BY EMMANUEL OJEIFO.
“Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalisations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.” – Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel (2014), No. 253.
On Friday, 2nd October 2015, former Lagos State Governor, Babatunde Fashola, SAN published a stimulating opinion piece in Business Day titled, ‘No Such Thing As ‘Radical Islam.’
The piece was an excerpt from the speech made by Fashola at the public presentation in Lagos of the book, Frontiers of Jihad: Radical Islam in Africa written by Dr. Yinka Olomojobi of Babcock University, Ogun State, on 15th September 2015. In his piece, Fashola queried the Western-styled categorisation of a certain brand of Islam as “radical” which tries to link violent extremism with the religion of Islam. According to Fashola, a lot of Western writings “reveal an ignorance of Islam at the best, or a deliberate stereotype of terror in Islamic States,” adding that “a religion whose foundation is peace cannot be the foundation or excuse for acts of murder, rape, savagery, pillaging and terror.”
On the surface, Fashola is correct. But I think he glossed over the fact that there is a deeper meaning that lies beneath the surface of nomenclature. Forget the name for a moment. The reality of the situation is that the ‘Religion of Peace’ that Islam is has, more or less, become susceptible to the manipulation of fanatics than any other religion in the modern world. One is then tempted to ask: What is it about Islam that makes it rather easy for extremists to hijack the religion for the advancement of their motives? This goes beyond mere moral grandstanding; it strikes at the heart of the failure of religion to rein in those who claim to kill in God’s Name, thus giving their religion a bad name. This situation is not only seen in Western societies where extremists sow mayhem and murder. It is also visible in many Islamic societies, where the foundation of peace and social concord has been destroyed.
Fashola pushed his argument further by noting that when extremists who are Christians commit violent crimes, they are not called radical Christians but criminals. Why should the case of Islam be different? Interestingly, I have read the 40-paged booklet titled, This is Islam! The True Perspectives of Islam Against The Jaundiced Image It Is Being Given Today (July 2014) written by the Waziri of Katsina, Dr. Sanni Abubakar Lugga, where he makes a similar argument. Dr. Lugga notes that his aim is to correct the distortions many people have about Islam in relation to terrorism, which he said, “has contributed in denting the image of Islam and poisoning the minds of non-Muslims against the religion.” He blames fellow Muslims for “watching this unsavoury challenge growing, and in some instances aiding and abetting its growth by not caring to correct the misnomer.”
On page 33, Dr Lugga wrote: “When the Irish, who were Catholic or Protestant Christians, were unleashing terror in Ireland and bombing the streets of London, they were referred to as Irish Republican Army (IRA) and not as Catholic or Protestant Terrorists.” “In essence, when others commit acts of terrorism or aggression, they are referred to by their nationalities, or tribes, but when Muslims commit even lesser acts they are referred to by their religion… While followers of other religions are said to commit atrocities in the name of their nationalities or tribes, Muslims are said to commit atrocities in the name of Islam.”
My response to Fashola and Dr. Lugga is simple: The militant who kills innocent people does not claim to execute his evil trade in the name of Jesus. He also does not appeal to Christian teaching as a support system for his actions. They may be fanatics with Christian roots, but they never claim to be inspired by Christian convictions or pursuing a Christian agenda. But militants of Islamic stock do not only quote the Koran to support their acts of mayhem, they go further to say that their aim is to save Islam from corrupt elements in the society and to restore it to its original purity. Is this not the narrative logic behind ISIS?
We have heard gory tales of extremists who murder innocent people and exclaim, “Allahu Akbar!” According to witnesses of the 7 January 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre in France, the Kouachi brothers were heard shouting “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad” and “God is Great” in Arabic while calling out the names of the journalists they shot dead. Muslims who are embarrassed by this misuse of their religion can disown the extremists. You may call them a bunch of misguided fanatics who do not believe in Allah or who do not know what they are saying. But the fact is that they are appealing to your religion and using your scripture and your religious symbols to do what they are doing. All Muslims should be able to ask: “Why is it possible for evil people to do this with my religion?”
While I agree that Muslims have suffered from the unsavoury linking of their religion with terrorism, adherents of the religion who really care about the situation need to do a lot more to put the house of Islam in order. Christian history tells us that there was a time when Christianity too suffered the same fate, when Christians killed one another in the Name of God. I have been reading the 402-paged book, Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here (2013) by Karima Bennoune, the Algerian-born professor of international law at the University of California – Davis School of Law. Her book draws on extensive fieldwork and interviews with a global community of Muslim writers, artists, doctors, musicians, curators, lawyers, activists and educators, who are fighting fundamentalism worldwide. From Karachi to Tunis and from Kabul to Tehran, these inspiring Muslim men and women have risked death to combat the rising tide of fundamentalism, often without public recognition.
This is the kind of story we need to hear more. We need to cache in on this narrative to defeat terror wherever it exists and whatever guise it assumes. Sadly, rather than broadcast these uplifting stories, today’s media seems to be more fixated with reporting breaking news of extremist violence, thus feeding terror with the oxygen of publicity. This is what the famous Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Adichie calls the danger of a single story: “Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” She further says: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” What we need is a balance of stories. “Stories matter. Many stories matter,” she says.
For this reason, Fashola is right when he said it is difficult to “put a religion on trial while expecting its adherents to join the fight against criminals.” But how else do we wake up from complacency, indifference and moral lethargy? What we need to do is to join hands to defeat evil people who would want to hide under the guise of religion to sow discord in the society. Karima Bennoune has said that, “Progressive opponents of Muslim fundamentalism on the ground need our principled support.” She is perfectly right! But in the end, the major question is: Are we dealing with Muslims who happen to be extremists or extremists who happen to be Muslims? This should be the crucial starting of our conversation to end the scourge of violent religious fundamentalism.