Boko Haram and why their actions shouldn't be blamed on Islam

Published May 21st, 2014 - 12:27 GMT

“There’s no mention here of connecting this to religion…and that in the religion at large, women are seen as property – second class at best, often as property.”

In a candor that only a mother and internet trolls can love, a little over a week ago American liberal comedian, TV show host and savior of liberalism Bill Maher offered his personal analysis of the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram’s kidnapping of 234 girls. For Maher, the real issue at the kidnapping was not the group’s purpose and reasoning or the failure of the Nigerian government to protect these young women despite early warnings, but rather how Islam could and should be brought under fire for its role in promoting Boko Haram’s “evil.” In particular, Maher admonished fellow liberals for lacking courage and a commitment to liberalism by tip-toeing around any and all criticism of Islam and Muslims. Maher’s preference for (or lack of a more eloquent mannerism) defecating on Islam isn’t anything new; it’s become a sort of comforting but uncomfortable background noise.

Yet, his opinion still matters.

Maher represents a critical perspective that exists within and about secular ideologies and institutions – in his case: liberalism and American patriotism and exceptionalism. His opinions may not, in and of themselves, have any actual merit but they reveal the exact problem that does exist in the oft-repeated thesis: “religion promotes violence” and its other variants.

The argument behind this thesis and perspective is simple and popular: moral absolutism, group exclusivity and zealousness that results from organized belief in a higher power, in rituals, in actionable piety and rigid creed helps cultivate a culture that not only promotes but necessitates violence as a means of survival for the religion and its adherents.

Great, except it’s an incredibly myopic and flawed argument that relies on assumptions of the character of religion rather than on actual evidence. The argument that religion begets violence and, to a lesser extent, heightens zealousness ignores the actual nature of religion as a inter-ideological space that evolves to reflect its environments and positionality and, most importantly, ignores how secular ideologies and institutions fare no different.

In his book The Myth of Religious Violence, William T. Cavanaugh argues that the argument that religion has a particular monopoly on violence that sets it apart from any secular institution and ideology actually does not provide evidence as to what it is about religious violence that is different from secular violence. In fact, Cavanaugh argues that nothing particular about religion that would make it especially susceptible to violence has been identified. And if we are to treat religion in a certain way then we must compare it to its presumed opposite: secular ideology. He writes:

“In the West, revulsion toward killing and dying in the name of one’s religion is one of principal means by which we become convinced that killing and dying in the name of the nation-state is laudable and proper.”

Thus a hierarchy in acceptable violence is created. Secular violence is needed to keep the violence of religion in check; violence that comes from those who can be identified as adherents of a religion and violence that is framed with the language of religion is, without much luxury of afforded nuance, inarguably tied to the nature of religion itself.

Talal Asad in Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity also argued that secularism, by way of modernity, envisioned religion in a new way which put the modern nation state and citizenship as the primary identifier – over any other form of identification. Thus, religion was made part of the several parts of citizens’ lives that had to be not only protected but controlled.

But if the nature of religion begets violence then its opposite – the secular ideology and institution – then must promote peace?

This is the myth of liberalism.

Religion doesn’t exist in a vacuum, despite how critics and even adherents may like to envision it. It is a social, political and economic experience that mixes in with divine narratives. Religions, religious doctrines and religious practices rarely remain stagnant; core beliefs and creed may remain the same, but how they are interacted with, practiced and understood change organically with passing human paradigms of thought, structures of power and institutions. Religious conflict is rarely, if ever, sourced in any strictly theological roots. Instead, we find that much like ethnic conflict, religious conflict finds it source in issues of power and economic discrepancies, threatened citizenship and communal scape-goating. The language that may frame a conflict characterized as “religious” (by virtue of the identities of those involved, such as in Sudan or Central African Republic) may be different than the sort of language in a secular state conflict (by military forces), but the reasons, the slogans, the strategies and the employment of violence leave little shades of difference.

And in the same way any religion holds itself as the final and only truth, so do secular institutions and ideologies. In the 1992 classic The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama argued that the fall of the Berlin Wall had not only brought with it the fall of the Cold War but the end of history. According to Fukuyama, mankind had, in fact, reached “the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Liberalism (and its several visages) prides itself as the most complete and human-centric system of governance. Secularism is often lauded similarly (not that the two can be separated) and we have a tendency to be equally forgiving of nationalism and definitely of patriotism. The former is, after, the foundation of the modern nation state and patriotism remains one of several necessary glues. All of these ideologies and institutions work in tandem and all hold claim to a monopoly on the right governance and right model of citizenship. As Jacque Derrida famously responded to Francis Fukuyama, in his 1993 book Specters of Marx, that prior to the liberal democratic state “never have violence, inequality, exclusion, famine, and thus economic oppression affected as many human beings in the history of the earth and of humanity.” He continued, in his critique, to

“…never neglect [the] obvious macroscopic fact, made up of innumerable singular sites of suffering: no degree of progress allows one to ignore that never before, in absolute figures, have so many men, women and children been subjugated, starved or exterminated on the earth.”

The truth of religion and secular ideologies and institutions and violence lies somewhere in between; religion, in its contemporary nature, cannot be separated from the very secular institutions and ideologies against which it is pit. Religion is a social phenomenon and it responds to whatever environment it may find itself in and adjusts itself accordingly – for better or for worse. Secularism, itself, after all has roots in religion itself as Mark C. Taylor writes, in After God:

“What makes so much contemporary debate pointless is that neither side realizes that secularity is a religious phenomenon, which grows directly out of the Judeo-Christian tradition as it develops in Protestantism.”

Liberals, those who share the casual opinions of people such as Bill Maher - that religion is a force of evil and begets violence through its very existence - and even believers of various religions too often ignore that nothing exists in any pure form; that nothing exists outside its environment and situation and that nothing exists without a mirror staring right back at it.

By Sana Saeed


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