Boko Haram Is an Islamic Terrorist Group

I would have thought some facts were too obvious to need proving, but if these past few years of atheist blogging should have taught me anything, it’s that no excuse is too far-fetched for those who bend over backwards to excuse religion from blame for every evil it gives rise to. Such is the topic of today’s post.

Boko Haram is, of course, the violent insurgency in Nigeria that’s gained global infamy after it kidnapped several hundred girls and vowed to sell them as slaves, the latest atrocity in a long campaign of terrorism it’s waged against both government officials and children attending school. Boko Haram is widely described as an Islamic terrorist organization, but this conventional wisdom is angrily rejected by an article in the Daily Beast by Dean Obeidallah.

In it, he argues not only that Boko Haram isn’t Islamic, but that it has “absolutely nothing to do with Islam” and that it’s “grotesquely irresponsible” to suggest otherwise. To defend this, he leans heavily on arguments from authority, piling up Muslim clerics who insist that no Muslim could or would commit these kinds of horrendous acts:

Imam Shamsi Ali, known for his interfaith work with Rabbi Marc Schneier, Russell Simmons and others, expressed his anger that political terrorists like Boko Haram invoke Islam as the reason for their “heinous crimes.” Imam Ali called the Boko Haram leaders “blasphemous” for claiming the Koran sanctions their violence against innocent people, since it’s not only “contrary to everything Islam stands for” but also it’s “a crime against God and humanity.”

…Khan described Boko Haram actions as not being a “mistaken interpretation of the Koran, but a sheer fabrication of what it actually states.”

…Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, added that these militants use the “banner of Islam” to further their own political agenda with zero regard for the principles of the faith.

The linchpin of this argument is the claim that the the Qur’an unambiguously forbids violence, so that Boko Haram and other terrorist groups are acting in contradiction to a core principle of Islam. But this claim is utterly false. The Qur’an does permit and arguably even commands Muslims to wage war and commit violence in the name of the faith. (See here and here.)

There’s nothing unusual or extraordinary about this. Virtually all holy books, including the Bible, contain both verses extolling justice and compassion as well as verses condoning terrible violence. (Obeidallah asks why we don’t describe abortion-clinic bombers as “Christian terrorists” – he thinks this is a reductio ad absurdum, but I completely agree that we should.)

But even if this weren’t the case, Obeidallah’s entire argument is just a lengthy No True Scotsman fallacy. It assumes that his interviewees have the sole right to decide whether someone else is or isn’t a Muslim, regardless of what those other people believe or what religious identity they profess. But what gives them this right? Their claim to have the better understanding of God’s will, the truer interpretation of the Qur’an? But textual interpretation is intrinsically subjective, and any assertion about what God wants necessarily floats blissfully free of any evidence.

The question “Are Boko Haram’s members real Muslims?” is undecidable. It presumes that there’s some objective way to settle the issue, some true essence of Islam which a person could either possess or lack. Obviously, there is no such thing. Obeidallah and his sources say that Boko Haram’s members aren’t Muslims; Boko Haram says that they’re the true Muslims and everyone else is the kuffar. This kind of mutual excommunication has been going on as long as Islam has existed.

The better question, which Obeidallah steers well clear of addressing, is: what is Boko Haram’s motivation in their own minds? What justification do they put forth for their violent actions? And the answer to that is obvious.

For one thing, Boko Haram isn’t what the group calls itself; it’s what they’re called by local people in the areas where they operate. What it calls itself is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, which is Arabic for “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”. Their leader Abubakar Shekau, likewise, has said that Allah commands him to “sell women”.

Whatever outsiders’ opinions of them, they clearly believe that they’re acting in defense of Islam and in accordance with God’s will. And that’s the point we atheists make: for all the tut-tutting and handwaving of liberal clerics, it’s the simple truth that religious beliefs often inspire acts of violence and inhumanity. To ignore this perpetuates the apologetic double standard that religion should be credited only for the good it does, and never blamed for the evil.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Pito Rosario

    This is what I’ve argued, in some form, for years: Anyone can find support for any opinion they’d like to bolster evidence for if they search diligently and think deeply enough, and there’s no reason to think that fanatics, terrorists, and fundamentalists are doing so any more or less than liberals, moderates or pluralists. The scriptures are vague enough to allow a multitude of views to be derived from them.

  • Enopoletus Harding

    In other words, there’s a reason nearly half of Nigerian Muslims approve of al-Qaeda and Hamas.

  • Pito Rosario

    Exactly, Enopoletus.

