On April 14, an estimated 300 Nigerian girls were abducted from their school by members of Boko Haram, a terrorist organization that has used the Islamic faith to justify the murder, rape and abduction of Nigerians. But it would take weeks for the news to reach the West, sparking outrage and putting the Obama administration on the defensive as critics questioned the White House’s past response to the terrorist organization, whose name translated means “Western education is sinful.” The administration has provided limited economic aid, rather than military or law enforcement help, for the beleaguered Nigerian government and local authorities. Until last November, the White House kept Boko Haram off the government’s official list of foreign terrorist organizations. Recently, the administration announced it would provide limited military and law enforcement assistance, including satellite surveillance, to help locate the girls.
The majority of the girls abducted in the April attack are Christian. And this week, according to a video released by the group, Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, took responsibility for the abductions and said he would sell the girls. “Allah says I should sell. He commands me to sell. I will sell women.”
That statement and related reports have prompted criticism of the Obama administration’s failure to address the religious context of Boko Haram’s path of violence.
In recent weeks, the Nigerian bishops have shifted their response to the group, while prodding the government to play a more active role. Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja demanded “concrete action” to “free the kidnapped girls.”
On May 12, the Register spoke with Nina Shea, who leads the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute in Washington. Shea called on the White House to acknowledge that Islamic extremism is fueling the rise of Boko Haram.
Last month, the abduction of hundreds of Nigerian girls by Boko Haram has finally awakened the American public, including Catholics, to the violence perpetrated by this terrorist group. Can you offer an update on the situation?
In recent years, thousands of Nigerians have been killed by Boko Haram. Some have been abducted from their homes and others have been burned alive in their churches.
I am just leaving the office of Sen. Marco Rubio [R-Fla.] with Deborah Peter, a 15 year-old girl originally from Chibok, the Nigerian town where the kidnappings occurred.
Deborah is the sole survivor of a December 2011 attack on her family home by Boko Haram. Her father was a pastor. [Armed members of Boko Haram] knocked on the door. One was a Muslim man who lived nearby.
The men dragged her father out of the shower, into the living room, and said he had to convert to Islam. He refused and said that he believed in Jesus. They killed him. They also attacked and killed her brother, after they said he would grow up to be a pastor, too, like his father.
Why is Deborah Peter’s testimony significant?
The girl’s story raises a number of key points, but let me first comment on the latest video of the girls in captivity that was just released. At least 100 have converted to Islam. They are in veils and look scared.
The kidnappings, followed by conversion, are not atypical. What is unusual is the magnitude of this event.
The town where the girls lived is in a Christian enclave, in the larger Muslim north. The majority of these girls are Christian. This is not just a gender story; it is a Christian story. Christians are the main civilian victims of Boko Haram.
So Deborah Peter’s own story marks a new phase in Boko Haram’s pattern of abductions and forced conversions?
Deborah’s mother was a Muslim who converted to Christianity. Members of Boko Haram knew that and viewed her as an apostate; as well, they have a practice of killing Christian pastors and Christian men in general in northern towns.
Boko Haram has been attacking Christians for years. That’s why it is so astonishing to recall that Johnnie Carson, the former assistant secretary for Africa during the tenure of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said that Boko Haram’s actions were not about religion.
Clearly, it is all about religion.
Last year, hundreds of churches were attacked — some were full of worshippers.
Some forms of sharia [Islamic law] make accommodation for Christians, but this is a religious cleansing: Christian men must convert or die. Their women are taken from them and forcibly married.
This is what I learned from Deborah’s story.
How has the Nigerian government responded to the escalation of violence by Boko Haram?
The attacks are happening in the north, where Christians are a minority. The Muslims in the north do not prosecute these crimes, though they compensated Deborah for the killing of her father. They gave her $1,600. But Muslim families get four or five times that.
Christians and others are frustrated that these crimes are not being prosecuted at the state level. For example, the Muslim man from the neighborhood who was involved in the killing of Deborah’s father was not arrested. At the national level, the president is viewed as weak with respect to Boko Haram.
