Schooled in Tolerance

MARADI, Niger — A chorus of children’s voices reciting almost in unison rings from a mosque doubling as a Koranic school. Inside, concrete walls painted light green ages ago provide a welcome reprieve from the West African sun baking the dirt roads just beyond. The head teacher, Imam Mohamadou Al Hadi Ashara, stands at the blackboard, pointing at chalked lines of Arabic letters that spell words in Hausa, a regional language.

Maradi is Niger’s third-largest city, located on the border with northern Nigeria, home to terrorist group Boko Haram, and Ashara’s 1,000-plus students are at risk of becoming targets for extremist recruitment. Some of the children are orphans, many won’t attend formal schooling, and all live in one of the most impoverished places on the planet.

In recent years, Ashara says some people have come and tried to radicalize his students. “We have been able to fight these ideas,” he says.

Risk factors that get exploited by terrorist recruiters have long included social, political and historical grievances, but a more sensitive subject is now being tackled by some in the counter-terrorism field – the extremist interpretations of Islam. Both governmental and non-governmental groups are increasingly focusing on the use of religion in radicalization – even if it’s a difficult conversation to have.

Niger, a majority-Muslim country with a secular government, is sometimes described as the middle of a jihadist sandwich. Neighboring Nigeria, Libya and Mali are battling full-fledged terrorist insurgencies, while Niger has suffered increasing attacks in border regions.

“All these terrorist groups are claiming to belong to Islam [and] they call on the youth to join them, to push out those ruling and to set up Sharia law in their place,” says Djibrin Issa Bana, founder of AREF and president of ORC Sahel, a new umbrella organization working with civil society leaders in Niger, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Nigeria to combat extremism. He says many terrorists “have studied in Koranic schools or some Islamic institutions, so we thought this gateway should be closed.”

Bana has been working with Koranic schools in the border regions for more than a decade. Niger’s government doesn’t formally recognize or regulate the informal schools. For many orphans and those too poor to pay formal schooling fees, Koranic schools – which focus solely on religion – are the only form of education.

For the past 10 years, Ashara has been working with AREF, or Action for the Renovation of Non-formal Education, a local non-governmental organization that helps Koranic schools integrate vocational training and tolerance-focused curricula. AREF is one of many local organizations across Muslim Africa fighting the threat of radicalization at the grassroots level.

With international funding, Bana has produced booklets that emphasize messages of nonviolence from the Koran, Islam’s holy book, in local dialects. After a relationship is established with a Koranic school – which requires continued dialogue and, sometimes, material assistance – his organization trains teachers and administrators to deliver the message to Niger’s most vulnerable youth.

The strategy of working with religious messengers is being employed by local nongovernment and governmental organizations across the continent.

Egypt’s Cairo Center for Conflict Resolution and Peacekeeping in Africa, for example, is training community leaders in Somalia and Nigeria on counter-narratives. This includes breaking down terrorist messaging, which is typically delivered through online videos, and debunking their radical interpretations of religious doctrine with an alternative interpretation of Islamic rules and ethics of war and peace.

With international funding, Bana has produced booklets that emphasize messages of nonviolence from the Koran, Islam’s holy book, in local dialects. After a relationship is established with a Koranic school – which requires continued dialogue and, sometimes, material assistance – his organization trains teachers and administrators to deliver the message to Niger’s most vulnerable youth.

The strategy of working with religious messengers is being employed by local nongovernment and governmental organizations across the continent.

Egypt’s Cairo Center for Conflict Resolution and Peacekeeping in Africa, for example, is training community leaders in Somalia and Nigeria on counter-narratives. This includes breaking down terrorist messaging, which is typically delivered through online videos, and debunking their radical interpretations of religious doctrine with an alternative interpretation of Islamic rules and ethics of war and peace.

‘A Very Sensitive Matter’

While the focus on addressing the use of religion in radicalization has increased, not everyone combating extremism has come around to addressing the issue.

Bana says one of his biggest challenges is finding funding, because many organizations have statutes that prevent them from financing activities with a religious connotation.

Many counter-radicalization programs, especially those funded by Western governments, avoid the subject, even though it’s “urgent to get into such sensitive questions,” says Yasmine Farouk, director of research at the CCCPA.

“Especially after Sept. 11, Muslims sometimes feel under attack, and a lot of governments, in order to be politically correct, try not to mention Islam or link it to radicalism,” says Farouk.

“It is a very sensitive matter,” says Pierre Buyoya, African Union High Representative and former president of Burundi. The AU has a number of counter-terrorism initiatives that focus on regional and state level cooperation and in December brought together organizers from across the continent to discuss ongoing programs, including recent initiatives to promote religious tolerance.

https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2017-03-01/in-africa-fighting-radicalism-through-religion

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