Last month, Prof. Ousman Kobo travelled to Western Kentucky University to give the 2018 Harrison Distinguished Lecture. His lecture was entitled, "Good Muslims, Bad Muslims: Colonial Enlightenment Discourse an the Genesis of Salafi Movements in West Africa."
His talk started with the question: why did the rejection of secular education by the leaders of Boko Haram, the notorious Nigerian terrorist group (whose name is often translated as “Western education is a sin”), appeal to a segment of Nigerian Muslim youths?
Prof. Kobo traced the historical roots of non-violent Salafi/Wahhabi movements in West Africa to colonial secular education and the departure of groups such as Boko Haram from the mainstream Salafi movement. It then explored how, at the end of colonial rule in the 1960s, pro-independence Muslims with secular educations who were critical of the broader impacts of colonial rule applied Enlightenment discourses and the colonial critique of Islam to explain what they considered limited spiritual and material progress among Muslims. Their search for an “enlightened” Islam encouraged them to gravitate toward young Salafi/Wahhabi scholars who were preaching a new form of Islam that challenged the status quo and offered new opportunities to recreate the “authentic” Islam of the Prophet’s era. The two groups’ self-conscious promotion of what they considered an enlightened and spiritually purer Islam in step with the emerging post-colonial realities helped the rapid growth of Salafi/Wahhabi movements in West Africa between the 1960s and the 1980s. The more recent rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria, in contrast, is a radical attempt to reverse that alliance, and to reset the clock to the era before what Boko Haram leaders declared the “corruptive” tendencies of secular education and modernity left Muslims spiritually and materially bankrupt.