Could Nigeria’s Mainstream Salafis Hold Key to Countering Radicalization?

A poster from Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari's All Progressives Congress pledges defeat of the Boko Haram insurgency. Ogijo, Nigeria, July 3, 2015. (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite suffering a string of military reversals, Boko Harm remains a serious threat to Nigeria and the broader Lake Chad region’s civilian population. Recently reported attacks appear to validate the skepticism of many security analysts toward the Nigerian government’s vow to eradicate the group by the end of 2015. Even if this were achieved, Salafi jihadism will likely continue to trouble Nigeria for years to come. Eliminating the threat will require a more holistic counterterrorism strategy that—among other things—engages Islamic actors in northern Nigeria, including non-violent Salafis.

Many prominent mainstream Salafis have already denounced Boko Haram and its violent ideology. The group’s response has been ferocious. On July 5th this year, a suicide bomber killed over 20 people in the central Nigerian city of Jos, in what many believe was a failed attempt to kill Muhammad Sani Yahya Jingir, a leader of the largest Salafi association in Nigeria, the Jama‘at ‘Izalat al-Bid‘a wa-Iqamat al-Sunna (Izala). From the killings of Bashir Kashara in 2010 and Ibrahim Birkuti in 2011 to Muhammad Awwal Adam Albani’s February 2014 assassination, Salafi clerics have regularly been targeted.

The attacks illustrate the deep level of hostility between Boko Haram and Salafi groups such as Izala. Unlike Boko Haram, the movement adheres to a relatively moderate worldview that acknowledges the government in Abuja’s legitimacy, respects the secular Nigerian constitution, and advocates modern education for children of both genders. Ever since Boko Haram first gained prominence in the 2000s under the late Muhammad Yusuf, Izala and other mainstream Salafi movements have been among its most outspoken opponents.

Izala would appear to be an ideal ally in the Nigerian government’s counter-radicalization efforts. Few actors, state or nonstate, are better positioned to challenge and discredit Boko Haram’s toxic interpretation of Islam. Yet to date, there has been no reported partnership between Abuja and Izala—tacit or otherwise—to combat violent extremism in northern Nigeria. This failure stems largely from a history of mistrust between much of the Nigerian establishment and members of the mainstream Salafi movement.

The May inauguration of President Muhammadu Buhari seems to have created an opportunity for greater engagement in this space. However, it would require a careful balancing act by Abuja. Besides navigating entrenched sectarian divisions within the Nigerian Muslim community, Buhari would need to recognize that any overt effort to collaborate could alienate non-violent Salafis fearful of losing their autonomy and/or appearing too close to the government.

The Rise of Nigerian Salafism

Izala and its offshoots continue to be misunderstood and vilified by many observers, despite extensive academic research on their rise and evolution. Often depicted as austere reactionaries, most Nigerian Salafis regard themselves as reformers committed to dismantling the north’s rigid power structure in favor of a more egalitarian, modern society. Salafism first began to gain widespread popularity in northern Nigeria during the 1970s and 1980s, a period of rapid change brought about by the bloody 1966 collapse of the First Nigerian Republic, high population growth, urbanization, and the rise of the national oil economy. These developments undermined the influence and prestige of the traditional Muslim elites, as well as the Sufi brotherhoods they were affiliated with. The weakening of the Muslim establishment created space for new Islamic movements to emerge, including Salafism.

At the forefront of the Salafi movement was Abubakar Gumi, an accomplished religious scholar. Despite his establishment ties, Gumi became increasingly disenchanted with the prevailing religious order in northern Nigeria, specifically the prominence of Sufism. This stemmed in part from the theological influences Gumi was exposed to during his engagements with Wahhabi/Salafi clerics from the Arab world, who considered many of the rituals and customs observed by Sufis as serious deviations from the religion practiced by the Prophet Muhammad. Gumi’s hostility toward Sufism also resulted from a concern over the state of northern Nigeria’s Muslim populations. He appears to have viewed the Sufis, with their alleged superstitions, internecine squabbling, and history of cooperating with the British colonialists, as the primary culprits for the north’s perceived political and economic decline relative to the predominately Christian south.

Determined to revive the Nigerian Muslim community, Gumi embarked on an aggressive campaign denouncing Sufism in favor of Salafi precepts. He was joined by many protégés, most notably Ismaila Idris, founder of Izala. Their message resonated with a large number of city-dwelling northerners alienated by the socioeconomic and political changes mentioned. For impoverished urban youths, Salafism offered freedom from the north’s traditional hierarchies, as well as the need to pay for costly ceremonies associated with Sufism. Many middle-class northerners approved of Izala’s advocacy for greater education and regarded Salafism’s sober version of Islam as more appropriate for the modern age. Within several years of its 1978 establishment, Izala had developed into a major social force in northern Nigeria, a position it and related groups such as Ahlus-Sunna hold to this day.

A Loyal Opposition

Unabashedly critical of Sufism and elements of Nigeria’s political establishment, Izala nevertheless champions a reformist—rather than revolutionary—agenda. It aspires to strengthen the Muslim community within the Nigerian state through the promotion of schools that teach modern science and math, in addition to Islam. What’s more, Izala has long advocated for women’s education. Its support for sharia law in northern Nigeria can be seen largely as an attempt to improve the region’s poor criminal justice system and reduce official corruption, and not the first step in an effort to create a new, fully Islamist polity.

