Combat This Evil Where It Takes Root – In our Schools
12 May 2014
The abduction of the Nigerian girls has (eventually) shocked the world. But unfortunately their case is not an isolated one: the torment of Nigeria is shared by many other African countries and the thinking behind the kidnapping derives from an ideology that is global.
It is based on a warped and false view of religion. It is taught in formal and informal school settings the world over. Of course the hideous and crazed words of the Boko Haram leader are representative only of the most extreme fringe of this ideology. But until we clean the soil in which this poisonous plant takes root, the life chances of millions of young people across the world and our own security will continue to be blighted by it.
Across sub-Saharan Africa this problem is vast. Mali, Chad, Niger, Central African Republic, Somalia, Kenya and even Ethiopia have all suffered, or face acute anxieties about, the spread of extremism. Many other nations have identified this as their single most important challenge.
Governments are often confronting the challenge with courage and determination and the use of African forces in many countries to try to keep peace is a tribute to that. But the fact is that the problem continues to grow.
This is not by accident. When I became prime minister in 1997, Nigeria was held up as an example of religious co-operation between Christian and Muslim. This destructive ideology is not in the traditions of the country. It has been imported.
As the population grows, so will the problem. Nigeria has approximately 160m people today. By 2030 on some estimates it will be 300m. It is split roughly equally between Christian and Muslim. Without a climate of peaceful co-existence, the consequences for the country and the wider world will be enormous.
Poverty and lack of development play a huge part in creating the circumstances in which the problem incubates. But poverty alone does not explain this issue. And a major factor now holding back development is the terrorism. Who would invest in northern Nigeria at present? How can stable local economies thrive in such an atmosphere?
This challenge is not confined to Africa. The Middle East, as we know, is engulfed by a process of revolution and upheaval that is immensely complicated by Islamism and its extreme offshoots.
In Pakistan, more than 50,000 people have lost their lives in the terror attacks of the past decade. India, Russia, Central Asia and the Far East have all seen innocent lives lost and communities destroyed by violence linked to the same ideology.
What is the ideology? Here we come to the nub of the issue. Since misrepresentation follows any pronouncement on this question, let me state some things clearly. This ideology does not represent Islam. The majority of Muslims do not agree with it. They are repulsed by it. This is what should give us hope about the future. It is, however, a strain within Islam that represents a substantial, powerful, well organised and funded minority.
The ideology is based on the view that there is one true religion, only one view of that religion and that this view should prevail and dominate the politics, the institutions, government and social life of a country — in fact all countries — and that those who do not share this view should be overcome. The ideology, which we might loosely call Islamism, is based on a politicisation of religion fundamentally incompatible with the modern world.
This Islamist ideology is a spectrum. At one extreme are groups such as Boko Haram. But at the other end are groups who may not advocate violence (though sometimes they do), but still preach a view of the world that is dangerous and hostile to those who disagree. Read the 2013 statement of the Muslim Brotherhood denouncing the UN women's declaration for, among other things, granting women the right to travel or work without the permission of their husband and you will see what I mean.
It is the ideology and not just the acts of extremism that have to be confronted.
My foundation, which provides practical support to help prevent religious prejudice, conflict and extremism, has been active in Nigeria for several years. We bring together Christian and Muslim clerics to foster mutual understanding. In more than 20 countries worldwide, we have schools programmes that join up children of different faiths to learn about each other. Even in the most difficult places the results are clear and powerful.
In Sierra Leone, we are part of the campaign against malaria where we mobilise churches and mosques so that they go out into their local communities and help families use bed nets effectively and protect themselves against a disease that still kills 750,000 pregnant women and children each year in Africa. We have reached 2m people. Again the results are remarkable, as is the co-operation between the faiths in an act of compassion and care.
So the battle is not lost. But it has to be seen for what it is. Every year the West spends billions of dollars in defence relationships and in fighting terrorism. Yet the very thing we're fighting is given licence to grow in the education systems of many of the countries with whom we're engaged, and even in our own.
Education today is a security issue. The G20 could agree that open-minded education, which promotes religious tolerance, should be a responsibility of all nations. We should undertake to insist upon it in our own systems. And then insist upon it in the systems of others.
These girls are not just victims of an act of violence but of a way of thinking. Defeat that and we will begin to make progress.
Sign up to receive the Roundup
Sign up to our Religion & Geopolitics Roundup to receive weekly updates with the latest commentary, analysis and news on the role of religion in conflict zones. Sign up here.