By Toyin Falola
There could be a thin and almost fully blurred line between piety and extremism. The first is a well-meaning zeal for religiousness or political ideology. The other, extremism, is a dangerous overzealousness wrapped in fanaticism and crassly blind ignorance. All over the world, religious and political extremism have been on the rise, and a careful study of cases will prove that both forms of extremism work hand-in-hand. Political ideologies are the foundation of any state, the summation of various beliefs and stances, and how these interpolate to create dynamism and governance. A fundamental feature of democracy is varied political ideologies, and side by side with political ideologies are religious beliefs.
Karl Marx defined religion as the opium of the people, but religion has played and continued to play bigger roles than being an intoxicant. Nonetheless, Karl Marx’s definition of religion presents a strong case for the existence of religious extremism. Religion serves as a strong fiber in the fabrics that make up society. Humans have always been religious. While the definitions of religiosity differ, one thing is constant: the average human’s metaphysical nature and searching for answers for things beyond his comprehension. It is this same metaphysical nature that pushes the human to believe in the One, a being who is more powerful than humans, to whom the qualities beyond human comprehension and inexplicable existence of some things can be tied. This Being is at the heart of religions, and the average human’s ardent belief or proclivity to believe makes religion a very powerful social tool.
The powers of religion, when explored by religious leaders, prove influential on political issues. This has been and will always be—from the Anglican Church’s influence on Great Britain’s Royal Household for centuries, which led to the Church’s influence on many matters of national concern, to the Pentecostal denomination’s exertion of influence during the Donald Trump administration in the United States of America. The US President, considered the world’s most powerful person, made some decisions that made sense to and aligned with his religious beliefs by seeking to broker peace between Israel and Arab nations and assenting to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, though Palestine and Israel are in contention for the city. A careful analysis of Trump’s moves proves that the decisions could be based on the influence of Pentecostals, who believe that the Biblical prophecy that Israel will return to its erstwhile possessed land is a milestone towards Jesus’ second coming. With the influence of religion and its effect on politics, it is extremely dangerous for religious extremism to seep into society.
Extremism abounds or has abounded in every religion of the world at one time or the other. As there are extremists in other religions, so are there extremists in Islam too. Extremists do not see themselves as “extremists;” they rather see themselves as pious people, the only true adherents of the beliefs of their religion. This is the reason they perpetrate their evil acts without the slightest form of remorse. They are so knee-deep in their fanaticism that they justify their extremism with alleged religious backings. One thing must be remembered about religious extremists: they have a close affinity with but are not the same as pious religionists. These extremists are people who have studied their religion’s texts and teachings and have listened to leaders and scholars in their religion. They are people who at one time slipped and fell into an aggrandized trance of what their religion should be, its superiority to other religions, and a warped mentality of converting others to their religion.
Another peculiar thing about Nigerian Islamic extremists is that they pride themselves in their deeds and lay claims to Islamic statutes and tenets as the backbone of their extremist views and deeds. These extremist deeds inform societal perceptions of what Islam is, and the chief danger of these acts is that they cause people to throw a blanket of generalization over Islam as a whole. An extremist suicide bomber in the marketplace will be seen and referred to as an Islamic terrorist. A mass murderer on whose neck the blood of many church worshippers trickles down is tied to Islam. Is there anything like Islamic terrorism when Islam is said to be a religion of peace?
During the Toyin Falola Interviews with Sheikh Abdurrahman Ahmad, the issue of religious extremism related to Islam was raised. The politically motivated terror groups who double as self-proclaimed religious movements have greatly affected societal notions of Islam and what its religious ideals are. There are many exaggerated and overblown perceptions of what Islam is and who Muslims are, and these paint Islam and its adherents in a bad light. One powerfully negative thing about perceptions is that people do not go out of their way to change their opinions about you. So long as people believe you are bad, they care less about finding out if you have changed. Changing people’s impression of you rests solely on your shoulders. Societal perceptions of Islam and Muslims are gross, and they are sadly existent among Muslims themselves. These societal perceptions are what lead to statements such as, “You do not look like a Muslim.” How should a Muslim look? The battles against these perceptions are needed and must be fought.
