Boko Haram: Misogyny Militarised

The processes of radicalisation have understandably been at the forefront of much literature surrounding terrorism. This critical literature review is written to interrogate two prominent “macro” level theories of radicalisation. This is done by outlining the theories of Martha Crenshaw and Ehud Spriznak. They will be applied to a case study of northern Nigeria’s terrorist insurgency group, Boko Haram, and problematized by the theories of violence and ideology from Slavoj Žižek and Marx’s theory of historical materialism. The application of Crenshaw’s/Spriznak’s theory suggests that both are applicable and helpful in understanding Boko Haram but do little in explaining its chosen methods. Without an application of critical theory to Boko Haram’s methods, Crenshaw’s and Spriznak’s theories fail to account for Boko Haram’s frighteningly militant misogyny.

Violence will be analysed throughout this literature review using the forms of violence theorised by Slavoj Žižek in Violence (2008). Žižek, a prominent psychoanalyst espouses three understandings of violence: Subjective Violence, the actual physical act of harming or destroying something or someone, violence committed by a clearly discernible agent – it is the most obvious form of violence (Žižek, Violence, 2008, p. 1). Objective Violence which comes in two forms, Symbolic Violence, which relates to how our discourse affects others, how peoples are represented in media and that imposition of meaning (Žižek, Violence, 2008, p. 2) and Systemic (or structural) Violence which relates to the catastrophic consequence of the smooth sailing of the current structure of political and economic systems (Žižek, Violence, 2008, p. 2). It is pertinent to note that subjective violence is obvious, it happens against a context of “a non-violent zero level”, whereas objective violence is invisible because it since it sustains the “non-violent zero level” against which we perceive something as subjectively violent (Žižek, Violence, 2008, p. 2). That is to say, objective violence is a function of hegemony, one that sustains the status quo.

Martha Crenshaw’s theory of radicalisation from The Causes of Terrorism (1981) is a macro level theory of radicalisation that focuses on factors that allow for insurgency to take root. Her theory focuses on finding empirical evidence for such violence (subjective and objective forms of violence), to develop a “framework for the analysis of likely settings for terrorism” (Crenshaw, 1981, p. 381). She outlines the difference that exists between preconditions and precipitants for such violence.

Preconditions are in essence the physical, environmental and sociocultural factors that create a permissive context for insurgency/terror to develop. They are the “factors that set the stage over the long run” (Crenshaw, 1981, p. 381). Preconditions, I theorise come in primarily two families, those which are environmentally/historically permissive and those which are agent specific frustrations, the contextual and subtextual in my own words.

Some environmental permissive preconditions are features of modernisation such as sophisticated networks of transportation and communication, be it through railways, highways but also the internet or secure channels of communication. Likewise, the lack of modernised infrastructure can form a precondition which opens the possibility for insurgencies such as the Colombian Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) or the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK) to create these networks (Jones, 2016, p. 90), thus gaining favour with the public, prolonging the conflict.

“Social facilitation” as used by Crenshaw, is an important permissive factor which refers to the social habits and historical traditions that “sanction the use of violence against the government” (Crenshaw, 1981, p. 382). This is visible in the United States and its considerable level of radicalised right-wing extremists and the culture/values behind gun ownership (Williams, 2003, p. 1). The Second Amendment – the right to bear arms – is frequently defended as a right of the people to resist a tyrannical government by force and as such is a clear example of a social facilitator which makes it permissive for right-wing militias to arm themselves in resistance (Williams, 2003, p. 2). Further, histories of revolutionary success may also add to this effect as they may work as a historical precedent of the acceptance of violent military overthrow.

Finally, these preconditions can also come from state negligence or incompetency. In the case of las FARC, a weak state coupled with geographic factors such as the Andean mountain range and dense Amazonian rainforest are factors which benefited the insurgency (Demarest, 2003, p. 5). Of course it may not always be the case of simply being a weak state authority/negligence, but also political will. Augusto Pinochet and other authoritarian, paternalistic leaders such as Hugo Chavez were able to ward off potential insurgencies/terrorists with judicial repression (Human Rights Watch, 2013) and surveillance/disappearances by special forces (Memoria y Justicia, 2016). By all means the United States, for example, has the military and intelligence capabilities to repress such far-right militias, but the political costs could be considered either too high or entirely antithetical to the stated purpose or values of the government and thus not a feasible option.

“Agent specific frustrations” are less focused on the context of the apparent violence but instead the subtext: the motivations of a community to engage in such violence. As stated by Crenshaw herself, these preconditions focus on “beyond merely creating an environment in which terrorism is possible; they provide motivation and direction for the terrorist movement. We are dealing here with reasons rather than opportunities.” (Crenshaw, 1981, p. 383).

