‘Demented stick-chewing cartoon villains’: Othering and the Coverage of Boko Haram.

The story of the approximately 300 girls who were taken from their school in northern Nigeria has finally begun to gain momentum in the global media, after weeks of a relative silence on the crisis.

Al Jazeera’s Listening Post 03/05/14 – first 10 minutes are about media coverage of Boko Haram

The coverage of the crisis, however, especially of Boko Haram, uses familiar tropes and narratives to frame and characterise the situation and its actors, invoking the image of the Chibok girls as ‘bravely going to school despite the danger they face every day’ much like Pakistani teenager and activist Malala Yousafzai. Boko Haram are described as ‘militant Islamists’ or ‘Islamic extremists’ in almost every story about them and while it is hard to deny that the group are indeed militants and that they invoke Islam to justify their actions, this frame is used to other and derealise not just Boko Haram, but also their victims.

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Context: A map of the attacks by Boko Haram in the last 4 years.

Judith Butler, in Precarious Life, discusses the ‘derealisation’ of certain groups of people – specifically of Guantànamo detainees – by defining them as existing outside of the bounds of humanity and what it is to be human. The Gitmo detainees – along with other manifestations of the ‘militant Islamist’  – are “reduced to animal status,” unable to control themselves; their ‘nature’ is to kill and cause suffering to innocents. Of particular relevance to the Boko Haram coverage is Butler’s description of the impact that the use of a ‘mental illness’ frame in relation to Islamic extremists can have on perceptions of Islam as a whole:

…it is not simply selected acts undertaken by Islamic extremists that are considered outside the bounds of rationality as established by a civilizational discourse of the West, but rather any and all beliefs and practices pertaining to Islam that become, effectively, tokens of mental illness to the extent that they depart from the hegemonic norms of Western rationality. 

The belief that violent Islamic groups (and by extension, Islam itself) are ‘insane,’ ‘barbaric’ and ‘villainous’ is one that is perpetuated in global media coverage and is confirmed by the representation of Muslims and specifically Arab peoples (these groups are often conflated) in popular entertainment.

There is no better recent example of this derealisation in action than that provided by the comedian and host of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart, in his segment on Boko Haram:

Jon Stewart on Boko Haram

In the last 30 seconds of this clip, Stewart describes Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau as a ‘demented cartoon villain’ in a sombrely-delivered statement that manages to include almost every major trope that has been employed in the coverage of this story so far:

Compared to a teenager who knows that her desire for an education could get her dragged into a snake-infested jungle to be sold as a bride by some demented, stick-chewing cartoon villain, but still gets up and goes to class every day fully aware of that danger, compared to their courage, I’d say Boko Haram is a bunch of little girls. But you know what? You don’t deserve that compliment.

While Stewart is a comedian who makes no real claims about being a journalist, satirical news shows like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and the new Last Week Tonight are a significant source of information for American and global audiences and thus play an important role in shaping the way stories are told. Stewart’s characterisation of Boko Haram as ‘cartoonish’ and their victims as ‘daily struggling against insurmountable odds’ (odds which are hugely overblown in Stewart’s assessment of the situation), confirms the derealisation of both groups, ignores the context and complexities of the situation and the impact of the region’s colonial past.

If the abducted girls’ lives were already unliveable and the people responsible are no more threatening than a cartoon character, then what, in fact, is the story?

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