Boko Haram


How Some Places Still Think Honor Killings (And Other Similar Monstrosities) Are Good Ideas

Over here in the Gulf states, there’s a wretched little practice called “Blood money.”  Say you’re driving home and you just don’t feel like paying attention to the road.  Say you drive over a poor guy from India or Pakistan and kill him.  In developed countries, if it can be proven you were negligent, you’d be facing jail time.  Over here, you might merely be facing a credit card bill.  That’s because Islamic law as practiced within the Gulf states allows a victim’s family the choice to demand cash from the perpetrator in lieu of jail or execution.

The perverse rule here is that the rich (0r those backed by the rich) may kill as they like so long as they do it to families desperate enough to accept cash over justice.  It does not order society any better, and yet remains both unchallenged and popular.  This is not a simple matter of the sheikhs taking good care of themselves, but of whole societies agreeing on this very topic.

And if there were elections allowed here, blood money reform would not appear on them.  Democracy, in other word, would hardly liberalize anything.

Pretty horrible thinking. But some elites will think its more dangerous to take on a bad cultural practice than simply ignore it.

And one might well see such a thing in Pakistan over honor killings

Up to 1000 women die a year in Pakistan over what are termed “honor killings.”  When that poor woman was murdered by her evil little family in Lahore last week, it was merely a more public version of what happens across the country each year.  Even though Pakistan is a functioning democracy, honor killings remain rife and largely unchallenged.  Regular people use them all the time to enforce social norms.  The question is – why?

Culture is that thing that’s supposed to tell us what to do about problems long before we encounter them

Culture is a prescribed set of behaviors for a given group of people.  It tells you who to marry and when, how you can have a good marriage vs. a bad one, what kinds of people are good and what kinds are bad, and has an answer to pretty much every social choice you’ll ever encounter.

Culture is a more primitive form of behavioral science.  It changes according to how successful it is, and, like science, to change a cultural rule requires repeated demonstrations that a certain behavior makes society worse rather than better.  Unlike science, however, culture changes slowly and has less rigidly defined rules.  People can and do reject perfectly good lessons from other cultures simply because they are foreign.

Culture, as well, is heavily influenced by geopolitics and the demands of a nation-state

When did women in America make their great breakthroughs in society?  Not, as it might be assumed, when they won the right to vote, which should have given them the power to make choices independent of their families and husbands.  No, it wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that women firmly and permanently broke ranks and assumed the more modern roles we know and have today.  But why?

Yes, but when the war ends, we’ll have no need for you.

Mostly because America of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s simply didn’t need women to be independent just yet.  This was an America with much of the economy still dominated by physically intensive labor in factories and farms.  They were allowed – and the key word here is “allowed” – to work during World War II with the understanding that when the emergency ended, they’d return to the kitchen.  America’s economy did not yet have a place for large amounts of women; therefore, they remained traditionally rooted.

But the advent of technologies that created America’s now-dominant service sector opened up the economy to women.  Culture followed the money; companies that hired women thrived while those that shut them out grew less and less competitive.  In addition, the great geopolitical challenge from the Soviet Union forced America’s government to mobilize as much of its population as possible and tackle cultural constructs that excluded people from working.  It was no accident that America’s civil rights movement gathered the most steam at the height of the Cold War.  Eisenhower, a former general who understood it didn’t matter what color soldiers were, needed no convincing to force Southern bigots to change their ways at the end of a bayonet.

The fact that no one is allowed to wipe out nation-states any more has meant few cultures face these kinds of emergencies

Turkey is a fine example of a state that modernized because it felt it had to.  In the wake of World War I, with the Ottoman Empire fallen and the rump of its glory under threat from Greeks, Russians, and Kurds, Turkish elites forced modernization down the throats of their people in the belief that only Western-style education, military discipline, and economic organization could save their state.

When elites were threatened by neighboring states, they understood the necessity of advancing as rapidly as possible over the objections of their traditionalists.  This was a process undergone in Egypt in the 50s and 60s, Turkey in the 20s and 30s, America in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and both India and Pakistan in the 60s and 70s.  But as it became clear during the Cold War that the kinds of border changes that happened during World War II were not going to happen again without America or the Soviet Union allowing them, elites realized the great challenge was not from neighboring states, who couldn’t launch invasions to destroy them, but their own people, who could get away with revolutions, coups, and civil wars.