There must be an existing community with concrete grievances among an identifiable larger community. This community could be defined under ethno-nationalist terms such as in anti-colonial movements like Nelson Mandela’s bombings under the purview of the Pan Africanist Congress (O’Malley, 2016) or even separatist violence such as the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) of Spain’s Basque country. Their feelings of discrimination or merely relative injustice is thus a motivation for violence, with Crenshaw theorising that “it seems likely that for terrorism to occur the government must be singled out to blame for popular suffering.” (The Causes of Terrorism, 1981, p. 383).

This must be followed by a “lack of opportunity for political participation,” (Crenshaw, 1981, p. 383). As such there must necessarily be features within a context that stymie or frustrate the opportunities for political participation to ameliorate the prior grievances felt by the community in question. Crenshaw theorises that often it is only when such discrimination affects the elite and not the mass population that such grievances and political frustrations turn violent (The Causes of Terrorism, 1981, p. 383), holding that most terrorists are young, well-educated, and middle class in background. She theorises that perhaps violence is most likely to occur when mass passivity and elite dissatisfaction coincide, when the discontent is not severe enough to mobilise entire communities but is enough to frustrate the small minority of elites who lack access to power within the current institutions or political systems (Crenshaw, 1981, p. 384). Terrorism is thus the tool used when conditions are not revolutionary.

Finally, Crenshaw also defines precipitants which are events which precede outbreaks of terrorist groups/insurgencies. Political repression from governments can be the spark that lights the inferno, as the failed 1964 May 27 attack by the Colombian military on less than fifty rebels, which sparked las FARC (Bargent, 2014), such events can create myths and martyrs for insurgencies/terrorist organisations. In the case of las FARC it ignited mythic narratives of a small band of rebels who outsmarted a huge Colombian assault with zero casualties. Repression which is not absolute or successful can thus motivate would-be terrorists further into action.

Imagining Crenshaw’s theory like a bonfire is helpful:

  • Contextual preconditions are the larger logs of wood on a bonfire, the flammable fuel which in and of itself is difficult to ignite. Nevertheless, once ignited are difficult to extinguish and provide for a long burn.
  • Subtextual preconditions are the smaller pieces of tinder which can be easily ignited, but without contextual preconditions are not sustainable. They require the larger pieces of fuel to carry on the flame.
  • Precipitants are the sparks which can ignite the subtextual tinder.

This visualisation of Crenshaw’s theory is a useful allegory to see the layered and in some senses procedural process of radicalisation. Precipitants ignite subtextual preconditions that are enabled by contextual preconditions to continue.

Crenshaw’s theory is ultimately useful for theorising and analysing the prerequisites necessary within a society for a terrorist organisation or insurgency to take hold, however it does little to explain the process of radicalisation aside from precipitating events. Ehud Spriznak’s theory of delegitimation (1991) does however offer a three stage consecutive process: A Crisis of Confidence, a Conflict of Legitimacy and a Crisis of Legitimacy. Spriznak, like Crenshaw, notes that terrorists become so gradually, that “unprovoked people do not become brutal killers in the service of politics until they have experienced weaker methods of opposition and engaged in less intense forms of political action” (Spriznak, 1991, p. 51).

This process begins with the theoretical stage of a Crisis of Confidence. The Crisis of Confidence is described as a “psycho-political stage” (Spriznak, 1991, p. 54) in which a movement or community begins to question and lose confidence in the existing political structure, system or government. While confidence of a group in the government/institutions of the day’s efficacy may be severely eroded it still does not presume structural delegitimation. The foundations or existence of the system are not yet challenged or questioned and as such often many of the grievances of a group are held as an angry critique of the established authorities from the very ideological assumptions upon which the regime itself is founded. The regime is seen as wrong not because of fundamental flaws within the system but as a result of the regime’s own misbehaviour or lack of ability to make the changes that the disenfranchised community believes are necessary for progress. As such this is not an ideological break from the current regime, but a profound disenchantment with the current regime, much further beyond ordinary political opposition.

Examples of movements which are in this position are difficult to come by as within most liberal democracies this is the period in which smaller political parties and mass organised protest become visible and progress is made. The 1960s Civil Rights Movement and opposition to the Vietnam War could be analysed as having reached a Crisis of Confidence period in which grassroots voices became louder and more visible in opposition to the US intervention in Vietnam and subsequent racial discrimination against African Americans and other blacks within the US. The government however, either through coercion or as a product of the US’s strong democratic processes nevertheless met the community’s expectations and was able to pass legislation which lowered the social pressure within the United States, meaning that the processes did not continue in full. If however, the grievances of said community are not taken seriously, ignored, repressed or otherwise frustrated from progressing and achieving their goals, the process of delegitimation continues within the community in question.

