Saturday, January 28, 2012

Things Falling Apart: The attacks in Nigeria remind us that faith is the problem

Jihadism, as any right-thinking liberal will tell you, is supposed to be in decline. The killing of the Saudi millionaire who financed it; and the withdrawal from Iraq of the American troops who fuelled it; and, of course, the unprecedented popular uprisings across the Middle East that now discredit it; have consigned it to the history books. To the extent that Islamists exist at all anymore, they are either legitimate ‘resistance’ guerrillas (Hamas, Hizbullah, the Taliban) or ‘moderates’ seeking to marry the Enlightenment with Oriental spirituality (Turkey, North Africa). And, as always, any violence perpetrated by Muslims is an essentially defensive, even ‘desperate’, response to the original sins of European and American imperialism.

I argued here a few days before the tenth anniversary of 9/11 that this was all perfect nonsense, and I now put it to my reader that subsequent events in Nigeria have found me in vindication. For those who haven’t been following, an outfit called ‘Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad’ (‘Group Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad’), more commonly known as ‘Boko Haram’ (roughly translated from the Hausa dialect as ‘Western education is religiously forbidden’), is currently waging an unrestrained campaign of violence against Nigerian civil society; bombing police stations, UN buildings, banks, alcohol vendors and, most recently, Christian places of worship in attacks that have killed 250 civilians in the first month of this year alone (and around 1,000 since 2009). Its stated aim since its formation in 2002 by the cleric Muhammad Yusuf has been to replace the pluralistic government in Abuja with a shari’a-based Islamist regime – a somewhat tough sell in a country whose population of 160 million includes over 60 million Christians. Yusuf, who was killed in an especially bloody week of clashes with security forces in 2009, was a man of unusually strong faith. The discrepancies between the claims of the Qur’an and the findings of modern science were for him a trifling matter to resolve: not only Darwinism, but the claim that the earth was not flat, and that rain was caused by evaporation, were abominable falsehoods that had no place in a pious and dignified society. His successor, Abubakar Shekau, appears to cut a similar figure: explaining earlier this month why exactly it was necessary to slaughter Christians, he placed the blame squarely on the victims: “Catastrophe is caused by unbelief, unrest is unbelief, injustice is unbelief, democracy is unbelief and the constitution is unbelief”. 

As against this broad-daylight fanaticism, I can almost hear Robert Fisk snorting. Don’t I know that Christianity was imported by the British colonialists, who enslaved Nigerians and killed them in a string of brutal imperial wars? As it happens I’m aware of this ugly history, about which far too little is known and said. And I’m an admirer of Chinua Achebe’s masterpiece, Things Fall Apart, in which the divisive and destructive effects of the white man’s religion are laid bare:

The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.1

However, what Boko Haram calls for is not a return to the Nigeria described in the first half of that novel. Nor can it conceivably be described as an assertion of a national or cultural identity that is in any way Nigerian. Instead, it is a call for the culture of 7th century Medina – in other words, something at least as foreign as Anglicanism, and ten times as backward and fascistic to boot. Look again at the Yusuf/Shekau manifesto: anti-democracy, anti-science, anti-education. To imagine even for a moment that this is what ordinary Nigerians want for their future and their children is to both slander and insult them in the extreme (and see for yourself how vehemently, and courageously, they oppose it). You may of course choose to believe if you wish that the minority of Muslims who do support Boko Haram do so because of the especial poverty of the northern region and the extravagant corruption of the central government. But then you’d have to tell me first how the persecution of women and homosexuals and teachers will end poverty, and then how a leadership known for its “extreme wealth” and “lavish” lifestyle is in any position to combat the cancer of corruption. 

So it doesn’t look like any of the standard leftist arguments will do here. On the other hand, for those of us who say that religion is the radix malorum, the horrific events in Nigeria are quite straightforward to explain. I for one feel that I could face the families of murdered Nigerian Christians with a clean enough conscience. The Noam Chomskys, Norman Finkelsteins and Robert Fisks, however, should be asked how exactly the corpses are Israel’s and America’s fault this time, and how many more such corpses need to be created before they will cease to wipe blood off the hands of killers. 

1 Achebe, C., Things Fall Apart (1958, Penguin Modern Classics 2001 edition), p. 129 

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