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At int’l forum, doyens advocate ways to end religious militancy, extremism in Africa

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The advocacy to ending religious extremism in many parts of Africa, and Nigeria, in particular, got a boost on Sunday, when renowned doyens in Islamic history advanced ways to end religious militancy and extremism.

The international platform was the Toyin Falola Interview Series, put together by the distinguished Professor Falola, where an eminent panel which consisted of prominent historians, university administrators, opinion leaders, researchers and religious leaders, assessed the history of Islam in Africa.

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The panel had in attendance Professor Cheikh Anta Babou of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who is a historian of Islam and the modern West African Muslim diaspora; Professor Yahya Sseremba, a research fellow at Makarere Institute of Social Research, with focus on interdisciplinary, and special interest in political thought, political identity, and political violence; Professor Fatima Seedat, Head of Department of African Feminist Studies, Director of the African Gender Institute and Co-Director of the Centre for Contemporary Islam at the University of Cape Town; Professor M. Oloyede AbdulRahmon who is a teacher, university administrator, with specialization in Arabic literature and Islamic cultural studies at the University of Ibadan; and Dr Mustapha Abdul-Hamid, an Islamic scholar and the Chief Executive of the National Petroleum (NPA) of Ghana.

Speaking on the raging religious crisis in the northern part of Nigeria, Professor AbdulRahmon told the gathering that the Madrassa system of education as applied in Nigeria should be the primary concern of the nation’s central government if it was willing to find ways to cut off some of the recruitment sources of extremism. He argued that “We are faced today with banditry, Jihadist extremism and others. We must start thinking of how to cut the supply routes of the enlistment into those extremist groups; that is by carrying out a radical reform in our Madrassa system. I served on a committee at the federal level on the integration of the Madrasss system into the Universal Basic Education (UBE) policy of the Federal Government. I did mention then, although I was a lone voice, that it is not integration that would solve the problem but that the Federal Government must acknowledge the role Arabic has played in the history of Nigeria. I am happy Professor Falola as a historian knows very much that even in Ibadan, many of the historical sources that were germane to the early history of Ibadan are in Arabic manuscripts.

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“There is this manuscript by Shehu Katibi which describes what transpired when the late Baale Opadere of the late 20th century was deposed. What transpired that day was captured in the manuscript of Katibi who wrote around 1903. He told the world what Oba Akinyele said about Usman Apampa who took over from Opadere. In that account by Oba Akinyele, he mentioned that Apampa was the one who instigated the riot that led to the dethronement of Baale Opadere. But this writer came out to say that Obadere himself admitted that there were a lot of reports of thievery in Ibadan, and because of that Ibadan was unsafe and people rioted and rebelled against him. This shows the importance of Arabic in tracing our early history. Arabic is very much respected by many people; it should be looked into and revolutionized.

“To some extent, Arabic can be integrated into the Western style of school system because we are very much concerned with what is happening in the North East and North West, perhaps that axis to Central Africa. What led those people there away from literacy in English was the fear of what English literacy could cause to their cultures and norms. For you to integrate the same Western style of education into their local educational system will scare them aware. This is why we have not been successful in the integration of Madrassa into UBE. The government must intervene by providing modern structures and rehabilitate those children rather than these children going out and begging for food.

”Noting the labeling of Islam as a dangerous religion by some people, Professor Falola asked Professor Babou to tell the gathering those who were responsible for framing Islam as a dangerous religion. To this, the erudite Professor Babou noted that “The French and British were very happy with what they called Black Islam. This is a kind of Islam that is not threatening because they only believe in their own anthropology and ethnography of Islam. This is an Islam that is mixed with African tradition, less likely to be militant and less likely to oppose Western civilising mission. With such Islam, they are very happy. This is not problematic. The Islam that is problematic for them is the Islam that may lead to pan-Islamism. This is the Islam that has the potential of uniting Muslims beyond race, ethnicity, and geography and beyond languages, and which may create an umbrella identity of Muslims. This could be a threat to the West and its ambition of a cultural domination.