Conflict of legitimacy is the following stage in which members of said community move beyond those who still have faith with the system/regime. This stage is characterised by a radicalised continuation of the Crisis of Confidence. The way to ameliorate the issues faced by the community becoming radicalised is thus now in their eyes not to work within the system, but to change it all together/work outside of it, because in their opinion, the system has clearly failed. They seek some alternative model for action or perhaps even social organisation. It is at this stage in which Marxism is most often co-opted as an alternative system as a whole. The formerly “moderate” radicals are enraged and frustrated by either their government’s hostility to their demands or their inability to score successes. They develop an ideology of delegitimation which actively questions the legitimacy of the state/the system. This is manifest in more extreme forms of protest or demonstration, particularly ones which seek to satiate their will for change through disruption. They take whatever control they can in a system that they believe actively stymies their attempts at reform/progress. Often it is the educated students of said communities who are most radicalised in this stage, the ones who have tasted privilege through their education yet materially continue to be discriminated against at a day-to-day level. The members of this stage of radicalisation are quite often totally consumed by the movement at a profoundly emotional level, their language/rhetoric become revolutionary and jargon full of slander and desecration directed toward the social order (Spriznak, 1991, p. 56).

An example of a group which could be theorised as moving from the Crisis of Confidence stage into the Conflict of Legitimacy stage is the North American led Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. The BLM movement has increasingly, after numerous police murders of young black women and men, sought to become more and more disruptive through protest. They recently at a Canadian Gay Pride rally, refused to participate and instead actively disrupted the parade, grinding it to a halt unless police floats weren’t removed from the march (Duffy, 2016). They have gained fame for frequently becoming disruptive at university events and other political rallies, performing sit-ins or simply making it impossible for speakers to continue (Friedersdorf, 2016). Further it is not difficult to see how popular vernacular has turned sour with the same “slanders and desecrations” direction at the totally discredited social order (Spriznak, 1991, p. 56)  with words such as pigs, white trash and other denigrations put forward to the authorities of today. In some sense this could also be seen during the 1960s in the rhetoric put forth by Malcolm X:

First, however, there are some questions we have to put to you. Since the black masses here in America are now in open revolt against the American system of segregation, will these same black masses turn toward integration or will they turn toward complete separation? Will these awakened black masses demand integration into the white society that enslaved them or will they demand complete separation from that cruel white society that has enslaved them? Will the exploited and oppressed black masses seek integration with their white exploiters and white oppressors or will these awakened black masses truly revolt and separate themselves completely from this wicked race that has enslaved us?
(The Black Revolution, 1963)
This is an example of how movements are not monolith, as they are necessarily made up individuals – they are atomised – they move along different stages and trajectories of radicalisation. Not everyone within an aggrieved community will reach the second stage of radicalisation and certainly most will never reach the third. Nevertheless, it is possible to see how the continual frustration of a community’s aspirations builds pressure that is expressed through first a disenchantment with the system, to the questioning of it and attempts to work outside of it. What BLM’s methods show is that the black community of the US feel a sense of powerlessness under the current regime; disruptive protest is an attempt to take control within the few areas it can whilst still not engaging in violence, though most recently unsanctioned riots/violence in Charlotte (Graham, 2016) point to further community distress.

Crisis of legitimacy is the culmination of the previous two stages to the point where the delegitimation moves beyond the system to every individual associated with it. It is no longer merely an issue of the state, but each politician is delegitimised, discredited and ultimately dehumanised. It is the stage in which violence becomes rationalised through a process of dehumanisation and othering. Radicals can now disengage morally and commit atrocities (Spriznak, 1991, p. 56). Very few people make it this far and often with great disagreement from the group they claim to represent. This process is expressed through political language that reduces the humanity of the opposition to objects, animals or ‘human’ animals, they are things, dogs, pigs or Nazis, or even, ironically, terrorists. This occurs within small groups and obtains cult-like dedication from radicals and is fundamentally a process of human transformation of psycho-political evolution from normal to extranormal (Spriznak, 1991, p. 59). According to Spriznak, this theory outlines the “essence of terrorism, the complete transformation of sane human beings into brutal and indiscriminate killers.” (Spriznak, 1991, p. 58).

In this sense, in accordance with the two theories of radicalisation, terrorism as the “weapon of the weak” is a hackneyed but apt statement (Crenshaw, 1981, p. 387). It is at least initially the strategy of a minority that by its own judgement lacks other means of influence. Terrorism is thus the end product of the frustration against the demands of progress by some community which through a prolonged process of delegitimation undergone by a large number of people vis-à-vis the established order or some non-ruling parts of it turns violent.

