The workings of extremism

Nigeria’s 2021 submission to the Oscars probes the psychology and propaganda of militant jihadism through the eyes of two sisters.

Milkmaid, a nigerian film. Behind the scenes photograph.

Image from the "Milkmaid" website.

“The most valuable jihad is to advocate justice in the face of an unjust ruler” is not a line one would expect to hear from a commander of Boko Haram, but this very utterance culminates the ideological development of one of the main characters in Desmond Ovbiagele’s solo directorial debut The Milkmaid. (The film is currently screening at the New York African Film Festival, held virtually this year.) A Hausa-Fulani-Arabic film shot entirely in Taraba, a grassy semi-mountainous state in northeastern Nigeria, the film follows the journeys of elder sister Aisha (Anthonieta Kalunta) and younger sister Zainab (Maryam Booth) in a double bildungsroman amid the backdrop of a military insurgency. When Zainab’s wedding is interrupted by an attack from an unnamed militant jihadist group clearly referencing Boko Haram, the sisters are separated, both eventually becoming slaves of the group, struggling to reunite with each other and their families while surviving the brutal conditions of their captivity.

As the sisters are married off to jihadist fighters in polygynous relationships, Aisha manages to escape captivity and return to her village, where her mother—while joyous at her return—refuses to accept Aisha’s son (by her captor husband) as her own grandchild, prompting Aisha to return to the jihadists of her own volition, determined to rescue Zainab. Aisha now ends up married to the same man as her sister: Dangana (Gambo Usman Kona), a mid-level chief of the group who, while firmly committed to the cause and its violent modus operandi, is decidedly more studious and pensive than his peers, poring over the Koran by night in an effort to “distinguish between truth and falsehood.” It is Dangana who goes from describing the jihadist group’s planned massacre of schoolchildren as “a glorious harvest for God” to betraying the emir and attempting to defect from the group in the service of “advocat[ing] justice.”

While part of the film is dedicated to moral progression of Dangana and his eventual rejection of his group’s ideology, Aisha’s struggle to rescue Zainab—both physically from the camp and ideologically from the indoctrination she has become a victim of—comprises the main drama. The unflinching portrayal of Zainab (who is rechristened Fathiyya when she adopts her new jihadist ideology) flogging the female slaves of the group even more ferociously than the male leaders is both a case study in Stockholm syndrome and an insightful perspective on the potential of religious extremism to infect anyone, even those who it directly oppresses. In spite of Nigeria’s National Film and Video Censors Board censoring 24 minutes from the domestic release to scrub it of “hints toward Islam being an enabler of extremism,” Ovbiagele (who is himself Christian) defended the film as not being anti-Islam (more than 90% of Fulani are Muslim), pointing out that it “showed clearly that there were people distorting the tenets of the religion and that people could discover the truth for themselves by studying the holy book.” Indeed, the film is not at all an indictment of Islam writ large, but rather a damning exposé of the militant jihadists as “no more than obscurantist terrorists,” to borrow As’ad AbuKhalil’s term for religious fanatics used as geopolitical pawns by Western powers.

Boko Haram (a Hausa-Arabic term sometimes translated as “Westernization Is Sacrilege”) has claimed over 37,000 lives since its insurgency against the Nigerian government beginning in 2009, with Muslims perceived as infidels as the primary targets. While one part of its ideology is based on avowed dissociation from Western culture, the other major part is what Alex Thurston calls “a politics of victimhood.” Long-standing conflicts between Christian and Muslim Nigeria and government repression of Boko Haram itself are woven into an overarching narrative of marginalization of Islam that must be fought against in the name of self-preservation.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), with whom Boko Haram has been aligned since 2015, has used similar narratives for its own recruitment, invoking the widespread modern condemnation of the 1916 Sykes–Picot Agreement—a French-English balkanization of the Middle East in a traditional colonial “divide and conquer” strategy of economic hegemony—to attract sympathy for the struggle (the literal meaning of “jihad”) for a unified Islamic State. Anticolonialism, anti-imperialism, opposition to religious persecution, and national self-determination are all causes traditionally championed by the left (and others across the political spectrum), but such narratives are sensationalized and exploited by religious extremist groups to agitate and recruit for their reactionary causes. International geopolitical forces shaping the ideology and growth of such groups are also certainly germane, though a thorough analysis of them is perhaps beyond the scope of a story dealing primarily with an extremist group’s effects on two individuals.

The Milkmaid’s occasional portrayal of the jihadists as stoic warriors invites criticism, but it is precisely this portrayal that is used by the group’s ideologues as the attracting factor for new recruits. When Zainab and Aisha reunite after finding out they are both married to Dangana, the newly radicalized and renamed Fathiyya rebukes Aisha for being against the jihadist cause, stating “I have found the truth.” Evidently it is not same truth that Dangana eventually arrives at, but it is clear how Zainab has come to think that way. The film’s depiction of the ideological development and trajectory of Dangana and Zainab provides nuance and perspective on the precise workings of religious extremism and its indoctrinating propaganda, resisting hackneyed tropes and allowing the viewer to simultaneously feel rage and indignation at the horrific actions of the characters while understanding what drove them to act the way they do. The film’s climax, the double murder of both Zainab and Dangana for their treasonous abandonment of the jihadist cause, is not hopeless but rather liberatory: instead of going to the “paradise” glorified by the jihadists in their suicide missions depicted as heroic selfless acts, Zainab and Dangana have become martyrs who died because they dared to stand up for justice, “the most valuable jihad.”

The film’s website states that one of its aims is to “seek to contribute to the ongoing discourse on the threats posed by extremism.” In this aim it delivers brilliantly: one might even hope that a viewer from Boko Haram could be inspired by Dangana’s character to “discover the truth for themselves by studying the holy book.” Yinka Edward’s masterful cinematography captures the underlying tension of the film, juxtaposing wide shots and panoramic vistas of peaceful idyllic pastures with a terrifying military insurgency. On the other hand, the film shies away from larger geopolitical analysis, as Bernard Dayo writes:

Although it does not tackle the international aspect of the Boko Haram insurgency, The Milkmaid fits well into this mainstream US narrative about terrorism. Its story would feed into the American viewers’ self-righteous disdain for overseas terrorist groups and will probably be well received.

Nevertheless, Nigeria’s first-ever acceptance of a film into the Academy Awards is a laudable achievement, and the film—which will hopefully reach international audiences in its full, uncensored, form—is a valuable insight into the workings of extremism.

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