(CNSNews.com) – Boko Haram is demanding that Nigeria’s Christian president convert to Islam or resign, a stance that again calls into question the Obama administration’s playing down of religion as the primary motivation for the radical group.
In an online video clip released over the weekend, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau told President Goodluck Jonathan to “repent and forsake Christianity.”
The News Agency of Nigeria said Shekau, speaking in Hausa, said the president should convert or resign if he wanted Boko Haram to end its violent campaign.
Presidential spokesman Reuben Abati dismissed the demand as attempted “blackmail.”
“When Nigerians voted overwhelmingly for President Jonathan in the 2011 general election, they knew they were voting for a Christian,” he told reporters in the federal capital, Abuja.
“He has the mandate of Nigerians to serve his fatherland. Nobody should imagine that he will succumb to blackmail.”
Inviting an enemy to convert to Islam or face the consequences is a longstanding tradition in Islam, modeled on the example set by the religion’s seventh century prophet.
A hadith (the writings and sayings of the prophet) by Sahih al-Bukhari quotes Mohammed as saying, “I have been ordered (by Allah) to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that Muhammad is Allah’s Apostle, and offer the prayers perfectly and give the obligatory charity, so if they perform a that, then they save their lives an property from me except for Islamic laws and then their reckoning (accounts) will be done by Allah.”
(In 2006, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent President Bush a letter interpreted by some scholars as incorporating an invitation to embrace Islam. He urged Bush to make “a genuine return to the teachings of prophets, to monotheism and justice, to preserve human dignity and obedience to the Almighty and his prophets.” Reporting on the letter at the time, Iran’s hardline Siasat-e Rooz daily said, “It has been the prophet’s way to invite the infidel leaders to the right way.”)
Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for dozens of deadly bombings and other attacks, mostly targeting Christians in northern parts of Africa’s most populous country. It has vowed to cleanse northern Nigeria of Christians.
Declared goals of the group, whose name roughly translates “Western education is forbidden,” include banning non-Islamic education and extending shari’a (Islamic law) – currently implemented in 12 northern states – across the entire country, 40 percent of whose people are Christians.
Despite its increasingly bloody campaign, the Obama administration so far has resisted calls by U.S. lawmakers to designate Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) under American law.
In June it did list Shekau and two other Boko Haram individuals, as “specially designated global terrorists” (SDGTs) under an executive order designed to disrupt funding to terrorists.
But Republican lawmakers Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, and Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), chairman of the committee’s counterterrorism and intelligence subcommittee, said the step was “insufficient.” They reiterated their earlier calls for FTO designation, pointing to a report released by the committee last November investigating the group as a potential threat to the U.S. homeland.
Asked at the time of the SDGT designation about the FTO issue, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the administration was “continuing to look at the question of a broader designation.”
“But as you know, Boko Haram is at the moment a loosely constructed group attached to trying to address grievances in the north. There are different views within the group, and we’re continuing to look at that.”
Despite Boko Haram’s open targeting of Christians and its declared religious goals – after a recent armed raid on a Christian village the group warned that Christians “will not know peace again” if they do not accept Islam – Nuland is not alone in underlining the notion that Boko Haram is driven primarily by “grievances.”
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last March, assistant secretary of state for African affairs Johnnie Carson said religion was “not the primary driver behind extremist violence in Nigeria.” Boko Haram, he said, “attempts to exploit the legitimate grievances of northern populations to garner recruits and public sympathy.”
Although Carson acknowledged “reports of contact and growing relationships between elements of Boko Haram and other extremists in Africa, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” he said the group’s main focus was to discredit the Nigerian government and on “local Nigerian issues and actors.”
Christian president, Muslim president
On Capitol Hill last month, Carson again addressed the issue, telling a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing that “it is important that we understand what Boko Haram is and what it is not.”
“Boko Haram is composed of at least two organizations, a larger organization focused primarily on discrediting the Nigerian government, and a smaller more dangerous group that is increasingly sophisticated and increasingly lethal,” he continued.
Most Boko Haram followers, Carson said, were set on discrediting the government--both under the current Christian president and his Muslim predecessor--for its “failure to provide services to people.”
In fact, Boko Haram’s deadly campaign has largely overlapped the presidency of the Christian president, Jonathan.
Although Boko Haram was established in 2002, its violent campaign began around mid-2009, and escalated after its founder, Mohammed Yusuf, died in police custody in July of that year.
Early in 2010, then vice-president Jonathan assumed the powers of the presidency after President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua left the country for medical treatment. When Yar’Adua died that May, Jonathan served as interim president, and ran for election in early 2011.
His candidacy was controversial because he is a Christian southerner. An unwritten agreement in place since Nigeria emerged from military rule in 1999 held that the north and south would alternatively hold the presidency. Yar’Adua, a Muslim northerner, had succeeded a two-term Christian from the south but since his death cut his term short Muslims argued that the next president should also be a Muslim.
Although Jonathan won the election by a large margin, his Muslim rival won all 12 of Nigeria’s states where shari’a had been introduced since 1999, underlining the religious divide and prompting warnings of worse to come. Indeed, more than 800 people were killed and dozens of churches torched during three days of rioting in the north after the election result was announced.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent body that advises the administration and Congress, acknowledges that issues of governance, poverty, and ethnicity are factors in the Nigerian violence but characterizes Boko Haram’s actions as “religiously-related.”