I spent the last two weeks in Saudi Arabia among Islamists. These are Muslims who recognize the imperatives of complying with the demands of their faith to visit Makkah for the Hajj, and are blessed with the means to do so. There were millions of us, all submitting to the incomparable awesomeness of the entire exercise. The bewildering mix of race, age, status, gender, nationalities, sects, political leaning, wealth and poverty, humbled by a breathtaking environment undertook a ritual that had been performed exactly the way we did for more than 1400 years. For four days, millions of Muslims stood in total submission to Allah Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala and prayed.
Everyone was there with their private packet of prayers and requests, but virtually everyone shared one prayer in common: that Muslims the world over will overcome the challenges they face with such seeming impotence. You got to know of this when, as I was privileged to do, you mixed with Muslims from all over the world, the category of pilgrims who are knowledgeable, informed, involved and passionate about their faith. Muslims from the Balkans and former USSR speak about the stresses of living with violence inspired by groups bent on pushing back frontiers of oppression from non-Muslims powers. Asian Muslims and millions in many Arab countries speak of unending violence as Muslims take on each other in a vicious struggles to establish a particular version of Islamic system. The Middle East speaks of blood and guts, of Israel’s callous savagery, the unyielding support it enjoys from the US and its allies, and of the desperation of generations who have known only war with Israel as the basic stuff of life. The Maghreb speaks of turmoil and vicious battles to assume the power to determine how much influence the Islamic faith is allowed in public lives of Muslims. West and East Africa bleed from weak governments and determined groups that have made massive inroads into lives of citizens using terror to prop up Islamic systems. In Central Africa, Muslims are under attack for just being Muslims. European Muslims are torn between being Muslims and being Europeans. Muslim leaders fawn at the feet of America and beg it to fight their battles for them. They are resented by their people for being weak and corrupt, for abandoning the interests of Islam, and being the cause of all the fate of Muslims.
There were Muslims from all parts of the world who worried over the perception that Muslims are engaged in a global war with every type of enemy including fellow Muslims, and they cannot understand exactly what the issues are, or how they should judge who is right or wrong. They resent the term Islamist applied by the Western media to every group that takes up arms and claims to fight for a cause, provided they are Muslims. They worried that the global Muslim community is being weakened by multiple assaults from self-inflicted intra-Muslim conflicts as we see in Syria, Iraq, Iran and many other parts of the Muslim world. They lament the damaging image being created for Islam as a faith rooted in violence from which the rest of the world should put much distance.
Every Muslim now knows of Boko Haram, and wants to know what it represents or if it can get what it wants. Muslims from all over the world are curious over how Boko Haram , Al Shabbab and AQIM managed to grow into what they are, the social context that gives them succour, and the attitudes of other Muslims towards them. Everyone wants to know if the spectacular emergence of the Islamic State (ISIL) will inspire more Muslim uprisings or serve as impetus for groups under arms to dig in.
The Hajj provided an opportunity for much soul-searching among Muslims, but in truth, there was more pain and anger than studied analyses over the state of Islam in the world. On those rare occasions when discussions moved away from lamentations to the search for solutions, a few difficult positions struggled to emerge. One is that the Muslim world is not one world at all: it is a patchwork of Muslim communities each labouring under fairly unique stimuli and challenges.
While it has common irritants such as the brazen impunity with which Israel justifies its security, or a West which both protects it and makes much capital from the weaknesses of Muslim countries, or the humiliating capitulation of leaders of Muslim countries and communities, it is important to understand the basic differences between the goals of Chechnian Muslims, ISIL and Boko Haram. There will always be a Muslim group somewhere that will take up arms in the name of the faith, but a world in which the vast majority of Muslims live in peace with themselves and non-Muslims is feasible. More than that, it is now an urgent necessity. The detailed fatwa issued by the world’s leading Muslim leaders a few weeks ago hints at a new thinking around isolating Islam from terror.
Much as we think our version of the threats posed by Boko Haram are very serious (and they are) they pale in comparison with those in many other parts of the world. This is very fortunate for us in Nigeria (and Africa) because it means our own threat is still within the bracket of those that can be contained and, in the longer term, eliminated. But this is not to be assumed. The current appearance of success by the Nigerian state against terrorists must be supported and sustained. Our neighbours must be more actively involved in the fight to destroy the rump of the terrorists. Defeating Boko Haram militarily is only a first step towards dealing with this threat. The Northern Muslim establishment must undertake a deep and thorough search into its weaknesses and limitations. Long before it challenged the Nigerian state, Jamaatu Ahlil Sunnah Lidda’awati Wal Jihad (JASLIWAJ) was pre-eminently a challenge against mainstream Muslim leadership and establishment. Its remote nourishment is still there in abundance: in sects that resist reforms in Islamic education, in poverty and corrupt and indifferent leadership. These have to be faced by religious and political leaders in Nigeria with courage, sensitivity and knowledge.
Some very big obstacles will have to be confronted and overcome. It will be a monumental mistake to assume that some of the most basic problems which generate alienation and anger among Muslims in Nigeria can only be solved by government. Nigerian Muslims lend themselves to weak governments to use, or tolerate practices and weaknesses that weaken Muslims and create conditions which breed fringe groups. It will be equally naive to assume that having a Muslim President alone will dramatically transform the state of Muslims in Nigeria. In a Nigerian state whose structure does no favour to Islam as a religion, the Muslim community will have to assume prime responsibility for its condition.
I spent the last two weeks with Islamists more deserving of the name than terrorists who serve anti-Islamic interests. For us in Nigeria, the real fight against Boko Haram will have to be fought by Muslims, because the Nigerian state cannot respond appropriately to the complex interplay between faith, society and economy which breeds groups such as them. If Muslim leaders do not move with courage and speed to plug the many loopholes in their unity and disposition that will be exploited for the 2015 elections, they will be made even weaker. Then groups like JASLIWAJ will find even stronger impetus to rise against a state they will claim is patently anti- Islamic.