By Mustafa Akyol
The kidnapping of nearly 300 school girls by Boko Haram has rightly alarmed the world. Millions have condemned the crime and joined the cry, “Bring Our Girls Back.” The continual terror by Boko Haram, and similar extremist groups such as al-Shabab of Somalia, has also attracted more attention with this incident.
However, there also emerged voices saying it would be a mistake to focus on the crimes of Boko Haram and its ilk. Especially Muslims themselves should focus on the “real problem,” the argument went, which is, of course nothing but “Western imperialism.”
In the past week, I have read a couple of articles in the Turkish press which passionately made this argument, and although I found them disappointing, I was not surprised at all. Because this is such a typical response in our part of the world: When some extremist group does something horrible in the name of Islam, other Muslims condemn those horrible things – but they also insist that the culprit is not the extremists, but the imperialist West, which somehow orchestrated everything behind the scenes.
In the crude form of this argument, Western powers (particularly the U.S., CIA or “Zionism”) are held responsible, because the extremists in question are considered as nothing but their puppets. Boko Haram, for example, is considered an agent of the West, which creates the pretext for a Western military intervention for the region to plunder oil or other natural resources. Al-Qaeda, too, is depicted as another Western puppet that created the pretext for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
In this argument, whether the Western governments in question are really dying to occupy new countries is hardly questioned or investigated. It is merely taken for granted. The invisible links between the extremists in question and the imperialist is also taken for granted, without much evidence – or extrapolated from circumstantial evidence, such as American support for al-Qaeda’s precursors against the Soviets during the 80’s.
The more sophisticated form of the argument is to say that the West is guilty for its colonial past in Africa and the Middle East. This, of course, is true. Western colonialism is not only guilty for plunder, oppression and atrocities, but also leaving behind fractured regions with artificial borders and unstable nations. However, this does not mean the West is orchestrating everything that happens in its former colonies.
My main problem with both of these arguments is it focuses the Muslim intellectual effort on blaming the West, and blinds it to the self-analysis and self-criticism that it desperately needs. We Muslims can condemn the West forever, and we can even be right, but this is not going to change anything. We can only change ourselves, and try to solve the problems within our faith and civilization by addressing them honestly.
When we look at grim Boko Haram, we should see a particular interpretation of Islam has justified wanton violence by misusing religious concepts such as “jihad.” Maybe the West is happy to have them, maybe not at all. But we should certainly not be happy to have them speak in name of our faith.
And we should focus on this burning problem at least as much as we focus on “imperialism” and its endless conspiracies in the world.