Equips Muslims to Address Extremism
Renewed fighting between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government have
propelled Nigeria back into the international spotlight. Since 2002,
Boko Haram, a militant group in the north of Nigeria, has routinely made
international headlines for its violent attacks on churches and its
claim to uphold the tradition of Islam. Unfortunately, this assertion
has led to the false characterization of the Nigerian conflict as one
rooted in religion.
The resulting Muslim vs. Christian dichotomy is overly simplistic,
however. In reality, Nigerians suffer from a number of issues, including
an absence of the rule of law, stark socio-economic disparities and
limited access to jobs. Indeed, Boko Haram’s violent attacks were first
directed against law enforcement authorities and politicians and later
against churches and mosques alike. The depiction of the conflict as one
rooted in religion also advances a false and violent narrative of Islam,
one that is repugnant to both Muslims and Christians.
Nigeria is by no means the only country where the violent actions of a
few affect the image of the whole and where people often find themselves
called upon to respond for the actions of a small minority of
extremists. Consequently, I was interested when M. Nuruddeen Lemu, a
Nigerian Islamic instructor and senior management team member of the
Islamic Education Trust, sat down with me at the Islamic Society of
North America’s office in Washington, D.C., to share his organization’s
efforts to address this challenge. As I listened, I was struck by the
manner in which his efforts in Nigeria can provide lessons for people in
radically different contexts around the world.
In Nigeria, Lemu says, some misconceptions about Islam are so prevalent
that Muslims themselves have falsely incorporated these ideas into their
own understanding of Islam, causing them to reject the religion
altogether. He worries that his community is “losing intelligent people
because they carry inferiority complexes and misconceptions about
Islam.” They are embarrassed to be associated with a religion which they
understand to have strange ideals and practices.
In order to better understand the problem and how to resolve it, the
Islamic Education Trust, located in the city of Minna, began conducting
surveys among Muslims and former Muslims to see what bothered them most
about Islam—what shook their conscience or embarrassed them. Among the
most popular responses were questions regarding the roles of women,
relationships with people of other faiths and the application of Islamic
principles of jurisprudence.
He and his colleagues then prepared responses to these concerns using
works from classical scholars trained on highly specific themes. From
this exercise, they developed a series of trainings to provide
interested Muslims with a robust understanding of Islamic scholarship as
well as the necessary tools to engage with classical sources and
critically evaluate Islamic principles.
The trainings also provide valuable skills in intra- and interfaith
dialogue in which participants learn to enter into dialogue with
humility, listening first and seeking to be thought-provoking, rather
than provocative. Students are also trained, in turn, to be able to
teach these skills.
The result of this work, Lemu says, is that it “made Muslims more
confident and at the same time tackled problems of extremism” because
the class was structured so that each viewpoint must stand the test of
rigorous discussion where the best argument wins. When exposed to
classical Islamic scholarship and the tools with which to engage it,
students who voiced opinions that were too far outside of the mainstream
were quickly challenged.
When I asked Lemu why those with more extreme views would enter the
program, he replied that students have entered the program for a variety
of reasons, but most believed it would help strengthen their own
personal convictions or help them improve their knowledge and skills as
Islamic instructors. Furthermore, “people with those so-called extremist
views were already a part of the [training] network so they could not
reject the program as liberal. Those who attended the classes would get
to know one another—those with more extreme or more liberal arguments.”
Because of the course’s train-the-trainer model, Lemu’s work has led to
a large network of more than 15,000 people across Nigeria. The work of
the Islamic Education Trust has been increasingly recognized as one
critical way to improve intra- and interfaith dialogue with the positive
side effect of countering extremism.
Since its first course in 1994, the Islamic Education Trust has
replicated its model for more than 65,000 people in 22 countries around
the world. Lemu and his colleagues serve as a powerful example of how
Muslim communities everywhere can equip themselves with tools to analyze
interpretations of Islam in a rapidly changing world.
* Maggie Siddiqi is a program coordinator at the Islamic Society of
North America’s Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances in
Washington, D.C. This article was written for the Common Ground News
Source: CGNews, Feb. 5, 2013,<www.commongroundnews.org>.
Copyright permission is granted for publication.