Boko Haram, the Arab ‘Spring’, and the radical Islamic Revival

Boko Haram, the Arab ‘Spring’, and the radical Islamic Revival

This past week, as I read the grim news of Christmas killings in Nigeria, there came back to me the words of Shaikh Khalid Yasin, an African-American convert to Islam and globe trotting preacher, who visited Australia back in 2003.  The context was an interview on ABC radio with John Cleary.  Cleary asked Yasin about what sharia meant to him, and in response Yasin waxed lyrical about the Nigerian experience:

“If we look at the evolution of the Sharia experiment in Nigeria for instance. It’s just a wonderful, phenomenal experience. It has brought about some sweeping changes, balances, within the society, regulations in terms of moral practices and so many things.”

Cleary referred to the case of Amina Lawal (a Nigerian Muslim who was sentenced to be stoned to death for getting pregnant out of wedlock) and asked the following question:

“Let’s talk about that Nigeria for example for a moment, because you’ve got a country there which has a large Christian population and a large Muslim population; how do you reconcile that? Do you think that the Sharia should prevail and Christians can live under the ambit of the Sharia, or do you think there should be a secular state which allows room for both Muslims and Christians to practice under their own religious codes?

To which Yasin responded:

“Well let me … take that question into a broader historical spectrum, and let’s look at it in that light. What did the Sharia provide for the Christians who are living in Spain, what did the Sharia provide for the Muslims who were living in Turkey, I mean historically. What did the Sharia provide for Muslims living in the Islamic state in Medina? What did the Sharia provide? Always dignity, protection, and the religious rights? Co-mingling, respect of their properties? So historically, Islam has always shown tolerance, dignity, protection for the non-Muslims living in the Muslim state. So from a historical perspective, I say that the Nigerian experiment is one where they are trying to get back to that model…

Here is the nub of the matter. Yasin is appealing to Muslims’ dream of a benevolent, tolerant Islam from a golden past era when non-Muslims were afforded ‘dignity, protection’, ‘tolerance’, and ‘religious rights’ under Islamic rule, which is to say, after Muslim conquest.  (In fact he is referring to the sharia system of dhimmitude, in which non-Muslims as conquered people are granted the right to practice their faith as long so they submit to  discriminatory laws laid down in a dhimma or pact of surrender.  It is on this basis that sharia law affords the right to non-Muslims to keep their heads in an Islamic state.)  Yasin opines that Nigerian Muslims are ‘trying to get back to that model’.

Which brings us to the recent horrific murders of Christian worhippers across Nigeria on Christmas day.  Of course such events give the lie to the claim that Islam ‘always’ provides dignity and protection.  In reality the increasing violence against Christians in Nigeria (and in many other states around the world) is a direct product of the very same global sharia revival which Yasin was so enthusiastic about.  The reality is that Christians are being killed in Nigeria because of the sharia revival, not in spite of it.

The perpetrators of these atrocities in Nigeria are known colloquially as Boko Haram.  Their official Arabic name is rather longer.  It means ‘A Group of People of the Sunna (the example and teaching of Muhammad) for Da’wa (proclamation or Islamization) and Jihad‘.  The Boko Haram nick-name for the group refers to their objection to the Latin alphabet, which has become dominant in Nigerian education, including for writing Hausa: the Hausa word boko (from English book) refers to the Latin alphabet.  It can also refer more generally to non-religious education.  The Arabic word haram means a ‘forbidden’ or ‘prohibited’ practice according to Islam.  So the phrase boko haram could mean ‘secular learning is prohibited for Muslims’.

This nick-name reflects a desire to Islamicize the indoctrination of young Muslims.  The will of  Boko Haram is to exclude all values and information which are not in conformity with pure Islam, symoblized by the use of Arabic script and the Arabic language.

The world is in the middle of a global sharia revival.  From Auckland to London, in recent decades Muslims have becoming more religiously observant.  Hopes for establishing Islamic political governance are rising.  The sharia movement has been gaining strength everywhere.

What the Islamic movement has achieved in the past half-century would have seemed inconceivable only 30 years ago. One of the most visible symbols of this achievement is the veiling of women.  Raymond Ibrahim recently contrasted the present-day Muslim enthusiasm for veiling women, shared of course by Khalid Yasin (see here, here and here) with the contempt once shown for this idea by Gamal Abdel Nasser.  In 1953 the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader told Nasser that they wanted to enforce the hijab, to which Nasser commented that the leader’s very own daughter was refusing to wear the thing:

“Sir, I know you have a daughter in college—and she doesn’t wear a headscarf or anything! [laughter] Why don’t you make her wear the headscarf? [laughter] So you can’t make one girl, your own daughter, wear it, and yet you want me to go and make ten million women wear it?!” [burst of laughter and applause]

To which Raymond Ibraham wryly remarked, “Half a century later and none of this is a laughing matter.”  He also reproduced a cartoon (above), in which the Muslim Brotherhood is overseeing the transformation of women’s rights as a result of the misnamed ‘Arabic Spring’.

