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A Tale of Boko Haram, Political Correctness, Feminism and the Left

As the situation confronting kidnapped women in Nigeria continues to deteriorate, the need for international solidarity has never been greater. The 276 teenage women, who were kidnapped at gunpoint by Islamist group Boko Haram, have been held captive for more than a month. What is worse, there have been reports of mass forced "marriages" to rebel militants and some women may have literally been sold into slavery across the Nigerian border in neighboring countries. Thus far, rescue efforts have been unsuccessful or hampered because the Abuja government is reportedly compromised and riddled with Boko Haram informants at the top. Distraught and desperate, parents have lost hope in the authorities and are launching their own rescue operations.

Like other Muslim fundamentalist groups which have sought to rein in girls' education across the globe, Boko Haram is determined to halt the progress of modern women. The group believes the Abuja government has become corrupted by the west and seeks a return to the country's pre-colonial past characterized by Muslim rule. Merciless and brutal, Boko Haram has conducted a scorched earth policy to carry out its goals, and has already killed about 5,000 Nigerian men, women and children. Women Living under Muslim Laws, an international network which seeks to challenge Islamic fundamentalism and encourage solidarity amongst progressive-minded women, says "the mass murder, abduction of school children and sexual violence against girls including rape and sexual slavery are heinous crimes under international law."

Initially, the abduction story failed to get much media or public traction. Outraged by the lack of scrutiny, the girls' families protested and an accompanying social media campaign finally managed to raise the profile of the story. It wasn't long before Nigeria's president -- who had earlier stayed silent on the kidnappings -- promised to secure the girls' release. Even Michelle Obama has taken up the cause while Hollywood celebrities took to Twitter. It wasn't long before a new popular hashtag, "bring back our girls," focused additional attention on the issue. TV media outlets in the U.S. are generally rather parochial and don't cover international news that much, but recently cable has started to discuss the story. "We are sorry it took us so long to pay attention," noted one MSNBC host, "but we are watching now."

Left's Familiar Pattern

To be sure, Twitter on its own may not succeed in liberating the Nigerian girls, but the social media campaign is a good start and could keep pressure on the Abuja government to actually demonstrate accountability to its citizens. It is to be hoped, moreover, that in the long-term such social media activism might result in greater international solidarity between the progressive left in the west and secular forces in Nigeria intent upon reclaiming their country from the forces of political Islam. For that to happen, however, the ideological left would have to overcome and jettison its age-old doctrinaire tendencies which stultify creative and dynamic freedom of maneuver.

Simply put, by prioritizing anti-imperialism over other struggles the left gets itself into a straightjacket which becomes more and more unwieldy and suffocating over time [the long list of leftist foreign policy missteps is too long to get into here, but for those who are interested see my full archive here]. Whatever the country, left ideologues can predictably be trusted to whitewash or give a "pass" to backward political and social forces as long as the latter voice opposition to the West. Rather than go down that road and get into trouble, the left would do well to critique the agenda of western governments when need be, while simultaneously expressing sympathy for other progressive causes around the world. If recent trends are any indication, however, history is poised to repeat itself in Nigeria as the ideological left rehashes its axiomatic positions while ignoring civil society on the ground. What is worse, we may be seeing an odd convergence of sorts between ideological leftists, politically correct feminists, hard-line African American commentators and even conservative Muslims no less.

Debating Boko Haram's Origins

Take, for example, Lindsey German of the UK Stop the War Coalition. Writing in the Guardian of London, German expresses concern about the history of western imperialism in Africa and elsewhere, and she pours cold water on the notion that the U.S. can solve Nigeria's problems. That's all fine and good, but then German goes a bit far by arguing that Boko Haram's emergence has much to do with western oppression, corruption and economic inequities which have historically plagued Nigeria.

According to some Nigerians, however, that's just not true. In a recent piece for the progressive UK web site Left Foot Forward, human rights campaigner Leo Igwe takes on such views. "Any intelligent member of Nigerian society," Igwe writes, knows that Boko Haram is not a reflection of pervasive poverty nor does the group speak for marginalized sectors of society. Igwe acknowledges that the politically correct crowd in Europe and the U.S. doesn't want to be accused of so-called "Islamophobia." The Nigerian, however, adds that such an impulse should not get in the way of legitimate criticism.

