Real Religion Would Never Tell Anyone to Burn or Kill Others

"Real religion would never tell anyone to burn anything or kill others. We condemn them (Islamic extremists). And we’re afraid of them," a Malian imam told Washington Post writer Karin Brulliard.

As news breaks of the attempt to destroy a Delta airliner by a Nigerian Muslim the imam’s words seem more pertinent. The New York Times reports the young man’s father was increasingly concerned about his extreme religious views. The characterization of Islam as a religion of violence and intolerance is inaccurate and unrepresentative, but the story will reinforce it anyway.

Brulliard writes that West Africa may be more buffer than gateway for radical religion. Writing from Mali, she points out the nation has long enjoyed a vibrant, open culture and its religious leaders have been moderate.The U.S. has courted Mali with aid and military training in an effort to support this moderation.

My experience working with Muslims in the region affirms this perspective. And I agree that Islam is not a monolith. Just as Christianity and Judaism are expressed in widely different ways, so, too is Islam. It’s inaccurate and a disservice to stereotype these religions by their extremes.

But the imam’s remarks plus Brulliard’s reports of changes occurring among some Malian youth could portend trouble in the future. Across sub-Saharan Africa borders are porous. It’s relatively easy to carry goods from one country to another. In fact, trading caravans are part of an ancient desert mercantile culture. Today, however, Brulliard writes camels have replaced by ATVs and the goods can as easily be weapons or cocaine as salt or bolts of cloth.

Mali, as most of its West African neighbors, is a poor country with a youthful population in touch with the world and aware of its material discrepancies. This mix has been exploited by radical religious clerics to recruit the young. This social context should be of primary attention. Among many youth in West Africa, material deprivation is accompanied by frustration, low self-esteem, lack of opportunity, powerlessness and a sense that forces beyond their control are determining their life’s direction and preventing them from improving their situation.

In this troubled soil the seeds of extremism can be sown by religious radicals. But Islam isn’t the cause. Poverty and its psychological effects are the pre-existing conditions.

Brulliard writes that Mali’s moderate history makes it unlikely radicalism can take root here. I hope that is so. Mali’s neighborhood in West Africa is experiencing instability and governance problems. Mauritania to the west has seen a military coup and Niger to the east retained its government in a disputed election. Cote d’Ivoire to the south is recovering from civil war and Morocco to the northwest is contending with charges of human rights abuses and calls for autonomy in Western Sahara.

It will take good governance, economic development and responsible religious leadership among other things to keep Mali on track. And it is as sure as the desert wind that some in the region would derail it. The imam’s fears are a useful precaution.

3 Responses to “Real Religion Would Never Tell Anyone to Burn or Kill Others”

  1. J Andersen December 27, 2009 at 11:58 pm #

    How does your statement that “Poverty and its psychological effects are the pre-existing conditions” for radical religion connect with the fact that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, an Islamic terrorist, was an elite in both Africa and England?

    • Larry December 28, 2009 at 12:30 am #

      It is a puzzle isn’t it? I believe poverty can take more than one form. We can experience poverty of relationships, lack the supportive community we need to develop healthy attitudes towards ourselves and to see constructive ways to resolve social problems. Thomas Friedman has written of the sense of inferiority that he believes affects many educated young Arabs who are disaffected by the poor performance of many Arab governments (and certainly this could apply to Africa). He writes of an underlying rage that gets focused toward the U.S. in part because they can’t focus it toward repressive and corrupt governments. And he and others have noted a nihilism rooted in lack of hope that things will change. Freidman also refers to the disconnection of elites from their societies and the role of the Internet fueling rage that must find expression in some way.

      I don’t know if any of this applies the Abdulmutallab, of course. But your question forces consideration why educated young people who have found success in Western societies take this turn toward self-destruction and violence against others.

      As puzzling as it is, I believe this idea that poverty of relationship coupled with social disconnection and rage against failed governance affects self-understanding and may be a contributing factor to such behavior.

      This is not to excuse the behavior, but it is an attempt to get at the deeper factors that seem to be at work.
      Thank you for your comment.

  2. Gary March 29, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    Maybe what the Qur’an teaches has something to do with it.

    Below are quotes from the Qur’an:

    “And slay them (the infidels) wherever you catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out, for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter” 2:191

    “Let those fight in the cause of Allah who sell the life of this world for the Hereafter. To him who fighteth in the cause of Allah, whether he is slain or gets victory soon shall we give him a reward of great (value)” 4:74

    “Seize them and slay them wherever you find them: and in any case take no friends or helpers from their ranks.” 4:89

    “Allah has granted a grade higher to those who strive and fight with their goods and persons than to those who sit at home “4:95

    “Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies, of Allah and your enemies, and others besides, whom ye may not know, but whom Allah doth know. Whatever ye shall spend in the cause of Allah, shall be repaid unto you, and ye shall not be treated unjustly” 8:60

    “O Prophet! rouse the Believers to the fight. If there are twenty amongst you, patient and persevering, they will vanquish two hundred: if a hundred, they will vanquish a thousand of the Unbelievers: for these are a people without understanding” 8:65

    “Fight them and Allah will punish them by your hands, cover them with shame, help you to victory over them, and heal the breasts of the Believers” 9:14

    “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the Religion of truth, from among the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued” 9:29

    “Say: can you expect for us (and fate) other than one of two glorious things (martyrdom or victory)? But we can expect for you either that Allah will send his punishment (for not believing in Allah) from Himself, or by our hands. So wait (expectant); we too will wait with you” 9:52

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