Thought for the Day - 12/05/2014 - Abdal Hakim Murad

Good morning.

The capture of several hundred schoolgirls by the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram continues to horrify the world. Western politicians, including our own prime minister, have hastened to identify themselves with the campaign to free the girls. American military specialists are believed to be in Nigeria, helping with the hunt.

Some in the West are shaking their heads in an effectively racist way, as though to say that in darkest Africa such gruesome things are no surprise. After all, Uganda has been tormented for years by the Lord’s Resistance Army, which also uses child soldiers, and abducts girls as concubines. But this stereotype collapses easily. On my desk I have the new European Union report on human trafficking. Under its title Slavery of our Times, it reads: ‘Hundreds of thousands of victims trafficked across the EU each year.’

Perhaps we in Europe do occupy the moral high ground, but it may be rather shaky under our feet.

In any case, the issue here, for Muslims, has been especially painful. Not only because some of those abducted are from very traditional Muslim families, which must now be going, as all of them will, through a hellish trauma; but because the whole atrocity underscores the crisis of leadership which is now a grave problem for global Islam.

The Boko Haram abductions have been condemned by all the traditional authorities: Nigeria’s chief sultan, the grand muftis of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the leading Islamic universities, the main Islamic bodies here in Britain. It’s been a moment of unity. Unfortunately, we can’t pretend that it has helped.

For the last decade or so, across the Muslim world small but ferocious factions have defied the traditional leaders and taken religion into their own hands. In every case the result has been a disaster for communities and even whole countries. The use by these factions of religious rhetoric to validate what is often a political or economic grievance has left many religious leaders at a loss. In some cases the imams have been assassinated for speaking out against the extremists; this has happened in Nigeria, as elsewhere. So what should they do?

The founder of Islam had no time for extreme zealotry. ‘May the fanatics perish,’ he once commented. If he detected extreme or hateful behaviour in anyone he would condemn it immediately. Present-day leaders recall this, as they struggle to find ways of fighting terrorism.

So this scandal is more than an issue for the Nigerian army. It cuts more deeply. How to restore the authority of the mainline leadership, among embittered young men who trust no-one? Spies and bullets will not, in the long term, defeat these aberrations: the religious leadership must find some way of regaining its moral authority in an age of rapid change and rampant injustice.

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