Even by his standards, Nick Cohen’s column on Boko Haram in The Guardian on Saturday is a stunningly lazy and incoherent piece of gibberish. Pretending to care, really really care, about the 230 schoolgirls who were abducted by Boko Haram, Cohen seeks to indict ‘the left’ not only for not caring as much as he does, but for somehow acting as apologists for these events, and for showing a ‘failure of solidarity’.
Which components of ‘the left’ is Cohen referring to? As always the object of Cohen’s outrage isn’t always clear even to himself. He begins by suggesting that ‘parts of the press’ have concealed the horror of the kidnappings through ‘ a world of euphemism’, by using words like ‘abducted’ or ‘kidnapped’, rather than ‘enslaved’ to describe the fate of the girls.
Since when did abduction and kidnapping become ‘euphemisms’, one might ask? They are in fact accurate terms to describe what has happened to the girls, especially since most them have not been ‘enslaved’ – at least not yet. That is why the Nigerian government is currently negotiating with Boko Haram to try and get them released.
But semantics aren’t really the issue here. According to the straight-talking,fearless Cohen, ‘writers’ use such ‘euphemisms’ because they are afraid of ‘demonising the other.’ Which writers? Cohen doesn’t say. These politically-correct moral cowards can be found in ‘today’s papers’, he says. But then again, they can also be found in the ‘theoretical pages of leftwing journals’ where ‘you find that the grounds for understanding Boko Haram more and condemning it less were prepared last year.’
Which journals? What did they say to ‘prepare’ for this outcome? Cohen does not enlighten his readers. Instead he indicts ‘socialists’ who ‘without fully endorsing’ Boko Haram, have nevertheless found that Boko Haram ‘ finds “resonance in the hearts of many poor and dispossessed” people, who are revolted by “the corruption and flamboyant lifestyle of the elites. Islamism is recast as a rational reaction to local corruption and the global oppression of “neoliberalism”, one of those conveniently vague labels that can mean just about anything.’
This a flat-out, flagrant smear, of the kind that anyone familiar with Cohen’s dire output will already be familiar with. I know of no one, either left or right, who even comes close to ‘endorsing’ Boko Haram, and I doubt if Cohen does either.
Let’s just go back to political primary school here, and remind ourselves that there is no political movement or manifestation, no matter how horrendous or brutal, that cannot be subjected to intellectual analysis, regarding its motives, its history, its organizational structure, the sources of its popularity, the political and historical context that gave rise to it, its ideology, and so on.
Two weeks ago I took part in a radio discussion with four panelists who were extremely knowledgeable about Boko Haram. I have no idea what their politics were, but all of them agreed that Boko Haram is to some extent a consequence of the staggering failure of governance in one of the most corrupt countries in the world – a failure that has been particularly striking in the northeast provinces of Nigeria where Boko Haram is predominantly centred.
The International Crisis Group – not a ‘socialist’ organization, by any stretch of the imagination – also sees the Boko Haram insurgency – in part – as a product of a government that has abjectly failed to do anything for the population of the northeast except repress them, and whose blunders helped transform a religious revivalist movement into the deadly jihadist/gangster insurgency that has now reached the Nigerian capital.
To point this out does not mean that Boko Haram is ‘rational’ and it certainly does not mean that it is ‘good’.
For Cohen however, ‘understanding’ and analysis is a form of intellectual collusion, because Boko Haram are beyond any understanding except his own childish notion that Boko Haram is ‘fascistic’ because it calls itself ‘western education is forbidden’.
In fact it doesn’t call itself that – its actual name is ‘The Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad’. Boko Haram is a Hausa nickname that was imposed on it and which has come to stick. But never mind; in Cohen-land, Boko Haram is ‘Islamist’ and therefore ‘fascistic’ because ‘they will stop all teaching that conflicts with a holy book from the 7th century’ and because ‘ a desire for sexual supremacy accompanies their loathing of knowledge.
Historians may be surprised to know that this is what defines fascism. For Cohen, however ‘fascism’ simply means ‘bad people’ or rather ‘bad people who should be bombed’, and anyone who thinks otherwise might as well be walking around in black shirts and swastika insignia.
There are Salafist revivalist groups, in Nigeria and elsewhere, that also dream of the ‘virtuous’ Islamic community modelled on the Koran, but would never dream of engaging in violent jihad or waging war against the state. Are they ‘fascist’ too? Why did Boko Haram take the course that it did? How come it evolved from a small, but essentially pacific religious revivalist movement into an armed insurgency? What explains the indisputable fact that it has got larger, not smaller?
These are not questions to delay the anti-fascist crusader, because somehow, Boko Haram is the left’s fault. How so? Because ‘western leftists’ espouse ‘the belief that the west is the root cause of the only oppression worth mentioning’ and therefore ‘resemble American neoconservatives’, in promoting a reductionist view of the world that is ‘in its own way racist.’
Say whaat? And what has this ‘occidentalism’, as Cohen calls it, got to do with Boko Haram? Because ‘Boko Haram is not reacting to western intervention in Nigeria, for there is none.’
Who says that it is? Once again, Cohen doesn’t say. But he still somehow manages to indict ‘leftists’ for a failure of solidarity towards the kidnapped girls and the ‘denial of women’s rights’ that they embody, because ‘leftists, and again I am generalising’ tend to ‘change the conversation to anything except the deeds of the criminals in front of them.’
In fact Cohen is not generalising; he is constructing fantastic straw men to make himself appear like some brave moral crusader. He is doing what many people who have undergone the evolution from liberal-leftists into establishment drones have done before him, namely, trying to indict ‘the left’ by presenting himself as the real genuine upholder of leftist principles.
For Cohen, it was the left that abandoned him, not the other way round. They no doubt love this kind of thing in The Spectator and Standpoint, and judging from the number of ‘likes’ his piece has got, readers of The Guardian are also partial to Cohen’s banalities.
That is a great pity, because for readers looking for an understanding of the horror that is Boko Haram, this is really very thin gruel indeed. And for this this reader at least, a writer who would use an awful event like the Nigerian kidnappings to conduct a fake ideological vendetta, is neither brave nor honest, but a contemptible narcissist peddling self-aggrandising delusions to himself and his readers.