  • Richard Hollis

    What you say is, of course, true. I do get frustrated whenever a No True Scotsman fallacy is used to veil religiously-motivated atrocities.

    But even so, I still have a certain sympathy with Dean Obeidallah. Put into context, he isn’t (foolishly, in my opinion) defending religion to atheists – he is defending Islam to a non-Muslim, but probably mostly religious, audience.

    In short, he isn’t defending religion so much as he is trying to counter anti-Islamic racists. And to that end, “These extremists don’t represent the majority” is probably a wiser and more palatable argument than “Your religions are just as flawed”.

  • J-D

    I get the impression that you have missed Adam’s point.

    If it’s true that nearly half of Nigerian Muslims approve of al-Qaeda and Hamas, then obviously there must be be reasons for that; just as, equally, there must be reasons for the disapproval of other Nigerian Muslims for al-Qaeda and Hamas. Nothing in what Adam has written suggests what any of those reasons might be, and you’re suspiciously coy about your own views on the subject.

  • J-D

    Whether other Muslims support the actions or agenda of Boko Haram is a question of fact, and at least in principle it should be possible to shed light on it by gathering empirical evidence. If it’s true that most Muslims would denounce Boko Haram, then it’s an important fact well worth drawing attention to, and I would sympathise with such efforts by Dean Obeidallah, or anybody else.

    On the other hand, there is the question of whether the actions of Boko Haram are supported by genuine Islamic principles. Adam makes a good case that it’s an undecidable question, possibly a meaningless one, and I think Dean Obeidallah’s case would have been better made if he had not tried to include that component.

  • Enopoletus Harding

    Nothing in what Adam has written suggests what any of those reasons might be,

    -Are you sure?

    The Qur’an does permit and arguably even commands Muslims to wage war and commit violence in the name of the faith. (See here and here.)

    -Now, you might say that the same Quran as used in Nigeria is used in Lebanon and Turkey, and al-Qaeda is not nearly as heavily supported there. I tell you that what makes these countries different is, primarily, their wealth (which is something they could lose as a result of violent jihad), and, secondly, their access to media that might inform them of the impact of the atrocities al-Qaeda and Hamas have committed.

    I did not intend to be coy; I intended to be brief.

  • UWIR

    Racism is a subset of bigotry, not a synonym.

  • J-D

    Your guess at what I might say was shrewd, but not shrewd enough.

    If nearly half of Nigerian Muslims approve of al-Qaeda and Hamas, the apparent implication is that over half don’t. I don’t know how the poll was conducted or reported, so perhaps some said ‘neither approve nor disapprove’ or ‘don’t know’, but even so it still looks as if there are a lot of Nigerian Muslims reading the same Quran and not deciding that it tells them to approve of al-Qaeda and Hamas. That’s not so surprising, because nowhere in the Quran does it say ‘approve of al-Qaeda and Hamas’. Although, maybe, I don’t know, a lot of Nigerian Muslims are illiterate and don’t know what it says in the Quran. But if we go with that hypothesis, what it says in the Quran doesn’t look much like the reason they approve of al-Qaeda and Hamas.

    If Nigerian Muslims differ from Lebanese and Turkish Muslims in their economic status and media access and also in their level of support for al-Qaeda and Hamas, while the Quran is the same everywhere, then the positive correlation detected is between economic status and media access (on the one hand) and support for al-Qaeda and Hamas (on the other). That wouldn’t be enough to prove that economic status and media access are the reasons why people support al-Qaeda and Hamas, but perhaps the possibility is more worth investigating than the Quran?

  • Adam Lee

    That may well be, and if he had said that Boko Haram’s members don’t represent the majority of Muslims, I’d be more sympathetic. But instead, he’s chosen to defend an obviously indefensible position in a foolish attempt to categorically excuse Islam from blame.

  • Adam Lee

    The ironic thing is that what religious liberals and religious fundamentalists most have in common is each group’s sincere belief that the other group has completely misinterpreted the words of scripture.

  • Pito Rosario

    Right, Adam. That’s also an irritatingly common response to these things.

  • Jennifer Burdoo

    I am saving this for future quotation.

  • Greg Tingey

    Ah “The words of scripture”
    And, it doesn’t actually matter whether it is:
    Bronze-Age goatherders’myths = christianity
    Dark-Ages camelherders’ myths = islam …
    Does it now?

  • J-D

    Bronze-Age goatherders? What Bronze-Age goatherders? Why are you specifying ‘Bronze Age’ rather than, say, ‘Iron Age’, and why ‘goatherders’?