This is not to say that it is determinate! Often as different stages of radicalisation are engaged, regimes and political systems take further attention and actually enact change, thus relieving the building pressure so to speak, ending the process of radicalisation. This was the case when Lyndon B. Johnson and in effect an all-white congress signed the Civil Rights Act. It would never have been on their radar without the process of radicalisation by that community. Hence governments can quell discontent by progressing, and this is also likely to be the case for the US’s current BLM movement which is unlikely to reach the final stage in my opinion.


Boko Haram: Misogyny Militarised

In what follows will be an overview of Boko Haram’s history as an insurgency/terror group within Nigeria using the theories of Crenshaw and Spriznak to elucidate how these radicalisation works in practice. I make the conscious decision to begin the relevant history of Nigeria which informs Boko Haram’s position in 1804 because of a historical precedent (contextual precondition) for insurgency within Nigeria.

Usman Dan Fodio in 1804 led a Jihad in what is today northern Nigeria to found the Sokoto Caliphate, which ruled from 1804 to 1914, when British colonialization took hold in earnest (British Broadcast Company, 2015). Dan Fodio’s Jihad was lead for a variety of reasons, chief amongst it however was that Muslims were “failing to live by the standards of Islam” (Pieri & Zenn, 2016, p. 74), in particular motivated by a perceived social and economic decay characterised by bribery and corruption – the solution of which was Islam (Pieri & Zenn, 2016, p. 74). This period is considered by Muslim’s of Nigeria’s north as an idyllic time, one in which women’s modesty was reclaimed from gambling and other acts through Islamic education (Pieri & Zenn, 2016, p. 75).

This was interrupted in 1903 by British colonial rule which existed until 1960 (British Broadcast Company, 2015). Since Nigerian independence, Nigeria’s population has skyrocketed to a current day high of 180+ million people, making it the most populated nation on the continent (Central Intelligence Agency, 2016). Its economy ranks 23 in GDP (Central Intelligence Agency, 2016) out of the world, yet extreme poverty is endemic (El-Affendi & Gumel, 2015, p. 129). It is split geographically and socially between an ostensibly rich Christian south and poor Muslim north (Oriola, 2016, p. 8). 54% of Nigerians live in poverty and 42% face malnutrition (Oriola, 2016, p. 8) these facts obfuscate however that in the north, 72% are poor and 26% face malnutrition (Oriola, 2016, p. 8), pointing to a clear cleavage which while obviously geographical could also be drawn potentially as a religious difference. Unemployment is extremely high at a 24% (Central Intelligence Agency, 2016), which fuels discontent amongst especially the poor. The south is also very oil rich, fuelling the obvious differentiation in wealth between the north and south.

These economic factors are exacerbated by not only a majority young population (Central Intelligence Agency, 2016) but by cultural practices around marriage. Marriage is conducted with dowry and key to being seen as a man and leaving behind boyhood is access to this institution (Pieri & Zenn, 2016, p. 73). As such the endemic poverty is having not only an effect on the material realities of young Muslim men in the north, but also in how they identify as men. They are effectively priced out of the institution of marriage, disabling them from being seen as men within their communities.

Al-Wilāyat al-Islāmiyya Gharb Afrīqiyyah, otherwise commonly known as Boko Haram (loosely translated from Hausa and Arabic to mean “western education is forbidden” (Regens Et Al, 2016)) has existed since 2002 in Nigeria’s north. It was initially led by Mohammad Yusuf until his death in 2009 and now led by Abubakar Shekau[1] (Popovski & Maiangwa, 2016, p. 160). It is within this historical context of a post-colonial state with the historical social memory of a previously successful Jihad which established a caliphate that Boko Haram exists. There exists a precedent that is unequivocally Nigerian for the use of Jihad to establish a new caliphate, for Islam to be the cure to an otherwise dysfunctional society. Further the history of British colonialization clearly demarcates a line for where outside influence is seen as the iconoclast of Nigerian community, faith and prosperity. These “social facilitators” are the contextual preconditions of Crenshaw’s theory.

Nigeria faces highly problematic and pervasive corruption, which ranks it 136/168 in the world according to Transparency International (2016), and is contextualised as being the result of foreign influence (El-Affendi & Gumel, 2015, p. 129). This is seen in the rhetoric of Boko Haram’s leaders, where external influence is continually cited as being the source of Nigeria’s current ails (Deckard Et Al, 2015, p. 512). This forms the second portion of Crenshaw’s contextual preconditions, the continual economic failure and perceived corruption by the state fuels anomie within the community. The subtextual preconditions are conspicuous well, the geographic split between north and south along religious and economic lines is clearly discernable, which as previously noted clearly demarcates an in-group and out-group of privileged and otherwise excluded individuals. The visible difference in quality of life is unignorably salient to the north of Nigeria. I will return to Crenshaw’s theory to note the second component of precipitants shortly.

