U.S. Islamic leaders won’t try to formally excommunicate the Islamist Boko Haram group unless they can meet with its leadership to debate the religious legitimacy of its actions, a spokesman for a leading mosque told The Daily Caller.
“There is a great reluctance to excommunicate someone by extension. … It would be like convicting someone in absentia,” said Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, the spokesman for the “Home of the Migrants” mosque, or Dar Al Hijrah mosque, in Falls Church Va. If crimes have been committed, the Nigerian government should punish the individuals, he added.
On May 7, Abdul Malik led a group of Muslim advocates at a press conference at the National Press Club, where they denied that Islamic strictures are shaping Boko Haram’s years-long campaign of killing and kidnapping Christians.
“Islam is not the problem,” said Ahmed Bedier, a Florida-based Islamic advocate. “We’re tired of people coming on television and asking where does this ideology come from,” Bedier said. “Well, this ideology comes from nowhere,” he insisted.
The Islamic leaders’ defensiveness was slammed by Rahil Raza, a Canadian Muslim who is working to modernize the faith.
Established Islamic leaders “have to look long and hard at the Sharia [Islamic law] that Boko Haram is using … [because] it is an ideology of violence,” said Raza, who is president of Muslims Facing Tomorrow, a Canadian Islamic group. “We’ve got to stop living in the past, stop living in the 7th and 8th centuries and start living in the 21st century,” she said.
At his May 7 event, Abdul-Malik urged Boko Haram to change its view of Islam, even as he declined to challenge its religious claims. “Groups like Boko Haram desire to take us back to a medieval … world where kidnapping of women and girls and enslavement and rape are acceptable,” he said.
However, Abdul-Malik didn’t promise any religious or political action by U.S. Islamic groups. When pressed May 9 by TheDC to cite Islamic texts that contradict Boko Haram’s Islamist arguments, Abdul-Malik quickly ended the phone call.
The May 7 meeting highlighted the political and P.R. nightmare facing U.S. Islamic groups as the mainstream media devotes hostile coverage to the April kidnapping of roughly 276 unguarded girls — reportedly all of whom were Christian — by the Nigerian-based Islamist group, informally called Boko Haram.
But even some media outlets that have given sympathetic coverage to the girls — plus White House and State Department officials —- have repeatedly tried to downplay the Islamist ideology that powers Boko Haram, and have instead suggested that the group’s members are merely rebels against corrupt government and poverty.
But those suggestions don’t explain why the group has killed thousands of Christian civilians, launched numerous bomb and suicide-bomb attacks against schools and churches, and has kidnapped more than 200 teenage girls for possible sale in slave markets.
Reality is putting the established U.S. Muslim groups on the defensive.
“There is a market for selling humans,” said Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau. “Allah says I should sell. He commands me to sell. I will sell women. I sell women,” Shekau said in a video translated by CNN. Shekau also said pre-teen girls could be forcibly married.
“We would marry them out at the age of nine,” he said, echoing actions by Islam’s founder Muhammed, who claimed multiple wives, including a nine-year-old girl named Aisha.
A new video shows some of the girls dressed in Muslim garb, and a claim by Boko Haram that the Christian girls have converted to Islam.
In a February video, Shekau justified his murder of Christians by quoting the Quran. The verse cited by Shekau, “We have rejected you, and there has arisen, between us and you, enmity and hatred for ever, unless ye believe in Allah and Him alone,” is found in the fourth verse of the Quran’s 60th chapter.
“We wish to reiterate that our [jihad] is not for personal gain; it is meant to ensure the establishment of an Islamic state by liberating all Muslims from the excesses of the infidels,” the group’s spokesman, Abu Qaqa, said in 2012, according to study of the group. “We don’t kill innocent Muslims. The fact is the bottom line of our struggle is to set the Muslims free from enslavement. We only kill the unbelievers,” he said.
The Muslim groups aren’t excommunicating Shekau’s group because his Islamic claims are based on iconic Islamic texts, said Robert Spencer, the author of several best-sellers on Islamic law and traditions.
