Recently, the world learned about the tragic, terrorist attack on Nigeria’s Northeastern state of Borno where, on April 14, nearly 300 girls were kidnapped from their boarding school. CNN reported on May 6 that at least 53 of the girls who were kidnapped — all between the ages of 12 and 15 — managed to escape.
As this cruel situation starts gaining popular attention in Western media and on social networks, I have noticed two particularities regarding its coverage circulating the web — firstly, the way that most Western media have chosen to address the name of the terrorist group responsible for the kidnappings and, secondly, the reactions of the Muslim communities around the world toward these terrorist organizations.
As I sit and run through the media coverage of the kidnappings, I can’t help but shudder every time that I hear (or read) correspondents referring to Boko Haram as a “terrorist, Islamist group.”
There is no denying that Boko Haram is, indeed, a terrorist organization but, is it ethical and correct to immediately attribute this to the Islamic faith?
Just last year, the Associated Press redefined the term “Islamist,” declaring that it is not to be used as “a synonym for Islamic fighters, militants, extremists or radicals, who may or may not be Islamists.”
Since its creation in 2002, the Nigerian Terrorist organization has maintained its efforts to accomplish one sole objective: creating what they consider to be an authentic Islamic state under a strict order of Sharia Law. The April 14 kidnappings are one of the most recent terrorist manifestations of this organization, which has been terrorizing Christian and Muslim communities in Nigeria for more than a decade.
For this reason I see how it’s understandable that most people would intuitively associate Boko Haram to Islam. However, for all of us out here in the Western world, such associations can only hinder Western popular knowledge and opinions of Islam as we read the news everyday and mainly hear about the atrocities of these self-professed Islamist terrorist organizations that represent only a small minority of the vast, populous Muslim global community.
Among the generous compilation of images of all the protests, public demonstrations and conferences that have followed the recent kidnappings, I was surprised to find so many reactions of Muslims around the world condoning Boko Haram’s ideologies, some even comparing them to those of the Taliban and all almost unanimously dismissing the organization’s alleged ties to Islam.
One of these images captured a Muslim woman, wearing a full-body burqa, protesting in Nigeria and holding up a sign that read: “This is Terrorism, not Islam.”
Another picture of a woman participating in the same demonstrations demanding the Nigerian government to take stronger actions against Boko Haram in order to rescue the girls, shows the woman holding a sign that read: “Boko Haram is not Islam.”
The world-famous 16-year-old who was also a victim of a terrorist organization persecuting women’s rights to education, Malala Yousafzai, spoke up against Boko Haram’s alleged ties to Islam last week during an interview with CNN.
“I think they haven’t studied Islam yet, they haven’t studied Quran yet, and they should go and they should learn Islam,” she said. “They are actually misusing the name of Islam because they have forgotten that the word islam means ‘peace.'”
What struck me the most, however, was an opinion piece published last week on the TorontoStar. The author of this piece, Ahmed Sahi, introduces himself as devout Muslim who is not only worried about the countless atrocities that Boko Haram has committed over the last few years in Nigeria, but also about the damage that these so-called Islamists have caused on the image of Islamic faith across the world.
“It’s frustrating because here you have this massive group of about 1.8 billion Muslims on earth today, and a handful of twisted extremists have hijacked the whole faith, steering the public discourse on Islam,” Sahi said.
The fact that mainstream news coverage has chosen to use names that suggest that terrorist groups such as the Boko Hasam are related to the Islam faith certainly influences the way we, in the Western world, form ideas and associations about Islam. Most of what we know about Islam comes from what we see in the news which, sadly, mostly pertains to reports of terrorist attacks or military interventions.
“Boko Haram — Islamic Militants. That’s how they’re described and viewed. The “militant” part is true. The “Islamic” part? Not so much,” Sahi added.
This just makes me question the way that the media has decided to cover the kidnapping of Nigeria’s schoolgirls from Borno — if all we are hearing about these ‘Islamists’ right now is that they are are affiliated with extremist terrorist organizations, are we perhaps being unfair to the striking majority of Muslims around the world that, like Malala, Sahi, and the women leading demonstrations in Nigeria, are practicing Muslims whose faith completely contradicts these terrorist groups’ ideologies?
Being a Muslim living in the Western culture himself, Sahi has witnessed the growing tensions, stereotypes and fear that accompany the image of Islamic faith in western societies.
“We can’t afford Muslims to be perceived as if they have anything to do with the miscreants of Boko Haram or other extremists, who almost weekly seem to be dragging Islam’s name through the mud,” he said.
The majority of Muslims, which Sahi calls the “‘silent 99 percent of Muslims,” have yet to speak up and “make a clear separation between themselves and the extremists,” said Sahi.
But what exactly is this “clear separation” that Sahi is talking about?
An article published by The Guardian in July 2009 after the death of Boko Haram’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, describes the organization’s ideologies, compares them to those of other terrorist groups and puts them into perspective with the teachings of Islamic faith.
The article quotes a post by an anonymous Muslim user on the Nigerian internet discussion forum. The author of this post condones the beliefs and practices of groups like the Boko Haram, citing examples from the Qur’an that Sahi later mentions in his own article as well.
The user is perturbed about “these undesirable elements parading themselves under the guise of religion.”
The user also wrote that “The religion of Islam never deny (sic) people the right to education. To the contrary, there are verses in the Qur’an urging Muslims to go seek knowledge even in very far places (the country China was used in one instance).”
“Many readers may not know this, but Prophet Muhammad had the utmost respect for women,” wrote Sahi.
Boko Haram’s misogynistic view of denying women the right to education is completely at odds with Islamic way of life, he wrote. “‘Paradise lies at the feet of your mothers,’ he [Muhammad] once said. That’s how much dignity and respect Islam has accorded to women.”
Perhaps, as Malala suggested during her interview with CNN, these terrorists really need to sit down and learn Islam, rather than misuse its name for the sake of terrorism.
But what about us? What should we do?
Our responsibility lies in the simple understanding that there is a silenced, 99 percent of Muslims whose faith is being hijacked by the cruel and inhumane acts of the 1 percent that, for all the wrong reasons, were the only ones that made it to our mainstream news channels and Facebook activity feeds.
Topics like these call for a wide array of interpretations and points of view; as an active, engaging audience we must challenge ourselves to think beyond the media’s black and white portrayals of Islam and acknowledge the existence of the widely ranging shades of grey that lie in between — all 99 percent of them.
Follow Maria Prada on Twitter: @chuzac