Boko Haram and the shame that we share

The word “Islamist” it is not the invention of the nasty mass media or of Orientalists

Abdallah Schleifer
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From one end of the Muslim world to the other, from Europe and America as well as from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, Muslim religious leaders have denounced the kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian school girls by the militant Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram.

The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar - which is considered the center of Islamic learning in the Sunni world - imams of mosques , the editorial writers for print and broadcast media have condemned Boko Haram and its activities as despicable, horrendous crimes and the perpetrators as blasphemous for claiming that the authority for them to kidnap the girls and threaten to sell them as slaves in the market place comes from God and the Quran.

This is not the first outrage committed by Boko Haram. Over the past few years they have attacked churches and mosques and assassinated a number of Muslim religious leaders in Nigeria who have denounced both the activities of the organization and its claim that it represents a pure Islam. But there is something so grotesque about this latest crime that it has made public denunciation an imperative for the Muslim religious and community leadership.

Domain of action

But in the domain of action it is Britain, France, the United States, China and even Israel who are sending security experts , special force operatives and reconnaissance planes to Nigeria to help track down Boko Haram and free the girls. One would have expected that the first countries to offer experts and special forces to Nigeria, to have been Muslim countries, not only for the honor of all Muslims but also because it is precisely this sort of terrorism that has over the years plagued law and order in a number of Muslim countries. But not one Muslim country, at least to public knowledge, has sent or offered to send counter-terrorist experts or Special Forces to Nigeria to participate in the campaign against Boko Haram.

As for the word “Islamist” it is not the invention of the nasty mass media or of Orientalists but used and justified by a former Arab ambassador

Abdallah Schleifer

If I were writing the declarations I would speak of Boko Haram as “the perversion of Islam.” But once again there are Muslim voices saying that Boko Haram and this kidnapping in particular has “nothing to do with Islam,” that the perpetrators of this and other crimes in Nigeria are not “Muslims.” In a recent column published in The Daily Beast, a relatively popular American website, a Muslim writer has lashed out at the media for even identifying the Boko Haram terrorists and groups like it as “Islamist terrorists” or “ Islamist extremists,” or even using the word “Islamist” in reference to acts of terrorism.

This not a new trope. More than ten years ago, when participating in a closed seminar in which some 12 or so Muslim scholars or community leaders gathered in Washington, DC to discuss the problem of terrorism committed in the name of Islam, a representative of a well known American Muslim civil rights group raised the same issue. Like the author of the column in the Daily Beast, he asked why Christians committing terrorism were not identified as Christian terrorists. As an example, the same representative asked why the IRA were not addressed and challenged as” Christian terrorists.”

Christian terrorists

I pointed out that neither of the two factions of the IRA in action at that time identified themselves as Christian. They did not say they were killing in the name of or inspired by “The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The media knew that the IRA factions were either nationalist or Marxist and in neither case claim allegiance to a religious identity, whereas Islamist terrorist groups did do their evil acts to shouts of “Allahu Akbar” and would raise a war banner with the words of the first of the two testimonials of Muslim Belief: “La Ilaha ilAllah” – there is no god but God!

I might have added that it was almost a courtesy by the media to use the word “Islamist” rather than “Islamic” or “Muslim” in identifying a terrorist group, that was engaging in more than simple self-identification, but justifying their action as a means to establish the rule of “true” or “pure” Islam and the establishment of a particular political order.

I would imagine that a non-Muslim who knew little or nothing about Islam would think that a Muslim spokesman who said Osama bin Laden, or in these days the leader of Boko Haram, “was not a Muslim” and their respective terrorist organizations had “nothing to do with Islam” was either mad or devious to the utmost degree.

That it was why it would be much more creditable and true for a Muslim to say in effect that these are men who have perverted Islam and we Muslims will fight them until they are destroyed. We should also point out that all of these groups have killed far more Muslims than they have killed non-Muslims.

As for the word “Islamist” it is not the invention of the nasty mass media or of Orientalists but used and justified by a former Arab ambassador, and an important figure in Islamic activism in Europe back in the early 1960s. He declared “Islamists” were those who believed that” Islam was more than a religion; that it was an ideology.” Years later, when this issue came up at still another conference, and the introduction of the word attributed to Zionists or “Crusaders,” I responded by recalling the statement of the prominent Arab former diplomat, credited his description of the Islamist and of Islamism for its honesty and authenticity. But, I remarked, when I converted to Islam I was surrendering to God, not to a political movement.


Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded as served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) , New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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