Boko Haram Déjà Vu: What Would God Want With Our Daughters?

Reuters TV
Reuters TV

Update September 15, 2014. It is now 5 months out, and not one girl has been rescued.

On the night of April 14-15, 2014, Islamic extremists in northeastern Nigeria committed a heinous, unspeakable crime by abducting almost 300 girls from the “sanctuary” of the Government Secondary School in the town of Chibok.

For God’s sake who would do such a thing and why?

 Who Are They?

The militants don’t call themselves Boko Haram—this was a moniker given to them by outsiders, residents in the northeastern city of Maiduguri. Boko which originally meant “fake” but now connotes “western” and Haram which means forbidden or taboo. Loosely translated, the name Boko Haram reflects the Jihadists’ religio-political agenda: “Western education is forbidden (sinful)”.

Boko Haram’s adherents claim to live by the Qur’an: “Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors.” The insurgents espouse and push a radicalized interpretation of Islam. This interpretation forbids Muslims participating in anything associated with Western culture.

As with every religious impulse, politics and socio-economics lie simmering beneath the surface. Founded in 2002, Mohammed Yusuf sought to push back against the Westernization of Muslims in Nigeria. Yusuf and his group, Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad— “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad,” established a mosque and Islamic school in Maiduguri.

Yusuf’s insurgency was fueled by rampant poverty and lack of education for Muslim children residing in predominantly rural areas in northern Nigeria. Much of Nigeria’s wealth, in particular oil, lies in the Christian dominated south. According to BBC, the majority of Muslims in the north experience poverty, lack of health care, and astonishing female illiteracy. The UN declares Nigeria to be one of the most unequal nations in the world even though it is the wealthiest African nation.

Poverty + inequality + religion = insurgency

Since its inception, Boko Haram has sought to establish an Islamic state ruled by strict adherence to Sharia law. To what end? This is nothing new. Most every revolution seeks the same utopia: justice and equality for their sect regardless of the means or the consequences.

This is not Islam; this is an interpretation of Islam. This is definitely not God; this is their sordid fabrication of God.

“Fundamentalism is religion materialized, the word made flesh, as it were, with the flesh rendered, all too often, into shattered body parts by the forces of holy rage.”[1]

Politics is the handmaiden of religion.

What Do They Want?

Like most fundamentalists, Boko Haram considers anyone outside their belief system to be infidels and worthy of censure. They alone know the righteous path. The insurgents view the Nigerian state as illegitimate, even when the country had a Muslim president.

In 2009, Mohammed Yusuf militarized his idealist vision against Christians and Muslims, but the Nigerian government killed him. Abubakar Shekau took the helm and remains the leader to this day.

In a video obtained by the AFP news agency, Abubakar Shekau claims responsibility for the kidnapping of the 200+ schoolgirls in Chibok. According to Shekau, the girls were abducted for economic reasons—the girls are to be sold as brides for $12.50 or to be given to members of the insurgency.

The motive, though, for the kidnapping remains as mysterious as the whereabouts of the girls. To date, the Nigerian government has not found the girls, and Western forces have scaled back their search.

Shekau has clearly stated his reasons for terrorist acts. “This war is not political. It is religious. It is between Muslims and unbelievers (arna).” In Boko Haram’s ideology, the term arna encompasses anyone who lives outside the scope of the faction’s theology—including Muslims. Yes, the insurgents are targeting Christians, but they also include Muslims.

Fundamentalists don’t nuance.

The insurgents’ tactics are not new. The Economist reports that over 3,500 Nigerians have died at the hands of Boko Haram in the last year. And the April 14 kidnapping of girls was not an isolated event. Over 100 people have been abducted since May 2014.

According to best counts, 216 of the girls remain missing.

Why Our Daughters?

 Tragically, kidnapping daughters for religious means has historical precedents. As shocking as this is, the actions of Boko Haram are not new in the least. Women are property within some Monotheistic sects and traditions. As “property” the militants can barter the girls’ lives. “We will not release them while you detain our brothers,” proclaims Shekau on a video.

As usual, it has been disheartening to observe the global response. Many are outraged indeed, but we remain ineffective.

