for an explanation of the violence.

That latter proposition has proven controversial for some audiences and colleagues I’ve encountered. For some, the idea that armed groups might actually believe what they say they believe is anathema. Many analysts view jihadist leaders as either psychopaths or opportunists, and their followers as either dupes or victims. Certainly there is reason to feel that way, especially when there is evidence that leaders are hypocritical, power-hungry, etc, or that followers have been coerced. But people are not simple and it is possible that even if a leader is a hypocrite or an opportunist, it’s still worth paying attention to what he says, because it might give hints as to why a group behaves the way it does. Moreover, if jihadists were all mere opportunists or psychopaths, why would they develop such systematic and detailed ideologies?

So the paper tries to get at some of those questions. I doubt that it will convince those who believe material forces are the sole determinants of the violence. But if you’re interested, I go through various official statements from Boko Haram and discuss the remarkable consistency in their messages from circa 2008 (and probably before) to the present, and show that a core combination of religious exclusivism and perceived victimhood has underlain many of their other ideas, including their rejection of Western-style education.

If you do read the paper, I welcome your thoughts, suggestions, and criticisms here. I will be continuing to work on this topic, and your feedback will help me refine my thinking and research.

2 thoughts on “On Doctrine, Politics, and Boko Haram

  1. I think that while material factors matter a great deal, ideology is part of what motivates violent groups. The distinction between material and ideational factors is somewhat difficult to decipher and I think your paper does a great job in showing that ideas do indeed matter. I do feel less convinced that the solution to Islamic radicalism – or indeed any radicalism – can be found in socioeconomic changes alone. In other words: Even if the Nigerian government began to channel its resources into projects that benefited its population, this alone is unlikely to eradicate Boko Haram. After all, we see jihadi ideology also emerging in a lot of European nations where citizens have better access to social services etc. But I think this is a great and wonderful paper!

  2. I liked very much the paper, specially the way you organize the information in topics with suggestive titles that make for an entertaining reading whithout losing rigor.

    Due to the fact that the same socioeconomic and ideolohgical factors are also found in most of northern Nigeria and neighbouring regions, we may need to search for more detail and in depth analysis of some of its factors. ¿Do we know precisely from which areas, localities, class and caste groups, families, personal trajectories, etc. is Boko Haram receiving support? Is there any pattern besides the broader picture of a poor and religiously radicalised north?

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