Islamic clerics can shift Boko Haram’s ideological narrative

Clerics can tackle the propaganda that drives extremism, and its role in recruiting supporters.

Boko Haram factional leader Abubakar Shekau’s jihad in Nigeria has had a devastating impact on the nation. ‘Fight the infidels … and take their souls in order to purify the land,’ Shekau declared in his latest video in July.

The jihad challenges the state’s constitutional foundations. Hundreds of suicide attacks have occurred in a country where such a phenomenon was previously unknown. A Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) involving five countries has been kept on high alert for years. Over 30 000 lives have been lost.

Much attention is paid to the socio-economic and governance risk factors linked to the Boko Haram crisis – but there is an important ideological dimension to consider for extremism to be effectively addressed. And this is where clerics could help.

Islamic clerics (and scholars) are familiar with the essential doctrinal elements required to deconstruct the group’s narrative, which is used to recruit new supporters. Clerics also occupy a principal role at the heart of communal mobilisation from which resistance against groups like Boko Haram can emerge.

Islamic clerics have the skills to deconstruct Boko Haram’s ideological narrative

At the height of Boko Haram’s insurgency, particularly between 2010 and 2013, several Islamic clerics were killed, with at least 18 of these incidents officially reported. Boko Haram considered clerics a target not only because of the group’s doctrinally intolerant stance on religious matters, but also because it regards clerics as critical community actors.

Some murdered clerics’ students have also been killed, creating a vacuum regarding the continuity of ideas in theological opposition to Boko Haram. Many clerics have as a result remained discreet or gone into hiding.

Clerics’ influence has been seen in places such as Sokoto State in north-west Nigeria. Present-day Sokoto is regarded as the custodian of what used to be the Sokoto Caliphate; the outcome of a jihad led by Shehu Usman dan Fodio in the early 19th century. Boko Haram’s leaders Shekau and the late Mohammed Yusuf have consistently made reference to, and revered, the jihad of dan Fodio in order to gain wide acceptance.

Yusuf preached his ideas in Sokoto back in 2006 and again in July 2009 just before his death. Although a few individuals joined the group, Yusuf’s attempt to proselytise his doctrines failed overall. Islamic clerics interrogated Boko Haram’s teachings when the group posed a threat, and challenged contentious areas according to the Islamic doctrines clerics were familiar with.

In Nigeria, clerics serve as patrons of numerous Islamic organisations through which theological guidance flows, for example the Muslim Students’ Society of Nigeria and the National Council of Muslim Youth Organisations. Clerics’ mentorship through these entities can help with formulating counter-speeches against Boko Haram’s messages. They also target those youth most susceptible to the doctrinal entrapment of terror groups.

Dealing with the propaganda driving extremism is as important as socio-economic and political factors

Many people rely and act on the messages given from the pulpit of a cleric. These messages sometimes urge people to engage in the socio-political scene. Clerics, and institutions linked to them, can help frame debates on pertinent national questions.

In addition to challenging Boko Haram’s rhetoric, some clerics have good working relationships with community leaders at district, ward and village levels across Nigeria. They also have strong affiliations with traditional and religious leaders such as emirs or even sultans.

However, there are risks involved – for example when clerics with ulterior motives rise in influence. Such was the case with Yusuf. The dangers related to this can be seen on a wider scale too, as happened with Islamic State’s self-proclaimed cleric and ‘caliph’, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Islamic clerics and scholars have also contested doctrines that inspire violence. For example, Oxford scholar Sheikh Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti published a book (and fatwa) just days after the July 2005 bombings in London that deconstructed the ideological motives of the assailants.

Among other things, terrorism is a combination of violence and propaganda, and in over a decade of the global ‘war on terror’, more attention has been focused on the former than the latter.

Clerics can challenge Boko Haram’s rhetoric, and some also work well with community leaders

Advocating for a more robust role for Islamic clerics is a way to address the propaganda and its role in recruiting supporters. This is as important as dealing with the socio-economic and political factors that drive violent extremism.

Nigeria’s National Action Plan for Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism acknowledges the role of religious actors. However, implementation has not been treated with a sense of urgency. The entry points to engage clerics should be the components of the National Action Plan that focus on community engagement and resilience, as well as strategic communication.

Right up to the point of deradicalisation programmes, the most difficult category of apprehended Boko Haram members to work with are those who are ideologically convinced about the cause they are fighting for. Clerics are again needed at this stage.

It would be difficult to achieve perfect coordination of clerics and there is no assumption about a unified body of imams. However, it remains in the interest of everyone that attempts are made to address the ideological threat posed by Boko Haram.

In a struggle where winning hearts and minds is paramount in addressing root causes, a deeper integration of actors with the appropriate skill set is crucial and has implications for policymaking.

Akinola Olojo, Senior Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime, ISS Pretoria

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