Who determines sponsors of terrorism? by Abdulbasit Kassim

NEWS DIGEST – In my previous post titled “On David Hundeyin’s Cornflakes of Jihad”, Professor Mukhtar Umar Bunza asked a compelling question “who determines who is a terrorist sponsor and who is not”?

This question is at the core of the securitization of religion that assumed an institutionalized status in the post 9/11 milieu. Scholars of critical studies on terrorism have extensively debated the inherently problematic nature of the terrorism label. Terrorism is a widely disputed socio-political phenomenon, and the very act of discerning what events count and do not count as terrorism cannot be considered entirely value-free. The study of terrorism is frequently dependent on value-laden concepts like “extremism,” “radicalism,” “fundamentalism,” et al., and efforts to understand the historical roots and social foundations of these concepts have often been disregarded.

It has become something of a cliché for Nigerian academics and journalists to use the term “terrorism” unreflectively. The issue of how terrorism is defined is central to the way local and international authorities prosecute the Global War on Terror. The definitional conundrum also affects the way terrorism is understood under international and domestic laws. How we define who is a terrorist or what counts as terrorism has important implications for the social construction and reproduction of knowledge about the subject.

As Richard Jackson rightly observed, the definitional debate on terrorism has indirect consequences for individuals and groups labeled as “terrorists” who may then be legally subjected to torture, rendition, and interment and for the “suspect communities” they belong to. There is a clear and underlying discourse of power on who gets to define “what is or what is not terrorism, who is or who is not a terrorist.” Any meticulous observer of global politics would agree with the fact that this discourse of power is imbalanced, has often been implicitly biased against Muslims, and is hardly subjected to scrutiny. The power dynamics that undergird the nomenclature on terrorism is precisely what Ibrahim Zakzaky attempted to challenge in the attached image below, taken during his interview in 2002.

Again, let me reiterate for the umpteenth time, David Hundeyin’s article is inundated with traceable and verifiable records that most figures in the religious establishment of northern Nigeria know but would rather be silent upon. This act of silence, in my opinion, is an act of cowardice. The complexity of these issues and the complicated histories of entanglements between the Muslim organizations and scholars in Nigeria and the local and global individuals and groups that have now been proscribed as “terrorist entities” should have been addressed a long time ago. Even something as crucial as the history of engagement between Nigerian Muslim scholars and Al-Muntada al-Islami has been left unresolved.

Two years before David Hundeyin wrote his exposé on Isa Ali Pantami, Professor Andrea Brigaglia had already unearthed and analyzed the archive of incendiary statements made by Pantami even before he became a Minister. The records of most of the figures Hundeyin mentioned in his article are known to any serious academic that studies Boko Haram. These records have been extensively documented in pricey books and paywalled journals on Boko Haram. Hundeyin’s exposé only furthered the existing records by providing updated information about the individuals whose histories have been associated with terrorism (something that reads like “where are they now”?)

Although the trove of records in Hundeyin’s piece can hardly be disputed, I believe it is crucial to approach the web of issues he raised in his article with careful attention and proper historical contextualization. I will caution, particularly Muslim readers, not to read the exposé as a vindication of the conveyor-belt theory that ties Izala directly to the emergence of Boko Haram. This theory has been nurtured in several quarters of the Muslim communities, but the reality is far more nuanced and complicated.

Despite the specificities of the individuals and groups Hundeyin unraveled in his exposé, the social commentaries that followed the article have been laden with one-size-fits-all discourses that risk placing the entire Muslim population under the badge of “suspect communities” nurturing a grand Islamist takeover. Going by Hundeyin’s framing of terrorism, I particularly do not think that any major Muslim organization, whether Salafi, Sufi, or Shiite, including Muslims in Southern Nigeria, would escape the “terrorist label” if their archive is subjected to thorough scrutiny without proper historical contextualization.

As a historian, I have always wondered how the activities of Nigerian Muslims who supported, donated, and even volunteered for the 1992-1995 Bosnian War in the spirit of global Islamic solidarity would be interpreted today? Would the terrorist label be placed on them as well? I mean, it is on record that religious philanthropists in Nigeria, including MKO Abiola and Wahab Iyanda Folawiyo, donated funds to the Muslims in Bosnia during the war. In his book “The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity,” Darryl Li (University of Chicago) broached this issue of religious philanthropy during the Bosnian War and how it would later haunt Muslim figures in the Global War on Terror.

Muslims, particularly in northern Nigeria, have a long history of privileging global Islamic solidarity above their attachment to other non-religious national identities. Even before the peak of the global Islamic revolution of the 1970s, the Sardauna generation also had conflicted loyalties between veering towards Pan-Africanism or Pan-Islamic internationalism. In the end, Sardauna privileged his affiliation with the countries in the Muslim World League above Nkrumah’s call for an African renaissance and revolutionary negritude.

There are archival records of Muslim organizations actively supporting and donating to global Islamic movements, most of whom at that time framed their activities as anti-colonial and imperialist struggles. Virtually all the Muslim organizations in Nigeria who had connections with the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, Muslim World League, International Islamic Federation of Student Organizations would have supported a global Islamic struggle that today is defined as “terrorism.”

If we apply the “terrorist label” in an unreflective and uncritical way, the members of the Supreme Council for Sharia in Nigeria (particularly Dr. Datti Ahmed and Nafiu Baba-Ahmed), Jama’atul Nasril Islam, and even figures like late Muhammed Bello Ilyas Damagun of Daily Trust, Abubakar Mujahid of JTI, the oil magnate Muhammed Ndimi, the Sufi-born Yahaya Farouk Chedi (who was nicknamed Nigeria’s Osama) would all be complicit in what is now understood as terrorism. If we go down south, Ishaq Akintola of MURIC, Kunle Sani of NACOMYO, late Muhammad Ali Olukade of the Ilorin-based al-Harakatul Islamiyyah, The Muslim Congress, and including the Muslim Students Society of Nigeria would all be complicit in what is now understood as terrorism. These groups and individuals have an archive of supporting global Islamic movements that have now been declared as “terrorist organizations.” For example, Imran Daood Molaasan of Jama’at Ta’awunil Muslimeen wrote an entire book in 2002 where he declared his support for al-Qaeda. Today, he is an adviser to Rauf Aregbesola and has obviously retracted his earlier position.

Notwithstanding the definitional ambiguity and discourse of power surrounding the label “terrorist and terrorism,” we can all agree that any coordinated campaign with the intent to inflict maximum violence on a group of people, community, nation, or state on the basis of their race, religion, ethnicity et al. is terrorism.

The critical task is now how to separate the chaff from the grains and engage in the proper contextualization of the chronologies of historical events as they unfolded. Muslim organizations in Nigeria need to clarify these complicated histories; otherwise, I don’t see how any of them would escape the “terrorist label” if their archive is subjected to scrutiny. This is clearly not an Izala issue. This is a problem of complicated and disavowed aspects of collective histories that would keep haunting the Muslim communities, whether in the South or North.