Saturday 3 May 2014

Religious conservatism, 234 schoolgirls and the battle against extremism

Over the last few days, social media sites and newspapers around the world have told the story of the 234 Nigerian school girls that have been kidnapped by Boko Haram, an extremist Islamist group that opposes Western Education and seeks to establish a Sharia state in Nigeria. The story took a while to come to international limelight but the #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign and celebrity involvement has helped bring it to the fore.

The worldwide attention the story now has is heaping a lot of pressure on the Nigerian government, who have been criticized for not handling the situation with the urgency it deserves. The limelight has also brought the story to the attention of some commentators who seem to be intent on using it as another opportunity to attack conservatism and religion in particular.


The Guardian recently ran a comment piece that claimed that the story of the kidnapped Nigerian girls shows that religious conservatives hate education. The comment suggested that religious conservatives don’t want to see girls get the kind of education that will allow them to enter the workforce. That education makes girls (and women) less acquiescent to the social and religious strictures that don’t serve girls’ overall interest.

While it is true that knowledge is power and that education will empower women to make better informed decisions on their lives and livelihoods, I strongly disagree with the premise that religious conservatism is fundamentally against that. For one, there are too many factors involved in this story to lay the blame solely at the feet of religion. It is worth bearing in mind that the same corner of Nigeria, known for its religious conservatism, is home to various government funded and private schools, some charging up to $50,000 a year to teach boys and girls. Many of these boys and girls, often children of conservative Muslims, end up in some of the top universities across the world as a result of their education from these schools that exist in a very conservative context.

It is also worth bearing in mind that the same sort of people we refer to as religious conservatives today are the same people that went around the world to build schools and hospitals for the main purpose of giving people full control of their lives and choices.

A similar example of some liberals laying blame at the feet of religion without consideration for context is the situation with the Catholic Church and condoms in the developing world. The Catholic Church has been subject to a barrage of blame and abuse for its stance on condoms. I personally think the stance is at least ill-informed but I know enough to know that there is more to it than many people know. For example, a report by public health experts from Uganda, a country that once had an HIV rate of 15% (30% among pregnant women), suggested that the country witnessed a downturn in HIV rate (to 5%) as a result of three key things: early abstinence, monogamy and condom use. All three factors played a role in the prevention of HIV and to exalt or demote one because it validates or goes against your opinion would be next to criminal. The Catholic Church has received a lot of criticism for its refusal to promote condoms but I haven’t seen liberal commentators getting any stick for their refusal to promote abstinence and monogamy.

There are many more examples of lack of perspective but, in my opinion, too often we distract ourselves with the trivialties of fighting whatever corner we stand on instead of dealing with the real issues. Like with the case of condoms, the case of education and religious conservatism has far too many complexities for the answer to be black and white.

The ongoing case of the 234 Nigerian girls is a horrible incident that should be criticised at every turn and the perpetrators brought to justice but we should not let that distract us from the biggest problem. Extremist views is a vile cancer that is becoming an unchecked part of our world today and we need to do something to stop that.  Vile and dangerous views exist amongst all people, far beyond the religious circles that many would like you to believe – all you need to check out the comment section of most YouTube videos. What we need to do is to work on identifying the forces and factors that lead men to such severe intolerance and violence. In doing this, we will be better equipped to not only stem terrorism but also to foster a society where everyone’s view is respected and innocent people aren’t forced to endure persecution.

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