‘The Disease is Unbelief’: Boko Haram’s Religious and Political Worldview

"This paper argues that the combination of exclusivism and grievance has provided the ideological framework for Boko Haram’s violence toward the Nigerian state, other Muslims and Christians. The paper draws on primary sources, such as the founder’s Arabic manifesto Hadhihi ‘Aqidatuna wa-Manhaj Da‘watina (This Is Our Creed and the Method of Our Preaching), as well as propaganda videos and recorded sermons, primarily in Hausa and Arabic. These sources reveal striking rhetorical and ideological continuity among Boko Haram’s leaders from 2002 to the present. Alongside other drivers of violence—including local politics, intra-Muslim rivalries, socioeconomic factors, and the brutality of the Nigerian government’s response—the story that Boko Haram tells about itself offers insight into the movement’s behavior. The ideology espoused by Boko Haram’s leaders may not permeate the movement, whose internal structure and degree of cohesion is unclear. Yet its leaders have consistently used religious rhetoric in an attempt to justify the sect’s brutality, score-settling, and provocations. Such rhetoric, at the very least, provides a narrative that seeks to explain the campaign of violence: Boko Haram’s leaders tell a provocative story about what it means to be Muslim in Nigeria, a story that seeks to activate fears that pious Muslims are losing grounds to the forces of immorality. The leaders’ religious messages may, moreover, have greater appeal than is often assumed. Some of the sect’s recruits are volunteers, both from Nigeria and from the surrounding region."