Recently a friend commented that even if the Muslim community engaged in a thousand interfaith dialogues, the headline that a Nigerian Muslim extremist group, Boko Haram, has abducted school girls threatening to sell them as slaves is enough to overshadow efforts at building bridges of understanding. Groups like Al Qaeda and Boko Haram claim to operate in the name of Islam while clearly being irreverent to its spirit and core values. On closer examination, much of the violence in the name of Islam is less motivated by faith and more so by poverty and desperation.
As smart and witty as Bill Maher is, he has a blind spot about religion in general and Islam in particular. On his recent 'Real Time' show on HBO, Bill Maher asserted that extremism among Muslims is not limited to "a few bad apples." Many Muslims are indeed committing gut wrenching violence in the name of Islam - from beheadings to suicide bombings. But Muslims are hardly alone. According to the U.S. Department of State, the Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) is one of "Africa's oldest, most violent, and persistent armed groups." UNICEF estimates that at least 66,000 children have been abducted by the LRA, which wants to create a state based on the biblical Ten Commandments. In Burma, Human Rights Watch cites, "Buddhist mobs attacked Muslim communities .... At least 44 people were killed and 1,400 mostly Muslim-owned businesses and houses were destroyed."
To prove his point, Maher trotted out the example of Ayann Hirsi Ali who suffered genital mutilation in her native Somalia. He went on to note, "which almost all women do in [Somalia] and many other Muslim countries." Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a scourge in many parts of Africa and the Middle East. However, its practice cuts across religious boundaries. For example, in the Christian majority nation of Eritrea, 89 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 have experienced FGM. In Ethiopia, another Christian majority nation, 74 percent women have suffered from FGM. And yet FGM is almost unheard of in many Muslim countries.Boko Haram translates as "Western education is forbidden" and yet education was a top priority for Prophet Muhammad. There are well over 40 sayings attributed to Prophet Muhammad exhorting the seeking of knowledge. Among the most succinct are,
"To acquire knowledge is binding upon all Muslims, whether male or female"
The only stipulation was that knowledge be beneficial. In one of the famous hadith (traditions) of Prophet Muhammad he is reported to have said,
"Acquire knowledge and impart it to the people."
It is common for Muslim moms to remind children to recite the following Quranic prayer before any school exam,
"God, His angels and all those in Heavens and on Earth, even ants in their hills and fish in the water, call down blessings on those who instruct others in beneficial knowledge."
Neither in the Quran nor in Prophetic sayings has the Arabic word for knowledge "ilm" any qualifier that knowledge be Eastern or Western, religious or secular.
"Rabbi zidni ilma" meaning "O my Lord! Increase me in knowledge" (20:114)
In the maelstrom over Maher and Boko Haram something is remiss. Muslims majority societies are generally lagging behind the rest of the world in education, gender equity and social justice. The 2013 Global Gender Gap Report shows wide disparity in Muslim majority countries between men and women across for key areas of health, education, economics and politics. No Muslim majority country cracks the top ten in gender equity while at the bottom end, 9 out of 10 countries are Muslim majority. The Human Development Index, a composite of education, life expectancy and income, shows Muslim majority countries as lagging behind with not a single Muslim majority country ranking in the top 25 while the majority in the bottom 25 being Muslim majority.
Bill Maher has plenty of reasons to be critical of Muslims. However, by focusing on Islam, a faith that comforts and motivates hundreds of millions of people to do the right thing, he is alienating the very people whose efforts will be critical in eradicating the root causes that create such monsters as Boko Haram and al-Qaeda. Critics of Maher will also need to focus on confronting the retrograde preachers, the strident Islamists and the incompetent secularists whose actions or lack thereof underpin the rise of extremism. Maher is wrong. But he is not the problem. If Muslim societies lead the world in education, freedom and social justice, we will not have to deal with the scourge of Boko Haram or feel slighted by the incoherent rants of Maher. To use the clearly un-Islamic behavior of Boko Haram as a ploy to attack Islam is despicable. But it pales in comparison to the abuse of Islam's sacred texts the extremists have engaged in to justify their nihilism.