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What do Boko Haram and the Taliban have in common? It’s not what you think

The past few weeks have seen the shooting of polio vaccinators in Pakistan and Nigeria, the attempted destruction of the ancient library of Timbuktu in Mali, and yet more civilian deaths from roadside bombs in Afghanistan.  What do these episodes have in common? The visuals are remarkably similar: men with guns attempting to inflict terror and exert control in the name of Islam.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the jihad theorists have a case: why else does “Islam” keeping popping out of the mouths of gun-toting militants?

In fact, nothing could be less accurate.  A report from Britain’s MI5 on the roots of terrorism in the UK indicates that many “Islamist” terrorists are recently religious.  Some have just begun to take in interest in faith, and (as in Canada) there is a high proportion of fresh converts.  Their understanding of theology and the application of religious concepts is quite elementary.  The same trend was observed in Indonesia, when religious militancy erupted in 2002. Those who bought into terrorism had a rudimentary grasp of Islam, despite claiming to act in its name.

But what does this have to do with Pakistan and Mali? The library of Timbuktu, which Mali’s militants attempted to destroy, is a case in point.  Its texts were evidence of a Muslim past which bears no resemblance to the ideological caricatures that motivate militants and terrorists.

Among the texts that were preserved from the flames in Timbuktu were books on medicine, science, and history.  This was a civilization with figures like Nasir al-Din Tusi (d. 1274), whose model of planetary motion was borrowed by Copernicus, and the North African world historian Ibn Khaldun (d.1382).

The intellectual giants of Muslim civilization, including Ibn Sina (d. 1037), whose Canon of Medicine was a medical textbook in Europe for nearly 500 years, would not recognise the idea that “western medicine” as Nigeria’s Boko Haram puts it, is a threat.  In fact, it was in Ottoman Turkey that vaccination of children against smallpox first took place in 1717.

With their targeted assassination attempts on community leaders and religious leaders (like the Muslim Emir of Kano), animosity toward education, banning of music, and regulation of women, Africa’s new militants seem to be employing tactics similar to those used by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There too, education is viewed as a threat and condemned as “Western corruption”, as the case of Malalai Yusufzai shows.  There does seem to be a horror playlist that they have in common.

Boko Haram, whose name literally means “Western education is forbidden”, shares with other militant groups a hostility to any source of knowledge or resources that would challenge their self-declared authority.

It is not enough to attack whatever is deemed “western”; any evidence of Muslim beliefs and activities that they dislike must be erased as well.  This is the nature of fundamentalism. Sufi shrines were destroyed by Mali’s militants, just as tombs of the Prophet Muhammad’s family were several years ago in Saudi Arabia.

Such fundamentalist intolerance is not a peculiarly Muslim disease. The Wars of Religion in Europe (1524-1697) featured destruction of places of worship, and frequently the torture and execution of people whose religion was different from the version of the dominant group.

Like the Taliban, and homegrown terrorists in Western countries, Africa’s fundamentalists invoke a vision popularised by al-Qaeda of a world which is divided between an ideology they call Islam, and a “West” which is the source of all evil.  This lunacy is mirrored exactly by the “clash of civilizations” theorists, who simply place the evil on the other side.

There is a more relevant similarity between the militants of Mali and Nigeria and those of Afghanistan and Pakistan than religious labelling. All these groups operate in regions characterised by weak rule of law, and usually long running resentment over government corruption. It is likely that unrest would exist due to these conditions in any case.

The use of religious vocabulary has two very useful functions for militant groups.  It wraps a mundane political agenda in the mantle of religious authority, and it thereby gains a broader appeal within the local population by appealing to shared symbols. Invoking “Islam” allows them to borrow an authority and capacity to intimidate which greatly empowers straightforward thuggery.   

Shouting that you speak for Islam at the top of your lungs doesn’t make it true, though it may drown out other voices.  Particularly if you are carrying a rifle.

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