Having used Crenshaw’s theory of preconditions to lay out the contextual and subtextual foundations, I turn to Spriznak’s theoretical process of delegitimation. The Crisis of Confidence is the stage in which an aggrieved community, in this case Nigeria’s northern Muslim community, takes issue with the current state of affairs and is deeply disenchanted with the status quo. Mohammad Yusuf began Boko Haram, in a single mosque in Maiduguri in Nigeria’s north east in 2002 (Regens Et Al, 2016, p. 45). During this time, Boko Haram was a mostly seen as a small, rather extreme group of Muslims (Regens Et Al, 2016). Mohammed Yusuf drew direct inspiration from Dan Fodio’s Jihad, blaming specifically the West’s use of written language and western education as the source of Nigeria’s decay and the economic position of the north (Pieri & Zenn, 2016, p. 73). Yusuf also condemned the use of dowries for marriage and wanted to eliminate the practice, thereby allowing more young men to access marriage as an institution (Pieri & Zenn, 2016, p. 73). Islam was discursively constructed as the solution to the problems the north faces; calls for a caliphate and indiscriminate violence were not however, present in Boko Haram’s ideology and messaging in those early years. In fact, Yusuf was known to work with local politicians at the time (Pieri & Zenn, 2016, p. 74) and to support them in their campaigns. This at this stage, Boko haram was safely within the Crisis of Confidence stage, in which there are severe feelings of disenchantment from within the community, but the community is yet to question the legitimacy of the system. Yusuf apparently cut deals with a local Sheriff to push for his large youth following to vote in favour for the Sheriff in local elections in return for Sharia Law in Northern Nigeria (Pieri & Zenn, 2016, p. 71), the Sheriff also gave administrative positions to theologians associated with Boko Haram (Pieri & Zenn, 2016, p. 71).

Boko Haram took to micro-financing ventures which created some measure of economic income for the members of the community that joined. The Sheriff of the local community had allowed Yusuf to set up business near busy train stations in order to grow these initiatives (Pieri & Zenn, 2016, p. 74). These schemes were in the form of shoe-shining businesses, market stalls and rickshaws (Pieri & Zenn, 2016, p. 72), some of these profits would then be funnelled back to Yusuf himself and by extension Boko Haram. This is a clear indication of the second stage of delegitimation. Boko Haram had now lost enough faith with the prevailing system enough to attempt to work outside of it for the community’s benefit. The group was not however yet making a complete break from the current structures, but was deeply critical of it. Minor bouts of violence occurred during this period (El-Affendi & Gumel, 2015, p. 130) and Yusuf’s rhetoric grew more and more vitriolic. This was the emergence of a Conflict of Legitimacy.

Government responses to the minor violence that occurred from Boko Haram further is a display of another contextual precondition. Military inability to contain and deal with Boko Haram not only fuels insurgent confidence but in effect vindicates their worries, that the state cannot provide for Nigeria’s north, it can’t even deal with them (Eke, 2015, p. 324).

One departure of application here however is the nature of ideology. In Spriznak’s theory, it is this second stage, the Conflict of Legitimacy, in which would be terrorists and insurgencies adopt external ideologies, however the hard line Islamic ideology for Nigeria had already existed within Boko Haram. This is a significant departure which will be criticised further in the following sections.

In 2009, the police and Boko Haram clashed over a dispute regarding motorcycle helmets. The clash left several hundred dead (Pieri & Zenn, 2016, p. 74). The attacks lead to the Nigerian government launching an investigation into Boko Haram after reports that Boko Haram was arming itself (Pieri & Zenn, 2016, p. 74). This has been characterised however as being motivated because Yusuf had turned against the politicians he had once supported and was calling for their downfall; Yusuf was murdered in an extrajudicial killing during the 2009 July crackdown, the event was filmed and leaked to the internet (Pieri & Zenn, 2016, p. 74).

The 2009 extrajudicial killing of Yusuf and its subsequent leak to the internet, along with the government repression of Boko Haram is the precipitant or spark which lit the bonfire. With the correct contextual and subtextual preconditions of historical precedent for Boko Haram’s vision/the existing malcontent from the Muslim north, Boko Haram’s attempts to work within the state system and then outside of it follows the process of delegitimation which is theorised by Spriznak.  These together along with the repressive 2009 event served to further radicalise Boko Haram into the final stage of delegitimation: Crisis of Legitimacy. Important to note is that the 2009 attacks also killed several innocent civilians by both the government and Boko Haram (El-Affendi & Gumel, 2015, p. 130).