Of course, Izala is not a liberal democratic movement. It participates in identity politics, primarily around the interests of Nigerian Muslims and especially those residing in the north. Although opposed to violence, Izala notables have previously used incendiary language when criticizing Sufism, leading to occasional street fights between Salafi and Sufi youths. Several have also made derogatory public statements about Christians and Jews over the years, while some mainstream Salafis have subscribed to anti-Western conspiracy theories. Still, Izala accepts both the Nigerian state and its pluralistic society, openly backing the Fourth Nigerian Republic’s constitution, which protects the freedom of worship and forbids the establishment of a state religion.

This allegiance to Nigeria puts Izala at odds with Boko Haram. Several early Boko Haram figures, including Yusuf, reportedly spent time with either Izala or Ahlus-Sunna during the late 1990s and early 2000s, a fact frequently brought up by critics of Nigerian Salafis. However, Yusuf and his acolytes quickly fell out with Nigeria’s mainstream Salafi movements due in large part to disagreements over engaging the Nigerian state. Whereas Izala and other non-violent Salafis strive to reform the West African country, Boko Haram seeks to withdraw from and ultimately replace Nigeria as an entity.

Such differing visions made intra-Salafi conflict inevitable. Izala clerics began delivering sermons condemning Boko Haram, which in turn seems to have started violently eliminating its Salafi rivals. After the 2014 slaying of Albani, Boko Haram boasted that its chieftain Abubakar Shekau had “killed Albani of Zaria. Tomorrow he will kill Jingir.” Later that year, Boko Haram released a video further threatening Izala’s leader, stating that it would “deal with you; you servant of democracy.”

Partners in Countering Violent Extremism?

Notwithstanding their shared interest in seeing Boko Haram and the jihadi ideology it espouses discredited, engagement between Abuja and Izala has thus far been limited. This lack of cooperation has persisted despite the recommendations of the Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme and others that Abuja work more closely with religious groups to counter violent extremists. Part of the blame lies with segments of the Nigerian political leadership, many of which fail to differentiate between Boko Haram and peaceful Salafi groups like Izala.

To be fair, though, Izala’s long history of internal schisms—the movement was divided into at least two major factions between the early 1990s and 2010s—makes it difficult for outsiders to identify and interact with effective interlocutors. Furthermore, as Georgetown University’s Alex Thurston has noted, Izala has often been reluctant to associate itself with the very Nigerian government its clerics frequently denounce. This was particularly the case during the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian southerner widely disliked in Nigeria’s north. Nonetheless, there have been cases in the past where mainstream Salafi groups have worked with state and national administrations. Toward the end of his life, Gumi even served for a time as a religious advisor for the Ibrahim Babangida regime of the 1980s and 1990s.

Now that the Muslim northerner Buhari is in power, an opening exists for collaboration with Izala. The association’s national chairman Abdullahi Bala Lau recently praised the Buhari administration’s campaign against Boko Haram, in a marked departure from his previous outspoken criticism of the Jonathan presidency. Yet to fully realize this opportunity, Buhari and his northern allies would need to make peace with Salafism’s position in modern Nigeria. When he headed Nigeria’s military regime in the mid-1980s, Buhari sought to drastically curtail religious activism, banning Izala clerics from open-air preaching. These measures reflected the still commonly held belief among elites and intellectuals that all Salafis were dangerous radicals intent on destabilizing their country. Such attitudes fail to recognize both Izala’s extensive popular support, as well as the movement’s stated allegiance to the Nigerian state. Acknowledging Izala’s true nature would better position Abuja to work with non-violent Salafis in its drive to diminish jihadism’s appeal among northern Nigeria’s youth.

To be successful, this partnership would have to be informal and discreet. Even with a popular Muslim presiding in Abuja, Izala is likely still wary of being too closely linked to the government. Mainstream Salafi leaders understandably do not want to be co-opted by the federal government, which would compromise both their autonomy and standing among Muslim northerners dissatisfied with the socioeconomic status quo. For its part, the Buhari administration cannot afford to be seen as a sponsor of Islamic revivalists, particularly at a time when members of the political opposition in the south continue to accuse Nigeria’s president of harboring an Islamist agenda.

Still, the possible benefits from greater engagement between Abuja and Izala seem to be worth the risk involved. With its deep engagement with the local Salafi community, Izala is well placed to provide the government with advance warning of radicalizing trends, as well as advice on how to more effectively identify and reach out to disaffected Salafi preachers. Meanwhile, Abuja could increase security for Izala clerics openly excoriating Boko Haram, ensuring their voices are not silenced by jihadi violence. The Nigerian government could also consider covertly supporting the dissemination of Izala reading and audio materials specifically aimed at delegitimizing jihadi narratives.

Recapturing territory alone will not guarantee a definitive victory over Boko Haram. By improving its outreach to non-violent Salafis such as Izala, Abuja could further solidify recent gains against the jihadists and guard against future subscribers to their extremist ideology, providing much-needed relief to northern Nigeria’s beleaguered inhabitants.

Michael W. Baca is a Washington, DC-based Africa analyst. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.