By Shobana Shankar, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Shobana Shankar is a visiting assistant professor in the History Department of Georgetown University. She is finalizing a book, ‘Who Shall Enter Paradise? Christian Missions and the Politics of Difference in Muslim Northern Nigeria.’ The views expressed are her own.
The violent Islamist group Boko Haram has escalated attacks throughout Northern Nigeria since last year, murdering civilians and destroying government and private property. Understandably concerned by news reports and appeals from the expatriate community, members of the U.S. Congress have proposed designating Boko Haram a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), a label that would trigger actions affecting business and aid that could hurt many Nigerians. It would also exacerbate religious tensions that Boko Haram itself has fomented, which all who seek peace in Nigeria must steadfastly contest if its people are to rid themselves of violence and fear.
Capitol Hill certainly has cause for concern. Attacks on Christian churches have intensified in the last six months, yet leading traditional Muslim leaders have not publicly condemned Boko Haram since May of this year, when the Sultan of Sokoto – one of Nigeria's most prominent Muslim leaders – denounced the group. No Muslim authority has emerged to clearly champion the rights of both Muslims and Christians to live together peacefully in Northern Nigeria. A great responsibility rests on the shoulders of Muslim leaders to speak out against Boko Haram at this critical moment.
Christianity in Muslim areas is historically complex. Southern Christians began to settle in Muslim towns over a hundred years ago. Hausa-speaking Christians, belonging to ethnic minority communities, have lived peacefully under Muslim rulers. A small number of Muslims have even converted to Christianity, and traditional Muslim rulers – emirs, their councilors – have historically had religiously mixed subjects.
During the British colonial era, Muslim rulers played key roles as facilitators of interreligious cooperation. In 1937, the emirs of Kano, Katsina, and Bauchi, along with the Sultan of Sokoto, negotiated agreements with North American Christian missionaries to cooperatively undertake a massive leprosy control campaign. To be sure, white missionaries and Muslim elites forged alliances out of a shared paternalism and arrangements of mutual benefit.
After riots broke out in Kano in 1953, ostensibly over North-South disputes regarding constitutional negotiations, the government investigation concluded that religion was not a catalyst for the violence. Notably, it found that religion did not prevent Muslims and Christians from sheltering one another. Mutual assistance has occurred in the midst of Boko Haram’s bloody assaults, but religious separatism has grown since the 1960s. Unlike Muslim nationalists of that era, like Sir Ahmadu Bello, prominent Muslim leaders today have not offered sufficient shelter, even symbolically, to Christians in the North today.
Northern Nigeria's ancien regime can and should use its authority to press for peace. Today's interfaith efforts in Nigeria are commendable but do not go far enough if Christian and Muslim leaders only take care of their own. Muslim leaders should embrace Christians over Muslim extremists now. Christian leaders in Plateau State should also denounce vigilantes who attack Muslims, but they have no influence over Boko Haram, which has captured a monopoly on violence in parts of the country. Most of all, Muslim leaders must accept Christians as genuine Northerners, worthy of their affection, and protection.
Although Washington is a long way from Abuja and Kano, actions on Capitol Hill could further inflame tensions and isolate some of the least developed regions of Nigeria from national and international development. The House and Senate narrowly avoided a crisis this week when the National Defense Authorization Act for 2013 wisely abandoned provisions that would have pressured the State Department to designate Boko Haram an FTO. But efforts to designate Boko Haram an FTO are likely to resume in 2013. FTO designation would sideline the U.S. government and American experts and scholars from contributing to efforts towards disarmament and peace. The most effective tools to defeat militant violence and prevent any escalation in northern Nigeria are diplomacy and development that involves Muslim-Christian cooperation.
Rather than focus on a short-sighted FTO designation, the U.S. should actively seek ways to support productive dialogue with and among traditional rulers and Northern Nigerian officials at the state level. International Muslim bodies, such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, should do the same.
Most importantly, Muslim moderates must restore their credibility wherever non-Muslim neighbors are under attack, whether in Nigeria, Kenya, or Pakistan. If they refuse to act, history will not look kindly on their silence.