The parents of the girls are so desperate they have gone into the bush with bows and arrows trying to follow them. Meanwhile, the violence is spreading further south, and people worry that it will turn into a civil war.
Previously, the Nigerian Catholic bishops responded to the violence of Boko Haram by calling for dialogue. “We tried dialogue, and it didn’t work; the government used force, and it didn’t work. At this stage, what we need to do is to pray,” Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos said this week, noting the expansion of terrorist violence in his country. Now, the bishops seem to be pushing the government to act more decisively.
The Catholic bishops have been committed to dialogue to address the violence, though no one has paid a heavier price than Catholics, who are Boko Haram’s biggest targets.
You mentioned new fears of civil war, due to the Nigerian government’s failure to protect citizens from the violence unleashed by Boko Haram.
When there is no rule of law, you will get vigilante justice. That would be terrible for Nigeria.
In part, the Nigerian government’s attitude has been: “If you pretend it’s not happening, it is not happening.” Now, they are stunned by the reaction of the world. What was happening on a small scale has shifted in size and scope.
Nigeria is enormously important for the region. It is the most populous country, and potentially the wealthiest, in Africa. It will be catastrophic if it goes up in flames.
Boko Haram means “Western education is sinful.” Does that mean they oppose all education or just some kinds, like Christian church-affiliated schools?
Boko Haram is opposed to modern education. I read a fascinating report, which made the point that there is illiteracy in the north because of the belief that Western education is a sin.
Boko Haram is capitalizing on that. But it means that many young people have no skills and only learn to memorize the Quran. The result is massive youth unemployment in the north, and they feel they are being left out of the boom times of oil-rich Nigeria.
The British and the Catholic orders brought education to Nigeria, and so it is associated with Christianity. It won’t be easy to change these attitudes about modern education.
What has been Boko Haram’s record on human rights?
Boko Haram started in 2002 with a charismatic leader, who had a small following. After he went on a beheading spree in broad daylight against Christian pastors, he was finally apprehended and then killed while in police custody.
The new leader is even more violent. There have been more attacks in the first five months of this year than there were in all of 2013.
Boko Haram has also benefited from weapons and help from outside the country, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which was noted when they were added to the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. They have become far more violent and ruthless because they have more resources.
Does Boko Haram have any distinctive features?
Slavery. While slavery has survived in war-torn Sudan and other remote areas, it was not something that extremist groups brandished as their right under Islam. Boko Haram’s approach to slavery is different, and that is worrying.
Boko Haram was added to the U.S. State Department’s list of terror organizations in November 2013. How would you characterize U.S. policy regarding Boko Haram as the organization has grown and become more violent?
It was a mistake to wait so long to designate the group as a foreign terrorist organization. The way you frame and analyze a problem affects policy. If you frame the problem as the result of poor delivery of government services, as the Obama administration first did, then the solution is to help provide such services, and that is what the U.S. has been doing.
We need a sophisticated investigation of Boko Haram members and how they get their funding. Intelligence communications and forensic help are needed.
The U.S. can lend a hand on this. We spent millions looking for a Malaysian airliner, and we should do even more for the many more victims of Boko Haram — beginning with these girls.
We also have to acknowledge that this is a religiously motivated group, and Christians are their primary civilian target. Recently, another Christian village was attacked, and 300 of its men were murdered by Boko Haram; and 3,000 of the survivors — women and children — have now fled across the border to Cameroon. This has repeatedly happened in Borno.
How should the Church respond to the threat posed by Boko Haram?
In general, the Holy See should be educating the rest of the Church about people who are suffering and dying for their faith.
People are being bombed in their churches. At gunpoint, they are told to convert or die, and they choose to remain faithful to Christianity.
We should know their names. The Church should be helping to document these human-rights atrocities like it once did in Latin America. We should be advocating and praying more for these victims, and the Church should continue to work with moderate Muslims and stand up to those communities that are giving sanctuary to Boko Haram.
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.