Boko Haram's seizure of more than 270 schoolgirls in northern Nigeria for alleged use as sex slaves or hostages is a major publicity coup that could fuel recruitment for fundamentalist organizations. Unless the international community cooperates to confront and stamp out the ideology of Boko Haram and other similar extremist groups, women and girls will remain their prime targets.
Boko Haram means "Western education is a sin" in the regional Hausa language. In order to expunge secular education, perceived as corrupting, the group has burnt over 200 schools and used sermons, leaflets and videos to rail against education for girls.
The full Arabic name of Boko Haram refers to adherents of proselytism and holy war. Members are committed to enforcing an Islamic state or caliphate in Nigeria. In line with strict sharia, their leader, Abubakar Shekau, asserted: "In Islam, it is allowed to take infidel women as slaves." Most of the girls abducted from their boarding school in Chibok village, Borno State, were Christian. They were forcibly allegedly converted to Islam and made to wear hijabs that cover the whole body. Shekau has offered to trade the hostages, some only nine-years-old, for Islamists currently in prison.
The Nigerian government was slow to respond to the abductions on April 14, and according to Amnesty International, failed to act on warnings of an impending attack. A few soldiers stationed in Chibok fled when Boko Haram fighters stormed the secondary school.
Women who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in the past have testified that the Christian captives were allegedly forced to serve as cooks, maids and sex slaves for the militants. Some of the women were recently found in the forest, where they had been abandoned. Many were reportedly pregnant.
During the past four to five years, Boko Haram has exploited sectarian tensions and divisions between the predominantly Christian, oil-producing south and the poorer, mostly Muslim north. Their campaign of terror has resulted in thousands of deaths, use of child soldiers, and emergency rule in the three states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe in Nigeria's northeast.
The international community has expressed horror and outrage at the kidnappings, and together with the U.N. Security Council, pledged to consider taking action against Boko Haram; the United States is already providing Nigeria with assistance in counter-terrorism training.
Although the U.S. has successfully targeted jihadists elsewhere, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, extremist ideology has not been stifled. Moreover, it has found fertile soil in the jungle of the Internet and social media.
Groups like Boko Haram benefit from local support and aid from sympathizers, factors that thwart their suppression, and enable them to regroup. Last year, the French 'Opération Serval' in Mali was successful in rescuing women, mostly Muslim, from Islamic militants that had imposed stoning, forced marriage, trafficking for prostitution, and detention or whipping for failing to be properly covered. However, the militant movement was not destroyed, and now, a year after the French intervention, Islamists have returned to threaten, kill and cause people to flee their homes.
No amount of troubleshooting or fire fighting will extinguish the ideological fervor emblazoned by indoctrination. At this point in time, extremists have assumed a commanding position in Northern Nigeria and other parts of the Muslim world. Even if their number is small, they can easily overwhelm the regional majority, and in areas with poor law enforcement, impose their interpretation of sharia law.
Many Muslim leaders have condemned the recent abductions, maintaining that such action contravenes the precepts of Islam. They could go further by repudiating militant Islamists' interpretation of politics and law based on religion.
Whatever the grievances of poverty and victimization, the politicized Islam practiced by Boko Haram must not be sanctioned, appeased or downplayed. Nor should it be ignored by opinion-makers like Michelle Obama. Such omissions also give succor to the Afghan Taliban and spur their barbarous misogyny as the pullout of coalition forces draws near.
The abduction of schoolgirls by fighters high on religious steroids has galvanized global attention. Their brazen assault could act as a springboard for international engagement, not only aimed at curbing the violence, but also directed at the ideology that Boko Haram and other groups use to recruit followers, emulate each other and legitimize brutality.