Boko Haram’s campaign against education and enlightenment

Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Boko Haram, the Islamist terrorist group originating from Nigeria is frightened by this enlightening power of education. Unsurprisingly, on Monday, February 19, the group, whose name often translates to “Western education is a sin,” stormed a girls’ school in the village of Dapchi in northern Nigeria to abduct students. Of the 907 schoolgirls who were in the school the day of the attack, more than 100 are still missing as of Sunday

Since it became violent about a decade ago, Boko Haram’s actions, through these and other types of bloody attacks, have resulted in horrifying consequences. Human Rights Watch estimates that Boko Haram has left at least 7 million in need of humanitarian assistance, 2.1 million displaced, and 20,000 civilians dead. Local leaders claim the number is significantly higher.

Despite such causalities, it took Boko Haram’s massive kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls at a school in Chibok, Nigeria in 2014, and the shocking announcement that the girls would be sold in the “marketplace” as “slaves” or forced into marriages even at the age of 12, to raise global awareness. These girls were abducted because they were receiving a secular education, which “the militants believe corrupts the value of Muslims.” Through their education, the brave girls were learning logical reasoning, fostering independent thinking, and becoming empowered—as well as developing skills to have better prospects and build a more prosperous future. Four years later, many of them have been released, but more than 100 are still missing.

Why does Boko Haram fear enlightenment?

Boko Haram and similar groups are the horrendous illustration of the Hobbesian conception of human nature, creating fear, insecurity, violent disorder, and indiscriminate crimes to control and maintain power. This is a lesson that has been repeated throughout history and countered most strongly by the ideals of the Enlightenment era—ideals enshrined in education that are still valued today. Pulitzer Prize–winning historian James MacGregor Burns notes that enlightenment, through education, “remains the most powerful tool for challenging authority and liberating the human mind, an inspiration to leaders and followers worldwide, a method for effective change, and a framework of values by which that change can be measured.” Similarly, Thomas Jefferson said, “I look to the diffusion of light and education as the resource to be relied on for ameliorating the condition, promoting the virtue, and advancing happiness of man.” Enlightenment starts with education, and by refusing these girls and their classmates the right to be educated and think for themselves, Boko Haram is denying them their humanity.

At the same time, encouraging education and enlightenment is not just a motivation for ending extremism, but also a strategy for combating it. Indeed, following from Mandela’s words, education—and the economic opportunities it creates—can be the most powerful weapon against terrorism. Enlightenment is the most powerful weapon against obscurantism, extremism, and oppressive religious orthodoxy as well as terrorism. Education will break the authority of extremist groups, encourage people to think for themselves and remove the tendency toward extremist thinking. Of course, this will go hand in hand with inclusive governance, effective government, and economic opportunities, which both improve and are improved by education. Education that nurtures and empowers an independent, critical, and entrepreneurial mind is truly what makes the difference.

Following the horrendous abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls, numerous actors took more serious action against Boko Haram, including bilateral cooperation to locate and save the girls (for example, from the United States, France, and the United Kingdom) and multilateral cooperation to improve regional security and fight Boko Haram (with Benin, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger). Despite this support and some small wins, the Nigerian government has not been able thus far to preserve its territorial integrity and political order against Boko Haram and the attacks to education and the enlightenment ideals that come with it.

Boko Haram is struggling vigorously to keep enlightenment far from the people because they know that quality education leads to freedom. A new generation of transformational leaders and independent thinkers must rise in Africa and promote enlightened education for this freedom to be realized.