Boko Haram, Igwe remarks, is a jihadist group pure and simple "whose campaign of violence and bloodletting is rooted in its fanatical interpretation and appropriation of Islam." Boko Haram's attacks upon "western-style" schools have nothing to do with righteous indignation over poverty, Igwe remarks. "How does bombing mosques, churches and schools imply agitating for the development? How does killing and kidnapping foreigners attract attention to poverty in the region?" he asks.

Leftist Over-Simplifications

Rather than express any curiosity about what secular or progressive Nigerians might think or engage with the likes of Igwe, German resorts to classic leftist arguments common amongst the authoritarian set. "If Islamism is now a threat to western interests in growing parts of Africa," she says, "it is one that they have played a large part in creating." In what sounds like an apology for Boko Haram, or at least a dodge, German then argues that economic backwardness, Shell Oil and corruption are linked to the West and this background helps to explain or "inform" the plight of Nigeria's kidnapped girls.

Similar and simplistic arguments may be found on the likes of politically correct AlterNet, which recently reposted an article by Margaret Kimberley, the latter of Black Agenda Report. In her zeal to cast doubts on western motivations, Kimberley seems to let Boko Haram off the hook. Media reports, she explains, fail to point out that the Islamists are simply seeking revenge against the Nigerian government which recently detained rebel members. Glossing over Boko Haram's backward Islamist agenda, Kimberley then remarks "the kidnappings of the past two years are a direct result of the government's mistreatment of its people and its failed efforts to fight Boko Haram." Rather unhelpfully, Kimberley remarks "Sometimes the answer to the question, 'What can we do?' is 'Nothing.' There is nothing that the average American citizen can do to get these girls released and those with the power to do something aren't very interested in internecine warfare in Nigeria. Their machinations created this and so many other tragedies around the world."

Obama's Nigeria Deployment

Despite such ideological straightjackets and gross over-simplifications on Boko Haram, the left is certainly justified in raising legitimate questions about European or American motivations in Africa. As I've written previously, the U.S. has unsavory economic and strategic interests in volatile West Africa, and Obama has begun to raise the Pentagon's military profile in the area. Recent U.S. deployments to Nigeria, including a team of military advisors who will assist Abuja in its intelligence gathering efforts aimed at Boko Haram, are but the latest sign of Washington's larger regional footprint.

Obama has moreover sent a further 80 troops to Chad, just across the Nigerian border, to assist in tracking down the rebels. U.S. forces will conduct surveillance flights and could also be used to operate surveillance drone aircraft, though technically the Americans won't participate in ground operations. Needless to say, however, the Senate has cleared the Pentagon to target Boko Haram and Obama seems to be moving in this general direction anyway.

Left Comes up Short

Countering the Pentagon's relentless foreign adventures in countries far and wide is certainly a worthwhile goal for the left, though it should be said that Obama's deployments to Nigeria thus far hardly constitute an armada. Journalist Bill Weinberg, who writes frequently on Africa, believes the left has become far too predictable. "Judging from the reaction of the left," he writes, "you'd think it [Obama's military deployment] was Operation Nigerian Freedom." Weinberg adds, "There's something sickeningly inappropriate about greater concern for the 15 military advisors than the 276 missing girls."

Weinberg does seem to be on to something when it comes to the leftist perspective on Nigeria. Indeed, in piece after piece leading commentators hone in laser-like on the U.S. military deployment to Nigeria while ignoring civil society on the ground and the very real threat posed by political Islam. Take, for example, Robert Dreyfuss, a columnist with long-standing ideological tendencies hailing from The Nation magazine. In a recent article, Dreyfuss spills much ink over Obama's creeping interventionism without ever asking what ordinary Nigerians might think about their country being ripped away by Islamic fundamentalists.

