Community and Societal Development

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Christian Witness in the Context of Boko Haram: A Call for Moderation

Dave Datema is a Coordinator for Frontier Ventures and a doctoral student at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Dave Datema is a Coordinator for Frontier Ventures and a doctoral student at Fuller Theological Seminary.

By Dave Datema

See additional articles on Community and Societal Development here.


The Boko Haram movement literally exploded onto the world stage in 2009 in Nigeria and has been the most active expression of militant, Salafist Islam in Africa ever since. Originally called “Yusifiyya” after its founder, it then called itself Jamā'atu Ahli is-Sunnah lid-Da'wati wal-Jihād, "People Committed to the Prophet's Teachings for Propagation and Jihad". When it joined ISIL in 2015 it became Wilayat Gharb Afriqiya, Islamic State “West Africa Province” (ISWAP). However, these names are recognized by few outside Nigeria. The nickname that has stuck reflects one of its most basic grievances. “Boko” is a Hausa word meaning “fake”, but is used to denote Western education. “Haram” is Arabic for “forbidden”. It has been translated “Western education is forbidden”, “Western influence is a sin” or “Westernization is sacrilege”. It is estimated that there are approximately 15,000 Boko Haram fighters in the movement (counterextremism.com n.d.)

The last two centuries might be explained as the precarious attempt to impose national identities over ethnic ones. In 2018, the world simmers with ethnic identities still chafing at their enclosure within national boundaries. Historically, both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia failed to incorporate and unite strong ethnicities. Today, Catalunya struggles for independence from Spain, while the Kurds vie for some semblance of national unity in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. In Africa, when colonial powers transposed national boundaries over centuries of African lived experience and its multitudinous peoples, Africa was forever altered. The introduction of Protestant Christianity added another layer of identity calling for allegiance. In this clash of worlds, the Humpty-Dumpty of ethnic interaction and cohesion fell and ever since, all the king’s horses and men have not been able to put it together again. Nigeria remains a tragic case study of this process. In this paper I will give an overview of the origin, ideology and impact of Boko Haram and conclude with a missiological assessment. My thesis is that in the context of Boko Haram as a response to secularization (Western influence), moderation in Christian witness is a virtue.


While a relatively recent movement, Boko Haram was born out of and reflects deep historical realities that go back centuries. The particular grievances that have led to the current violence center around rivalry between Christianity and Islam, combined with an intense regionalism between North and South.  Educational, economic and political disparities between these regions have fueled the basic discontent, creating a breeding ground for extremism.

Religious Rivalry

The religious rivalry began with the colonial ambition of the British in the 19th and early 20th Century when they subjugated both the Bornu Sultanate and Sokoto Caliphate and brought Christian influence through education, resulting in a majority Christian southern Nigeria and a majority Muslim northern Nigeria. (Population statistics are notoriously difficult to know with certainty, but Operation World gives Christianity a 51% to 45% advantage over Islam [Mandryk, ed, 2010, 642]. These religious identities are intertwined with ethnic identities, the largest groups being Hausa/Fulani (29%), Yoruba 21%, and Igbo (Igbo) 18% (cia.gov n.d.).

With a strategy to divide and conquer, the British created three political regions based on these largest tribes in Nigeria (Hausa/Fulani in the north, Yoruba in the east, and Igbo in the west). Nigeria’s first political parties were thus based on ethnicity, and not surprisingly, being regionally and ethnically biased, they were unable to work together to facilitate national concerns (Badejogbin 2013, 233-34). Here we see religious, ethnic and regional/political identities all bound up together.

These religious and ethnic identities run far deeper than the national one, which exists as a very recent veneer. Northern Nigeria Islam is older and more rigorous than Southern Nigeria Islam, reflecting its close association with the nineteenth Century jihad of Usman dan Fodio. Northern Islam is largely made up of Hausa/Fulani, while Southern Islam is mostly Yoruba (Miles 2000, 229-30). There are also several types of Islamic communities with different emphases ranging from Sufi orders (Qadiriyya, Tijaniyya) to more aggressive sects (Izala, Maitatsine, Muslim Brothers, Muslim Students Society) (Kenny 1996, 343-44). Thus there are layers of identity involved within Nigerian Islam and no such thing as a unified Muslim community.


