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Evil Concentrated and Dissipated: Boko Haram and the Politics of Evil – Cathryn van Kessel

Posted by: on Sep 15, 2014 | No Comments

298891_7309“…the religiously loaded term “evil” served a noble purpose in strengthening the public support for action, and yet contributed to a catharsis that has prevented the general public from examining systemic issues in both Nigeria and Canada.”

The kidnapping of Nigerian girls five months ago by the group Boko Haram dominated online media for a brief period of time. Articles were posted and re-posted on social media and petitions signed. Soon after, the abductions were denounced by major Western powers, including British Prime Minister David Cameron who called the abductions “an act of pure evil” (BBC News, 2014). Angelina Jolie, the American actor and United Nations ambassador, mirrored Cameron’s strong denunciation when she described the abductions as “unthinkable cruelty and evil” (Soyingbe & Odulaja, 2014). How much did the label of “evil” influence international action? It seems that mounting public pressure, perhaps ignited by the imagery of evil, played a role. Canada, Great Britain, and the United States deployed soldiers and others to Nigeria to help in the recovery of these girls (CTVNews, 2014; Karimi & Shoichet, 2014), and although these efforts have been unsuccessful, there is now very little mention of the abductees. It is my claim that the invocation of the religiously loaded term “evil” served a noble purpose in strengthening the public support for action, and yet contributed to a catharsis that has prevented the general public from examining systemic issues in both Nigeria and Canada.

Radical evil

Evil is a familiar social signifier, but it is rarely defined explicitly. Despite this, our nascent understanding of evil informs how we interpret historical and current events. The notion of evil is a religiously loaded term, conjuring up images of devils and spirits to be combatted. Often, evil is considered to be an entity in itself, a radical evil. Humans are thought to possess an innate tendency for evil, and according to thinkers like Kant, we can only overcome such inclinations through ethics (1793/1838). People will choose evil because they can subordinate moral law to their own innate evil inclinations, and so being a “good” person results from an appropriate response to evil.

Radical evil in politics

Some politicians have invoked the word “evil” in the sense of a radical evil in a religious sense. One famous example comes from American President Ronald Reagan who called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” in a speech to National Association of Evangelicals (8 March, 1983) in order to discourage American citizens from voting to lessen the United States’ nuclear arsenal. Even before his presidency, Reagan used ideas of evil via his Christian beliefs to understand politics; for example, the Arms Race with the USSR was placed in the context of Armageddon: “Ezekiel says that fire and brimstone will be rained down upon the enemies of God’s people. That must mean that they’ll be destroyed by nuclear weapons” (Daley, 2011). Reagan’s own beliefs influenced his foreign policy, and his use of evil in reference to the USSR certainly would resonate with his religious and even some non-religious followers. A dualistic perspective of good versus evil, however, can be harmful. Matthew Skinner, an associate professor of the New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, worries that the claim that “there is a pure evil force or person lurking out there allows people to avoid blaming themselves or their own people for failures or frustrations they experience” (Skinner, quoted in Brinton, 2012). What Reagan’s use of evil obscured was the more significant problem: the perception of competing ideologies, as well as the harm this competition inflicted upon innocent lives in many countries around the world.

More recently, George W. Bush used the phrase “axis of evil” as a rallying cry for the United States’ war in Iraq (Bush, 29 January, 2002). Again, the idea of evil is invoked to invoke citizens’ emotions and persuade them to follow the will of their political leaders – in this case, a controversial war. The political use of evil is not unique to the United States; for example, Prime Minister Stephen Harper described Iran as such and also linked Nazism, Marxist-Leninism, and terrorism together as reinventions of a similar evil that seeks to destroy “human liberty” (Marsden, 2012; Perkel, 2014). Again, systemic issues are being ignored. With terrorists labeled as evil we are tempted to ignore the root causes of terrorism. In the case of Iran, the potential for nuclear destruction via other countries is glossed over.

Boko Haram and evil (in)action

Returning to the Boko Haram example, the focus on this group as pure evil can function as a distraction away from broader issues. Kidnappings in Nigeria have been a growing problem, and thus is not just an issue about Boko Haram. According to the statistical website FiveThirtyEight, there has been a rising problem of kidnapping in Nigeria, showing statistics that are so dramatic that they cannot simply be the result of the better reporting of such crimes. There were two kidnappings in 1983 and 3,608 in 2013 (Chalabi, 2014). What about all the other girls who have been kidnapped in Nigeria over the years? What will be done to prevent future kidnappings? What is being done now, five months later, to find the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram? Although Boko Haram remains in the international news, the flurry of attention on the fate of these girls has faded from online news sources and social media in favour of military action on both sides of the conflict. This is not, of course, to say that other aspects of the Nigerian situation should not receive attention, merely that it is disappointing that the kidnapping victims have left the domain of popular consciousness. Boko Haram’s kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls was labeled as evil, stirred our anger, and now we have expressed our anger and we have let it go. Such catharsis is troublesome for Nigeria, but also Canada.