Elites in these states therefore drew not upon the cultural knowledge of the West but upon their own traditions, cementing them in place as they built fortresses to ensure their power was unassailable within their own borders.

The real enemy is within these days.

So it’s no accident that bad geopolitical ideas, as cultural conservatism tends to be, survive unchallenged in many places

In the past century, a lot of states have overseen the change of society from those that value groups to those that value individuals.  This is the only way that you can make a capitalist economy work well, since valuing groups (like tribes, families, etc.) creates your run-of-the-mill nepotism that eats away at efficiency.  Those that have done so the fastest are those that were threatened most geopolitically.  When geopolitical threats subsides, the pace of change slows because the necessity just isn’t there.

Pakistan’s greatest threat today is no longer India.  With nuclear weapons, no outsider can destroy the Pakistani state.  Rather, militant cultural groups, like the Taliban, are the ones who could potentially murder the elites of Islamabad.  To siphon off some of their support, the Pakistani government must embrace certain aspects of conservatism where it can.  When it can’t embrace a practice wholly, it can just ignore the vilest bits if that means they keep the majority of their people quiet.

The process of globalization and worldwide economic competition is pushing these ideas to the side, but not nearly as fast as a war would

In the relatively brief six years of World War II, many European cultures ditched long-held traditions in racism, Antisemitism, militarism, jingoism, imperialism, and extreme nationalism because the emergency and chaos of the war created conditions by which all cultural rules had to be examined.  As Berlin burned, it became obvious that the pointless nationalism embraced by Europeans for centuries was dangerous; that antisemitism had driven away some of Germany’s best scientists and diverted resources to unnecessary death camps; that militarism and jingoism had led to defeat; and that imperialism, when fully exposed, wasn’t much better than what the Nazis were trying to do.

Since we’ll be having no Third World War (thank God), such conditions cannot be repeated.  Globalization, rather, is creating a lesser emergency – an economic one.  Peoples around the world expect a better life and are rightly getting pissed when their elites don’t deliver.  This is the pressure that will force the Pakistani state to act against its tradition of honor killings rather than any high-minded morals.  Honor killings, if anything, slow economic progress, but to be shown doing so will require time and patience.  That’s different than fighting a war, where time is short and action is more valuable than waiting on events.

The days  of such practices are waning, but this isn’t the last time we’ll see something nasty like this appear in the headlines.  The world’s elites will move slowly as they modernize their nations.

boko haram

How Can Boko Haram Sell Girls Into Slavery? The Answer, Dear Friends, Is All About State Power

Think back to your school days (or, if you’re still in school, think back to yesterday).  In every social organization with enough people, there must be at least one complete and utter dick.  He or she is the least pleasant person in the world to be around, amasses power through intimidation, violence, or manipulation, and is widely despised.  Thankfully, if you’re in school, you’re generally in a country with a strong enough police force that keeps their nasty habits in check.  This person can only do so much damage before they are jailed or killed.

But in some places, there are few cops.  Nigeria is one of them.

Nigeria’s a place too complicated for itself, and chaos has been its word of the day for over fifty years

Nobody has quite worked out why sub-Saharan Africa missed out on developing advanced civilizations along the same time as North Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, despite the fact that our species probably came from there.  There are guesses; for our purposes, what matters is not the how it happened but that it did.  Society prior to colonization in West Africa was based upon proto-kingdoms, clans, and tribes, with the environment conspiring against centralization.  The network of Nigeria’s rivers, its thick jungles, and its wide open northern frontiers that form part of what’s known as the Sahel made any would-be conquest extremely difficult.  Coalitions of tribes formed into kingdoms; these kingdoms were organized along natural geographical lines, using jungles, rivers, and deserts as borders.

When the British came, that was all swept aside.  With better organization, superior technology, and a willingness to lie like none other, Britain, one by one, conquered the kingdoms and lumped them into something they called “Nigeria.”  Nigeria was, for Britain, just a gigantic resource base to be exploited at will.  Britain applied its Indian model successfully for nearly 60 years in Nigeria – co-opting local elites into their colonial administration, giving political way when way had to be given, and eventually decolonizing in a hurry when it suited them.

Like India, the Nigerian colony was too diverse to become a nation-state peacefully.  The How-To of Decolonization took effect, and as soon as the British left as ringleaders, different ethnic groups started to compete violently for power.  With so many potential factions and a geography that gave minorities the ability to fight off a central government, Nigeria’s alternated between democracy, civil war, and military dictatorship since 1960 with varying degrees of killing.

