Politics & Policy

Burning Books and Children

Bush was right: They do hate us for our freedom.

President George W. Bush had a peculiar way with words. He was relentlessly mocked for saying of al-Qaeda et al., “They hate our freedoms — our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other,” which was soon reduced to “They hate us for our freedoms” and held up for scorn. “No, dummy,” said both the antiwar Right and antiwar Left (Remember the antiwar Left? Whatever happened to those guys?), “they don’t hate us for our freedoms, they hate us for our bombs, for our support of strongman governments, for our alliance with Israel, etc.” As was so often the case, President Bush’s critics, left and right, got it wrong. They should have listened to his actual words and not relied upon the Will Ferrell précis.

There are no words adequate to the horrific attack on a group of schoolchildren in Nigeria, carried out by the jihadist Boko Haram outfit, a partner to the Algeria-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which claimed the lives of 42 children and teachers on Saturday. The jihadists set fire to the school and then shot children as they tried to escape; many were burned alive. It was the group’s third attack on a school this summer. Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers sent out the obligatory press release — because when it comes to terrorist massacres, America needs to hear from its union bosses — in which she identified a “violent religious sect” (no word on which religion) as the malefactor. “No religion demands the callous murder of children,” she wrote. Perhaps George W. Bush could take a moment to tutor Ms. Weingarten on the finer points of the English language: No religion should demand the callous murder of children. But one does. The word “Islam” of course appears nowhere in that press release. It is necessary to hear what is said, and equally necessary to hear what is not said.

Liberal values — “our freedoms,” in President Bush’s words — are precisely what Boko Haram objects to, which is why the organization makes a point of attacking schools.

The organization’s name is the subject of some linguistic dispute, which may seem trivial but is not. “Boko” is a Hausa word meaning “education,” an adaptation of the English word “book.” “Haraam” and “haram” are related terms in Islamic jurisprudence, both denoting “forbidden.” “Haraam” is the opposite of “halal” and denotes the highest level of religious prohibition; “haram” means “sacred,” or forbidden in the sense that access to holy places and sanctuaries is restricted.

It is a linguistic irony that the Arabic word for “sacred” is closely related to the word for “sinful,” both deriving from an earlier Semitic word for “forbidden,” used to denote a restricted place, as in the English borrowing “harem.” It is another linguistic irony that Boko Haram, an anti-Western group (formally Jamā’a Ahl al-Sunnah li-Da’wa wa al-Jihād, or Congregation and People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad), cannot express its agenda without adapting an English word in Hausa. “Boko Haram” is generally translated as “Western education is sinful,” but it might well be rendered “books are banned.”

Boko Haram is a mutant: part indigenous group, part Islamist group, part motorcycle gang, founded by a virulently anti-Western cleric with a graduate degree, good English, and a Mercedes-Benz. Some analysts describe it as a cult. But we should not dismiss the group’s own words: It is an organization for Islamic proselytism and jihad, and its aim is, among other things, to forbid education.

Boko Haram is hardly the only group of Muslims opposed to education. The Taliban routinely attacks girls on their way to school in Pakistan. In Afghanistan, jihadists have managed to cripple the education of girls. Islam, deriving as it does from the Jewish tradition, venerates scholarship — but not all scholarship, and not all scholars. Boko Haram may not be orthodox in its understanding of Islam, but both its means and its ends would be more than familiar in many other Islamic societies. Likewise, its anti-Western agenda — killing Europeans, bombing the UN building in Abuja — is not at all dissimilar to what we have experienced in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

But while Afghanistan can (and probably will) simply sink into a more or less self-contained oblivion, Nigeria can hardly withdraw from the world. It is an important player in the global energy economy, and Lagos is a center of culture and commerce. Nigeria is the seventh-largest country in the world, home to 170 million people, half of them Christians. This isn’t Waziristan. Islam can hang a haram sign at the Afghan border, but it cannot do so in Nigeria.

The Bush project — creating reasonably liberal and democratic regimes in the Middle East — has failed. Its execution was faulty, and so were its premises. But Bush was right about the thing he was mocked for: Jihadists hate us for our values, and they hate schoolchildren in Nigeria and Pakistan to the extent that they share those values, an allegiance defined by the act of picking up a book or walking into a classroom. Islam and the West simply have competing and incompatible sets of values, and that discrepancy, while most dramatically apparent in actions such as those of Boko Haram, is not limited to extremists. Nor is it limited to such Muslim-dominated backwaters as Afghanistan. Walking to a kebab shop in the 1990s in Delhi, one of the most civilized cities in the world, I had garbage (and what I assume were insults) hurled at me by a crowd of angry young Muslims for reasons that mystified me until I learned that the source of offense was my girlfriend’s pants. (There was nothing remarkable about them, beyond their being pants.) We were not going to the famous Jama Masjid, but we were in the same neighborhood as that mosque, the haram-ness of which apparently is diffused through its precincts. Some years later, a busload of tourists was shot up a few blocks away by the Indian Mujahideen. Muslims may be outnumbered 7 to 1 in India, but still they intend to have their way.

As Andrew C. McCarthy always points out, we should not be surprised that Islamic societies are full of people who prefer Islamic civilization to Western civilization. It isn’t just the terrorists who reject our liberal values and democratic institutions. Our failure in Iraq and Afghanistan will make Americans more cautious about the prospects of military engagements in the Islamic world, and that’s for the better, but it will also tempt us to ignore that world so long as Boko Haram is in Nigeria instead of New Jersey. That is not really an option, either: Ron Paul types who believe that Islam will leave us alone if we leave Islam alone are deluding themselves, as are libertarians who believe that things like commercial relations and cultural exchange are going to be sufficient to lubricate away the friction between Islam and the West.

What we can do is be honest, at least with ourselves, about the nature of the problem. The world is shrinking, and the two main contenders for global cultural hegemony are Islam and Western liberalism. Islam is a serious underdog but, at its edges, is serious enough about prevailing that it is willing to declare education itself a sin and to enforce injunctions against it by burning children alive. President Bush got a lot of things wrong, but he got that much right: They do hate us for our freedom.

— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review. His newest book is The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.





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