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Boko Haram and religious exclusivism

How do violent Muslim groups justify, at least to themselves, their violence against fellow Muslims? One answer comes from Nigeria’s Boko Haram, which targets the state as well as both Muslim and Christian civilians. Boko Haram is infamous for holding two ideological stances: rejection of secular government and opposition to Western-style education. “Boko Haram,” a nickname given by outsiders, means “Western education is forbidden by Islam.” Underlying the rejection of both democracy and Western schooling, however, is another concept: al-walā’ wa-l-barā’, which for Boko Haram means exclusive loyalty (al-walā’) to “true” Muslims and disavowal (al-barā’) of anyone the group considers an infidel.

Al-walā’ wa-l-barā’ derives from various passages in the Qur’an, which sometimes uses words deriving from the same tri-consonantal roots, such as walī, or protector. There are many ways to interpret such passages. Boko Haram, as discussed below, has chosen a particularly harsh and exclusivist reading. Al-walā’ wa-l-barā’ was a key element of Boko Haram’s early teachings, and the group continues to reference the concept in its propaganda. Boko Haram’s brutality toward civilians cannot be understood without taking into account its exclusivist stance.

Al-walā’ wa-l-barā’ has been a theme for other jihadis as well. As Joas Wagemakers has explained, the concept has been transformed in recent decades. Jihadi thinkers like Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (b. 1959) developed al-walā’ wa-l-barā’ from a theological doctrine into a political ideology. This ideology is used in an effort to justify violence against those whom jihadis regard as false Muslims – including Muslim political leaders, rival Muslim scholars, and Muslim civilians. The ideology also valorizes the notion of small, committed bands of “true” Muslims living apart from and in resistance to a larger, fallen society.

Boko Haram was founded around 2002 in the northeastern city of Maiduguri by Muhammad Yusuf (1970-2009), a self-made preacher. For much of the period 2002-2009, Yusuf was able to preach openly. When his ideas met disapproval from prominent Muslim scholars in Nigeria, Yusuf supplemented his lectures with a manifesto, entitled Hādhihi ‘Aqīdatunā wa-Manhaj Da‘watinā (This Is Our Creed and the Method of Our Preaching). The book outlines his positions on various issues, including Western education. One theme was Yusuf’s interpretation of al-walā’ wa-l-barā’.

Boko Haram Logo Image Credit: “Logo of Boko Haram” by ArnoldPlaton. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In the conclusion, Yusuf discusses al-walā’ wa-l-barā’ as a framework for understanding Islam as a completely self-sufficient system, and therefore for rejecting any other system:

Al-walā’ wa-l-barā’ is one of the pillars of belief in the unity of God (al-tawḥīd) and of the creed (al-‘aqīda). And it is in implementing al-walā’ wa-l-barā’ that the Muslim joins the party of God (ḥizb Allāh), those whom God has promised victory and prosperity (p. 159).

Yusuf quotes two Qur’anic verses (5:55-56) that use words derived from the same tri-consonantal root as al-walā’. These verses suggest that God and His Messenger alone are the protectors of the believers. Yusuf offers another verse (58:22) to support the remaining part of the formula, al-barā’ or disavowal of non-believers. He comments:

In this holy verse the Most High shows that those who believe in God and the last day do not make friends with the infidels who oppose God and His Messenger, even if these infidels are their parents, their children, or their tribe. Rather, the believers disavow them completely…. We believe that al-walā’ wa-l-barā’ is one of the foundations of Islam, and a prominent sign of faithfulness (pp. 160-161).

For Yusuf and the early Boko Haram, rejecting secularism and Western-style education was not just a political choice or a religious decision made on a case-by-case basis; this rejection was part of a larger conception of what it meant to be Muslim. Yusuf arrogated to himself and his followers the right to decide who was and was not a genuine Muslim.

Like many other jihadi groups around the world, Boko Haram claimed the right to pronounce other Muslims to be unbelievers, a process known as takfīr. Al-walā’ wa-l-barā’ is not just a synonym for takfīr however. Takfīr is the endpoint, but for Boko Haram, al-walā’ wa-l-barā’ is the framework for evaluating people, communities, and systems according to what the movement perceives as scriptural dictates. Al-walā’ wa-l-barā’ is not just a formula for anathematizing other Muslims but also for cultivating intense in-group loyalty.

Yusuf was killed in police custody in the aftermath of Boko Haram’s mass uprising in 2009. Since his death, Boko Haram has not engaged in much scholarship, but has explained its worldview largely through propaganda. Operating in the latter genre, Boko Haram’s current leader Abubakar Shekau (b. ca. 1968-1975), a companion of Yusuf, has not systematically elaborated his understanding of al-walā’ wa-l-barā’. Yet Shekau does invoke the concept in ways that audiences attuned to jihadi discourses would recognize.

In his February 2015 video “Message to the Leaders of the Disbelievers,” Shekau rebukes Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou and Chad’s President Idriss Deby, both Muslim, for their participation in Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram. Shekau questions both presidents’ religious credentials, denouncing their alliances with French President Francois Hollande, a non-Muslim. Shekau quotes the Qur’anic verse 5:51, “O you who believe, do not take the Jews and Christians as allies.” The word “allies” here is awliyā’, from the same root as al-walā’. Later in the video, Shekau turns to the Nigerian elections, at that time still weeks away. Shekau makes the connection between practice and identity explicit: “The people of democracy are unbelievers (arna, a Hausa word meaning ‘pagans’).” He then addresses the audience:

These words are not a fight I’m picking with you, but a call I make to you…. The one who comes and repents and returns to Allah, and supports the Qur’an and the Sunnah (model) of the Prophet, he is our brother! The one who goes and supports Francois Hollande, and Obama… [and] he supports Israel and he supports the infidels of the world, he is our enemy.

The logic of al-walā’ wa-l-barā’ remains at work here. Shekau anathematizes any Muslim who takes non-Muslims for allies. He disavows them (al-barā’) precisely because in his eyes they have not practiced the proper loyalty (al-walā’) to other Muslims. But he also holds out the possibility of inclusion for those who join Boko Haram.

Boko Haram’s understanding of intra-Muslim solidarity has underlain its ferocious violence. Boko Haram considers anyone outside the group to be a legitimate target, because the only illegitimate targets are those whom it defines as Muslim – in other words, only those who belong to the group or share its beliefs. When Boko Haram kidnaps Muslim schoolchildren, summarily executes Muslims who refuse to join the group, attempts to assassinate hereditary Muslim rulers, and targets popular Muslim politicians, it is implementing its understanding of al-walā’ wa-l-barā’.

Image credit: “Islam” by Firas. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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