The Quran is said by Muslims to be a direct transcription by Muhammad of statements by their god, Allah. So “it is perfectly legitimate for a Muslim to capture a Christian woman and use her for sex,” Spencer said. “This is something that Mohammad did himself,” according to Islamic traditions, Spencer said.
The acid test of opposition to Shekau’s Islamic claims is whether the U.S. Islamic groups will declare that Shekau’s groups and ideas are heretical, said Spencer. But Islamic debates are very legalistic, so any attempted excommunication would require Islamic groups to cite Islamic texts before pronouncing “takfir” on Shekau and his movement, Spencer said.
TheDC asked Abdul-Malik if Americans Muslim groups would pronounce “takfir” on Boko Haram. “There is a great reluctance to excommunicate someone by extension. … It would be like convicting someone in absentia,” he replied.
The groups won’t take that step, Spencer said, because “they know Boko Haram has a perfectly good case based on the Koran … [and] they know that Muslims in their community … would be indignant towards them if they pronounce ‘takfir’ on a group that is following the Koran.”
Numerous U.S. Islamic groups contacted by TheDC declined to offer Islamic counter-arguments against Boko Haram. Instead, they merely said its actions are “unjust” and “un-Islamic.”
Shekau was trained as a Muslim cleric, according to a report by the International Crisis Group. He includes an Islamic title — imam — in his war-name, which is “Imam Abu Mohammen Abubakar bin Muhammad Shekau.” The name is also a salute to one of Islam’s earliest caliphs, Muhammad ibn Abu Bakr.
Boko Haram’s formal name is the “Congregation of the People of the Sunnah for Dawah and Jihad.” The word “Sunnah” means that the group belongs to the Sunni branch of Islam. “Dawah” is the Islamic word for proselytization, and jihad is the Muslim term for divinely sanctioned war to expand or defend Islamic territories.
The “Boko Haram” term is a pidgin English term that means Western books and ideas are “haram,” or forbidden by Islam.
The kidnappings took place in Bono State, a mostly Muslim province in the north-east of the country.
Shekau’s group has been aided by al-Qaida affiliates in northern Africa. The groups provided training plus weapons that were looted from Libyan army depots left unguarded during President Barack Obama’s 2011 bombing campaign against Libya’s government.
However, Shekau’s bellicose threats and actions have alarmed U.S. Muslim groups and even al-Qaida members, who fear that Shekau’s actions will damage Islam’s standing.
“Such news is spread to taint the image of the Mujahedeen,” one jihadi wrote on an Internet site, according to a May 8 article in The New York Times. Other jihadis defended the group. “I have brothers from Africa who are in this group … [who are like] the Quran walking the earth,” said a jihadi.
The press club meeting was set by U.S.-based Islamic groups to distance themselves from the Nigerian-based Islamist force. “These [U.S.] groups have been gathered together to send a very clear message, a message from our community that his behavior will not stand,” Abdul-Malik said May 7.
The event included speakers from several well-funded Islamic groups, most of whom share staff, founders and board members. Their top leaders include activists friendly to the Cairo-based Muslim Brotherhood movement.
Shekau’s claims are “un-Islamic,” said a statement from the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “It is almost impossible to express the level of disgust felt by American Muslims at the un-Islamic and obscene actions of the terrorist group Boko Haram for the kidnapping and threat to ‘sell’ hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls,” it said.
CAIR’s spokesman, Ibrahim Hooper, rejected TheDC’s request for an theological refutation of Shekau’s claims. “That’s all we do for any anti-Muslim hate site as The Daily Caller,” said Hooper.
In 2009, a judge declared that CAIR was a co-conspirator in a plan to smuggle money to Hamas, a jihadi group that is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Muslim Public Affairs Council announced its criticism May 6, saying “in the Quran, [Allah] calls on us to liberate those who are oppressed and enslaved.” The group only cited one Koran verse against Boko Haram, when it criticized Boko Haram’s forcible conversion of the girls. “Let there be no compulsion in matters of faith,” says the one verse cited by MPAC.
