Washington, DC – Renewed fighting between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government have propelled Nigeria back into the international spotlight. Since 2002, Boko Haram, a militant group in the north of Nigeria, has routinely made international headlines for its violent attacks on churches and its claim to uphold the tradition of Islam. Unfortunately, this has led to the false characterisation of the Nigerian conflict as one rooted in religion.
The resulting Muslim versus Christian dichotomy is overly simplistic, however. In reality, Nigerians suffer from a number of issues, including a lack of rule of law, stark socioeconomic disparities, and limited access to jobs. Indeed, Boko Haram’s violent attacks were first directed against law enforcement and politicians, and later against churches and mosques alike. The depiction of the conflict as one rooted in religion also advances a false and violent narrative of Islam, one that is repugnant to both Muslims and Christians.
Nigeria is by no means the only country where the violent actions of a few affect the image of the whole and where people often find themselves called upon to respond for the actions of a small minority of extremists. So I was interested when M. Nuruddeen Lemu, a Nigerian Islamic instructor and Senior Management Team member of the Islamic Education Trust, sat down with me at the Islamic Society of North America’s Washington, DC office to share his organisation’s efforts to address this challenge. As I listened, I was struck by the manner in which his efforts in Nigeria can provide lessons for people in radically different contexts around the world.
In Nigeria, Lemu says, some misconceptions about Islam are so prevalent that Muslims themselves have falsely incorporated these ideas into their own understanding of Islam, causing them to reject the religion altogether. He worries that his community is “losing intelligent people because they carry inferiority complexes and misconceptions about Islam.” They are embarrassed to be associated with a religion which they understand to have strange ideals and practices.
In order to better understand the problem and how to resolve it, the Islamic Education Trust, located in the city of Minna, began conducting surveys among Muslims and former Muslims to see what bothered them most about Islam – what shook their conscience or embarrassed them. Among the most popular responses were questions regarding the roles of women, relationships with people of other faiths, and the application of Islamic principles of jurisprudence.
He and his colleagues then prepared responses to these concerns using works from classical scholars trained on highly specific themes. From this, they developed a series of trainings to provide interested Muslims with a robust understanding of Islamic scholarship, as well as the necessary tools to engage with classical sources and critically evaluate Islamic principles.
The trainings also provide valuable skills in intra and interfaith dialogue, where participants learn to enter into dialogue with humility, listening first and seeking to be thought-provoking, rather than provocative. Students are also trained to be able to teach these skills in turn.
The result of this work, Lemu says, is that it “made Muslims more confident and at the same time tackled problems of extremism” because the class was structured so that each viewpoint must stand the test of rigorous discussion where the best argument wins. When exposed to classical Islamic scholarship and the tools with which to engage it, students who voiced opinions that were too far outside of the mainstream were quickly challenged.
When I asked Lemu why those with more extreme views would enter the program, he replied that students have entered the program for a variety of reasons, but most believed it would help strengthen their own personal convictions or help them improve their knowledge and skills as Islamic instructors. Furthermore, “people with those so-called extremist views were already a part of the [training] network, so they could not reject the program as liberal. Those who attended the classes would get to know one another – those with more extreme or more liberal arguments.”
Because of the course’s train-the-trainer model, Lemu's work has led to a large network of over 15,000 people across Nigeria. The work of the Islamic Education Trust has been increasingly recognised as one critical way to improve intra and interfaith dialogue, with the positive side effect of countering extremism.
Since its first course in 1994, the Islamic Education Trust has replicated its model for over 65,000 people in 22 countries around the world. Lemu and his colleagues serve as a powerful example of how Muslim communities everywhere can equip themselves with tools to analyse interpretations of Islam in a rapidly changing world.
* Maggie Siddiqi is a Program Coordinator at the Islamic Society of North America’s Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances in Washington, DC. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 5 February 2013, www.commongroundnews.org
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