Major ethnic groups combined with the direction of Boko Haram attacks. There’s no strategy here, just chaos.

Like all colonial hangovers, Nigeria’s still setting order to itself

Nigeria’s primary problem is its tribalism.  This tribalism corrupts democratic politics, encourages the military, the only reliably non-tribal force, to overthrow corrupt governments, and increases the likelihood of secession, sedition, and protest along ethnic lines.  Each time a government is overthrown or a protest turns violent, the civil society Nigeria needs to prosper as a democracy, as well as harness its vast oil reserves, gets set back a notch.  Quite frankly, Nigeria has too many people with too many identities to be governed easily.  The state-led process of building Nigerian nationalism is by its nature a slow one, but is harmed further during the bad times of civil war and violence.

Nigeria is without a doubt the most powerful state in West Africa and can field a military effective enough to hold the state together.  But while essential for holding the borders, the army can’t do much to change Nigerian culture out of its tribal mode and into a more national one.  Thus regions that would have split long ago are held in by an army that doesn’t want the humiliation of a shrunken state.

The army can keep neighbors from stealing territory and would-be warlords from making new countries, but it can’t be everywhere at once.  Thus while it can keep Nigeria’s borders intact, it can’t stop the bubbling cauldron of tribal-charged chaos from occasionally overflowing.

What in God’s name is going on with Boko Haram?

Boko Haram is a human phenomenon you understand quite well in your local terms.  They are your local hicks; your racists; your backwoods, sister-raping hill billies; they are the scum you try to avoid standing next to in line because they clearly did a lot of meth last night.  They are badly educated, either because they hated school or because their local town lacked a decent one, and they are universally men who think the world owes them something.  Boko Haram is a different cultural expression of the same kind of assholes you avoid at the bar and silently wish would get hit by a bus when they leave (and you do so silently because you know they’d like nothing more than a fight).

Unlike your local situation, however, there’s almost no one to keep Boko Haram in check.  Imagine those group of assholes deciding to smash up the bar.  You do what’s natural and call the cops.  In a well-ordered society, the cops show up, crack skulls, and restore order.  Now imagine how much damage they could do if no police ever arrived.  Imagine what that neighborhood would swiftly look like, and the horrors they’d inflict on others.

The guys you pray like mad don’t show up to your house party, because, once they do, you know you can’t ask them to leave.

Do yourself a favor and divorce Islam from Boko Haram’s actions

Islam is not the reason Boko Haram kidnapped those girls and is now threatening to sell them into slavery.  Boko Haram did that because they are the cocks that every society has; the difference is they live in a country that cannot always control them.  The fact that they claim they’re doing all this in the name of Islam is irrelevant; bad guys find excuses for their behavior, and those excuses are most commonly rooted in some kind of perversion of local culture.  Boko Haram is Nigeria’s equivalent of America’s KKK, with many of the same behaviors and psychological motivations.  The primary difference is that Boko Haram can get away with their crimes, while the KKK must restrain itself or face annihilation at the hands of a well-trained and efficient police force.

So how do you rid yourself of such nasty people?

The short answer is that the country must develop a civil society that puts the nation-state ahead of personal interests.  That’s incredibly hard to do and is a generational process.  Nigeria has a start on it with its armed forces and its growing middle class, but in a country of 168 million people, division is not only inevitable but expensive, slow, and dangerous to bridge.

For a country like Nigeria, destroying Boko Haram will not end the behaviors exhibited by it.  Some other ethnic group will do much the same so long as Nigeria lacks a modernized citizenry.  Rather, Nigeria’s most effective institution – its military – must end up managing terrorist psychopaths that will continue to have breathing space within the country’s borders.   Much as police try to manage murder rather than wholly prevent it, this is the best that Nigeria can do for now.

Over time, in twenty-five to fifty years, as Nigeria’s economy grows, wealth spreads outwards, and a middle class emerges to be the dominant force in the country, such groups will run out of oxygen.  The path to such growth is paved by good governance, democracy, and civil peace.  But that path is easily lost in the thicket of tribalism.  Nigeria has a long time to go before monsters like Boko Haram are boxed away in the realm of nightmares.  With some luck, good leaders, and help from the outside world, that day can come sooner rather than later.