Boko Haram, a terrorist organization founded by Mohammed Yusuf in 2002, operates with the declared object of establishing a pure Islamic state ruled by Sharia law. Based in Cameroon, Niger, and northeast Nigeria, the Al-Qaeda-trained group works to fight Westernization by targeting Christians and government bases, bombing churches, police stations, tourists and schools. Between 2002 and 2013, at least 10,000 deaths have been attributed to the violence perpetrated by Boko Haram.
Some see this radicalism as the face of Islam. A group of Muslim women associated with Hamden’s Abdul-Majid Karim Hasan Islamic Center women in New Haven spoke out against this characterization. While their mission is to speak out against the actions of terrorist group Boko Haram, in doing so they also help to dispel the deeply entrenched stereotypes of Islam that plague American society today.
The terrorist organization has most recently found itself in international headlines for its kidnapping of almost 300 Nigerian schoolgirls. New Haven Muslims Kim and Zakiyya Hasan, among others, decided it was time to speak out. Not only do they renounce Boko Haram’s actions, but they also wish to clarify the common mislabeling of the group’s activity.
“I just want to be clear, that what is happening in Nigeria is not Islam; we can’t label this Islam,” said Kim Hasan in an interview with the New Haven Register. Zakiyya S. Hasan, who also raised her voice in protest, points out that, “There is nowhere in the Quran where God says education is only for the male and not the female; education is the right of human beings.” She points out the glaring hypocrisy of Boko Haram’s actions: “Taking young girls violates Islamic law.”
Abrar Omeish, BR ’17, who serves as the religious activities chair for the Yale Muslim Students’ Association, argues that when we associate Islam with these groups in any way we tend to then turn to Muslims with questions about terrorist behavior. This inadvertently implies that terrorist activity and its connection to Islam is legitimate, which is a false and damaging understanding of the issue. Essentially, Omeish proposes that we reevaluate our approach to understanding terrorism such as that practiced by Boko Haram.
“The question shouldn’t be why their behavior is not a form of Islam, but why Muslims are being asked this question,” she said in an interview with The Politic. “It’s a common mistake to have to ask the Muslim community to respond to attacks of violence as though they are anything Islamic, or as if they have to apologize on behalf of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world for the 0.00000025 percent that happen to exhibit behavior that is, while completely inappropriate, nothing new in the human experience. This would be just as preposterous as asking President Obama to explain that African Americans are not all bad people, or better yet, to ask the Pope to explain that Christians do not support the murder of innocent civilians despite the actions of Timothy McVeigh.”
Searching for a Muslim perspective on Boko Haram essentially validates the group’s self-proclaimed association with Islam. Omeish articulates the detrimental nature of this misguided approach: “Trying to find out why Boko Haram’s form of Islam is not […] practiced by many assumes that Islam condones such behaviors, and poses the question as if that is the basis. The source of this question is itself biased in a subconscious way.”
Some might still believe that the actions of Boko Haram and similar terrorist operations, while not in accordance with mainstream Islam, are the result of a rise in “Islamism,” “Jihadism,” or “fundamentalism”. While many people recognize that the Islam associated with radical terrorist groups is not a common form of the religion, Omeish takes this distinction a step further: Boko Haram is not simply an offshoot of Islam, “but rather it is not the Islam practiced by all, and Muslims would uphold that [it] is not Islam,” she says, echoing the sentiments of Kim Hasan. Then how do we label groups like Boko Haram? According to Omeish, certainly not using the terms often found in American media. “These [terrorists] are not ‘Islamists’ or ‘jihadists,’ meaning those who uphold Islam or Jihad.” Omeish explains, “That is what Muslims – including myself – are.”
Jihad, according to Islam, is the spiritual internal struggle against sin. In a prominent fatwah against violent extremism, well known Sufi scholar Hisham Kabbani said, “The concept of jihad has been hijacked by many political and religious groups over the ages in a bid to justify various forms of violence.” This stands in accordance with Kim Hasan’s bid to the public to delineate between Boko Haram’s ideology and Islamism. It is essential that we recognize and work to eliminate misunderstanding and generalization of Islam in the West. Language, an instrumental piece of human interaction, needs to be used with precision. The least we can do is use cross-cultural terms with prudence, bearing in mind the damaging effect of faulty labels.