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Over the past few months, Boko Haram, the north Nigerian extremist organisation whose name means "Western education is forbidden," has escalated its three-year terror campaign with a string of audacious, deadly strikes against both government affiliates and civilians. Most dramatic were late January's bombings in the north Nigerian city of Kano, which killed nearly 200 people. As Boko Haram promises further attacks, the violence shows no sign of abating.

The group has drawn international concern — including American military, diplomatic, and development attention under the multi-agency Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative — focused on a remote and little-known region in western Africa, where not only Boko Haram but also Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) prey on some of the world's poorest peoples.

To combat the rising threat, the West must embrace as potential allies the conservative Muslims who dominate this turbulent region. But there is a real danger that western analysts will mistakenly identify north Nigeria's conservative Islam with Boko Haram's violent ideology, instead of seeing the extremists for who they are: violent groups espousing fringe views that most Nigerian Muslims reject.

Islam is the social and cultural glue of north Nigeria. In an impoverished and politically corrupt society with intense grievances against the southern-dominated government, Islam provides essential moral and social bearing for people in the north of the country.

Islam has a deep history in north Nigeria, one punctuated by regular movements calling for purification and renewal. Usman Dan Fodio's 19th-century jihad established a conservative caliphate across the region. Although the caliphate's capital was in Sokoto (now in northwestern Nigeria), the city of Kano became a centre of commerce and Islamic learning that attracted migrants from across West Africa.

Vaccine crisis

To this day, northerners identify with the pre-colonial past, and traditional leaders such as the Emir of Kano adhere to Usman Dan Fodio's Qadriyya branch of Sufi Islam. The colonial experience established a persistent mistrust of western motives that continues to this day, and a fear that westerners seek to erode Islamic culture through Christian conversion. The vaccine crisis of 2003-05, when northerners rejected the polio inoculation as a plot to sterilise Muslims, was a recent expression of this fear.

In the 1970s, 20 years after independence and a decade after Nigeria's brutal civil war, a new fundamentalism, inspired by Wahabi philosophy, swept across north Nigeria. Nigerian Salafism, known locally as Izala, was at once fundamentalist and modernist. Adherents of Izala rejected traditional Nigerian sects for practising an impure form of Islam and called for a return to the ideas and lifestyles of the Prophet Mohammad's (PBUH) generation.

The Izala movement took hold among north Nigeria's incipient educated middle class — its professionals, merchants, and businessmen — in part because of the modern ideas it claimed to find in original texts. Against traditional hierarchies, Izala promoted individual learning and faith, modern business practices, and education that included western subjects, arguing that none of these were forbidden in the Quran. It even encouraged some education for women. Nigerian Salafists, in other words, urged an Islamic rapprochement with modernity, a trend documented in numerous scholarly works. To westerners, who associate Salafism with the virulent beliefs of the Taliban and Al Qaida, this is a surprising mix. It has become common since September 11 to distinguish between moderate and fundamentalist Islam and to see the latter as an enemy.

The region's past reveals a complex religious landscape. While northern fundamentalism is ubiquitous and deeply entrenched, it is not monolithic, but exhibits substantial diversity in cultural and political convictions, openness to outside collaboration, and sometimes progressive attitudes towards modern life.

Perhaps most striking, all of Nigeria's dominant sects reject Boko Haram, which touts a violent, anti-Western ideology concocted mostly in the head of its founder Mohammad Yousuf, who was killed in 2009 while in police custody. His movement draws recruits from among the millions of desperate poor, many of them children, abandoned by an inept government and a collapsing economy. Rampant hopelessness and seething resentment win far more recruits to violence than do fundamentalist Islamic tenets.

Any successful counter-extremism measure in northern Nigeria must rely on conservative Muslim support. Yet sensitivity and mistrust of outsiders run high. If western strategists repudiate fundamentalist Islam as intrinsically extremist and fail to recognise that most northern Muslims, including the Salafist Izala, share a rejection of violence, they risk alienating the only local allies available in the fight against Nigeria's true extremists.

— Christian Science Monitor

 Michael Gubser is a professor of history at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is completing a study of recent USAID education programmes in Kano, North Nigeria.