Over 200 girls abducted, enslaved and possibly sold. 310 people killed in a market attack. Schools and churches bombed. Students, teachers, and police shot dead. An escalating surge of violence aimed at children and adults, Muslims and Christians, political, traditional and religious leaders.
Largely due to the social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls, Boko Haram has now entered mainstream media and US public consciousness.
In response, there is growing commentary on the horror of this event, and on Boko Haram’s history. Many voices have begun to lay bare relevant intersections of government corruption, poverty, diversity and education.
Yet when it comes to the question of motivation, an off-the-shelf explanation is being bandied about: the motivation of Boko Haram is the implementation of shariah and an Islamic state in Northern Nigeria.
This explanation certainly aligns with the rhetoric of Boko Haram. It also permits a neat “ah-ha” moment, allowing us to somehow make sense of these heinous atrocities by placing them in a familiar storyline. Shariah is routinely discussed in connection to violence, inhumane punishments, anti-Western sentiment and oppression of women.
The problem is that this depiction is highly reductive and oversimplified. It obscures significant details related both to shariah and to Boko Haram. And, in doing so, it grants a sense of legitimacy to the group’s twisted ideology while muffling strategic voices of opposition.
Shariah is part of Islam, and shariah is important to Muslims. But shariah is not a codified, static or agreed upon collection of laws. Shariah is better understood as guiding principles according to which Muslims attempt to live their lives.
A good analogy here is the founding ideals of our nation. These ideals, especially as expressed by the founding fathers, continue to inspire us today. Our laws, however, sometimes fall short, and when they do they require change.
It is similar with shariah and Islamic law. The majority of Islamic laws do not derive directly from the Qur’an, which primarily contains generalized ethical content. Most Islamic laws instead come from the work of Islamic jurists over the past 1,400 years. These jurists, in the past and today, have debated, upheld, modified, and introduced diverse laws. They have tried—with varying degrees of success—to align those laws with the principles of shariah. What they have never done is agree upon a fixed set of specific laws.
Just as we adapt our laws here in the US to fit changing circumstances over time, jurists adapt Islamic laws to fit changing circumstances. And just as each US state faces unique circumstances, people, and challenges that require different laws, jurists also adapt Islamic law to local conditions. We strive in the US remain true to our nation’s highest ideals, and jurists strive to remain true to sharia.
Why does this matter in reference to Boko Haram? Because in parroting the content-lite and ideologically-rich rhetoric of Boko Haram, we buy in to their mythology. We explain their behavior as mere religious zealotry. We allow them to define the terms of the discussion, without challenge. We implicitly, sometimes explicitly, assent to the idea that their version of “shariah” is actually authoritative.
We also inadvertently muffle the voices of Muslim opposition to extremists like Boko Haram. These voices, including my own, yell out that this is not my “shariah.” But because these voices do not fit within the agreed upon mythology, they often fall upon deaf ears.
It is these voices that present some of the greatest threats to Boko Haram and to other similar Muslim extremist groups. This is something which Boko Haram seems to recognize. Are not most of their victims Muslims who disagree?
When asked about the motivation of Boko Haram, we should call it what it is: a bastardized ideology that references Islam and focuses mainly on punishment. An ideology that aims not to create a functional ‘state,’ but rather a state of fear and coercion. An ideology that performs its obscene agenda on the backs of girls and women.
By not automatically buying the ideology they are selling, we could begin to open up a new space for nuanced discussions and potent responses.
Jerusha T. Lamptey is Assistant Professor of Islam and Ministry at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York and author of Never Wholly Other: A Muslima Theology of Religious Pluralism. She tweets at @JerushaTanner.
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