For well over a decade, experts have narrowed their searchlights on religious stimuli to explain the extremism and tumult that has roiled much of the Islamic world. The phenomenon was interpreted variously as a crusade against Christianity, a jihad against non-believers, or a war against irreligious rulers.
To the perpetrators of terror, these descriptions became an attractive war-cry to invoke the glorious history of Islamic conquests, rally the faithful, and convert them into mujahids (holy warriors). To opponents, the phrasing helped demonise the Islamists by labelling them as medieval anarchists or fanatics.
To the so-called experts, the religious lexicon was a godsend. The Cold War had ended, and Islamic extremism gave them a new and esoteric glossary to dip into. Soon, a prolific industry had sprung up, spinning seemingly erudite theories, all suitably peppered with Islamic jargon.
The search for a Universal Theory of Islamic Extremism is, however, misdirected. The reality, as always, is more complex and also more prosaic. Without denying the role of religion, there may be other drivers at play, singly or in concert, impacting the rise of Islamic extremism.
Sociological divisions such as tribes and castes often predate organised religion. In some corners of the contemporary Islamic world, the hold of ethnicity is often comparable to that of religion.
For instance, Boko Haram’s main catchment area is the Kanuri tribe in north-eastern Nigeria, as well as the three neighbouring countries of Niger, Cameroon and Chad.