Casting Doubt on #BringBackOurGirls

Ultimately, however, individual westerners should not take any proactive measures or express solidarity with Nigerian women. That, it seems, is Kimberley's essential nihilistic argument over at Black Agenda Report. That is to say, in light of long-standing imperial history and the nefarious motivations of their governments, all westerners are somehow tainted and can't get involved. Therefore, Kimberley says, Bring Back Our Girls is utter nonsense and the whole campaign is self-indulgent. "Hashtags and petitions," she writes, "are a poor substitute for a government whose infrastructure is dedicated to producing and delivering oil to the West but not doing very much for its own citizens." Such a rigid perspective on Nigeria is somewhat questionable for Weinberg, who writes "The #BringBackOurGirls campaign may have been 'promoted' by Michelle Obama, but it emerged as a popular meme from below, by desperate and angry Nigerians--with whom the 'anti-war' left demonstrates no solidarity. Can progressives in the West possibly think of anything better to tell these folks than 'Tough luck, shift for yourselves?'"

It's counter-productive enough when left ideologues and African American commentators pour cold water on Nigerian solidarity, though oddly enough some criticism has come from other quarters. Take, for example, Nigerian-American Jumoke Balogun, who dismisses international coalition building up on Compare Afrique web site. Balogun writes that the U.S. is gearing up toward a military buildup in Africa, and worries that hashtag activism might actually serve to justify such policies. In light of such dangers, Balogun essentially argues that westerners don't have the right to get involved in Nigeria's struggles.

Weinberg is perplexed by such views. "An honest argument against U.S. military involvement is one thing," he writes, "but to dismiss the notion of international responsibility and solidarity entirely? That's quite something else. No, hashtags alone won't bring back the girls, and nobody ever said they would. They are supposed to be a tool to prompt action. Is the rest of the world throwing up its metaphorical hands and saying 'Not our problem' really something we want to uphold as a positive good?"

Peculiar Affliction of Post-Modernism

Balogun's arguments are echoed somewhat, though in more academic and post-modernist fashion, by Pakistan-American columnist Rafia Zakaria. In a recent al-Jazeera column, Zakaria refers condescendingly to "parachute reporters" who have descended on Nigeria to report on the kidnapped girls. To be sure, the mainstream media milks stories for sensationalistic effect, but should one dismiss Nigerian coverage out of hand if it results in increased awareness? Oddly, Zakaria argues that the media has focused an "inordinate" amount of time on romanticized "beleaguered girls in faraway lands." What would she prefer, a news blackout?

Zakaria, who seems to subscribe to the notion of "cultural relativism," refrains from lambasting Boko Haram, and at one point even seems to elevate the group by remarking that the rebels oppose "Western strategic and military interests." All throughout, Zakaria spices up her prose with post-modernist buzzwords such as "trope," and demonizes western feminists by claiming they are essentially compromised and somehow in league with sinister colonialism. At one point, she even seems to attack feminists by claiming they are -- bizarrely enough -- "opportunistic" and akin to "Victorians" or "Edwardian" British imperialists of the 19th century, whose wives "consistently portrayed black and brown women as uncivilized and imprisoned others, against whom their own liberation could be posed and the exploitation of those lands justified."

Having smeared western feminists through such tainted associations, Zakaria then warms to her theme. "Given this history," she writes, "the emergence of the schoolgirl paradigm -- in which one side is so visibly unequal, younger and simpler -- as the basis of feminist and activist engagement bears just enough resemblance to the past to require further scrutiny and reconsideration."

Debating Islam

It's not the first time we've heard from Zakaria, who makes a point of attacking naïve feminists and their sundry foreign crusades. Recently, during an online exchange appearing in Dissent magazine, Zakaria criticized secular feminist Meredith Tax, author of Double Bind: The Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left, and Universal Human Rights. Earlier, Tax published an essay arguing that the left had strayed from its original Enlightenment roots. "In the United States," Tax writes, "at least among academics and feminists, great efforts have been made to... delegitimize secularists as passé." Rather outlandishly, Tax adds, the left has wound up "taking up the language and framing of the Muslim Right, including extremist Salafi parties who try to enforce Sharia law through street violence."