I challenged the Sheikh on changing people’s negative perceptions of Islam. He sought to know the mechanisms that could be put in place to this effect. Getting people to change the negative preconceived notion about Islam is the responsibility of Islamic leaders. They must leverage whatever channels are available—media houses, schools, institutions, etc.—to change people’s perceptions of the religion. It is high time Islamic leaders rose to tell the world: “This is not us; stop creating stereotypes!” Islamic leaders must liberate the people from the claws of extremism and negative perceptions by providing verses of the Quran that are wholesome in combatting extremism. Why do extremists act the way they act? Why are they so buried in their extremism? Why do they ruthlessly commit atrocities? What could be running on their minds? What could give them peace of mind and fulfilment at the thought and action of killing, maiming, displacing, and injuring people? We cannot tell if these extremists know full well that they are extremists and hold extremist views or are just crass perpetrators of violence buried in ignorance.
Further on the need to combat Islamic perceptions, Ms. Lemu was spurred to ask questions on how Islam can stop religious extremism and lead Muslims on the right path of where piety ends and where extremism starts on the map of religiosity. The battle against religious extremism must be concurrently run with the battle against the derogatory views about Muslims for lasting and sustainable changes. If focus is placed on changing perceptions and extremism is left to blossom, the battle against negative perceptions will be lost. Also, shifting the focus to combatting religious extremism alone will not be effective in the long run because negative opinions will continue to run in the background. And if no action is taken to change people’s views, their mindset will not change, and the negative beliefs about Islam will persist. Ms. Lemu asked to know if there are ways to change their perceptions and mentality, and Sheikh Ahmad did consent to her question.
In response, Sheikh Ahmad said that while there is the need to change people’s negative perceptions of what Islam is and who Muslims are, perceptions can hardly be influenced, as they are shaped by what people see and the happenings in society. Suppose Boko Haram continually claims to be a religious body while wreaking havoc in society, it will be difficult to convince people that Boko Haram is not what Islam is. He further said that the Toyin Falola Interview is an example of actions towards reshaping the negative perceptions about Islam, as it is an avenue for many to learn what they did not know about the religion.
According to the Sheikh, extremists would use their ideological background to justify their extremist views no matter the country they belong to. In other words, extremist views vary according to ideological backgrounds. The single objective of extremists is to stick blindly to their warped beliefs and justify their extremism at any given time, using their atrocities. Extremism has militated against the correct portrayal of Islam and people’s perception of the religion. Suicide bombers and terrorist groups all lay claims to doing as the Holy Book instructs. Extremism should never be seen as a product of the religion whose ideologies were misinterpreted and blown out of proportion by the extremists. Islam is not responsible for Boko Haram and Al Qaeda’s irresponsibility, neither is Christianity responsible for the Lord Resistance Army’s extremism.
Problems arise that we may adapt and find our way around them; however, the onus rests on the faithful adherents of a religion to internally combat extremism. At the rise of extremism in Islam, well-meaning Islamic leaders came up with strategies that could help curb extremism. The Sheikh said this need for internal combat against extremism led to Islam putting “Al Hishtihaj” as the pathway and the “Makharathi” as the compass to show Islamic adherents whether they are on course or have veered off towards extremism and radicalization. Sheikh Abdurrahman Ahmad has also contributed to the fight against Islamic extremism in Nigeria through the “Dawah Inoculation,” a program to teach Muslims how to identify instances where views are becoming extremist. While all Muslims cannot become scholars, the Sheikh admonished that the average Muslim should create awareness against non-Islamic ideas, as every idea in Islam is geared towards achieving social good.
(This is the fourth report on the interview conducted with Sheikh Abdurrahman on May 2, 2021. For its entire recording, see https://fb.watch/5eN6-jkkUu/)