Most disturbingly, though, certain segments of American Christianity/right-wing media have used this atrocity as more fodder for their condemnation of Islam. Ironically, those who do so are no better than the abductors.

The girls are intellectual property to be bartered for a right-wing ideological war.

When the American right wing utilizes this “transaction” they are committing egregious errors.

*They misunderstand and misrepresent the nature of Islam even though most Muslims condemn the kidnappings.

*They fail to grasp or accept the political, socio-economic, and psychological realities fueling any religious impulse. Religion can be a fluid masquerade.

*And they forget their own complicity in past kidnappings. That’s right—kidnapping daughters is a theme in the Christian Scriptures.

Joshua Judges Ruth

In the last chapter of the book of Judges we find the ancient Israelites engaging in intertribal warfare. This is during the so-called confederacy of Israel’s history when tribal leaders ruled rather than a national king. In a previous narrative, an anonymous woman was gang raped, murdered, and dis-membered into 12 body parts. This happened in the tribe of Benjamin. One body part was sent to each tribe.

The Israelites come together, led by the tribe of Judah, and they almost wipe out the tribe of Benjamin in their frenzied war. According to the biblical text, 25,000 men were killed, but 600 Benjamite men escaped and hid in the wilderness. The men of Israel returned to Benjamin and put the cities “to the sword” even down to the animals (20:48). Men, women, children, and animals.

Sadly crazy right? It gets worse.

The men of Israel make an oath: “No one will give his daughter to marry a Benjamite.” But then their resolve leads to their regret. “Why should one tribe of Israel disappear from Israel?” Because of their ridiculous actions and vow they are now in a bind. They cannot give their daughters to the 600 men nor can the Benjamites marry a non-Israelite. What to do?

The men of Israel concoct a devious, two-step plan. They will kidnap virgin daughters and give them to the 600 men.

Step One: find out which Israelites did not fight in the previous battle and take their daughters.

The men of Israel send out 12,000 warriors to attack the “guilty” party, and they command them: “ ‘Here’s what you should do. Kill every man and every woman who is not a virgin.’ And the men of Israel found 400 hundred young women who had not slept with a man, and they took them” (21:11-12). They kidnapped 400 virgin daughters, but 200 men remain without wives.

Step Two: Kidnap more virgin daughters.

“The men of Israel commanded the Benjamites, ‘Go and hide in the vineyards and wait. The young women of Shiloh will come out and start dancing. When this happens, come out from the vineyards and seize the women for wives.’ And that’s what they did. “While the young women were dancing each man seized one and took her away to marry” (21:20-21, 23).

By now we are at the end of the book of Judges—just two verses to go. Where is the outrage? What happened to these women? What are their names?

“And so the Israelites left Shiloh, and went back home to their tribes and clans, to their land” (21:24).

Silence. No condemnation. The end? In this story, the men traffic young women in the name of land and identity. The men of Israel are blind to not only the immorality of the kidnappings, but they appear oblivious to the horrors experienced by the young women. The women disappear into the text and into history.

Judges presents ancient Israel in the throes of social and political chaos. Tribal factions are warring for claims in the midst of the mayhem. Within the scope of the Hebrew Bible, Judges is a call, a yearning, a demand for a righteous king who will bring justice.

Listen to the last verse: “In that day every man did what was right in his own eyes. There was no king in Israel” (21:25).

The theology of Judges is quite straightforward: a righteous king would not allow such things to happen. So this is not the end of the story in the Hebrew Bible; it is a segue.

In the meantime though, what about the daughters? In the midst of any militant ideology our daughters become pawns and victims. They disappear—again.

When Westerners compound ignorance and prejudice in this particular Boko Haram act we also commit a moral failure. These young women become symbols, tokens to advance our causes. These young women become double hostages—one to the terrorists and one to our ideas.

But they have names. They have faces. They are human beings.

“Between the two poles of (society’s) contradiction(s), x and y, the young woman, the virgin daughter, has to pay with her life for the society’s incapacity to solve the conflicts.”[2]

Their lives depend on our interpretations.

[1] Malise Ruthven, Fundamentalism: The Search for Meaning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 190.

[2] Mieke Bal, Death and Dissymmetry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 231.