After 2009, Boko Haram now led by Shekau fled into the north and was trained/received funding from Al-Qaeda in the Magrev(AQIM) (Popovski & Maiangwa, 2016, p. 160). They returned with a vengeance becoming one of the deadliest terror groups in the world, which on a deaths-by-attack basis it makes it deadlier than even ISIS (Oriola, 2016, p. 3). This is emblematic of the Crisis of Legitimacy, in which the prevailing pressure which was being built up has not been released and the desired change has not occurred. Boko Haram engaged in the creation of a new terrorist morality which now endorses the indiscriminate violence Boko Haram is famed for in the name of the creation of a new West African caliphate.

Here we have seen the following process: Prior to the creation of Boko Haram there existed several preconditional contextual factors such as the historical precedent for a caliphate and clear colonial influence as reason for Nigeria’s poor state of affairs. There also existed clear preconditional subtextual factors such as the poor Muslim north and a rich Christian south as well as corruption breeding discontent amongst the north. This led to the creation of Boko Haram who underwent a process of delegitimation of the state, first with a crisis of confidence that while severely discontent, nevertheless attempted to work within the current system. When this did not work it moved into the second stage, the conflict of legitimacy in which Boko Haram through micro-financing and other ventures attempted to rectify some of the ails of northern Nigeria and institute Sharia Law. When the government was heavy handed in its response to Boko Haram and Yusuf, it sparked the final step of radicalisation for Boko Haram, taking place as the precipitating event. Boko Haram returned with a new terrorist morality, in the crisis of legitimacy stage.

Crenshaw and Spriznak’s theories work well as macro-level explainers in conjunction – as a process it is possible to map these in sequence:

  • Preconditions
    • Subtextual and contextual

  • Crisis of confidence
  • Conflict of legitimacy
    • Precipitant
  • Crisis of legitimacy

The line symbolising what exists prior to the creation of a group/community that is destined to become an insurgent or terrorist group. Where it fails is to provide insight is the nature of these groups, what methods they actually use and why. It fails to account for the motivating ideology, which is crucial in understanding why certain methods are chosen over others. I posit that, in accordance to Marx’s theory of Dialectical Materialism/Historical Materialism: The methods chosen by Boko Haram are intimately informed and characterised by the struggles that community faces. The material circumstances of Nigeria’s north fundamentally determine Boko Haram’s methods and ideology.

Beginning with the overt sexual and gendered violence that has captured the attention of the West, Boko Haram’s 2014 abduction of over 250 girls from a Chibok school is not an isolated event. Prior to and after, Boko Haram had engaged in the kidnap of women extensively. In Nigeria, women are heavily relied upon for their labour (Oriola, 2016, p. 8). Beginning with the fact that Boko Haram’s 3000 plus militants are living within the wilderness of Nigeria’s north, they require labour to farm and forage for food (El-Affendi & Gumel, 2015, p. 131), estimates suggest that the militants are living through extreme famines and poverty, which has resulted in reports of cannibalism (El-Affendi & Gumel, 2015, p. 132). There is evidence to suggest that the oldest and youngest of the women abducted are largely spared from sexual violence (Oriola, 2016, p. 10). They are used mostly for food labour, and sometimes as suicide bombers, particularly because the media attention drawn around female suicide bombers makes them particularly effective for Boko Haram’s aims (Oriola, 2016, p. 11). Women are prized for their virginity in particular, which informs why school girls are the mostly likely to be abducted, if not just for notions of purity and religious values, but because virgins are less likely to have HIV/AIDS (Oriola, 2016, p. 10), these women are taken for wives (thereby granting the insurgents the status of “man”).

This was however precipitated by the Nigerian government kidnapping and arresting several high ranking Boko Haram members’ wives and partners and women generally associated with Boko Haram (El-Affendi & Gumel, 2015, p. 137). This characterises and frames the 2014 Chibok incident in a different light. The “stealing” of “our girls” was a response to Nigerian officials having “stolen” the women of Boko Haram. Women’s status as object between two warring factions of subjective men is obvious. Women’s position within Nigerian conflict-society exists as Žižek characterises the radical anti-feminist view “woman is a man’s dream realised … or men’s guilt realised. Women exist because male desires got impure. If man cleanses his desire and gets rid of dirty material fantasies, woman ceases to exist.” (The Perverts Guide to Cinema, 2006, p. Minute 56). This is not to be taken in the most literal sense, that women materially cease to exist, instead in the theoretical sense. This sentiment decodes the nature in which women’s object status exists to further the aims of men, that without Nigeria’s already existing patriarchy, women as symbols of victory and manhood would be useless. Women are used as resources that at once have a material benefit in the case of labour and sex, but also a symbolic value, injuring either side when they are not able to “hold onto their women”. By “stealing each other’s women” both sides are bargaining in a debate to prove their masculinity. They are in essence showing each other who is more “man” under the values imposed by Nigerian patriarchy. Stealing each other’s women is an attempt to shame and emasculate each other. Without the Nigerian context however, the “stealing of women” would have zero normative value.

