Nigeria opens its long-awaited battle of ideas against Boko Haram

July 31, 2014
(A teacher at Maska Road Islamic School teaches Hadith excerpts in a classroom in Kaduna, July 16, 2014. In classrooms facing a sandy courtyard in the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna, Maska Road Islamic School teaches a creed that condemns the violent ideology of groups like Boko Haram. The school is steadfast in preaching tolerance to its pupils, and the government is about to adopt this message in a new strategy for containing Boko Haram, which has killed thousands in a five-year campaign for an Islamic state. Picture taken July 16, 2014. To match Insight NIGERIA-BOKO HARAM/ REUTERS/Joe Penney)

(A teacher at Maska Road Islamic School teaches Hadith excerpts in a classroom in Kaduna, July 16, 2014. REUTERS/Joe Penney)

In classrooms facing a sandy courtyard in the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna, Maska Road Islamic School teaches a creed that condemns the violent ideology of groups like Boko Haram.

Not everyone has got its message. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, known as the “Pants Bomber”, spent his youth in this school – and ended up trying unsuccessfully to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day 2009 with explosives hidden in his underwear.

But the school is steadfast in preaching tolerance to its pupils, and the government is about to adopt this message in a new strategy for containing Boko Haram, which has killed thousands in a five-year campaign for an Islamic state.

“We teach them that what they (Boko Haram) are doing is a total misunderstanding of the Islamic religion, that Prophet Mohammed was compassionate, he even lived together with the non-Muslims in Medina,” said headmaster Sulaiman Saiki.

“We teach them tolerance,” he told Reuters as girls in the next room softly recited Koranic verses in Arabic melodies.

Abdulmutallab was radicalised in an al Qaeda camp in Yemen, but his case shows that even youths given a relatively liberal Muslim education can be seduced by radical Islam. This is something the new government programme is aiming to combat.

Koranic schools like Maska Road will be a pillar of the strategy being launched in September to counter Boko Haram’s ideology. The aim is to win over the “hearts and minds” of young Nigerians.

They will also challenge Boko Haram’s claim that secular teaching is “un-Islamic” – Boko Haram means “Western education is sinful” in Hausa, the dominant language in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north.

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