Flight 253 and Nigeria's growing radical Islamism

By  Fr. Stan Chu Ilo, Catholic Register Special
  • January 15, 2010
{mosimage}The botched terrorist attempt on an American airliner by 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has raised serious questions about airport security and terrorism. It has also raised concerns about the rights and dignity of innocent and law-abiding travellers in light of new security measures.

More troubling, however, are the unanswered questions about the role radical Islamism in Nigeria played in creating the environment for Abdulmutallab and future young African terrorists like him.

One of the emerging dynamics of the new world order is the unrestricted flow of information and communication across the globe. The age of innocence for Africa is fast gone as many young Africans now have access to all kinds of materials on the Internet. As Pope Benedict XVI said at the African Synod last year, one of the pathologies afflicting Africa is the “spiritual toxic waste” imported from outside Africa. One such waste and a growing danger is Islamic fundamentalism and radicalization.  

Many young privileged Africans, especially those exposed to Western and Islamic education, can easily access the ever-growing faceless cells of radical Islamic groups like al-Qaeda. The leader of radical Islamic group the Movement for Islamic Renewal, Abubakar Mujahid, noted that Western education offered young Muslims a knife. “A knife can be used to cut things or it can be used by a thief to steal.” In a sense, exposure to Western life has become for many radical African Islamists like Abdulmutallab a knife for the senseless destruction of the lives of innocent people and for prosecuting asymmetrical terrorist activities.

Abdulmutallab represents a worrying radicalization of young Nigerian Muslims since the 1980 Muslim uprising in Kano. This has resulted in more than 20 religious uprisings in northern Nigeria led by fundamentalist Islamists. Hundreds of lives, mainly Christian laity and priests, have been lost and many churches were destroyed.

Abdulmutallab’s failed act has been rightly condemned by various Islamic organizations and the Nigerian government. However, these fail to address the question of a growing Islamic fundamentalism in Nigeria. It has also not answered the question of the isolation of many young African migrants abroad who leave their families and are exposed abroad to dangers of fundamentalist groups.

The Islamic fundamentalism that drove Abdulmutallab to attempt to bring down Flight 253 is rooted in a hatred for Western values, intolerance of any non-Islamic religions and values, the rejection of multiculturalism and the idea of a secular state. It is also built on an irrational passion for a totalitarian pan-Islamic world in which other religions are either relative or totally obliterated from the world. In Nigeria especially this radicalization is also fuelled by a growing frustration with the Nigerian government and Western governments and companies who continue to do business in the oil sector in a country where the majority of young people do not have access to the basic necessities of life and have no hope of a better future. The mainly Muslim northern part of Nigeria is a seething cauldron of anger among young Muslims.

Northern Nigeria is boiling with religious tension because 16 states have introduced strict Sharia laws. And young Muslims are being brought up to see the idea of the secular state as a Western invention to suppress claims of the Islamic religion against that of the state.

It is obvious this kind of radical religious climate impacts heavily on the worldview of impressionable youth like Abdulmutallab. The political, economic and social condition in Nigeria and the porous borders between Nigeria and Chad, Niger and Sudan have made easy movement and interaction among young jihadists and radicals possible. Poor internal security and intelligence in northern Nigeria and other West African countries, and the increasing dissemination of radical literature and Internet accessibility, are creating the possibilities of a growing radical Islamism in the region.

What is also evident is that unless governments are improved in Africa, with better living conditions, multicultural and inclusive education, education that upholds the dignity of differences, the rule of law and a measure of law and order, many African countries will be potential training grounds for future jihadists. Failed and failing states in sub-Saharan Africa provide the alchemy for domestic and international terrorism. 

While there is widespread outrage in Nigeria about Abdulmutallab’s failed plot, and a general feeling among Nigerians that he does not represent the true face of Nigerians or Islam in Nigeria, the question of dealing with the burgeoning radical Islamism and religious intolerance among Muslim youth remains a concern. This is particularly so because Nigeria continues to display instability and a lack of cohesion in fundamental aspects of national life found in genuine constitutional democracies. Unfortunately, the teeming Christian population in West Africa has not come up with any positive response to meet this ever present and growing danger.

(Fr. Chu Ilo is a Nigerian priest working in the diocese of Peterborough and a doctoral theology student at the University of St. Michael’s College.)

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