Boko Haram and the Nigerian state exist within a context in which women are resources for male progression and growth. The nature of marriage as a signifier of adulthood, of manhood, is emblematic of this at the very least. Thus Boko Haram’s gendered violence is inherently Nigerian. It cannot exist, or be expressed in this manner without this cultural constituency as a prior to the process of delegitimation of the Nigerian state. Marx’s theory of historical materialism is pertinent here: “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness.” (Marx, 1859, p. 2). This is a problematizing factor to Spriznak’s theory in which ideology is adopted later in the process, this is categorically false. Ideology is present from the beginning, it is the invisible and spontaneous motivating normative culture that informs the type of violence insurgencies engage in, it informs the values that define the way they interpret the systemic violence they endure and the subjective violence they engage in to defeat it.

Discourse analysis shows that Boko Haram, while characterised as an anti-modernist/isolationist movement by much of the west, is mostly spreading a message about Islam (Deckard, Barkindo, & Jacobson, 2015, p. 523). Some 81% of the messages distributed by Boko Haram’s leader Shekau are religious in nature (Deckard, Barkindo, & Jacobson, 2015, p. 520). The fact is however that the most religious members of Nigeria’s north are not in favour of Boko Haram’s anti state violence, high levels of religiosity actually predict the opposite (Deckard, Barkindo, & Jacobson, 2015, p. 520). In fact, those most likely to show sympathy and justification for the violence committed by Boko Haram are those from middle class incomes, with adequate household income (Deckard, Barkindo, & Jacobson, 2015, p. 521). This is evidence to support assertions by Crenshaw that the most likely to be radicalised at the economic elite (1981, p. 384), the unemployed and young were the mostly likely to support Boko Haram’s vision and methods (Deckard, Barkindo, & Jacobson, 2015, p. 523). This should come as no surprise to scholars familiar with ostensibly religiously motivated violence. In Terror in the Mind of God, by Mark Juergensmeyer, Juergensmeyer identified the gendered nature of “religious” terrorism (Warriors’ Power: Empowering Marginal Men, 2001, p. 190). In Palestine where the unemployment rate for young men was well over 50%, the Hamas movement provided a way of venting frustrations that came from the anxieties of young men: concerns over careers, sexual relationships, etc (2001, p. 194). So why then is a movement like Boko Haram, who have an almost explicitly religious message, not supported by the religious community it purports to fight for and represent?

Boko Haram is a movement which is only ostensibly religious, religion is merely the frame of reference, one with a precedent of “working” within Nigerian history as a cure to the more problematic issues of systemic and symbolic violence it experiences at a global level. Boko Haram’s methods of abducting women and opposing western education is not a tenant of Islam, it is a result of Spriznak’s Crisis of Legitimacy: Boko Haram as a terror group has closed ranks and created a new terror morality, a new interpretation of Islam (ideology) that is at once their blindfold and tool of domination. This new Islam has nothing to do with the Islam that religious Nigerians worship. As the men who approximate hegemonic masculinity in the south, the oil barons and capitalists profit from the natural resources of a rich Nigeria, those who are priced out of marriage, who identify with a community who cannot share in this material wealth choose to lash out with subjective violence (Oriola, 2016, p. 14) to change their circumstances in accordance to the values of present Nigerian patriarchy, a conflict and political economy which grants them “holy” permission to rape, abduct and murder women, to fulfil the desires they have in the most violent manner possible.

Žižek ponders on the case of Boko Haram’s anti-modern terrorism:

The ques­tion is then, why Muslims (Boko Haram), which undoubtedly exper­i­enced exploit­a­tion, dom­in­a­tion and other destruct­ive and humi­li­at­ing aspects of col­on­isa­tion, in their responses attack that which is (at least for us) the best of West­ern her­it­age: our advocacy of equal­ity and per­sonal freedom, with a healthy dose of irony com­bined with mak­ing fun out of every author­ity?

The answer is obvi­ous: their goal is care­fully chosen. The Lib­eral West is for them not unbear­able only because of exploit­a­tion and viol­ent dom­in­a­tion, but also because, to add insult to injury, because it rep­res­ents the bru­tal real­ity in the guise of its oppos­ite: freedom, equal­ity and demo­cracy.
(Žižek, The Sexual is Political, 2016)

I agree, but posit that the denial of western education is primarily still driven by gendered constructs and the same dialectical mechanism which informs Boko Haram’s kidnapping of women. Female education presents an insidious threat to the material desires of Boko Haram, it undermines their entire ideological goal. Female education has been proven to hand power back into the hands of women, they have fewer children, invest more in their family and are more likely to send their girls to school (One Girl, 2016). It is at once one of the greatest development tools available to struggling nations and the most transformative, threatening the patriarchal structures which are supported not only by women’s marginal position, but the endemic poverty that compounds this domination. Whether consciously or not, Boko Haram has engaged in the construction of a reductionist ideology, not unlike that of Nazi Germany.

