Parsing the Nigerian Kidnapping

The kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian girls permeates the discourse all around me: the Unitarian Universalist communities where I live and work, my social networks of academics, Peace Corps Volunteers, journalists and other Facebook friends, and the NPR and BBC news I devour. Much of what I’ve read is contradictory, or leaves out angles of the story I think are important.

protestors in Union Square, NYC, from Hobson’s article in Ms.

SUNY Albany Gender and Sexuality studies professor Janell Hobson wrote a very insightful blog for Ms. Magazine about the complicated relationship of the U.S. with black African experience:

“As we raise more awareness about the situation in Nigeria, what are the demands that we’re making? Are we simply going to expect U.S. military intervention or aid in intelligence and counter-terrorism? How will we place gender and its intersections with race and class at the center of our analyses? Will we frame this as another “black pathology” story of U.S. “benevolence” intervening on African/Third World “incompetence” or “corruption”? This narrative is not helpful, especially when it comes from U.S./Westerners who couldn’t even begin to point out the northeastern region of Nigeria on a map.

Will we also frame this as another “save the black and brown girls from the scary black and brown men” story? Such framing is also not helpful, since it flattens the complexities of how local and global forces mobilize capitalist struggles over oil, economic disparities, religious extremism and worldwide misogyny to reinforce the devalued labor and images of women and girls—especially in a globalizing world that has shifted so many cultural, political, economic and social structures.”

I can’t critique Prof. Hobson’s analysis of African women, U.S. and European involvement in sub-Saharan Africa, or black women globally. I’m confident she is correct, though I’ll admit to being one of those U.S./Westerners who would struggle to place Nigeria on a map. Africa is not my area of expertise. However, I do have the academic qualifications to comment on other of Hobson’s misleading generalizations, taken from Western media’s presentation of the so-called “facts” of the case. She sets up her article in this way:

“200 Nigerian girls were kidnapped from their dorms on April 15 in the northeastern part of Nigeria. The terrorist Islamist group, Boko Haram—possibly tied to Al Qaeda—has been linked to this brazen abduction, as well as to the mass murder of other school children (29 school boys in February). On May 4, it was reported that another 8 Nigerian girls were kidnapped.

Boko Haram’s name translates to “Western education is a sin,” hence the targeting of schoolchildren, especially young girls whose educational progress they wish to halt—not unlike how the Taliban targeted Malala Yousafzai, who survived a gunshot wound to the head.”

It is, at best, problematic to associate Boko Haram with a global network of Islamist terrorists, and it is still worse to paint all of Islam with their brush. Muslims around the world, even hardcore extremists like Al Quaeda have denounced Boko Haram for “senseless cruelty and capricious violence against civilians.” The Nigerian kidnappings, and many of Boko Haram’s prior acts, have been too far outside even Al Qaeda’s sense of morality, going far beyond what even the core leadership of Al Qaeda considers acceptable collateral damage. More importantly, Al Qaeda, its official franchises and unofficial affiliates, and especially Boko Haram’s massacre, pillage and kidnapping are absolutely not reflective of the morality by which the vast majority of Muslims around the world conduct their lives. The Qur’an, the Hadith and the sunna are all very clear that the killing of noncombatants of any religion or ethnicity is unacceptable, and that women and girls are to be protected and treasured, not kidnapped and trafficked. The term “terrorist Islamist” is a fundamental contradiction in terms.

Prof. Hobson’s parroted attempts at translating Hausa are equally misleading. Hausa linguistics scholar Paul Newman finds that we mistranslate the very name “Boko Haram” when, like Prof. Hobson, we translate it as “Western education is a sin,” or as as I have seen and heard in other places, “books are a sin” or “education is a sin.” There is no doubt that “haram” is the Arabic word for “forbidden” or “sin,” used by Muslims around the world in many languages. However, Newman finds that “boko” is a Hausa word for “fraud,” “sham” or “bogus.” Historically, the word has often been associated with the initiatives of colonial Britain, including the institution of new Western-style schools and replacing the traditional Arabic alphabet for writing Hausa with the Roman one. However, fundamentalism in any form, be it Islamic, Christian or constitutional fundamentalism, is by definition opposed to innovations in the practice of their philosophy which they consider fraudulent. Therefore, the article from the Christian Science Monitor concludes,

“What a little reading about the group’s name reveals is that their desire is not to obliterate non-Islamic education all over the world. Just in their own backyards. While that does not make their behavior in Nigeria any less horrific, recognizing that this group is inwardly focused (like most Islamist militants throughout history) is useful to start trying to understand what the US, the rest of the “West,” Nigeria, and anyone else should do about the situation.”

In fact, Boko Haram is not even the name they chose for themselves. Hear more on the history and philosophy of Boko Haram and other extremist groups from my colleague Chris Anzalone on the CBC’s Radio Noon Montreal (starting around 8:45).

Even comparing these girls to Malala Yousafzai is a cheap, distracting ploy. It plays on Malala’s global celebrity status – which is problematic but not undeserved! – while simultaneously flattening her story and the story of her people. While Malala’s situation is also tied to British colonialism and education, the specific circumstances of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan are particular to the geography of that region. They are more about socio-economics and local culture than about Islam. Additionally, it disregards entirely the role of American neo-imperialism in those countries.

All of this plays into a very damaging Western meta-narrative of a great Clash of Civilizations. Though Samuel Huntington has long ago been dismissed by most academics I know and respect, his theory still pervades our media landscape. We are still caught in a monolithic Us vs. Them story, the struggle of West vs. the East, often framed as Judeo-Christian secularism vs. Islam.

Some say that it is in our tribal human nature to choose sides and draw lines in the sand, but I challenge you to defy that narrative. My human worth and dignity is no greater or less than those girls in Nigeria or the men who find themselves in the cult that did the kidnapping. What brought us each to our separate fates is not just religion, or language, or color, or nationality. Not any one of those things alone, but an intricate combination of factors that makes each story unique and individual. Generalizations like “Islamic terrorism” or “U.S. benevolence” or “African incompetence” or “black pathology” can help us on our way towards understanding, but we must use them with great caution.

American Imam Khalid Latif is calling on other imams, in their Friday sermons, to denounce the “boko” brands of Islam practiced not only in Nigeria, but wherever women are oppressed in the name of religion. I’m calling on non-Muslims like me to be wary of the sensationalized stereotypes of Islam we repeat in our social networks, both digitally and in the real world.

PS on the Efficacy of the Interwebs

Finally, I would like to point out that while the Internet is a great place to inform yourself about what is happening in the world – and knowledge is an important kind of power! – it is not always the appropriate place for activism or for effecting real change. Hashtags won’t bring back our girls, as this writer powerfully explains, who is an actual Nigerian-American who might have some authority on the matter. In fact, she makes a compelling argument that they do more harm than good. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be outraged and want to do something. I’m just saying you should consider the greater, long-term, unintended consequences of the methods you choose in your fight for change.

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