Responding to Tax, Zakaria seems eager to establish her bona fides. "As someone whose native country of Pakistan is currently ravaged" by Islamists, she writes, "I could not share more wholeheartedly Tax's assessment of the virulence of fundamentalism and the threat it poses to free expression, to women, to minorities, and to all those who oppose the imposition of their views on others." Then, however, Zakaria quickly reverts to form, accusing Tax of over-generalizing about Islam and unfairly lumping moderate Muslims in with Salafi-Jihadis. Zakaria is "deeply disturbed" by Tax's claims, and even gets defensive about Sharia no less, which to her mind is "not a static body of law but a dynamic body of jurisprudence open to reinterpretation."

There's really no reasoning with the likes of Zakaria, since by the logic of post-modernism or cultural relativism westerners shouldn't even express ideas. It is arrogant "hubris," Zakaria writes, that "the political trajectories of the Global South are dependent on the ruminations of Anglo-American leftists and their ability to choose the right alliances." Tax, who seeks to build international coalitions "between democrats, trade unionists, religious and sexual minorities, and feminists struggling in the Global South against both neo-liberalism and fundamentalism," responds that "thinking on a global scale is not hubris; it is a strategic necessity in a globalized world where, more than ever before, actions in one place affect events in another."

Coda: Debating Sharia in Brunei

Tax makes a lot of sense, but it will take work to change politically correct habits on the left. Indeed, if recent controversies are any indication, the ideologues are reverting to type. Take, for example, the debate over Sharia law in the tiny Sultanate of Brunei. To its credit, Hollywood has decided to boycott hotels affiliated with Brunei's government, which has just imposed a harsh version of Islamic law in the country. In fact, the Sultan has said he will carry out death by stoning for gays convicted of homosexuality. The measures also include the death penalty for extramarital pregnancy, alcohol consumption and hating the Prophet Muhammad no less. Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres has said she will join the boycott, and other celebrities such as Jay Leno will also participate. Moreover, the Los Angeles and Beverly Hills city councils have both voted to condemn Brunei.

The case of Brunei and Sharia law should be a no-brainer for the left. But no, here comes AlterNet once again, which seeks to clarify certain characteristic of Sharia. Like Zakaria, columnist Alex Kane explains that Sharia "is a lot more complex than can be understood in angry sound bites." Kane goes on to quote experts who are fearful that the gay boycott, which merely seeks "publicity," will not succeed in building coalitions with women. Kane goes on to knock Hollywood liberals for ignoring other labor violations at Brunei hotels, before remarking, rather ridiculously, that "Hollywood and its activist allies have spurned a holistic analysis of the problems in the country and its role as an ally of U.S. empire. The movement has left out labor rights and propagated an impoverished idea of what sharia law means."

Right Wing Hawks

In the midst of leftist contortions, it's not surprising that the political right has seized upon the Boko Haram controversy to score points. Over at Commentary magazine, Jonathan Tobin supports the Nigeria social media campaign, but then goes on to rhetorically ask, "Do those flocking to Twitter really think anything short of force will rescue the girls?" Not mincing words, Tobin adds "Like it or not, the West is locked in a long war with Islamist terror."

Commentary columnist Max Boot chimes in for good measure, writing "What we really need in Pakistan is the same thing we need in Nigeria: not one-off humanitarian assistance but a sustained and serious commitment to nation-building." War hawk Boot adds that the U.S. has a stake in the Nigerian "outcome," because "we" don't want "Islamist extremists destabilizing the No. 1 oil producer in Africa." Meanwhile, over at the Wall Street Journal, controversial Somali activist and "Enlightenment fundamentalist" Ayaan Hirsi Ali says "Western liberals" should "wake up." Decadent liberals she adds, "seem more eager to smear the critics of jihadism as 'Islamophobes' than to stand up for women's most basic rights."

From Boko Haram to Brunei, the left has not handled recent political controversy very deftly, and this has opened the door to the opportunistic right. What will it take for the left to overcome its ideological and politically correct playbook? It is to be hoped in the days and weeks ahead that the left will broaden its horizons in the name of building a truly progressive and international consensus.

Nikolas Kozloff is a New York-based writer. To follow on Twitter, click here.

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