Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Lurid Picture of Nigeria’s Muslims in Newsweek

Ayaan Hirsi Ali must be the only atheist ex-Muslim scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington DC. Originally from Somalia, the most dysfunctional state in contemporary Africa, Hirsi Ali is best known in the U.S. for her bestselling 2007 autobiography, Infidel, which received a great deal of praise, and not a small amount of criticism. “Hirsi Ali is more a hero among Islamophobes than Islamic women,” wrote one reviewer at the time.

In a recent Newsweek cover story, reprinted in The Daily Beast (which borrows its name from Evelyn Waugh’s satire on The Daily Express in his 1938 novel, Scoop), Hirsi Ali has jumbled together definite facts and outright unfacts in an impassioned article entitled, “The Global War on Christians in the Muslim World.” No doubt there have been tremendous challenges for the survival of Christian minorities in Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan, Iraq, and Egypt over recent months and years, but not every part of the world where Muslims and Christians live together is the same.       

I have lived in West Africa for nearly three decades and in Nigeria for eleven of those years. Hirsi Ali, who has no particular expertise on Nigeria, has painted too lurid a picture of the current Christian-Muslim tensions in that vast country, asserting, for example, that “For years, Muslims and Christians in Nigeria have lived on the edge of civil war. Islamist radicals provoke much if not most of the tension.”

In fact, older Nigerians still remember the disaster that was their 30-month civil war (1967–70), a conflict based not on religious difference but on regional economic and political rivalries. Tense as the Muslim-Christian situation is today in Nigeria’s northeast and the middle third of the country (the so-called Middle Belt), attempts to partition Nigeria today would leave the Muslim majority in the country’s northern third high and dry in economic terms. It would also plunge the religiously-mixed Middle Belt into endless chaos, as much based on the tensions between farmers and herders as on religious differences. Level heads in all parts of Nigeria, Christian and Muslim, realize the essential interdependence of all the country’s regions, for better or worse.      

Hirsi Ali claims (as do some Islamists) that Nigeria is a “majority-Muslim” country of 160 million people with a 40 percent Christian minority. It is more likely that Nigeria, whose census does not include questions of religious identity, is about equally Christian and Muslim, with both heavily influenced by their roots in traditional African faith. According to a recent Pew Forum study, Christians even hold a slight majority with 50.8% of the population. 

Both Muslims and Christians in Nigeria today are prone to varieties of secularism; in particular the rapacious capitalism that finds its base in Nigeria’s petroleum economy. The divide between the rich and the poor can be evidenced in every part of the country, whether Christian or Muslim, rural or urban, and it plays a sizable role in the violence. The secessionist thugs in recent years in Nigeria’s coastal oil-producing states, and the Boko Haram gangs in the northeast and the Middle Belt, represent people with no tangible stake in Nigeria’s present or future.      

There have been guerrilla-like raids by small groups of Boko Haram on institutions, both Christian (such as the Catholic church at Madalla near Abuja on Christmas morning) and secular (the UN headquarters in central Abuja last August and the police headquarters in Kano in late January). But it is too hasty a judgment to see in the mayhem created by this fringe group a movement of more general Islamic radicalism in Nigeria. Two of the country’s most high-profile Muslims have denounced Boko Haram directly: the Muslim governor of the largest state, Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu, said that Boko Haram doesn’t represent Islam and that “Islam… does not condone violence and crime in any form,” while the Sultan of Sokoto, the spiritual leader of Nigerian Muslims, called the group “anti-Islamic” and “an embarrassment to Islam.”

As a side note, according to Hirsi Ali, Boko Haram claims that nomenclature (meaning in Hausa that ‘Western education is forbidden’) for itself, when in fact the name was imposed on them by unfriendly Nigerian media. They call themselves in elaborate Arabic, The Community of Sunni People for the Propagation [of the Faith] and for the Struggle (Jihad).

Boko Haram adherents bear a strong family resemblance to the more radical elements in the Nigerian Muslim Students’ Society who for at least three decades have repudiated the secular status of Nigeria’s federal government and the majority of its state governments.

There may also be some memory preserved in their ranks, especially in the northeast of the country, of a Lumpenproletariat uprising in 1980 that was spearheaded by the preaching of an eccentric Muslim rabble-rouser at the time who traced his roots to northern Cameroun, Muhammad Maroua. His popular nickname forty years ago was Mai Tatsiné (The Master of Cursing), a name he earned because he spared no one in the government or in the Muslim establishment of northern Nigeria in his denunciations of vice.

Nigeria’s head of state at the time, President Shehu Shagari, a Muslim, put down the Mai Tatsiné revolt by ordering the Nigerian air force to bomb certain Muslim urban centers where they were holed up. Boko Haram may well be a throwback to the Mai Tatsiné revolt, though not all the evidence is in. I also think it’s premature to attribute a connection with one or another branch of al-Qaeda, as some have attempted to.

This past New Year’s Day I ate lunch with seven Nigerian friends whom I first got to know when I was the president of a Jesuit secondary school, Loyola Jesuit College, on the outskirts of Abuja. At the table were three Muslims, three Catholics and two Protestants. One of the Muslims voiced his concern for the widowed mother of a Catholic youth who went to Loyola Jesuit College and is now studying in the United States. That widowed woman lives in the heart of Boko Haram territory and this Yoruba Muslim was wondering whether he shouldn’t evacuate her from that troubled area.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali should have joined us on New Year’s Day. She might have learned something. 

ryansj@fordham.edu'

Patrick J. Ryan, S.J., the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University, has spent about half his life as a Jesuit priest working mostly in Nigeria and Ghana.