It is truly remarkable how much the Muslim revivalists have achieved, especially since the 1980s.  Contrast the veiling of women in the graduating class of Cairo University in 2004 with the unveiled graduates of the class of 1978.

Cairo University Graduating Class 2004

Cairo University Graduating Class 1978


The global Islamic movement is no new phenomenon.  This is a loaf that has been rising for a very long time.  The revival has been underway for the best part of a century, and in full swing for the past 40 years.  In every place around the world, the engine which has driven its progress is spiritual formation, which is to say, religious education.  Wherever Muslim presidents have permitted Muslim revivalists free access to a nation’s young people, there has been a steady rise in radicalism, resulting in religious violence and the deterioration in the human rights environment for women and non-Muslims alike.  A good example is Pakistan, where millions of young men are indoctrinated each year in the sharia-revival curriculum through the Islamic madrassah system, which has expanded 200-fold over the past 60 years, partly due to direct government assistance.  In Pakistan this manifestation of the ‘boko haram’ principle has been the official policy of the government, as, instead of promoting secular education, it has put its young into the hands of religious radicals. This intense effort has generated countless recruits ready for jihad, and growing misery for non-Muslim Pakistanis, who can only watch helplessly as their nation drifts far from its constitutional origins as a secular state.

What is important to grasp is that devotion to the example and teaching of Muhammad and to the Qur’an is never greater than in the curriculum of the Islamic movement revivalists.  When Boko Haram signals adherence to the Sunna of Muhammad in their official name, they are undoubtedly entirely sincere. It is revivalist Islam which provides the fertile seed bed for dreams of restoring Islamic political power, and consequently for dawa and jihad, two primary instruments in the sharia revival tool kit.

This is why Abul A’la Mawdudi, in a series of compelling sermons preached in 1938, taught that the fundamental basics of Islamic religious observance provide the foundation for political dominance of the world by Muslims:

“The Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving and Pilgrimage [i.e. the core fundamentals of Islamic spiritual observance] at their deepest level provide preparation and training for the assumption of just power. Just as governments train their armies, police forces and civil services before employing them to do their job, so does Islam, the Din given by Allah.  It first trains all those who volunteer for service to God before allowing them to undertake Jihad and establish God’s rule on earth.” (Let Us be Muslims).

Maududi’s sermons, delivered seventy years ago to poor farmers in the Punjab, were destined to become a classic of the radical Muslim revivalReprinted countless thousands of times, they lay out in compelling terms a program for the assumption of power through religious renewal, leading up to and including jihad.

The key to understanding the seemingly sudden sweeping victories of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East is the long, slow process of Islamic instruction and guidance — of da’wa — at which the Muslim Brotherhood’s footsoldiers have worked hard and sacrificially for decades.  Again and again the doctrinal gurus of this spiritual revival have stressed the need for patience and taking a long-term view.

In October 2002 the Arabic-language quarterly Al-Manar Al-Jadid Magazine (published under the auspices of the Ann Arbor-based Islamic Assembly of North America) included a biographical essay by Muhammad ‘Abduh on the achievements of Abdul-Hamid ibn Badis, who was active in Algeria in the period leading up to WWII. The essay bore the title ‘The Understanding of Abdul-Hameed Ibn Baadis of the Phases of Da‘wah’.  Ibn Badis was praised for his skilful, long-term vision for establishing political Islam in Algeria.  He was especially admired for deceiving the French when he assured the colonial government that the Agerian Islamic movement’s goals were apolitical:

“We are Algerian Muslim people in the colonial province of the French Republic. So because we are Muslims we act for the preservation of the traditions of our religion. And indeed, a government who is ignoring the people’s religion cannot manage it properly. We are not intending by this to mix religion and politics into all of our matters … And because we are a colony, we seek to fasten the bonds of friendship between us and the French nation. And we call on France to adhere to its three foundational Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood.”

