Spreading fear and horror with the beheading of 11 Christians in Borno State, the Islamic State in West African Province (ISWAP) contaminated Christmas celebration in Nigeria. The violent sect, with that bloodshed, has left an indelible scar of sorrow in the lives of Christians, the bereaved families and Nigeria, as a nation. In the video that conveyed the obscene and barbaric images to the world, the Islamic sect claimed that Nigerian Christians had been made to pay the price for the elimination of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in a US operation in Syria in October 2019. Such thread of rhetoric fulfills a prediction by experts in terrorism studies that with the uprooting of ISIS from Iraq and Syria, the sect’s affiliates would work to carve a territory or caliphate headquarters for IS in the Sahel region. A series of heightened attacks in recent weeks by terror groups in West Africa – Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger Republic and even at Nigeria’s border with Cameroon – gives credence to the theory that this region is targeted as the next formidable stronghold for ISIS.
Taking place at a time when the sound of government’s denial of persecution of religious groups in Nigeria is yet to smolder, ISWAP’s merciless act has provided a horrible evidence to support US categorization of Nigeria as a country to watch on religious rights violation. In the US report, the activities of violent groups like Boko Haram, ISWAP, bandits, ethnic militia, and security agencies against religious groups – including Christians – and the apparent failure of government to protect victims – earned Nigeria that status. The report mentioned specifically that “The Nigerian federal government failed to implement effective strategies to prevent or stop such violence or to hold perpetrators accountable. Boko Haram and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-West Africa (ISIS-WA) continued to perpetrate attacks against civilians and the military throughout the year, despite the government’s claims of progress in defeating them.” This assessment of government’s approach to counter-insurgency is not far from the reality on ground. It, therefore, beats the imagination why government’s spokespersons rose to condemn the US report as if they were ignorant of contents of the report.
Wrong theology can be powerful and dangerous
Perhaps, it is a bloody irony that emerges in the rhetoric of violent sect that baffles everyone, an irony that throws back one’s memory to ancient times when similar rhetoric was employed to no profitable end. Each time Boko Haram and its mutations snuff life out of their victims, they would allude to obscure scriptures and dress their devilish acts as the ‘work of God.’ In many of their sermons, speeches and media outings, the sect’s leaders and their converts claimed they worked for God when they killed victims. Their converts, most of them young men or women of impressionable age, are taught that “destroying the enemy is God’s work.” The late Muhammad Yusuf, Abubakar Shekau, the late Osama bin Ladin, the late Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of ISIS, The Taliban of Afghanistan, the Al-Shabaab of Somalia, and al-Qaeda in Arabia, which had a stronghold in Yemen, used this phrase to colour their deadly campaigns against America (the West), Jews, Christians and Muslims who condone western lifestyle. For Christians who are conversant with the Bible, such wrong notion may not be shocking, as Jesus had predicted that “Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.” (John 16:2).
Violent extremists who ‘kill for God’ are unnecessarily repeating history, which they would sadly regret when the veil of Satan is removed and they are faced with the truth that the havoc they did for the devil who is their god can no longer be reversed. Students of history are not unaware of the persecution of Jews for over 1500 years on the basis of a wrong assumption that God had rejected them as His Chosen People because they violated the covenant between God and their forebearer Abraham. The persecution began from an unexpected quarters, from the fledgling Christian community, which basked in the State power thrust upon it by the conversion of Emperor Constantine to the Christian faith. In the Fourth Century AD after Constantine converted, fostering the transition of the empire to Christianity, some Christian leaders engaged in an illogical semantic extension of some scriptures by appropriating the Abrahamic covenant, arguing that Christians had become the new Chosen People of God and that Jews had been rejected because they disobeyed God and killed Jesus Christ. This concept developed into a field of study called Replacement Theology.
But it did not stop as a genre of Theology. This wrong thinking laid the dangerous foundation for the persecution of Jews from year to year, decade to decade, century to century and even generation to generation. Laws that denied Jews basic human rights were enacted, some of them as ridiculous as saying Jews must be relegated to the ghetto of every city; they must not hire Christian servants; or when a Jew took a Christian to court, the judge must decide the case against Jews, and when a Christian took a Jew to court, the case must be decided against the Jew. Jews were described as pigs, as sub-humans, the rejected of the earth. This bias against Jews reigned all over Europe and prepared the fertile ground for the massacre of Jews in Auschwitz gas chambers by Adolf Hitler, and tragedy of Holocaust. Nazi Germany rode of the crest of a wrong Church doctrine to execute their Aryan ideology meant to annihilate the Jewish race.
After shedding the blood of millions of Jews for over one thousand years, the Church realized in 1950 that what was called Replacement Theology was a tragic error and that “God’s promise is valid for His Chosen People, even after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.” The Presbyterian Church, in 1987, regretted the theology by saying, “It is agonizing to discover that the church’s teaching of contempt [for the Jews] was a major ingredient that made possible the monstrous policy of annihilation of Jews by Nazi Germany.”
Wrong theology can be powerful and dangerous. When Boko Haram engages in the massacre of Nigerians, like the beheading of 11 Christians during Christmas celebration, or engages in untold atrocities, it operates on the theology that any system that is not Islamic is idolatry, and adherents of such systems must be destroyed. The onus rests of Islamic scholars to rise confidently and powerfully against such warped theology by debunking it. Those who had read widely would realize that religions are complementary, and those who fight for God do so in futility because God can use any element to fight His battles.
Most importantly, the ugly incident at Christmas was a challenge to government that Nigerians in rural areas need to be protected from terrorists and bandits who have invaded ungoverned territories in Nigeria. Government should add action to their rhetoric. Violent extremists should be made to feel the steely strength of the authority, not just to hear threats of a future capture and punishment. Government must protect Nigerians from wrong-headed zealots who work for Satan but claim to do the work of God.