Bombs, 'sects' and questions in Nigeria

Tragically, the top news story on this Christmas Day is another outbreak of violence against Christian believers, this time a wave of bombings and terrorism in the highly divided nation of Nigeria. The New York Times now has its own story online and the top is typical of other mainstream offerings. At this point, I only want to question one key word:

BENIN CITY, Nigeria -- A series of apparently coordinated bombings struck three churches during Christmas services across Nigeria on Sunday, killing more than a dozen people and solidifying a recent escalation in violence by a radical Muslim sect.

At least five bombings were reported, including three at churches and one at a state security building. The worst appeared to be at a packed Catholic church just outside the capital, Abuja, where a bomb tore through the building and killed at least 16 people as they left a morning mass.

Charred bodies littered the street and twisted cars burned in front of the church. Rescue workers struggling to cope with the chaos faced a shortage of ambulances for the dozens of wounded and an enraged crowd that initially blocked them from entering the church until soldiers arrived to restore order.

The militant sect Boko Haram, which seeks to impose Islamic law across the country, claimed responsibility for several of the bombings and was suspected in others.

Before I get to the word "sect," I am curious about the theme -- present in other stories, as well -- that an "enraged crowd" prevented rescue workers from entering the church. This raises several questions, for me. This bombing took place in the predominantly Christian South. Why would an enraged crowd of Christians prevent rescue workers from coming to their aid? The enraged mourners waited for troops to arrive before allowing rescue workers to begin their work?

Most strange. I am not blaming reporters for struggling to clarify these strange reports. I am saying that it is clear that, early on, it's hard to tell precisely what happened at this scene. We can only hope for additional information in the hours ahead.

Now, on to the controversial word "sect."

This is another word that reporters tend to toss around without much thought. The top definition in online dictionaries is close to the one that I learned in history courses about religious movements around the world:

sect

noun/sekt/...

A group of people with somewhat different religious beliefs (typically regarded as heretical) from those of a larger group to which they belong

As is often the case, this strict definition has faded a bit by the time one reaches the third definition:

A philosophical or political group, esp. one regarded as extreme or dangerous

So is Boko Haram (which means "Non-Islamic or Western education is a sin") a splinter "sect" that has -- in terms of its religious doctrines -- split away from mainstream Islam in Nigeria? Is it an heretical sect, as in definition No. 1?

Well, it certainly is dangerous (see definition No. 3) and not normal, at least in terms of its use of violence.

So what are the journalists at the Times (and other news organizations that have embraced this term) trying to say when they say that Boko Haram is a "splinter" "sect"?

We have this reference to go by:

The militant sect Boko Haram, which seeks to impose Islamic law across the country, claimed responsibility for several of the bombings and was suspected in others.

The problem, of course, is that the conflict tearing at the heart of Nigeria centers on attempts to move Sharia law out of the Muslim Northeast and into the center of the nation, especially the conflict-torn city of Jos. In other words, it is simply inaccurate to imply that Boko Haram is heretical because it wants Sharia law in more sections of Nigeria.

So is the key the word "impose," with its hint of doing this through violence? If so, it would be easier just to say so -- without implying that there is a division in mainstream Islamic belief over the need for Sharia throughout Nigeria.

If violence is the key, it would be wise for journalists to simply ditch "sect" and move to the wording that Reuters is using in its early coverage. Yes, there are also conflicting reports about the casualties:

LAGOS (Reuters) -- Christmas Day bomb attacks against churches in Nigeria by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram targeted the country's religious and ethnic faultlines in an apparently escalating campaign to fracture the nation's stability.

The shadowy group from Nigeria's Muslim north, blamed for dozens of bombings and shootings in recent years, said it was responsible for a string of blasts, three of them in churches, including one that killed at least 27 people at a packed Christmas service on the outskirts of the capital Abuja.

At this point, I see no reason to say that Boko Haram is a "sect," in terms being a heretical group that has broken off from Islam. The key seems to be that this politicized Islamist group is "radical" or "militant" and is using deadly violence in its attempts to produce a rather mainstream Islamic goal in the context of Nigeria -- the spread of Sharia.

Is the word "sect" being used elsewhere in mainstream news reports? Is there any sign that this is a splinter group that has split away from Islam?

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