Implications for Canada

The simplistic use of evil likely has contributed to this catharsis and resulting lack of popular interest in the missing Nigerians, which in turn instills an inertia preventing us from addressing similar “evils” in our own Canadian context. For example, there are currently at least 1,181 murdered or missing aboriginal women, and yet Prime Minister Stephen Harper has not called an inquiry into this issue. Like the young women in Nigeria, these aboriginal women have faced or are facing unknown horrors. Yet, there is not a similar push from online media for action. Labeling Boko Haram as evil can foster a sense that we are “good” and thus ignore our own problems. In terms of the situation for the missing aboriginal women and their families, the repercussions of examining it in depth are socially significant; “if this country were to take a serious look at the root causes behind the shocking number of murdered and missing aboriginal women, questions would have to be asked of many partners to this tragedy, not just governments and police forces” (Harper, 2014). Although it is easy to label Boko Haram as an evil force, it is more difficult to label our own horrors as evil.

Rethinking Evil

Given the ubiquitous use of the term “evil” in the politics, we need to take some time and think about how we use such a term and what we hope to accomplish by its use. How might we preserve hope that the world can be a less violent place? In the political arena, what might happen if we were to move away from a religious sense of radical evil? Instead of seeing evil forces at play, we might consider evil to be a failure to think. A possible approach could include Hannah Arendt’s philosophy as articulated in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). This book incited much controversy related to her refusal to dismiss Eichmann, the Nazi logistical manager who facilitated the Holocaust, as some sort of demon. Instead, she revealed him to be a thoroughly mediocre bureaucrat. He was a “drab drone committed to industriousness and efficiency, a featureless functionary particularly steadfast in obeying and carrying out assigned duties” (Waller, 2007, p. 100). As Alice Sebold states in her novel, The Lovely Bones (2002): “Murderers are not monsters, they’re men. And that’s the most frightening thing about them”. Whether the perpetrator is a member of the Nazi Party or Boko Haram or another group that inflicts harm and terror, if we see them as an otherworldly evil force, we strip ourselves of the means to examine broader systemic issues and our own potential to perpetuate or ignore problems. A reformulation of political evil allows us to switch our focus from how best to react to evil and to how we might prevent it in the first place. Let us not only act swiftly to save those in peril, but also take the time to think about how we might all become a force for preventing evil.


Arendt, H. (2006). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil. New York, NY: Penguin. (Original work published in

BBC News staff. (2014, May 7). David Cameron: Nigeria girls abduction ‘act of pure evil’ BBC News. Retrieved from

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Bush, G.W. (2002, 29 January). State of the Union Address. Retrieved from the Presidential Speeches Archive:

Chalabi, M. (2014, May 6). Kidnapping of girls in Nigeria is part of a worsening problem. FiveThirtyEight. Retrieved from

CTVNews staff. (2014, May 12). Canadians on the ground in Nigeria to help search for kidnapped girls: Baird. CTVNews. Retrieved from

Daley, T. (2011, February 11). Reagan the nuclear hawk. Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Harper, T. (2014, May 20). Six questions on murdered and missing aboriginal womenthat must be answered. The Star. Retrieved from

Kant, I., (1838). Religion within the boundary of pure reason (Trans. J.W. Semple). Edinburgh, UK: Thomas Clark. (Original work published in 1793)

Karimi, F. & Shoichet, C. (2014, May 22). 80 U.S. troops in Chad will aid search for abducted Nigerian girls. CNN World. Retrieved from

Marsden, W. (2002, September 27). After receiving World Statesman award, Stephen

Harper slams ‘evil’-dominated Iranian regime. National Post. Retrieved from

Perkel, C. (2014, May 30). Harper goes on full-scale verbal attack against ‘evil’ communism. The Canadian Press. Retrieved from

Reagan, R. (8 March, 1983). Evil Empire. Speech presented at National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida. Retrieved from the Presidential Speeches Archive:

Soyingbe, A. & Odulaja, A. (2014, May 8). Nigeria: Angelian Jolie adds voice to kidnapping of girls in Nigeria. allAfrica. Retrieved from

Waller, J. (2007). Becoming evil: How ordinary people commit genocide and mass killing (2nd ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.


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