Claiming that God directed the senseless kidnappings of hundreds of schoolgirls in Nigeria is nothing but reprehensible. The assailants, Boko Haram, either have a dubious understanding of their faith or, more likely, are acting in their own selfish political interests, apparent from the reports of lavish lifestyle of their deceased founder, M. Yusuf. The religious ideology proclaimed by groups like Boko Haram or Al-Qaeda is “a political ideology fashioned by misinterpreting, misrepresenting and corrupting the religious text” as Dr. Rohan Gunaratna of International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore points out.
To Nigerian Muslims, it is clear that the actions of Boko Haram, which include attacks on churches and mosques, killing hundreds of people including Christians and Muslims, are criminal and terrorist acts and have nothing to do with their professed faith. Nigerian Muslim cleric Ibrahim Ahmed Abdullahi, who publicly condemned Boko Haram’s violence and was later killed by the group, told the Associated Press that the group recruits from among the impoverished youth by promising them “a more prosperous life at the end of a Kalashnikov rifle.” Abdullahi told the AP in November 2010 that for people living in absolute poverty, any invitation to bring about change has an appeal.
Boko Haram is not alone among terrorist groups that feed on the desperation of young people, giving them a false hope of a better future and pushing them into a quick sand of perpetual violence. PKK in Turkey, a Marxist organization that is responsible for some of the highest number of suicide attacks in the world after Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers and Al-Qaeda, has been feeding on the desperation of Kurdish youth whose families suffered ultranationalist policies and poverty for decades. University of Chicago professor Robert Pape, author of Dying to Win (Random House, 2006) and co-author with James Feldman of Cutting the Fuse (University of Chicago Press, 2010), demonstrated through 30 years of research that suicide terrorism in particular is associated with political occupation, rather than religious fundamentalism.
Actions of Boko Haram and others like it have no justification in or any association with any faith. They are rather associated with totalitarian mentalities that feed on young people’s desperation, which is often a result of various forms of inaptitude, injustice or oppression by local governments, non-governmental actors or foreign powers. Needless to say, none of the conditions that play a role in the formation of such groups justify any of their atrocities. Muslims around the world must continue their loud condemnation of such terrorist acts and support the international community in aiding the releases of these schoolgirls.
Influential Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, who is considered by TIME magazine as “the most potent advocate of moderation in the Muslim world,” has strongly condemned the kidnappings in Nigeria as well as other such violent acts. In an interview with the Atlantic in the aftermath of the attack on Malala Yusufzai in Pakistan, he said that denying girls access to education simply goes against the spirit of the Muslim religious tradition and that women should be able to take on every role in our society, including those of physicians, military officers, judges and head of state. He has advocated for women to have a powerful voice in the ongoing dialogue about the future of our communities.
Gulen believes that holistic education that augments math, science, language, humanities and arts with character development is the solution to addressing systemic societal problems. Intolerance of diversity and discrimination against women are but two examples of such societal problems that start at the mindset of the individual and should be addressed at that level first and foremost. That is the reason the Gulen-inspired educators around the world have been establishing educational institutions as the quintessential tool for building free and fair societies that protect and celebrate human rights of all citizens.
Individuals who share Gulen‘s ideas have founded hundreds of private, STEM-based, secular schools around the world, including in countries like Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan that serve boys and girls. President Karzai of Afghanistan and President Sharif of Pakistan recently praised the contributions of such schools to their societies.
The senseless abductions of young girls seeking nothing but a chance to learn only illustrates the threat that education poses to groups committed to a narrow worldview that suppresses human rights of others who do not think like them. The kidnappings must serve as a reminder to all in the Muslim world of the important role that education plays in cultivating free societies and in protecting people against totalitarian, oppressive forces.
Muslims must do more to publicly promote the shared values of life, liberty, compassion and dignity. These values are conferred on us by God, who in the Qur’an (Chapter 17, verse 70) has ordered us to: Treat people with dignity out of respect for their Creator, be concerned with the well-being of every human, have compassion for every suffering person and value every life equally.
As someone who comes from a family of teachers — my mother, now deceased father, sister, two aunts and other relatives — I constantly observed the effort these educators put into developing young minds and helping them achieve their true potential. I saw how their students appreciated that and expressed their gratitude later in their lives.
All around the world, there are people similarly dedicated to helping young generations actualize their true human potential, especially in areas where such opportunities are scarce. So when I see events such as those in Nigeria, it renews my commitment to the promotion of education and the protection of human rights and freedoms. If totalitarian-minded people are against educating girls, it must surely be the right thing to do.