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Kidnappers In Nigeria Distorting Muslim Faith?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Now it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about faith, religion and spirituality. Over the past few weeks, we've talked a number of times about the hundreds of girls who were kidnapped from a school in northern Nigeria.

Now, at first it wasn't clear who was responsible, although all signs pointed to the extremist group Boko Haram. When leaders of that group finally did claim responsibility, they also said they abducted the girls in the name of Islam. But Muslims around the world are condemning the kidnapping, and they say the group has a distorted and disturbed look at what the religion really says about such behavior.

One of the people who felt compelled to speak out about this is our very own Arsalan Iftikhar, one of our Barbershop regulars. He is senior editor at The Islamic Monthly and adjunct professor of religious studies at DePaul University. And he wrote an opinion piece for CNN this week titled "Hey Boko Haram, Pick Up A Quran And Bring Back Our Girls." Arsalan, welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Always good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: Arsalan, you cite specific quotes from the Muslim holy book, the Quran, that specifically oppose what Boko Haram has done. Can you share some of those with us?

IFTIKHAR: Sure, Michel. And I only quoted a few of the verses from the Quran which would repudiate everything Boko Haram has done. But in my CNN column, you know, one of the penultimate verses of the Quran that I quote is Chapter 2, verse 191, which says that oppression is worse than murder, and also Chapter 24, verse 33, which forbids anybody to force girls into any sort of prostitution.

What I wasn't able to quote were other passages of the Quran, for example, Chapter 4, verse 20, which says that it's not lawful to make women marry people outside of their own volition, against their will. Nor should you detain them, which is in direct repudiation to Boko Haram. And I could go on for hours quoting chapter and verse of things that Boko Haram has done that are completely forbidden in Islam.

MARTIN: So do - I'm not - obviously I'm not asking you to speak for them. But they seem to have a very - a strong belief that they are purifying the faith. In fact, the name is loosely translated to mean that Western education is forbidden or is sin. Where are they getting that idea from? So...

IFTIKHAR: I don't know where they're getting that idea from. You know, education has always been a central part of Islamic teachings. The prophet Mohammad even, you know, said in - many times in his life, especially in his final sermon, that, you know, you need to treat your women well. And that - you know, his wife Aisha, after the death of the prophet Mohammad, actually became one of the leading Islamic jurists and Islamic scholars in the world.

And so, you know, Muslim women have an equal right to get education, just like Muslim men do and people of all faiths do. And education is something that has always been highlighted in Islamic tradition - when the prophet said that, you know, go attain education, even if you have to go as far away as China. And so education is something that always - has always been a central part of the Muslim faith.

MARTIN: And, you know, there's - I wanted to ask you about your decision to speak out about this. You're, you know, among people, actually around the world, who are also of the Muslim faith, who are public commentators who are speaking about this. I - I'm wondering if that's a tricky decision for you because, you know, on the one hand, I think reasonable people would argue that - that, you know, the many - should the many be condemned for the acts of a few?

IFTIKHAR: That's a very...

MARTIN: And, you know, but yet many people obviously feel that they must write these op-eds and denounce this behavior and say that this is un-Islamic. I wanted to ask, why do you feel that you felt called upon to do this?

IFTIKHAR: You know, that's a very good question, Michel. And, you know, you're right, it is a slippery slope. On the one hand, you don't want to honor Boko Haram by, you know, addressing their grievances. But, you know, for Muslims, sadly, you know - there's no religious minority demographic group, at least here in the United States and in the West, that is more prone to collective guilt than Islam and Muslims.

And so, if Muslim public intellectuals like myself do not speak out against atrocious acts like what Boko Haram did, then people will criticize that Muslims aren't condemning this. And then when we do condemn it, then there's - then people say, well, not enough Muslims are condemning it. And so, you know, it's one of those double-edged swords.

We do it out of a sense of morality. We do it out of a sense of, you know, our Islamic duty to speak out against injustice, regardless of where it occurs and regardless of the nature of the perpetrators.

MARTIN: Is there an analogy you would wish to draw from Boko Haram to others? Because there are other people who will say that, yes, they - they are claiming this in the name of Islam. They are claiming this is part of their tradition, and they are claiming that - in fact that they have a purer form of understanding of the religion than you - that others who disagree with them are in fact kind of corrupt, and that they're trying to kind of purify the faith. Do you - is there an analogy that you might draw that would illuminate this for people who kind of see it that way?

IFTIKHAR: You know, the analogy that I always give, Michel, in a lot of my media appearances, is that extremists like Boko Haram are about as Muslim as the Westboro Baptist Church is Christian. You know, just because you have some sort of religious moniker in your name - you look at the Lord's Resistance Army, for example, with Joseph Kony and the Kony 2012 campaign.

If you look at the Lord's Resistance Army and their ideology, they have a Christianist worldview as well. And I think that all Christians would say that, you know, getting child slaves as soldiers would be completely antithetical to any Christian teachings. And, you know, I always tell people that if a person of any religion says that God is speaking to them, they probably need a checkup from the neck up, and not be taken seriously.

MARTIN: So you're saying that this is a dystopic cult. This is essentially a cult. And...

IFTIKHAR: Correct.

MARTIN: ... That they don't speak for the mainstream...

IFTIKHAR: Oh, I mean, they're not even - no, no. They're not even close to speaking. They're - again, they're in the fringe lunatic, like any, you know, religion with over a billion adherents have.

And that's why, like I said, that Muslim thinkers and writers like myself need to continue to speak out to help educate people who might not know anything about Islam or Muslims and might somehow think that sex slavery and human trafficking would be condoned by any world religion today.

MARTIN: Are you hoping that that clergy - this is the day of worship for Muslims - are you hoping that this will be spoken about in mosques around the world? And if so, what would you hope that people would say? As briefly as you can.

IFTIKHAR: Well, I think that, you know, the Muslim Zeitgeist has spoken out against Boko Haram. You know, you had the Iranian foreign ministry condemning the acts, the Egyptian religious ministry condemning the acts, the largest newspaper editorial boards in Pakistan and Indonesia, two of the largest Muslim countries on earth.

You know, this is - you know, this is one of those, you know, global events that has, you know, again tarnished the image of Islam and Muslims. And this is something that we Muslims are going to continue to speak out about, both in our pulpits in our mosques and in the public marketplace of ideas, like here.

MARTIN: That's Arsalan Iftikhar. He is senior editor at The Islamic Monthly and adjunct professor of religious studies at DePaul University. We'll miss you in the Barbershop today, Arsalan. But thank you so much for joining us for this important discussion.

IFTIKHAR: My pleasure, Michel. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.