LONDON – The abduction of more than 240 Nigerian girls has shocked the world. But, unfortunately, their case is not an isolated one in Nigeria. Indeed, Nigeria’s torment is shared by many other African countries, and the motivation behind the kidnapping derives from an ideology that is global.
That ideology is based on a warped and false view of religion. It is taught in formal and informal school settings worldwide. Of course, the hideous and crazed words of the leader of Boko Haram, the group that kidnapped the girls, are representative only of the most extreme fringe of this ideology. But, until we clean the soil in which this poisonous plant takes root, it will continue to blight the life chances of millions of young people around the world – and jeopardize our own security.
Across Sub-Saharan Africa, this problem is now vast. Mali, Chad, Niger, the Central African Republic, Somalia, Kenya, and even Ethiopia have all suffered or face acute anxieties about the spread of extremism. Many other countries have now identified extremism 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 resolve. But the fact is that the problem is continuing to grow.
This is not by accident. When I became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1997, Nigeria served as an example of productive cooperation between Christians and Muslims. The destructive ideology represented by Boko Haram is not part of the country’s traditions; it has been imported.
As the population grows, so will the problem. Nigeria has approximately 168 million people today, with some estimates putting the population at 300 million by 2030, split roughly equally between Christian and Muslim. Without a climate of peaceful coexistence, the consequences for the country – and the world – will be enormous.
Poverty and lack of development play a huge part in creating the circumstances in which extremism incubates. But poverty alone does not explain the problem. And a major factor now holding back development is terrorism. Who would invest in northern Nigeria under current conditions? How can local economies thrive in such an atmosphere?
This challenge is not confined to Africa. The Middle East, as we know, is immersed in a process of revolution and upheaval that has been immensely complicated by Islamism and its extremist offshoots. In Pakistan, more than 50,000 people have lost their lives in the terror attacks of the last decade. Violence linked to the same ideology has taken innocent lives and destroyed communities in India, Russia, Central Asia, and the Far East as well.
What is that ideology? Here is the crux of the issue. Because misrepresentation follows any pronouncement on this question, let me state some things very clearly. This ideology does not represent Islam. The majority of Muslims do not agree with it. They are repulsed by it. This should give us hope about the future.
But this ideology is a strain within Islam that represents an organized, substantial, powerful, and funded minority. What might loosely be called Islamism is based on a politicization of religion that is fundamentally incompatible with the modern world, for it assumes that there is one true religion, only one interpretation of that religion, and that this interpretation should prevail and dominate all countries’ politics, government institutions, and social life. Those who do not share this view must be overcome.
This Islamist ideology is a spectrum. At one extreme are groups like Boko Haram. Other groups 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. To see what I mean, read the Muslim Brotherhood’s statement in 2013 denouncing the UN women’s declaration for, among other things, defending women’s right to travel or work without their husbands’ permission.
It is the ideology, not just the acts of extremism, that must be confronted.
My foundation, which provides practical support to help prevent religious prejudice, conflict, and extremism, has been active in Nigeria for several years, bringing together Christian and Muslim clerics to foster mutual understanding. In more than 20 countries worldwide, we have schools programs that connect children of different faiths to learn about each other. Even in the most challenging places, the results are clear and powerful.
In Sierra Leone, where we are part of the campaign against malaria, we mobilize churches and mosques to work in their local communities and help families use bed nets effectively to protect themselves against a disease that still kills 750,000 pregnant women and children each year in Africa. We have reached two million people in an act of compassion and care, with results that are as remarkable as the interfaith cooperation that produces them.
So the battle is not lost. But it has to be seen for what it is. Every year, the West spends billions of dollars on defense relationships and on fighting terrorism. Yet the very thing we are fighting is given license to grow in the education systems of many of the countries with which we are engaged – even in our own.
Education today is a security issue. The G-20 should agree that open-minded education that promotes religious tolerance should be a responsibility of all countries. We should insist upon it in our own school systems – and then insist upon it in others’ systems.
Nigeria’s kidnapped girls are victims not just of an act of violence but of a way of thinking. If we can defeat that ideology, we will begin to make progress toward a more secure world.