Hey BBC: What do the generals in northern Nigeria believe?

The horror stories continue in Nigeria, day after day, covered by professionals in newsrooms around the world (CNN latest here).

If you are interested in religion news right now, you have to be paying attention to Nigeria and Sudan, in particular. Here’s a new report from The Guardian, with details on Boko Haram attacks that appear to have killed 100 or more.

Meanwhile, this detail in a new BBC online report caught my attention:

In one attack, gunmen disguised as soldiers fired on a crowd in a church compound, local MP Peter Biye said. He said he had warned the army that the area was at risk after troops stationed nearby were withdrawn three months ago. …

“They came in mass in military uniform with about 200 motorcycles… they said they came to rescue them [and] they should not run away,” he told the BBC’s Newsday programme.

Villagers were urged to come to the church, and people gathered believing it was the military, the MP said.

“They surrounded them — they started shooting them,” Mr Biye said, adding that the gunmen then burnt many buildings.

This story emphasizes a crucial element of the fighting against Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, a religious piece of this bloody puzzle that has been mentioned many times here at GetReligion.

Simply stated, the Christians and pro-government, pro-education Muslims do not know who to trust right now. Do you trust the military? Do you trust the police? How do you know who to trust, when Boko Haram fighters are — somehow or another — ending up with military uniforms and equipment?

The major news hook in this BBC report is found here:

Nigerian media reported … that 10 generals and five other senior military officers had been tried before a court martial for supplying arms and information to the Islamist militant group.

However, a military spokesman called the reports “falsehoods”. This contradicted Interior Minister Abba Moro who in a BBC interview … said it was “good news” that the army had identified soldiers who were undermining the fight against the insurgents, and that it sent a strong message to other serving officers.

Boko Haram has waged an increasingly bloody insurgency since 2009 in an attempt to create an Islamic state in Nigeria.

So why would officials of the Nigerian state be cooperating with rebels who are trying to overthrow the state?

Religion, of course. To get specific, it’s impossible to cover this story without digging into these battles between clashing camps of Muslims.

This is hard work. I know that.

Thus, in a recent post, I took an initial stab at trying to describe some of the competing visions of Islam that can be seen — even when they are not being COVERED by journalists — in the many stories of horrors caused by the terrorists of Boko Haram. I thought there were four.

The previous post was linked to the #bringbackourgirls story, but it applies to these latest attacks as well. Here is what I wrote then:

* Obviously, you have Boko Haram and its hellish, truly radical take on sharia law and Islam.

* Then you have, at the other extreme, the small number of Muslim families who were willing to enroll their daughters in the non-Islamic Chibok Government Girls Secondary School, in a heavily Christian corner of the primarily Muslim northern half of Nigeria. A dozen or more of the kidnapped girls were Muslims, while the vast majority have been identified as Christians or animists.

* However, it’s important to remember that many radical Islamists in Nigeria and abroad — those who seek a strong form of sharia law — clearly oppose Boko Haram’s fiercely violent methods and have rejected, in particular, the kidnapping of these girls. So that’s a third camp.

Here is where I am beginning to see the need for two additional “Muslim” camps in this story, rather than just one:

* Finally, there are those who could be called the mainstream Muslims of northern Nigeria, those who work with the regional government, the local police and the military. I do not know quite how to describe their faith perspective, but it clearly represents an approach different than the various Islamist groups.

You see the problem, don’t you? The supporters of human rights and religious freedom are now having to try to figure out the degree to which the government and military leaders in northern Nigeria are Muslims who oppose Boko Haram or are Muslims who, secretly, are supporting Boko Haram and want to see their own government fall.

Clearly, some of the military leaders in the region are fighting the terrorists. It also appears that others — thus, the generals on trial — are supporting the radical Islamist cause.

Is there more to this reality than religion? Of course there is.

But is it possible to describe these groups without dealing with religion issues, without dealing with their conflicting visions of Islam and the future of Nigeria? Here at GetReligion we say “no.”

Could the professionals at BBC take seriously the religious content of their own reporting? Of course. It’s called journalism.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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