The plight of more than 270 SCHOOLGIRLS captured by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria has been occupying the world news for a long time. It was some three weeks before the Nigerian Government began to take the issue seriously although this group of violent terrorists have been troubling the northern of provinces of Nigeria for a number of years. Nearly 200 people were killed and hundreds wounded last month in the city of Jos which I have visited many times.Jos is a city with a mainly Christian population but it also has a large Muslim minority. Traditionally the two faith communities have lived together in peace for many years until recently. The terrorists do not care who they kill so there were Muslims among the dead. Historically the North has been Muslim for centuries whereas the southern provinces are Christian. Most of the wealth of Nigeria is in the south whereas the Northern Muslim provinces are largely poor and underdeveloped. Part of the problem lies within Islam itself which was born in a mediaeval culture which many of its most ardent adherents try to maintain or recreate. They vehemently resist the influence of Western culture and in northern Nigeria they want to enforce sharia law and they are committed to clearing all Christians out of the land either by killing them or forcibly converting them to Islam.
Although the President holds political power there is always a fear that the army might intervene as historically they have done in the past. President Goodluck Jonathon is a Christian who came to power through the death of a Muslim President. He has been reluctant to use the army to pursue the terrorists in the Northern provinces because the army is still largely composed of Muslims who do not want to fight their fellow Muslims. This situation may change since an international agreement in Paris last month which brought together leaders from neighbouring African countries – Cameroon, Benin, Niger and Chad in a rare show of unity. Canada and Israel as well as France, Britain and the USA, have also sent contingents to aid the rescue of the girls and to deal with the terrorists who have killed more than 3,000 Christians in the last five years.
The plight of the Christian girls dressed in full Islamic women’s garb came as a shock to their parents and to the Western world. Many of my Nigerian friends know something of the brutal methods used by the militants to secure conversions, which includes raping those who are resistant. The families of these Christian girls have been consumed with anxiety for the fate of their children in the hands of these cruel men. They know that even if the girls are returned to their families safe and well they will be pursued by militant Muslims who will claim that they are no longer Christians and that the punishment for leaving Islam and converting to another faith is death.
The violent side of Islam is being exposed in many parts of the world today and the stage is being set for what could develop into a bitter contest between Islam and the West. If this is to be avoided Islamic scholars need to explain to their people that the verses in the Koran which instruct Muslims to kill Jews and Christians have no relevance today. Many Muslims I have talked to have little or no knowledge of the background to the Koran. They do not know that there were two major periods in the development of the Koran reflecting Muhammad’s own experience of establishing his power in Arabia. The militant Islamists take their orders from the part of the Koran which comes from the period when Muhammad’s followers were killing all those who opposed his authority. Once he had established his supremacy the tone of the verses is much more peaceful. Moderate Muslims quote these verses as the basis for their more peaceful behaviour.
For several hundred years Christians have subjected the Bible to the most intense scrutiny of the historical accuracy and origins of its different parts. Islamic scholars have been reluctant to undertake a similar study of the Koran. But if they were to do so and to make authoritative statements to guide the followers of their faith this could be an important step in changing the mindset of the militants and preventing them from using the Koran to justify their acts of mass murder.