The Islamic Society of North America, which is reportedly the umbrella group for Brotherhood sympathizers in the United States, issued a short denunciation on May 6. “We condemn wholeheartedly, the disgusting and un-Islamic actions that the terrorist group known as Boko Haram has committed,” said the statement from the group’s vice president, Azhar Azeez. “Kidnapping and threatening to sell the over 200 Nigerian school girls has no validation in the religious tradition of Islam and we urge the Nigerian authorities to find the missing school girls and bring their captors to justice,” ISNA said.
ISNA’s American-born spokesman, Edgar Hopida, however, answered some of TheDC’s questions.
Boko Haram is illegitimate because Muslim groups can’t wage war without approval from a central authority, dubbed the caliph, he said. The caliphate was abolished by Turkey’s secular government in 1924.
Slavery “is pretty much a moot deal,” Hopida said. “if you look at the Koran’s verses, the big thing is that the best action is to free a slave,” he said, adding that “a lot of Muslim countries … do not have slaves any more.”
However, slavery still survives in Muslim countries neighboring Nigeria, including Mauritania, Chad and Niger, where a form of sexual slavery is preserved.
Islam is changing over time, Hopida said. “There is always reform and reconstituting Islamic law through history. … It is clear that the vast majority of Muslims do not support these groups,” he said.
But Hopida also downplayed any hope that the U.S. Islamic groups would excommunicate Boko Haram. “It is not so simple that we could delegitimize them and that’s it. … They have AK-47s [and] the majority of the population doesn’t have weapons,” he said.
Hopida declined to return TheDC’s calls after he was asked if U.S. Muslim groups would pronounce “takfir” on Shekau and his “Congregation of the People of the Sunnah for Dawah and Jihad.”
TheDC also sought responses from The Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview, Ill., the Islamic Center on Connecticut Ave. in Washington D.C, and from Haris Tarin, the D.C. director of the D.C.-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, who has been frequently invited to the White House by Obama’s deputies.
TheDC also reached out to Sherman Jackson, a former leader of the Fiqh Council of North America, and to other members of the council. The council is important because it issues fatwas, or religious decisions based on Islamic law, on behalf of the ISNA and the other groups.
Arsalan Iftikhar, a U.S. Muslim lawyer and lecturer, argued on CNN’s website that “the leaders of Boko Haram have clearly never read the Holy Quran, which states quite clearly that ‘oppression is worse than murder’ (2:191).”
However, the full text of that verse and its neighboring verses actually matches Shekau’s claim that he has an Islamic duty to fight for Islam. “Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you. … Slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution [of Muslims] is worse than slaughter. … Fight them until persecution is no more, and [all] religion is for Allah,” Allah says in the sequence of three verses.
Raza and other reformers, however, hope to force a fundamental rewrite of the Koran. “We are just at the beginning of the reform. … We have to light a fire under the feet of these clerics and groups to say, ‘Yes of course there needs to be an reinterpretation'” of the Koran, she said.
“There are parts of the Koran promoting violence, they have to be set aside as they were in Christianity,” said Raza.
“Women in Muslim-majority societies have been oppressed for so long. … It’s been 1,400 years — it is about time we stood up and said stop it already,” said Raza, who says she’s been repeatedly threatened by Islamic advocates for urging a reform of Islam. “Anyone who suggests a reform is called a heretic and perhaps should be killed… Thank God I’m living in Canada [because in the United States] people are afraid to speak out,” she said.
Progress is slow, despite the humiliation imposed on American Muslims by their devout co-religionists in Nigeria.
“Islam is not the problem,” insisted Bedier during the May 7 press event. “Extremism and violent extremism is the problem, which is the result of many other factors … [such as] poverty, lack of resources,” he said, while repeating the “Islam is not the problem” at least five times.
“We Muslim communities have to stand up,” Raza countered. “This is our garbage and we have to clean it out.”
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