“More recently, we have to address political Islam, Jihadi Islam, but you know as I know that this is something very new. Of course, there was militancy in Islam but even somebody like Uthman Dan Fodio needed to justify his use of violence. He produced extensive scholarship in order to convince himself and other Muslims that he was going that path because he had no other choice. El-Kanemi opposed his idea that militancy was not the solution. But in my view, this kind of Islam that is developing in Sub-Saharan Africa has less to do with Islam as a religion and more to do with the political and economic circumstances. I think that Islam has become the new radicalism. In my own work, I have interviewed leaders of Salafist movements in Africa and I was struck that many of these leaders were former Marxist and Maoist. They told me this themselves. They told me that the major tenet of Marxism and Maoism is radical social change and that since these ideologies are dead, the one which comes very close to achieving this was Islam. We are seeing new Islamic traditions that are developing in Africa; they are disconnected from the traditions that I talked about recently. We have neglected our own reason and tradition of Islam. As long as there are economic disparities, injustices, and corruption in our countries, radical Islam will find a perfect soil to grow.

”Recognizing the tension created by the Western push for the recognition of the rights of lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer, Sseremba informed the forum that in very Islamic communities such as Uganda, such Western ideologies are not accommodated in any guise, not even in the Madrassa system. He however stated that there are emerging ways in which Islam is viewing gender relations and women rights. “The American government is very intelligent. I think in Muslim societies, especially in a Muslim conservative society like Uganda, the Quran is very central in the ways in which the Muslims have defined Islam. This is against homosexuality. While dealing with the Muslims of Uganda, the American government has been very careful not to advance very extreme views that will be perceived to be primarily antagonistic to Islam.

“The debate on homosexuality does not feature anywhere in the debate of the Madrassa in Uganda. The debate on gender is key because the Muslims themselves would argue that they are open to reforming their so-called Muhammedan law to accommodate the gender concerns of the feminists. However the debate on LGBTQ rights is considered a no-go area both in the Muslim arena and the larger Ugandan population.

“The Muslims themselves have a critique of the Madrassa if you listen to them. But they do not agree with the Americans that for you to explain the occurrence of political violence, you have to point the finger at the Madrassa. They have other issues, however, the Madrassa has not been homogenous if you look at the past 100 years. The Madrassa has been changing in Uganda,” he said.

Extending the debate on gender equality, Professor Seedat informed that recent happenings are pushing for more recognition for the rights of women in Islam, particularly in Muslim family law. Using a personal experience as foundation for her intervention, she stated that “I had a call from a rather prominent woman who had been in a marriage for about 30 odd years, whose husband had taken a second wife without her permission or knowledge and she found herself unable to take this and is now ready to leave the marriage. She had no assets in her name; she was quite sure that any asset that she asks for would not be granted. Further to the proprietary of the marriage, she was in a situation where she will not be able to be sure that she would leave the marriage. This is because as a couple, they were only married under Islamic law. The nature of Islamic law marriage is generally, unless a couple has negotiated it in their contract, unilateral. The exit from the marriage is primarily unilateral; it is unequal.

“Such is the nature of the contract and we are often very proud of the idea that in Islam, marriage is a contract because it suggests that two parties require consent and can enter into this as active agents. What is important to note is that, the kinds of rights couples have getting into a marriage are not exactly similar when they choose to exit the marriage. Technically though there are facilities available for this, they are however not widely used in our communities. The ideas of reform stem from the nature of the marriage contract which once might have suited societies and communities but doesn’t appear to be working right now for us. Some of this comes from the nature of the marriage contract. The legal contract of the marriage does not restrict a husband to exclusive intimacy with his wife even though it restricts the wife to exclusive intimacy with her husband. Most young people don’t know this and when they get married, they assume that if they don’t give consent to their husband getting into a second marriage that he will not, cannot or he may not. But that is not true. Technically within most systems of Islamic law, a man may contract a second, third and fourth marriage with or without the consent of his first wife. These are some of the issues that lie at the base of the calls for reform.”

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