As Christian missionaries entered from the south and began an aggressive education program, an educational disparity emerged between north and south, since Christian missionaries were forbidden by the British from entering the Muslim-majority north. This development “carried the Christian schools of Africa far ahead of their Muslim counterparts, with the result that, by the 1940s and 1950s, employment in the modern sector of the developing colonial economies was becoming very much a monopoly of those Africans who had enjoyed a Christian education” (Oliver 1991, 211).

An economic disparity also exists between north and south. Nigeria’s military and civilian governments have both ignored the plight of poverty-stricken northerners, especially those in the northeast, the poorest area of the nation. Hence, Boko Haram’s message of justice for the poor resonates much more in the northeast than in other predominantly Muslim parts of the country (Campbell n.d.).

By contrast, a “northern primacy” exists in terms of political leadership. Islam has been much more active politically than Christianity, which was content to focus on social activities like education and establishing churches. Most of Nigeria’s top leadership has come from the north. Thus Christians have often felt manipulated by the political system (africanmissiology.blogspot.com n.d.).

A stalemate has risen out of this religious rivalry and these regional disparities. Ironically, “religious pluralism and ethnic differences do undermine the process of building a Nigerian nation-state. But the divisions prevent or undermine equally the attempts by one group or religion to impose itself on the country” (africanmissiology.blogspot.com n.d.). In many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, Muslim and Christian communities have been able to manage a relatively peaceful coexistence. In Nigeria, the traditional Muslim community has been relatively tolerant, making the militant Islamist movements more the exception than the rule. As if these religious and regional factors weren’t enough of a barrier, there is rampant corruption and immense population growth, putting enormous pressure on state infrastructure.


In contrast to the distinct regional realities that gave rise to Boko Haram, its ideology is very similar to similar movements around the world. It is Sunni, militant, Salafist, and zealously devoted to establishing strict Sharia law. It opposes westernization of Nigeria and the concentration of wealth in Christian south. Because it is decidedly non-Arab, it is relatively uninterested in the issue of Palestine and Israel and is much more focused locally and regionally. While it has made forays into neighboring countries of Chad, Niger and Cameroon, its geographical reach remains limited. There may be connections to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al Shabaab, and some fighters claim to have trained outside of Africa, but these connections seem minimal.

Its founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was a follower of Ibn Taymiyya, a 14th Century fundamentalist scholar (counterextremism.com n.d.). The goal of Boko Haram “is to create God’s kingdom on earth through justice for the poor achieved by the rigid application of Islamic law, or sharia. Anything that gets in the way of this goal must be destroyed. For Boko Haram, violence is not a perversion of Islam; it is a justifiable means to a pure end” (Campbell n.d.). This view is comprehensive. Nationalism is idolatry. The state is a Western invention and influence and is against the will of Allah. Even Muslims are not safe. A civil war of sorts has existed within Islam in Nigeria for decades between Salafi militants and more tolerant Sufis. “Boko Haram is thus a direct threat to the traditional Islamic establishment, which is led by the sultan of Sokoto and the shehu of Borno, both of whom the movement has tried to murder” (Campbell n.d.). Thus we see in Boko Haram a strong reaction to the influences (Christianity and the secular state) that threaten their vision of a just society.


The number of people killed by Boko Haram has been estimated to be between13,000 to 60,000 (Lewis, Suberu, and Mead n.d.), depending on the source, with an estimated 2.3 million displaced (wikipedia.org n.d.). In its response, the Nigerian military has caused an additional 8,000 deaths (Campbell n.d.). Fear has also been stimulated by kidnappings for ransom, the major funding source, as well as the notorious kidnapping of 276 school girls to provide wives for fighters, an incident that caused global outrage. Over one hundred have still not been found. In February, 2018 a similar attack on a girls school in Dapchi resulted in about one hundred girls kidnapped (Gopep and Searcey n.d.).

