Notes From the Margins…

Nick Cohen’s Mad Mad World

  • May 05, 2014
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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.


  1. Richard Carter

    6th May 2014 - 6:57 am

    Excellent piece, Matt, on a significant issue – though a shame it had to be structured round that waste of space Cohen (is he on the Melanie Philips trail from vaguely left-wing to rabid rightist?).

    Something to add on the wider issue: although the Nigerian government has, rightly, been widely criticised over its complete inaction over the kidnapped girls. But never fear, the Nigerian police have sprung into action (better late than never!): it’s reported in today’s Guardian that “police [have] questioned ‘Gbenga Sesan – the activist behind the popular Twitter campaign #BringBackOurGirls – and two women who helped organise protests calling for the government to do more to rescue the girls.

    Saratu Angus Ndirpaya and Naomi Mutah Nyadar were detained after attending a meeting with the president’s wife, Patience, who, in a bizarre twist, suggested the mass abductions had never happened and were instead a conspiracy to derail her husband’s presidential campaign for elections next year.” (

    I don’t use Twitter but if I did, I’d be doing my damndest to spread the word on #BringBackOurGirls

    • Matt

      6th May 2014 - 8:57 am

      I think Cohen is becoming like Phillips not only in his political trajectory, but also in the illogic of his arguments. I saw the news about the arrest today. What a disgrace. The Nigerian government has performed disastrously on this issue, as it has on so much else. It really doesn’t give a damm.

  2. Mr. Workaday

    6th May 2014 - 9:24 pm

    I picture him in the garden having heated rows with the straw men he’s created –

  3. IK

    6th May 2014 - 9:52 pm

    Matt, Nick Cohen might be a waste of space, but why is there such little focus on the 200 girls who have gone missing. You must have seen the video etc by now of the Boko Haram leader who is threatening to marry off and/or sell off girls in the market. So the word indeed is ‘enslaved’ than mere abducted. 8 girls have gone missing today as well. What do you say to that? Whatever the origins of the organisation, Boko Haram must be condemned and not just explained away.

    • Matt

      6th May 2014 - 10:12 pm

      Firstly, I have tweeted about the girls. I have also written about Boko Haram. You want to know what I think of them? Read this, which I posted last year:

      When I wrote my piece about Cohen, the girls hadn’t been ‘enslaved’. They still haven’t, even if Shekhour is threatening to do it.

      Also I don’t add the qualifier ‘mere’ before ‘abducted’ or ‘kidnapped.’ As I said in my piece, I don’t consider abduction to be a euphemism, but something sufficiently horrendous in itself. What on earth is there in my piece that makes you think I don’t ‘condemn’ Boko Haram – and want them ‘explained away’? Are you seriously suggesting that I or anyone else is attempting to suggest that kidnapping and killing schoolchildren is somehow justifiable? Please don’t try to lay that ‘apologist’ charge on me.

      Why the fuss about Cohen? a) Because he has used this truly horrific atrocity to pursue a vendetta against people who had nothing to do with it, and who do not espouse the views that he says they do, and someone who does such a thing should not be allowed to get away with it b) because his attempt to ‘explain’ Boko Haram is shallow and intellectually void.

      If you want some idea what Boko Haram is all about, read the International Crisis Group report: It doesn’t ‘explain away’ – it attempts to explain and to understand – something that Cohen has no interest in.

      And one last thing: since when did trying to understand something ever mean to ‘explain it away’?

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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