In the News: Captain America, Serpents, Google’s Gods, and more!

A round-up of recent religion and media stories in the news. Continue Reading →

Of Shrines and Syncretists

by Alex Thurston Teju Cole analyzes the destruction of the shrines by analogy: Mali is premodern Europe; Mali is Afghanistan under the Taliban…Then comes the interesting analogy: Timbuktu is Mecca at the time of its conquest by the forces of the Prophet… Continue Reading →

Nigerian Universities: Islamic Studies in Secular Universities

By Alex Thurston

Nigeria has around 100 universities, most of them public, and many public and private colleges. Various tertiary institutions in Northern Nigeria offer Islamic Studies, sometimes conjoined with Arabic. Continue Reading →

The World Before Her: Making Indian Women

A review of The World Before Her, now showing in the Tribeca Film Festival.

by Natasha Raheja

 The opening sequence of director Nisha Pahuja’s documentary The World Before Her cuts sharply between salwar kameez and swimsuits, Marathi and English, Bombay and Aurangabad, stilettos and chappals, open hair and plaits, bhangra beats and nationalistic hymns, saffron and skin. At first glance, these images serve to contrast tradition and modernity. As the film proceeds, though, Pahuja seems to be weaving a more subtle story as she tracks the process of two different camps for young Indian women: the month long “beauty boot camp” for the twenty Miss India Pageant finalists, who are taught to walk, to speak, to dress, to display themselves for stage and cameras; and the Hindu nationalist Durga Vahini camp for adolescent girls, who are likewise trained but according to a quite different set of norms. The film asks, how are both paradigms in all of their glory equally dignifying and disempowering for the women they subsume?  Does modernity occur respectively or irrespective of tradition?

In its exploration of these questions, the film enters two ostensibly opposed worlds that culminate in beauty pageants and supermodels on the one hand and political rallies and powerful female purveyors of Hindutva (a concept meaning loosely “Hinduness” and championed by various Hindu nationalist organizations) on the other.  One set of women submit to botoxing, skin bleaching and instructions for losing weight and fitting into bikinis, while the other set, also upon command, run in fields in preparation for the full defense of their religion against foreigners, Christians and Muslims—by violence if necessary—and submit to vicious exhortations about the false promises of careers and feminism. The camps emerge as comparable institutionalized modes for the training and cultivating of young Indian women as competent subjects, despite the differences in how that subjecthood is defined. Continue Reading →

Education as Battleground: Schooling Muslims in Northern Nigeria

by Alex Thurston

This post is the first of a series on Muslim schooling in Northern Nigeria.

Steady acts of violence carried out by Northern Nigeria’s rebel movement Boko Haram, whose name is often translated in the press as “Western education is forbidden,” has put issues of Muslim education in the region into the international news. Coverage of these issues has intensified with Boko Haram’s recent campaign of torching government schools in Maiduguri, the movement’s home base.

Boko Haram’s targets range well beyond schools – indeed, it has focused more on assassinating state security personnel, politicians, and rival religious leaders than on burning down schools. But the anti-schools campaign raises a set of questions about Muslim schooling in Northern Nigeria: What kinds of schools exist? How has schooling in the region changed over time? And what attitudes do Northern Muslims hold toward these different schools? These questions are critical for understanding Boko Haram but also, if one moves beyond headline-grabbing violence, for grasping more broadly what it means to be Muslim in Northern Nigeria, one of the largest Muslim communities in the world.

Schools are some of the main institutions where religious knowledge is shaped and transmitted and where attitudes toward society are formed. Schooling often stands as a powerful – and fiercely contested – symbol for community values. For Boko Haram, Western-style education seems to stand in for a whole complex of issues, including the perceived political dominance, corruption, and failure of Nigeria’s Western-educated elites. Other Northern Nigerian Muslims see Western-style schools as a pathway to future success for their children and transformation for Nigeria. Still others see Qur’anic schooling as an absolute necessity for forming moral Muslim children. Yet others send their children to hybrid “Islamiyya” schools, where students spend part of their time on religious studies, and part on subjects like English, science, and mathematics. Then again, some Northern Nigerian Muslims place their children in multiple different kinds of schools. All of these choices reflect different viewpoints about the spiritual and material value of schooling. Continue Reading →

Boko Haram in National Perspective

By Alex Thurston

Violence by Boko Haram, a rebel sect in Northern Nigeria that claims to be waging an Islamic jihad against the Nigerian state, has killed over 900 people since 2009, including over 250 in 2012 alone. Domestic and international analysts warn that pervasive insecurity in the country’s Northeast, and periodic strikes by Boko Haram in the capital Abuja and major cities like Kano, are weakening the legitimacy of President Goodluck Jonathan, who like many of his fellow Southern Nigerians is Christian (the North is primarily Muslim). Near-daily commentary speculates that Nigeria is “on the brink” – of civil war, of state failure, or of just plain being a mess. And yet in the South, where much of the country’s economic activity is located, business is going on more or less as usual. Oil is flowing at around two billion barrels per day. Citibank plans to double its investments in Nigeria, to $2 billion, in 2012. Growth, though down slightly from last year’s 7.7%, is projected at 7.2% for the year. The South has its own problems, but the different trajectories of North and South do raise a question about Boko Haram – is the movement just a Northern problem, or is it a national one?

The answer to this question will depend on the movement’s military and organizational capacity, but it will also depend on how the movement’s violence affects existing ethnic, religious, and regional fault lines in Nigeria. These fault lines exist both within the country’s two halves and between them. Continue Reading →