How We Stop the Next Boko Haram

To prevent future Boko Harams, American Muslims must speak out forcefully against their radical coreligionists—and the media must cover it.


It’s time we had an honest discussion about groups like Boko Haram and how we can prevent the rise of similar ones in the future. And, yes, this conversation must include addressing the role Islam plays—even at the risk of upsetting some of my fellow Muslims.

I’m not saying Boko Haram’s actions are based on Islamic principles. I believe the opposite, and in fact, I made that very point in my article last week. Of course, the anti-Muslim crowd denounced my article as inaccurate. Having those people explain Islam is like having Mel Gibson explain Judaism.

But when I say Islam plays a role, I mean that there’s no doubt that Boko Haram and their followers identify as Muslims. And I’m sure some if not most of those in that terrorist group believe they are doing God’s work by engaging in violent attacks.

Here’s the bottom line: Preventing new Boko Harams requires a multifaceted approach, and Muslims need to be one part of it. And I say this as a Muslim who for years had bristled at the idea of being called on to denounce terrorists who commit violence in the name of Islam because I didn’t feel I was in any way connected to these despicable murderers.

I would often scoff at people when they would say: “Muslims need to stop these terrorists.” My typical response was: Do you want me to fly to over there and speak to them?! I have no more to do with those extremists than the typical Christian has with those who attack abortion clinics.

But my views have evolved. No, I’m not boarding a jet to Nigeria to have a sit down with Boko Haram. I have however come to believe—as have many other American-Muslims I have spoken with—that we can and must play a role in combatting Muslim extremism outside of our borders. (Muslims have already been doing that for years in the United States, even though the media rarely report it.)

Shamsi Ali, a well-known New York City-based Imam who does extensive interfaith work with Rabbi Marc Schneier and Russell Simmons, stated emphatically, “It is paramount important for the Muslims worldwide to speak out against any criminal tendencies within the community without any reservation.”

Arsalan Iftikhar, senior editor of The Islamic Monthly and adjunct professor of religious studies at DePaul University, and Qasim Rashid, a Muslim-American lawyer and author of the soon to be released book Extremist, also emphasized the need for Muslims to publicly denounce terrorists who invoke Islam. “Muslim leaders need to condemn all terrorist attacks made in the name of Islam because we are called to do so by the Koran,” noted Rashid.

The rationale for this is twofold. One, it unequivocally lets non-Muslims know that these terrorists don’t accurately represent Islam. And secondly, this message will hopefully “marginalize these groups” from mainstream Muslims as they are made aware that these terrorists’ actions are un-Islamic, hence making it more difficult for them to attract support of Muslims, noted Imam Ali. Iftikhar added that these denunciations should be made “in Islamic religious terms which will resonate” within the Muslim community.

Imam Ali also urged two other specific measures. First, the need to increase literacy among Muslims in developing nations. Why does this matter? As Imam Ali explained, a political or terrorist leader can literally make things up and claim they are in the Koran, and those unable to read will not be able to check if that is accurate. Keep in mind that in Nigeria, 51 percent of the 170 million people are illiterate.

Second, Imam Ali raised an issue that few have publicly discussed. He explained the importance of Muslims actually understanding the true meaning of certain passages of the Koran, calling for them to “broaden their horizons” and view the scripture “within proper context and not literally.”

Ali gave as an example the current controversy in Sudan over a judge sentencing a woman to death for leaving Islam under that country’s version of sharia law. (Sudanese officials recently noted that the verdict was not final.)

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Ali explained that to understand the true meaning of the passage of the Koran that addresses the punishment for renouncing Islam, it must be viewed in its historical context. That part of the Koran addresses a time of war in 625 AD and was intended to punish those who renounced their faith in an effort to desert the military, making it in essence punishment for “treason.” As Ali noted, it was not intended to be applied outside of war because that would be completely inconsistent with one of the main tenets of Islam: “Let there be no compulsion in religion.”

However, Muslims alone can’t prevent all radicals in their faith. In Nigeria, there are other factors that led to Boko Haram’s formation and success in recruiting, namely injustice, government corruption, and especially poverty. In Nigeria, 61 percent of the people live on less than a dollar a day. Consequently, it’s easy to recruit people by the promise of food and even small amounts of money.

As a local governor in Nigeria recently declared, the way to prevent future Boko Harams is a “three-pronged strategy of military, socio-political and economic solutions.” What needs to be added to that list is that Muslims must vigilantly denounce the actions of groups claiming to act in the name of Islam, and just as importantly, the media need to cover these condemnations with the same gusto as they cover the terrorists.