• What kind of faith?
    April 19,2014

    Countless religions are practiced throughout the world, and it would seem logical to assume that, despite their theological differences, they all stand for essentially positive values.

    Here in the United States many of us have trouble reconciling the inherent goodness of religious faith with the bizarre behavior of members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., who picket the funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, claiming that God hates America because of its tolerance of gays.

    But the belief that goodness is universal to religious belief is being most sorely tested today by the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria, which boasts Africa’s most robust economy.

    In its own language, Boko Haram means “Western education is sinful.” Since it was founded 12 years ago, this organization claims that its goal is to establish a “pure” Islamic state in Nigeria, and it is increasingly clear that by “pure” it simply means to destroy those who do not subscribe to its beliefs.

    Boko Haram is responsible for an estimated 10,000 deaths in Nigeria since 2002. Its targets are Christians, churches, schools and government institutions, including the police. It has also kidnapped Western tourists and assassinated fellow Muslims who don’t share its beliefs.

    Its latest outrage occurred this week when it kidnapped dozens of girls from a school in the center of the Boko Haram insurgency in northeastern Nigeria.

    The extremists have targeted students in the past, often killing boys and kidnapping girls, although sometimes they’d let the girls go. There is no evidence that any have been set free this week, however.

    The Nigerian military — which has a reputation for exaggerating its successes — reported that only eight of the schoolgirls were still missing. The school’s principal immediately contradicted the military, however.

    Earlier in the week, Boko Haram bombed a crowded bus station in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, killing more than 70 people.

    So how can activity of this kind represent legitimate, respectable religious belief? What kind of faith, even with values that may conflict with those of other religions, justifies killing innocent people, assassinating those whose faith is (often slightly) different from their own, attacking schools and destroying police stations?

    All of these activities have been widely reported, but it is the kidnapping of the girls that has drawn the most attention. One reason is that Nigerian officials fear the girls will be turned into sex slaves and cooks unless they are rescued.

    And one reason for these fears is that the kidnappers are young men.

    Actually, some of the girls escaped, jumping out of the trucks they’d been crammed into or fleeing into the forest, but as of Friday 85 were still listed as missing.

    The school principal said the gunmen, most of whom arrived on motorcycles, were wearing Nigerian army uniforms.

    So dangerous are the extremists that many schools in the northeastern section of Nigeria have been closed and their students transferred to areas judged less vulnerable to attacks. The school from which the girls were kidnapped is in a predominantly Christian area of Nigeria, and the local residents had assured the authorities that they would take whatever steps were necessary to protect it from Boko Haram.

    That, obviously, didn’t happen. Further outrages appear inevitable until a way is found to disarm these extremists.

    Nigeria obviously needs help, and more moderate Islamists — there are more of them than there are Christians in Nigeria — should take the lead in neutralizing the dreadful threat that Boko Haram’s behavior represents. Doing so would do wonders for their own reputation, which has been so severely damaged by the brutal fighting between the religion’s two main branches, Sunni and Shiite.

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