These days, the world is rightfully alarmed about Boko Haram, the extremist Islamist group in Nigeria, which recently abducted some 300 schoolgirls and vowed to sell them into slavery. I, too, condemn Boko Haram and its ruthless fanatics with all my heart, and pray for the safety and freedom of the young girls. The international community should consider all options to save these children and punish their kidnappers.
The bitter fact that Boko Haram acts in the name of Islam inevitably raises questions, adding to the current trend of Islamophobia. Yet as a Muslim myself, I am pretty confident that this ruthless campaign of terror, which has been going on since 2002, is anathema to the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world.
Here is why. Over the years, Boko Haram has attacked modern schools, saying they are “forbidden” in Islam. (The very name of the group literally means, “Western education is forbidden.”) However, hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world are happily sending their children to such schools, from Turkey to Pakistan, from Morocco to Indonesia. In fact, modern, Western-style schools in the Muslim world were first opened in the late Ottoman Empire, in the 19th century, under the auspices of none other than the Caliphate of Islam.
Moreover, rejecting Western education and culture is one thing, killing innocent people for being involved in them is another. The latter, i.e., violence against civilians, can never be justified by referring to the classical Islamic notions of jihad, or holy war. Some latter-day “jihadists,” such as al-Qaeda and Boko Haram, have disregarded this key fact, and that is why scholars that are more rooted in traditional Islamic law often denounce them.
Yet why do all these brutal fanatics come out of Islam, but, say, not Christianity? That is a question often asked to me by Westerners, for the Christianity they have in mind is post-Enlightenment Western Christianity. However, there are other manifestations of Christianity in the world, some of which are not too different than Boko Haram.
The best example would be the Lord’s Resistance Army, a militant Christian group in northern Uganda. As Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan, notes in his blog, the LRA has many resemblances to Boko Haram. The LRA launched a guerilla war against the government in the late 1980s, and in the meantime, enslaved, tortured, raped, and murdered thousands, including many children. At some point, the group had 104,000 soldiers, many or most of them involuntary child soldiers.
And there was a “theology” to all this. At the late Christopher Hitchens, who was no fan of any religion, wrote:
“Joseph Kony [the leader of LRA]… has found Bible justifications for killing witches, for killing pigs because of the story of the Gadarene swine, and for killing people because God did the same with Noah’s flood and Sodom and Gomorrah.”
The notorious Mr. Kony also upheld male dominance, urging polygamy. He had allegedly fathered dozens of children with several wives.
So, perhaps the fair thing to say it that there is too much violence in the world, more so in chaotic regions such as Central Africa, and this violence can be justified by extremist interpretations of any religion — along with racism, nationalism, tribalism, or any other “ism.” They are all nightmares on their own, and we should stand against all of them.