By Richard Willson
The kidnapping of over 200 girls from their school in Nigeria by the Islamist group Boko Haram has sparked widespread condemnation but why has this event stirred up such an international reaction whilst other horrific acts have not? And does our outcry over this event reveal more about ourselves than that of Boko Haram?
Politically, countries have been lining up to commit support and resources to resolving the situation: from Israeli ‘counter-terror’ advisors, to UK and US surveillance planes; from drones to guns. Alongside this military backing – indeed, driving much of it – runs the hodgepodge of celebrities and politicians that have aligned in lending voices of support to the #bringbackourgirls campaign, including Michelle Obama, David Cameron, Angelina Jolie and a number of film stars and MPs. This social-media trend has been hugely visible in the weeks following the abductions, trending, outside of Nigeria, most prevalently in the US and UK.
The pros or cons of such online activism is a well-trodden discussion. What is more interesting is why this event has harnessed so much global attention in comparison to other events in Nigeria and beyond. Boko Haram has, for instance, been around since 2002, conducting its brutal insurgency since 2009. Yet it is only this recent act that led to a flurry of wikipedia-inspired analysis of the group in the majority of the Western media. Furthermore, no international media campaign has emerged, to my knowledge, rallying condemnation of Boko Haram’s car bomb attacks precluding the abduction, nor of the massacre in the town of Gamburo just weeks afterwards, nor of the continued atrocities in the Central African Republic. Why has this kidnapping has struck such a chord in the West?
What gives this story so much more traction in the press is that it can be framed simply, as a battle of good, liberal ‘Western’ values of education and gender equality against the irrational, oppressive values of Islamism. This is, of course, in no way defending the actions of Boko Haram as anything other than calculated evil. But the abduction – along with what looks like, in videos released since, the forced conversion of some of the girls to Islam – fits very neatly into what is undoubtedly a prevailing Western paradigm in which Islamism is portrayed as a gathering threat to our superior, secular ‘European’ values. The kidnapping of girls strike at two of the Western sacred cows: Enlightment-inspired education, and gender equality. Western states hold both traits up as demonstrating their historical advancement; whilst in utter opposition are positioned the irrational and oppressive kidnappers. This is supposedly reflected in their name ‘Boko Haram’, almost universally mistranslated as ‘Western education is forbidden’. In fact, the term ‘boko’ seems more accurately to have come from when the British empire ruled the region, during which time young boys were forced into a colonial education rather than one rooted in local customs and values. As such, the name expresses the idea that the imposition of Western power – cultural or otherwise – should be ‘haram’, or forbidden.
And this is the problem with viewing the kidnapping as a good against evil situation. The evil – and by inference, the problem – is Islamism. The various controversies which are tediously recycled by the British media – the dangers of Halal meat, Muslim grooming gangs or the hijab – are part of the same phenomenon of fear mongering about this phantom threat of Islamism. And Western media, by pandering to the idea that the negative values of Islam, Islamism or the ‘East’ are incompatible or ‘Other’ to our own positive values, perpetuate the frighteningly dangerous misrepresentation of Islam as an existential threat. Furthermore, this good vs. bad / West vs. East rendering is at the expense of far more nuanced analysis of the regional factors that have led to the rise of Boko Haram – indeed, of any of the violent groups that claim to fight under the banner of ‘Islamism’ – such as poverty, corruption and a growing sense of political disconnect. We should be viewing their actions through the prism of a poverty whereby the average Nigerian lives on less than $1 a day in spite of what is seen as an economic miracle in the country; in which corruption is endemic to the point of actively destroying basic infrastructure and education, particularly in the Muslim-majority North; and – perhaps most importantly – as a country which is still blighted by a post-colonial malaise that affects so many states hastily and arrogantly thrown together by British and other European powers during the dark days of the scramble for Africa. Instead, we buy into an essentialist and reductionist paradigm in which Islamism equates with extremism and violence, something easily problematised by a cursory glance at the range of Islamist political parties taking part in the democratic process, from Tunisia to Turkey. For all our trumpeting of the importance of education, we seem remarkably quick to eschew enquiry in favour of a more simplistic reading that ignores more ‘rational’ reasons behind the rise of Boko Haram.
Another reason why the event and campaign has gained so much coverage in the Western press is that those abducted were young and were female. Of course, it is obvious that this is a case of young girls becoming victims of powerful armed men. But it is so easy to condemn because it buys into our preconceived stereotypes of women as the weaker victims, and the subsequent shock that an active demonstration of this evokes in us. For comparison, in the same way that the Indian Rebellion of 1857 – the Cawnpore Massacre and the Black Hole of Calcutta – motivated British opinion back home to support the brutal realisation of full colonial control of India, with tales of barbarous natives gleefully killing British women and children shocking the sensibilities of the British public, so the abduction of these girls allows us to revel in the barbarity of Islam in oppressing women, and to push for ‘something to be done’. This is matched against the continued daily massacre of hundreds of Muslim men and boys in the Central African Republic, something Human Rights Watch describes as ‘rampant, but not widely reported’.
As such, perhaps our selective outrage at this event – and very few others – reflects not our enlightened values of education and gender equality but the exact opposite. In our blanket coverage of the abduction – in comparison to relatively little of the other atrocities throughout the wider region – we demonstrate not the irrationality and misogyny of Boko Haram but our own susceptibility to selective outcries that conform to our own unreasonable stereotyping and gender labels. A more reflective analysis of how we pick and chose our outrage might, perhaps, illuminate the unnerving concept that the #bringbackourgirls campaign reveals more about ourselves than those we condemn.
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