Žižek in the Perverts Guide to Ideology covers how Nazi Germany engaged in such a reductionist construction of ideology, through an analogy of Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws. Žižek points to how all of the ails in German society were scapegoated to anti-Semitic representations of the Jews (The Perverts Guide to Ideology, 2012). The Jews are a highly contradictory figure, they are at once extra-intellectual threats and vulgar working class threats (The Perverts Guide to Ideology, 2012). This opens them up to being the culpable party for all of Germany’s problems, the ‘Other’ in this case, an external force which either enjoys in a way different to us, full with indecent and debaucherously sexual behaviours or that tries to take away the subject’s form of enjoyment (The Perverts Guide to Ideology, 2012). This scapegoating is painfully obvious in the rhetoric of Yusuf:

“… education is a source of destruction for our children, our friends, our daughters and our brothers. this source of destruction is inscribed in the white man’s philosophy of writing and the faith of its implementation. Followers of western education have usurped our hearts with a philosophy and method of thinking that is contrary to the demands of Allah. They have destroyed our style of life with a system that has not been instructed by us by the Prophet of Allah. They have imposed upon us laws that not of Allah. Have you understood they trap they have set for us?”
(Pieri & Zenn, 2016, p. 73).

The West’s love for education is a threat not only to the marginalised Nigerian men’s position between the sexual hierarchy: it threatens their entire way of life, of which they use to define and identify their relative marginalisation. Herein lies the paradoxical understanding of why anti-modern movements exist, the West’s liberation, freedom and democracy are the systems of violence that has led to Nigeria’s exploitation, it’s lack of freedom and its endemic poverty but also the key to its progress. Boko Haram has no interest in being like the West, like the capitalist men who approximate hegemonic masculinity in the south, Boko Haram wants to be more “man” than those men, but in accordance to the standards set by their context, and it proves this through its highly contextual treatment of women.

This is certainly not to say that Boko Haram’s treatment of women is unique, abduction of women and abuse of girls was a feature of over 20 African countries between 1987 and 2007 (El-Affendi & Gumel, 2015, p. 128) and genocidal rape of women has been a feature of war from ancient Israelites (Rey, 2016, p. 39) right through to the Bosnian genocide (Human Rights Watch, 1995, p. 8) as it is here in Nigeria. The point is that this expression of misogyny, while mirrored in other conflicts from different periods and societies, is nevertheless a product of Nigerian milieu; that, as is posited by the historical materialism, this method of violence, how Boko Haram does terror is shaped by the treatment of women in peace time.

Macro-level radicalisation theories are thus fantastic at outlining not just what kinds of societies are vulnerable to having its members radicalised and how that radicalisation evolves, but fails to properly account for the motivations and explanation of the particular methods used by the radicalised. In applying Crenshaw’s theory to Boko Haram, Nigeria’s history of Jihad and previous caliphate, and its colonial disruption points to a “social facilitator” or contextual precondition. Nigeria’s marginalised Muslim north forms another second subtextual precondition which identifies which community is at risk of radicalisation. When Boko Haram began, its founder Mohammad Yusuf while highly disenchanted with the state of Nigerian society was in a crisis of confidence when he attempted to work with state officials to have his desires for Sharia law met. Yusuf was further radicalised into a conflict of legitimacy when these efforts did not work and Yusuf began micro-financing businesses to attempt to rectify some of his community’s ails. When the Nigerian state cracked down on Boko Haram in 2009, murdering Yusuf in an extrajudicial killing it was caused a precipitating event which served to further radicalise Boko Haram into the crisis of legitimacy stage, where it went into hiding with Al-Qaeda only to return with a new terrorist morality. However, it is the application of Marx’s theory of historical materialism/dialectical materialism that helps us identify how and why Boko Haram has created a new terrorist morality which it frames through Islam to scapegoat education. Education is scapegoated because it represents the most immediate threat that can remove the little control these marginalised men already have, the control they have of women.


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[1] There have been multiple reports of Shekau’s death since late August (Adamczyk, 2016) but news reports on Shekau’s death are notoriously unreliable. Since pledging allegiance to ISIS, ISIS has appointed Abu Musab al-Barnawi as leader of the African province of Islamic State. This disagreement is however unclear and ongoing (Shideler, 2015).


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About Saúl A. Zavarce

Venezuelan-Australian journalist and international relations academic.

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