Emma Green has published in The Atlantic her interview with Shadi Hamid, author of Islamic Exceptionalism. Her interview amounts to a riff of his book’s arguments. His focus is on why Muslims, especially in Europe, would turn to violent extremism. It has insights that are also applicable to jihadi movements in Africa, such as Boko Haram.
Hamid argues that Islam is “exceptional,” that it rejects the Western trajectory of reformation, enlightenment, democracy, and secularism. He argues that for many Muslims, secularism and democratic politics are meaningless in the context of Islamic belief. He observes that for Western, democratic secularists, it is difficult to understand that a motive for violent extremism is a “desire for eternal salvation. It is about a desire to enter paradise.” Further, “On a basic level, violence offers meaning.” He also recalls that in its earliest days and later, Islam was involved in state-building, an endeavor that is inherently violent. The Islamic State, of course, claims to be involved in state building. So does Boko Haram, if more abstractly now that it has lost most of the territory that it once held. Hamid’s bottom line: violent extremism is a product of the failure of western secularism in an Islamic context.
In northern Nigeria, the view that the secular state has failed is widespread. In Nigeria, the founders of Boko Haram saw the movement as pure Islam and that the secular state is evil. Ostensible Muslims who participated in the secular state were apostates who deserved the appropriate punishment, usually death or enslavement. As it has evolved, Boko Haram contains many strains, including the political and the outright criminal. But, it continues to contain a religious or ideological dimension. In that context, Hamid’s ideas are worth thinking about, and Emma Green’s interview is a useful introduction.