Forced conversion their only hope?

May 16, 2014

In the latest video released by Boko Haram, more than 100 kidnapped girls are shown. Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s blood thirsty and erratic leader also delivers a chilling message – the girls have been converted to Islam and will remain Boko Haram’s prisoners until the group’s captured fighters are released from Nigerian prisons.


But a forced conversion may save their lives with Islamic law offering Muslim women some form of protection. On release and an inevitable return to their Christian faith, however, they would be stripped of that protection and Boko Haram would show no further mercy.


It is possible that the filming of the girls and Shekau’s message on the video came at two different times. He is not shown with the girls. Some of the girls shown in this video may also not be the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls, but girls captured from previous raids. Further it is not clear at what point in the capturing of the girls the video was taken – whether it was early on and only just now released, or whether it is actually current footage.


The girls are shown huddled together chanting the first verse from the Qur’an. They sit under trees in what appears to be a non-descript and rural area. Two of the girls, standing towards the back of the group hold a large black banner with white writing in Arabic script. It is the opening of the Shahada, or Islam’s creed, which those converting to Islam must repeat three times: ‘There is no God but God…’ The girls are clothed in full chadour – an Islamic cloak-like garment that covers the body from head to foot, but leaves the face visible. One girl shuffles towards the camera, fearful and meekly recites verses from the Qur’an. Two other girls similarly do the same. Two of the girls say that they were Christian, and the other that she is Muslim.


Hostility to education


Given Boko Haram’s hostility to western forms of education, it is interesting that the video gives the impression of the schoolgirls being in a classroom setting. They sit in orderly lines repeating Qur’anic verses by rote – a method popular in Islamic schools, and is a memorisation technique based on constant repetition. That the girls are reciting the first verse of the Qur’an shows that their re-education is underway, and that they have started from the beginning. The one and only text for the ‘classroom’ is likely to be the Qur’an. This is important, because this image serves to reinforce one aspect of Boko Haram – an aspect that the movement is keen to stress. Boko Haram is often translated as ‘Western education is forbidden’ and vehemently preaches against any form of non-Islamic teaching. In this video, Boko Haram is putting into practice what it preaches. That is a return to education being based on a fully Islamic system and on the traditional method of schooling that had been established in the north of Nigeria prior to Britain’s colonisation of the country. The system of education is that of the al-Majiri – those that leave their homes in order to seek out knowledge. It is often informal, with students congregating under a tree. For girls, this form of education is limited, and consists only of the basics of Islam.


Shekau, with a gun strapped across his chest, and wielding a miswak – a toothbrush like twig, supposedly used by the Prophet Muhammad to brush his teeth – gesticulates and in an animated manner tells us why the girls were taken. The first is that contrary to what people are saying, the girls have not been kidnapped, but rather ‘liberated’. Shekau repeats this three times: ‘We have indeed liberated them’. At the same time, and in a contradictory fashion repeats his assertion that the capturing of slaves is allowed under Islam. For Shekau and Boko Haram, these schoolgirls, most of whom are Christian, were captives to a corrupt and faithless system, attending schools that did not teach Islam, but instead a western education that was serving to inculcate in the girls a form of debased and immoral fantasy. An education that stemmed from a Christian colonisation of Nigeria, and which was serving to divorce the girls from what Boko Haram sees as the Islamic heritage of Northern Nigeria – once the homeland of the great Muslim Kanem-Borno Empire. The video serves to show that Boko Haram is working to rectify the situation and allowing the girls a chance at what the movement regards as real freedom – the freedom to be Muslim women – of course this is a perverse form of Islam as interpreted by the group.


The girls, Shekau reiterates, ‘have become Muslims’. They are dressed as Muslims, they chant from the Qur’an and will be expected to behave as Muslim women. Of course, the girls will have had no choice in the matter, and if one good thing is to come of this, it is that Muslim women are accorded some protection under Islamic law - the Shari’a. This hopefully means that unlike in the past where Boko Haram has abducted, sexually assaulted and raped Christian women, these girls may yet remain safe. Disturbingly, if the girls are rescued and freed, and chose to return to their Christian faiths (which most are likely to do), they will be labeled as apostates under Boko Haram’s interpretation of Islam and come under attack – this time there would be no mercy.


So, what will it take for Boko Haram to release the girls? The girls were captured to be converted to Islam, but also as a form of leverage. Addressing the Nigerian government, Shekau says: ‘It is now four or five years that you arrested our brethren and they are still in your prison’. The capturing of the schoolgirls comes as a form of retaliation for the capturing and imprisoning of Boko Haram fighters. For Shekau, ‘we will never release them (the schoolgirls) until after you release our brethren’. The message is simple. Boko Haram is willing to exchange the schoolgirls for their brethren in prison.




The video brings an atmosphere of hope to the situation. At least some of the Chibok schoolgirls and girls captured from previous raids – the ones shown in the video – may still be alive. The remaining girls may have been separated into a number of different groups to allow Boko Haram better operational capacity in the bush – although the reality is that we do not know for sure. As pressure mounts on the Nigerian government to take some form of action, and to secure the safe release of the girls, the next week is likely to be critical. The Nigerian government has already said that Boko Haram is in no moral position to be making such demands, and that they will not accept an ultimatum. They are, however, open to some negotiations. If a resolution is not reached, the girls could be taken across the border into Chad or Cameroon (if they are not already there). And as Shekau promised in a previous message – he has no qualms with selling the girls at a market, or marrying them off to his fighters – even the ones as young as nine – ‘just as it was done to Aisha…wife of the Prophet’.



Zacharias Pieri is a Research Fellow with the Citizenship Initiative, University of South Florida. He is an expert on Islamist movements, and has recently been examining the relationships between religion, politics and violence in West Africa.

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