Boko Haram and the Aesthetics of Violence

Garrett Clark considers the overlapping sensory experiences represented by Boko Haram’s flags, arguing that this synesthesia facilitates deep psychological violence. See other posts in our series Words to live by: the ethics of grammar, Millennials and persuasion, scriptures in public school, and sexual rhetoric in the Hebrew Bible.

Boko Haram deserted Damasak, the northern city of Nigeria in March of 2015. The city, once filled with over 200,000 people, is now a ghost town due to citizens having fled or been killed. The only abundant thing left in this city is the Boko Haram flag posted on walls and flying on posts.[1] Its associated visual, auditory, and literary aesthetics convey the groups will to those a part of and apart from the faith.


Boko Haram’s Logo, Pre-2015 (Courtesy of Odyssey Online)

As mundane as the Boko Haram logo of pre-2015 may seem, dimensions of Salafi Jihadism come through this artwork to express the sect’s faith. In the middle of the image is the Qur’an. The visual representation of the open sacred text reminds Muslims of the “extension of the divine into the earthly realm, the embodiment on Earth of God’s … power.”[2] Here it also showcases the belletristic beauty of wielding the Qur’an.

While the pre-2015 logo displays the open Qur’an, the Boko Haram ironically disdains books. The Salafi Jihadism behind this image shows “an ideology based on selectively literal interpretations of the Qur’an” with “the use of indiscriminate violence.”[3] The name, Boko Haram, translates roughly to “western education is forbidden.” The word “boko” in the Hausa language translates to book, and “haram” translates to something that is sinful or prohibited.[4] Put together, the name implies that books are sinful.[5] Here we see how certain aesthetics are accepted and rejected as it fits the purposes of the Salafist sect.

On either side of the Quran are AK-47s which point outward.[6] The images of weapons, evoking the sound of gunfire, also portray the power of the recited Qur’an. AK-47s are the most common type of gun used by the Boko Haram. As a result of the Boko Haram’s view of defending the sacredness of Islam, these weapons are seen as a defense of the Qur’an. “The symbols of violent force (weapons) and destruction” legitimize the repression used by the Boko Haram.[7] At the same time, they provide a classical conditioned response of fear or reverence to the meaning of the flag.[8] These combine to portray the role of interpretation for Salafi Jihadism.

In the middle of the open Qur’an is an erect, black flag with the Shahada in white letters, a powerful display for Boko Haram.[9] A cornerstone to Islam, the Shahada, is a call or declaration of faith for Muslims and one of the five pillars of Islam.[10] Like the Qur’an, it was meant not only to be read, but also to be recited. “Uttering the Shahada is all that is required in order to convert to Islam.”[11] These recitations through chants or musical rhythms are “devotional expression[s], interhuman communication, and religious revelation[s].”[12] As a result, Boko Haram is invoking a verbal and vocal proclamation of its cause to believers of Islam, just like caliphs and others have done in the past.

The Black Standard of ISIS, adopted by Boko Haram after 2015 (Courtesy Wikipedia)

After pledging allegiance to ISIS in 2015, the Boko Haram adopted the black flag of ISIS.[13] While Boko Haram’s new flag does not have AK-47s, it still appeals to Salafist aesthetics. The flag has white lettering at the top, a white circle on the bottom, and black writing in the middle of the circle. Once again, the Arabic writing of the Shahada is used and the black background is believed to be similar to the black war banner used by the prophet Muhammad’s army.[14] The caliphate is said to have used a similar banner with a white background with black writing. The white circle on the bottom is supposed to be the prophet Muhammad’s signet seal that was used on his letters. Boko Haram’s flag uses this history to reflect the approval and legitimization of Salafi Jihadism.

Boko Haram assaults the senses of vision, hearing, feeling, and intellect to promote their message throughout Africa and the world. The Boko Haram flag is, to some, arousing “the viewer’s emotions and potentially creat[ing] empathy by showing human sacrifice endured for the sake of others and for a noble cause.”[15] Those suffering and dying with the reality of Salafi Jihadism are part of the consequences of Boko Harm’s aesthetics.


[1] A picture of Niger and Chad troops walking past Boko Haram flag in Damasak taken by Tyler Hicks of the New York Times/Redux.

[2] Matthew S. Gordon. Understanding Islam: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Places. (London, U.K.: Watkins, 2010), 37.

[3] Pete Lentini, Neojihadism: Towards a New Understanding of Terrorism and Extremism? (Cheltenham Edward Elgar Publishing, 2013).

[4] Hausa is a Chadic language with about 39 million speakers, mostly within Africa.

[5] Ali S. Yusufu Bagaji. Moses Shaibu Etila, Elijah E. Ogbadu, and Jafa’aru Garba Sule, “Boko Haram and the Recurring Bomb Attacks in Nigeria: Attempt to Impose Religious Ideology through Terrorism?” Cross-cultural Communication 8.1 (2012): 33-41.

[6] A semi-automatic and automatic, gas-operated assault rifle, and is the most popular and widely used assault rifles in the world because of its substantial reliability under harsh conditions, low production costs.

[7] Matteo, Vergani. and Dennis Zuev. “Neojihadist Visual Politics: Comparing YouTube Videos of North Caucasus and Uyghur Militants.” Asian Studies Review 39, no. 1 (2014): 1-22. Accessed March 1, 2016. EBSCOhost.

[8] Donal E., Carlston. and Lynda Mae, “Posing with the Flag: Trait-specific Effects of Symbols on Person Perception,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 43.2 (2007): 241-48.

[9] The Islamic creed that declares acceptance of the belief in the oneness of God or divine unity and of Muhammad as God’s Prophet.

[10] Five basic acts in Islam, considered mandatory by believers and are the foundation of Muslim life.

[11] Matthew, Gordon. Understanding Islam: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Places. London, U.K.: Watkins Pub., (2010): 26.

[12] S. Brent Plate, “An Aesthetic Approach to Religion,” Introduction to Religious Studies, ed. Paul O. Myhre (Winona MN, Anselm Academic, 2009), 70.

[13]  Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham is also Salafi jihadist militant group that follows an Islamic fundamentalist, Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam.

[14] Ilene Prusher, “What the ISIS Flag Says About the Militant Group.”, September 10, 2014, 1. Accessed February 28, 2016. Academic Search Complete.

[15] Matteo Vergani and Dennis Zuev, “Neojihadist Visual Politics: Comparing YouTube Videos of North Caucasus and Uyghur Militants,” Asian Studies Review 39, no. 1 (2014): 1-22. Accessed March 1, 2016. EBSCOhost.


Garrett_Clark.png.jpegGarrett Clark ’16 is senior at Elizabethtown college with a  Religious Studies and Political Science double major and a minor in Peace and Conflict Studies. He is developing an undergraduate thesis on the ways Boko Haram advances its ideological agenda.

Join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s