By Martin Accad
Last week, on May 17, my colleague Arthur Brown blogged a compiled interview made up of the voices of three Muslim clerics, gauging their responses to the kidnapping of over 200 young Nigerian girls by radical group Boko Haram. The three sheikhs argued that the actions of Boko Haram had nothing Islamic to them. They quoted the Qur’an and Hadith (Prophetic traditions) against kidnapping, enslaving and the suppression of education for girls.
Two days earlier, however, in a May 15 article on the same tragedy, Australian pastor and theologian Mark Durie had leveled a scathing critique against Islam on the Middle East Forum website, accusing Muslims of engaging in denial about the violence inherent to their religion. “Whenever an Islamic atrocity potentially dishonors Islam,” Durie affirmed, “non-Muslims are asked to agree that ‘This is not Islamic’ so that the honor of Islam can be kept pristine.” Having briefly reviewed the reaction of a few prominent Islamic organizations, it would seem to me that Durie’s critique is rather harsh and not fully justified, at least in the case of the Boko Haram kidnapping. The few organizations that I have checked, such as the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) actually condemn the act without reservation. And while they do reject Boko Haram’s claim that their actions are inspired by Muhammad and the Qur’an, their primary concern does not appear to be safeguarding the honor of Islam. Rather, they express a very genuine concern for the safety of the Nigerian girls, and they issue a stern call to the governments of Nigeria and of the rest of the world to do everything in their power to secure the release of the captives and to bring the terrorist group to justice.
I am not sure how it serves our purpose better in the long run to convince ourselves, the world and Muslims that Islam is a violent and decadent religion, rather than accept the vocal condemnation of prominent global representatives of Islam against groups like Boko Haram. I don’t know why it should feel more satisfying for us to accuse these Muslim leaders of hypocrisy, rather than appreciate their “excommunication” of such groups from the mainstream fold of Islam on the basis that they are not viewed as faithful representatives of Islam.
As I was writing this post, I watched a few YouTube videos by the current leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau. My purpose was to find out where the inspiration for the group comes from, which Qur’anic verses and prophetic precedent. If you watch them yourself, you will need little convincing that the man is mentally deranged. His bodily movements are neurotic; his discourse is aggressive and empty of any real content, and certainly of any serious religious content. You’ll struggle to find any Qur’anic citations or Hadith references in his discourse. When Shekau refers to God as speaking to him or to various Boko Haram actions as being what Islam teaches, you feel that you’re listening to a cult leader rather than to a religious teacher or Qur’anic interpreter. So it seems fair to me to say that Boko Haram cannot be considered a movement with strong foundations in the Qur’an or with accepted Islamic practices. When organizations like ISNA or CAIR, or when Muslim leaders globally dissociate themselves and Islam from the actions and claims of Boko Haram, they are not being hypocritical or deceitful. They are expressing a strong and real conviction that Boko Haram’s behavior is far from acceptable Islamic practice today. They are rightfully condemning the behavior, and every time they do so I am grateful for their courage. When we perceive Muslim leaders as not vocal enough against terrorist acts committed in Islam’s name, we condemn them for being complicit, and when they speak out we accuse them of hypocrisy. This must stop!
Having said all that, individuals and organizations claiming to belong to Islam continue to commit atrocious acts of violence and behave in ways that are unacceptable to universal agreements on human rights and common decency. This is not to say that no Christians behave in this way as well. However, few if any who commit acts of terror would claim to be doing so in the name of Christianity or in imitation of the model of Jesus. Whereas countless individuals and organizations, and even governments today continue to behave in such ways in the name of Islam and claiming that they are only imitating the precedent of their prophet Muhammad. What are we to say when Islamic radicalism continues to be on the rise across the world today? How do we handle the news we keep hearing of women being raped and men and children being killed in the name of this or that Islamic ideology? How do we react to the frequent news about the persecution of Muslim converts to Christianity in the Muslim world, about the killing of male “apostates” and the raping of women “apostates” who are told: “This is how Islam treats apostate women”? This is simply intolerable!
Who hasn’t heard of the case of 27-year old and pregnant Mariam Yahya Ibrahim in Sudan? She was raised by her Christian mother after her Muslim father abandoned them. Yet, she has been condemned to 100 lashes for marrying a Christian man. Since Islamic law does not permit the marriage of a Muslim woman to a Christian man, her marriage has been considered unlawful, and therefore she will receive the punishment of an “adulterer.” Further, she has been handed a death sentence by hanging for “converting” to Christianity. Never mind the fact she was raised as a Christian by her Christian mother and has considered herself a Christian all of her conscious life. Are we supposed to praise the “merciful” and “compassionate” nature of Islam for allowing her to give birth to her baby before the hanging is carried out?
We must continue the outcry every time we hear such outrageous news. Yet, I believe that the outcry should not be by Christian and secular people against Islam. What is the point of aggravating the relations between Muslims and the rest of the world? Will that not lead to more violence, a deeper chasm between individuals and nations, and eventually to far greater injustice? This battle is not against Islam, it is against criminals. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), one of the largest representatives of the Muslim community in the US, has not only condemned the Sudanese court ruling, but clearly rejected the apostasy law that calls for the killing of any Muslim that abandons Islam. Though the ruling was standard in the classical period of Islam, CAIR, as well as many other Muslim scholars, have now argued that the death sentence was not so much a condemnation of an individual’s religious choice, but rather a ruling against high treason, which is what conversion out of Islam would have amounted to during certain periods of Islamic history. The “creative” take that an organization like CAIR adopts on the issue reflects the fact that every ideology can adapt to the expectations of its contemporary context, and that is what non-Muslims should seek, in constant dialogue with Muslims everywhere. More and more such voices are emerging from among western Muslim circles; many less are heard in historic Muslim lands. Some news outlets have reported the case of Mariam, but only shyly. Even Al-Jazeera, normally a highly-opinionated outlet, is being barely descriptive of the case.
Let us take Muslims as our allies in this fight against acts of terror, violence and injustice committed in the name of Islam. Whether we accept Islam’s dissociation from these criminals by many Muslim leaders and scholars seems secondary to me. The argument may be convincing to some, and less so to others. In my opinion, the fact that Muslims have conflicting interpretations of certain aspects of Islam is a dilemma for Muslims to deal with. As followers of Jesus, our responsibility is not to throw stones at the house of Islam, even if some among us consider it to be a glass house. If we consider that Islam needs reform, particularly when it comes to its attitude and behavior towards non-Muslims, then let’s encourage that to happen through gracious dialogue in the context of deep and genuine relationships.