According to one source, more than 5.5 million people in and surrounding northeastern Nigeria lack sufficient access to basic nutrition due to the disruption caused by Boko Haram. Farmers have had to flee their farms and livestock and food stocks have been raided (irinnews.org 2016a). When the displaced return to their villages, there is usually nothing there. At present (March 2018), the Nigerian army can provide security in cities but not the country side, which remains passive toward Boko Haram for fear of retribution (Zenn n.d.).

Not surprisingly, education has taken a major hit in the area. Over 1,100 schools have been closed or destroyed since the beginning of 2015. It is estimated that 600 teachers have been murdered and another 19,000 have fled (irinnews.org 2016b).

It goes without saying that the activity of Boko Haram has put enormous strain on Muslim-Christian relations, already in a fragile state. Terrorist activities have also helped to neutralize what benefits that would otherwise have resulted from Nigeria’s enormous oil wealth.

Missiological Reflection

What can be learned from the existence and continued activity of Boko Haram? What follows are three recommendations that sincere believers, especially those concerned with global witness, should consider.

1.     Christian churches and missionaries in Nigeria must ensure that their evangelization efforts do not promote cultural violence.

Here there is a very wide gap between the intention of the missionary and the perception of the receiver. While this criticism has often come from outside missionary circles (especially anthropologists) and therefore more easily dismissed, an internal dialogue is needed. Recently Christians rejoiced at the research of Robert Woodberry, who has proven quite convincingly that Christian mission in the world has been a significant influence toward democracy (Woodberry 2012). But at what price? And is democracy our goal?

Colonial missionaries believed in the “three C’s” – Christianity, civilization and commerce. As historians have noted, they unwittingly became influential in spreading secularism around the world, especially through education and medical missions. According to Hastings, “It was the Clapham group, high-minded, upper-middle-class Anglican Evangelicals with strong commercial connections who, consciously or unconsciously, did what many thoughtful Christians try to do in every age: adapt the current secular ideology to the service of Christian morality” (Hastings 1996, 284). Surely this continues today around the world wherever missionaries go.

Even without physical violence, people can feel threatened, disregarded and dismissed by the political power, cultural influence and values of another ideology. American Evangelicals have experienced this in the way the LGBT lifestyle has been legitimized in all areas of social life. Evangelicals feel that they are losing their country. This kind of cultural violence, where an opposing influence forces social realities upon people, even if done under the rule of law, has been deeply felt by Muslims in Nigeria. This becomes more understandable when the long and proud Islamic history of the region is considered. Islamic hegemony was broken by the British and its Christian heritage. From the Muslim perspective, things are no longer as they should be and if they are to remain faithful to Allah, they cannot sit back and let evil powers win. According to Whittaker,

A major cultural determinate of terrorism is the perception of ‘outsiders’ and anticipation of a threat to ethnic group survival. Fear of cultural extermination leads to violence which, to someone who does not experience it, seems irrational. All human beings are sensitive to threats to the values by which they identify themselves. These include language, religion, group membership, and homeland or native territory. The possibility of losing any of these can trigger defensive, even xenophobic, reactions (Whittaker 2012, 20). 

A good example of how the Muslim community views encroachment of secularism/Christianity can be observed in the arguments given during the debate in the 1980s about Nigeria’s inclusion in the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). One of the arguments given by Muslims was that such inclusion was simply a way to obtain religious parity. According to the Council of Ulama, if Muslims were denied this association, then 1) diplomatic relations with the Vatican should be dropped, 2) the Gregorian calendar should be replaced by the Muslim one, 3) Thursday and Friday should replace Saturday and Sunday as rest days, 4) the red cross in hospitals and clinics should be replaced by the red crescent, 5) January 1st should be replaced by the Muslim new year, 6) army salutations should be changed from their Christian form, 7) academic gowns should be changed from their resemblance to Christian choirs, 8) robes of judges and lawyers should be changed due to their origination from monks and choirs, 9) vacation holidays should be changed from coinciding with Christmas and Easter, among others (Kenny 1996, 354-55). Regardless of whether or not these items are actually Christian, it very perceptively reveals the sense of fear that emerges from seemingly innocuous associations.

