Joyce McMillan: Religion mustn’t cause violence

Women demonstrate in Lagos, Nigeria, calling for government help to rescue the kidnapped girls. Picture: AP
Women demonstrate in Lagos, Nigeria, calling for government help to rescue the kidnapped girls. Picture: AP
Have your say

But a society which offers little hope or dignity to most of its people will always be open to attack, writes Joyce McMillan

IT IS 25 days, now, since the fighters of Boko Haram – the violent, northern Nigerian rebel militia – broke into a boarding school in Borno region where more than 200 girl students were staying while they sat their final exams, burned down the building and kidnapped all of the girls, removing them to a destination that remains unknown.

There are questions to be asked, of course, about why it has taken almost a month for this shocking abduction to reach the top of the international news agenda; there can be little doubt that if this had been a group of European or North American female students, the story would have dominated every news bulletin for the last three weeks.

It’s not only the western media, though, that has been sluggish in its response. It’s said that Nigeria’s urban elites – newly-crowned masters of what is now Africa’s biggest economy – are often in denial about the growing power of Boko Haram in some areas of their country, and about the searing poverty in which the majority of Nigerians still live; and the Nigerian government itself has seemed almost paralysed in the face of the crisis.

Not until a worldwide movement of angry and sometimes famous women began to raise hell over the girls’ disappearance did the government in Abuja begin to take the abduction seriously. And everywhere, there seems to be a mood of helplessness in the face of groups like Boko Haram, and the twisted pseudo-Islamic rationale they give for their violence and their ferocious misogyny.

Across the planet, people sit watching videos of the group’s leader Abubakar Shekau ranting to camera, and shiver on their sofas; faced with unreason like that, thinks the average modern, secular, urban citizen, what on earth can we do?

Yet if there is one account of the causes of conflict and violence that thinking citizens should always view with suspicion, it is the one about “ancient hatreds”, and particularly “religious hatreds”.

In broadly secular societies, the idea that a violent conflict is all about religion represents a fast and efficient way of distancing “us”, the rational, modern citizens we think we are, from “them”, the faraway zealots.

It also fits the prejudices of the militant atheist tendency led by thinkers like Richard Dawkins, avid for proof that religion causes conflict wherever it goes.

As an explanation of what is really happening on the ground, though, and of how any conflict might actually be ended, the “religious hatreds” formula is usually all but useless.

After this week’s events in Northern Ireland, for example, it is worth remembering the prolonged failure of the British media and establishment, over the first 20 years of that conflict, to grasp that it was not about “Catholics versus Protestants”, in any religious sense, but about the political question of whether Northern Ireland should be governed from London or Dublin.

And so when we hear commentators describing Boko Haram as a “Muslim militia” or an “Islamist” group, we should pause for thought, and remember that if we imagine that Boko Haram is actually fighting “for Islam”, against other faiths, then we risk a complete misunderstanding of the situation. The girls who were kidnapped, after all, were both Muslim and Christian, young women united in their desire for an education, and for a better future.

Boko Haram’s actions have been condemned as utterly criminal and un-Islamic by groups of senior Muslim leaders worldwide. And most importantly, all the evidence suggests that the group owes its strength not to religious conviction, but to the seething rage of a generation of unemployed and humiliated young men, in a neglected region of Africa’s most unequal country, against an economic system that they associate with western power.

Books have been written, of course, about why this kind of backlash against frightening and exploitative forms of modernity so often takes a misogynistic form; reactionary political creeds, from 1930s European fascism on down, have always been eager to drive women back to the home and to make them nothing but the breeders of male heroes that patriarchal fantasy would wish them to be.

What is clear, though, is that while such movements often use the language of religion to justify their actions, religion cannot be the “cause” of their violent and abusive behaviour; otherwise, there would be no accounting for the millions of religious believers worldwide who – without ever appearing in news headlines – quietly get on with the work of peace, community-building and social justice, co-operating with those of other faiths, and none.

Yet in societies where traditional faith is in decline – and I would guess that Nigeria is now one of those – it is still possible, sometimes, to detect a strange deference to those who claim religious sanction for brutal or intolerant views, a kind of cowering before their apparent conviction. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate certainty,” wrote the great Irishman WB Yeats, back at the start of the 20th century; and for 21st century Nigeria, as for all of us, the answer to the kind of pseudo-religious horror represented by Boko Haram must lie in defying that predication that the rational majority inevitably lack conviction, and in making a strong and proud defence of the liberal values which groups like Boko Haram abhor.

It was possible to see the beginning of that kind of defence in the faces of the women who marched in Nigeria this week, demanding that the goverment Bring Back Our Girls; women who are proud to be free and no longer willing to defer to those who argue that their freedom and equality are wrong.

Yet with the sturdy defence of freedom and tolerance must always come a commitment to building a society which truly serves social and economic justice. Otherwise, a system which offers little hope or dignity to most of its citizens, as they grow into adulthood, will always be open to attack and rebellion, and will often lack the wisdom to recognise that rebellion for the familiar human phenomenon it is – even while it tries to make itself strange and fearful by calling on invented gods and twisting religious language to serve its own deepest impulses of violence, resentment, and hate.