The plight of nearly 300 Nigerian girls kidnapped by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram has drawn the world's attention, with an avalanche of "Bring back our girls" social-media activism, street protests and offers of help from U.S. politicians.
Who wants to naysay a campaign that targets such a human tragedy? Actually, a few critics do -- and they raise valid questions. Does emotion-based activism create pressure for quick solutions that may worsen the bigger problem? Does it skew the picture by singling out some victims based on media appeal, politically fashionable narrative, and even gender bias?
Noah Rothman, a columnist for the media analysis website Mediaite.com, has praised the overdue spotlight on Boko Haram but wondered why it took the abduction of the girls to get such attention -- and not the slaughter of as many as 59 teenage boys at a boarding school in February. In a nighttime attack, some boys were shot in their beds or while trying to flee, and others were locked in the school building and burned alive. Female students were allowed to leave, with an admonishment to get married and shun Western schooling.
Men's rights activists on the Internet have been pointing to this discrepancy as evidence of cultural bias against males, whose lives are seen as "disposable." There's a good deal of hyperbole to these claims; the last big social media campaign for endangered Third World children was on behalf of child soldiers, mostly boys, forcibly recruited by Ugandan terrorist leader Joseph Kony. Nonetheless, the tendency to disproportionately spotlight female victims is real, as noted in the 2005 study "Who Makes the News?," by the Global Media Monitoring Project.
There's an element of traditional chivalry in this attitude, particularly when it comes to young women or girls threatened with sexual slavery. In this case, there's the added element of feminist concern with the assault on women's rights by Islamic extremism. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff frames the issue as one of religious fundamentalists' fear of "smart girls" who threaten their power.
But while this is a very worthy feminist battle, and hostility to women's rights is a key element in jihadism, the attack on girls' education is not the whole story. As the school massacre shows, Boko Haram opposes Western-style, "un-Islamic" education for anyone.
Another rarely mentioned aspect of the bloody reign of Boko Haram, which has reportedly killed at least 1,000 Nigerians this year, is its targeting of Christians. In the British magazine The Spectator, conservative writer Robin Harris criticizes the media for avoiding the fact that most of the abducted girls are Christian, taken from a school in a Christian enclave. The war on women is a trendy topic; the jihadist war on Christians is not.
Some of the latest news illustrates the peril of media-driven selective focus. Boko Haram recently slaughtered at least 300 people in a town that serves as an army base after the soldiers were redeployed to hunt down the abducted girls, leaving the locals unprotected. And now, the group's leader proposes to release the girls if the Nigerian government first frees captured Boko Haram fighters. World attention may push the government to accept the deal -- which would be good news for the girls but would be certain to lead to more terrorism and more kidnappings.
Beyond bringing back the girls, it is time to step up an international effort to neutralize violent Islamist radicalism. Perhaps it's even time to bring back that unfashionable phrase -- "the War on Terror."