The Evangelical mission community would do well to ponder whether or not they are complicit in such “mission as violence”. Though colonialism is no more, many see a latent imperialism in the way Evangelicals go about global evangelism – it is triumphalistic and at times deeply ignorant of its own syncretisms and the histories and realities of the peoples it encounters. While this is inevitable for local churches, mission leaders, scholars and practitioners know better and should do more to educate the church.

2.     Christians must learn what it takes to live in peaceful coexistence with Muslims, which is the only solution to religious pluralism.

This is especially true for Islam and Christianity, both expansionist faiths that hold foundational commitments to spread the faith to every creature. We will either have to fight to the bitter end and declare a clear winner or learn to live side by side. Islam and Christianity are in some basic ways incompatible, and resistance and conflict are inevitable. Such was the context for Jesus and Paul and throughout all of church history.

Jesus hinted at what missionaries would face when he said,

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me (Matthew 10:34-37).

He also provided the ethic that has given Christianity its transformative character,

You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:38-48).

We are thus under a burden to be a witness in emotionally charged contexts in a way that highlights the parts of the gospel most attractive to others: love, humility, deep respect for the other and peace. One of the best examples of this kind of witness in difficult circumstances presently is that of Mennonite missionary David Shenk (Shenk 2014.

Another helpful paradigm comes from the Catholic scholar Henri Nouwen, who suggests the movement from hostility to hospitality in the Christian’s relationship with others. He writes,

Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines (Nouwen 1975, 71).

The way space is created for others, according to Nouwen, is by a careful balance between receptivity and confrontation. Receptivity means not imposing our views on others. Confrontation means clear witness.

When we want to be really hospitable we not only have to receive strangers but also to confront them by an unambiguous presence, not hiding ourselves behind neutrality but showing our ideas, opinions and life style clearly and distinctly. No real dialogue is possible between somebody and a nobody (Nouwen 1975, 99).

Finally, Nouwen promotes what he calls “poverty of mind and heart” in our approach to the other. “Someone who is filled with ideas, concepts, opinions and convictions cannot be a good host. There is no inner space to listen, no openness to discover the gift of the other” (Nouwen 1975, 103). Such poverty of mind and heart is simply a spiritual attitude that deeply respects the ideas and opinions of the other without watering down one’s own convictions. While the threat of an opposing ideology can never be fully negated, Christians can de-escalate tensions and promote coexistence by heeding Nouwen’s call.

3. Both Christians and Muslims must champion the moderate expressions of their faith.

Nabeel Jabbour talks about three different types or kinds of Muslim: cultural, Qur’anic and militant. I believe there is a similar typology for Christians: nominal, biblical and fundamental. Jabbour states, “The huge war that is waging today in our world is for the souls and minds of Muslims” (emphasis his) (Jabbour 2008, 84). He goes on to encourage the strengthening of more moderate forms of Islam to combat militant ones. While I agree with Jabbour, I believe the same dynamic is just as needed on the Christian side where a similar war is being waged. Too many Evangelical Christians possess a fearful, fundamentalist bent, which leads them toward ineffective and offensive approaches. Both religions desperately need a wise, if not battered, middle-ground or moderate approach that more carefully integrates bold witness with deep respect, zeal with humility, and urgency with restraint. This is especially important since “Nigeria is politically founded on a compromise between a predominantly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south, and one must never forget this, that interfaith cooperation and compromise is a cornerstone of the Nigerian state and a modern Nigeria” (Lewis, Suberu, and Mead n.d.).


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