Ibn Badis’ program was a painstaking one, extending for decades, which began with religious education, a strategy which Muhammad ‘Abduh described as ‘his plan … to encircle [colonialism] and to destroy [it] … step by step (see here for an archived English translation, posted in 2003 by a Muslim group in Melbourne, Australia).

Boko Haram’s objection to secular education is entirely consistent with the pre-WW II example of Ibn Badis, or the pre-WW II guidance of Mawdudi: religious formation in the principles of Islam provides the necessary foundation for establishing political Islam, up to and including an Islamic state.  This is why, when Anwar Sadat allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to focus on charitable works and spiritual formation of the population, he was handing the future of Egypt over to them.

The most disturbing thing about all this — the Islamic movement’s sweeping successes in education, and persecutions unleashed by the rise of devotion to the sharia across nations like Pakistan and Nigeria — is the phenomenon of denial.

On the one hand radical Muslims conceal the truth about the dhimma as an intended outcome of the Islamic revival, insisting that the dominance of non-Muslims by Muslims, by force, is synonymous with ‘dignity’, ‘tolerance’ and ‘protection’ for all.  Jihad, the God-given means to achieve this utopia, is supposedly a struggle for justice, a noble effort to remove oppression.

On the other hand, so many Western leaders and journalists seem determined, heads firmly planted in the sand, to ignore the religious character of the violence plaguing Nigeria and so many other places where the global Islamic Movement has taken root.  It is misleading to call such attacks ‘senseless’, or to remark that they ‘initially appear to be terrorist acts’, as the White House Press Secretary’s statement said on December 26.  Equally irrelevant is the UK foreign office’s remark that the attacks, which included suicide bombings in which jihadis deliberately sacrificed their lives, were ‘cowardly’, or the New York Time’s suggestion that attacks on churches are a ‘new, religion-tinged front’.  (Again, read Raymond Ibrahim‘s level-headed analysis which explains that Boko Haram’s attacks have always targeted Christians).

Such rhetoric conceals the fact that the Nigerian attacks on Christians derive credibility and inspiration from a religious curriculum which demonizes non-Muslims.  This curriculum appeals to passages taken from the Qur’an and the example and teaching of Muhammad to demand that it is a religious duty for Muslims wage war against infidels (that is, to kill them) to establish Islam, and that dawa and jihad go together hand in glove as the preferred Islamic method for establishing the glories of Islamic rule.  This is supposed to usher in an Islamic Utopia for which non-Muslims could only be grateful.  This Utopia is what the sharia will ‘provide’ for Christians, as Khalid Yasin put it.

These bloody attacks were not senseless.  They had a purpose.  They were intended to intimidate Christians in Nigeria into making political concessions to radical Islam.  Above all they are intended to pave the way for Muslims to establish the dominance of the sharia as a political and legal force in that land. The sub-text of the attacks is ‘Give us power, and you will be safe’: ‘protected’, to use Khalid Yasin’s words.   This intention is not a new idea: it is a very old one.  It was Muhammad himself who used to say to non-Muslims: aslim taslim ‘Submit and you will be safe’.  This use of terror is an idea acquired through religious instruction.

Of course not all Muslims adhere to such beliefs. There are other interpretations of Islam.  A great many Muslims even detest at least some of the beliefs outlined here, and are appalled that anyone could link murderous acts to their personal faith.  But such beliefs do exist, and what is more important, they do matter in today’s world. They make a difference. For this the evidence is overwhelming.

It must also be admitted that not all the motives of those who go for jihad are religious.  But the driving force, the compass that guides the sharia revivalist ship, is entirely its doctrinal base.  It is faith nurtured in the very bosom of Islam itself which lays the groundwork for these horrendous attacks.  It is real-life Muslims, who aspire to go on the Hajj to Mecca, pray five times and day, and recite the Qur’an in pious devotion — it is men such as this who cherish hopes of political ascendancy for Islam.  These are the hands which are ready to act to hasten the day.  And it is men such as these who pass on these ideals to the young.

These are bad, deadly ideas, which as they take hold, mete our despair and destruction, not only to non-Muslims and women, but also to Muslims.  The sooner Western elites wake up and find a language for talking about all this, and gain the courage to accept that they do not have to sacrifice their own humanity along the way, that facing up to what is true does not mean one has become a hater or a bigot, the sooner rational policies can be put in place to respond to the manifold challenges posed by the world-wide sharia revival.

The question is not whether the radical Islamic revival is in full swing, but what can be done about it.  But not much will be done until the thing is acknowledged for what it is.  And until that happens there will be no will to resist, and no intellectual capacity to seek out and weigh up possible solutions.

Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

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