Skip to main content

What gives Boko Haram its strength

By David Jacobson. Atta Barkindo and Derek Harvey
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Sun May 11, 2014
Police in riot gear block a route in Abuja, Nigeria, on Tuesday, October 14, during a demonstration calling on the Nigerian government to rescue schoolgirls kidnapped by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram. In April, more than 200 girls were abducted from their boarding school in northeastern Nigeria, officials and witnesses said. Police in riot gear block a route in Abuja, Nigeria, on Tuesday, October 14, during a demonstration calling on the Nigerian government to rescue schoolgirls kidnapped by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram. In April, more than 200 girls were abducted from their boarding school in northeastern Nigeria, officials and witnesses said.
HIDE CAPTION
Nigerians protest over kidnapped schoolgirls
Nigerians protest over kidnapped schoolgirls
Nigerians protest over kidnapped schoolgirls
Nigerians protest over kidnapped schoolgirls
Nigerians protest over kidnapped schoolgirls
Nigerians protest over kidnapped schoolgirls
Nigerians protest over kidnapped schoolgirls
Nigerians protest over kidnapped schoolgirls
Nigerians protest over kidnapped schoolgirls
Nigerians protest over kidnapped schoolgirls
Nigerians protest over kidnapped schoolgirls
Nigerians protest over kidnapped schoolgirls
Nigerians protest over kidnapped schoolgirls
Nigerians protest over kidnapped schoolgirls
Nigerians protest over kidnapped schoolgirls
Nigerians protest over kidnapped schoolgirls
Nigerians protest over kidnapped schoolgirls
Nigerians protest over kidnapped schoolgirls
Nigerians protest over kidnapped schoolgirls
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Boko Haram has killed hundreds of Nigerians each month
  • Authors: Kidnapping of schoolgirls brought world's attention to the terror group
  • They say it is fueled by a reaction in impoverished north to Western education, values
  • Backward schooling must yield to education that teaches marketable skills, they say

Editor's note: David Jacobson, founding director of the Citizenship Initiative at the University of South Florida, is the author of "Of Virgins and Martyrs: Women and Sexuality in Global Conflict." Atta Barkindo is a fellow at the Citizenship Initiative. Derek Harvey, director of the Citizenship Initiative, formerly led the Afghanistan-Pakistan Center of Excellence at U.S. military's Central Command. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

(CNN) -- The Islamist terrorist organization Boko Haram has been active as a violent group since 2009 and in recent months has killed Nigerians, both Christian and Muslim, at rates frequently exceeding a hundred people weekly.

It is puzzling how little attention this has received in world media, especially in comparison to, say, the attack of Islamist militants on the mall in Kenya in September, resulting in 67 dead.

That is, until now. The abduction of a reported 276 schoolgirls from Chibok village in the northeastern Borno state has shocked people around the world. A deeper examination of Boko Haram provides a revealing prism of the conflict in Nigeria.

Boko Haram translates as "Western education is sin." Rarely has the name of a terrorist organization revealed so much, but it does in ways beyond the surface interpretations sometimes portrayed in the media.

In Boko Haram, we see a total storm coming together: Globalization has brought Western ideas and imagery, especially around issues of women and sexuality, into the most patriarchal corners of the world. Globalization, through Internet and broader interconnectedness, has facilitated and favored global ideologies, including globalized versions of Islam, some of which are extremist.

Complications in the search for Nigerian girls
Boko Haram attack survivor speaks to CNN
Griswold on Nigerian terror group

Melinda Gates: Boko Haram kidnaps a nation

New media have shined a light on poor governance, including that of the corrupt Nigerian government. The impact of Wahhabi Islam, actively promoted by Saudis and Gulf Arabs, has had such an impact that in northern Nigeria, even Arabic street signs and Middle Eastern dress are seen together with Saudi-funded mosques.

But Boko Haram's rise is not only driven by global trends in themselves but by how globalization has melded with the internal dynamics of Nigerian education. The Christian South in Nigeria is much more prosperous than the Muslim North, and that economic gap is growing rapidly. The roots go back to the British colonial period from the late 19th century to independence in 1960. The British ruled the South directly, which was also being rapidly Christianized by missionaries. Missionaries ran many of the schools.

Malala: Kidnapped girls are 'my sisters'

In the Muslim North, the British practiced "indirect rule," governing through the clerical and traditional elites and allowing local religious institutions to operate autonomously (with some limitations, for example, banning slavery).

The impact of missionary schooling was to bring Western education into Nigeria, and this has had direct bearing on economic development for the regions where such schools predominated -- and this legacy is with us to this day. Access to Western-style education has been key for enabling people to adapt to a modern economy.

In the north, some missionary schools were established, but traditional elites always resisted them for obvious religious reasons and because those schools threatened to generate an alternative elite.

Instead, the schooling that predominates in the north of Nigeria consists of religious schools, or the al-Majiri education system -- often informal, with students congregating under a tree. These students are completely unequipped to work in a changing economy (and overall, Nigeria is economically growing rapidly). Some of these schools have dubious teachers who exploit the usually impoverished students by getting them to beg in the streets for the teachers' own gain.

John Sutter: 'We can't let this be the new normal'

In the wake of September 11, there was extensive discussion of Muslim schools and the extent to which some were inculcating extremism, for example madrassas in Pakistan. Some have claimed that Muslim education, properly taught, would provide an inoculation against extremism. But that debate lost sight of a larger issue, whatever the theology of such schools. The graduates of those schools are often adrift in globalized economies without marketable skills and modern education, and more vulnerable to at least tolerating extremism.

Which brings us back to the language of Boko Haram. The leadership has ranted against any form of secular education. It teaches that European colonists introduced modern secular education into Islamic societies in a conspiracy to maintain colonialist hegemony over Muslim societies: The West aims to corrupt pure Islamic morals with liberal norms.

Likewise, the leaders believe that the West wants to replace proper gender roles with sexual permissiveness. Secular subjects like chemistry, physics, engineering, meteorological explanations of rain, the theory of evolution are all denounced as contrary to the Quran.

In our research in the area, and in other surveys, it is evident that students coming out of the religious schools are more likely to sympathize with Boko Haram, significantly even those who are not particularly religious in practice. Equally significantly, religiosity as such does not necessarily bring with it a tendency to back Boko Haram. The issue is the education system, not religious belief.

In the eyes of Boko Haram, the abduction of schoolgirls is a triple strike against what they view as Western depravity: against Western schools, against "the obscenity" of having girls in school at all and against Christianity, to the degree the schoolgirls are Christian.

If northern Nigeria is to have a more stable and prosperous long-term future, it is essential to develop an education system that prepares students for a modern, globalized economy. This is especially the case in the northeast, where Boko Haram is most active.

Nigerians in northeastern Nigeria, who in part may sympathize with Boko Haram's fight against corruption, are however alienated by Boko Haram's bloodlust. And most will support developing an education system that provides the foundation to make a living.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT