By Imam Mohamed Magid and Ritu Sharma, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Imam Mohamed Magid is the Executive Religious Director of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) and president of the Islamic Society of North America. Ritu Sharma is co-founder and president of Women Thrive Worldwide and author of the forthcoming book ‘Teach a Woman to Fish: Overcoming Poverty Around the Globe.’ The views expressed are their own.
More than a month has passed since some 300 Nigerian girls were abducted from their boarding school in the dead of night by Boko Haram militants, and the world is still left hoping that somehow, some way, the girls will return home safe.
The attack in Chibok was, unfortunately, just a single recent example of Boko Haram’s ongoing assault on the people of northern Nigeria. Indeed, what we have witnessed over the last several weeks is part of a long running and deadly dance between Nigeria’s largely unresponsive central government and Boko Haram’s relatively small faction of extraordinarily violent men.
But whatever Boko Haram says, the group’s actions do not reflect Islam’s teachings, and Muslim organizations have rightly condemned its terrorist actions. These are militants bent on political and economic gain at the expense of the freedom and dignity of women and girls in Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon – for years, we have seen how poverty and hopelessness can catalyze religious extremism and violence against women.
Boko Haram got its start in Maiduguri back in 2002, a place where most live on the equivalent of less than $2 a day. People here struggle constantly to find enough to feed, clothe, and house their families, and so it is little wonder that the local population is disillusioned, and in some cases tempted by misleading promises of something better.
Of course, nothing justifies kidnapping and brutal massacres. But this does not change the reality that extreme poverty in the region offers fertile ground for Boko Haram’s violent extremist movement, which recruits from the streets of northern states like Borno, where disillusioned and idle young men (even children) are offered payment in exchange for bombing so-called Western schools, government targets, and more.
But, above all, the group is focused on targeting girls who want an education.
Islam in no way denies girls the right to learn. But educating girls and boys could deny groups like Boko Haram the poverty and desperation that prompts so many misguided men to join the militants’ cause. After all, each additional year of education adds about 10 percent to a person’s lifetime earnings, and on average, wages rise 20 percent for every year beyond the 4th grade that girls are in school. Increased education means women can earn higher incomes and have greater decision-making power within their families and communities. Countries that raise their literacy rates by 20 percent to 30 percent, meanwhile, can see increases in their Gross Domestic Product of 8 percent to 16 percent.
In short, education expands economic and political stability, and leads to stronger democracies.
But while people of all faiths want to see Nigeria rescue the abducted schoolgirls and take the necessary steps to ensure such an act of violence never happens again, doing so requires more than simply increasing security. A long-term strategy must include eradicating extreme poverty in Nigeria and educating girls.
The United States government can help this process by fully funding the types of development programs that lift up poor communities and that place economic and decision-making power in the hands of locals. Unfortunately, at present, many programs funded through U.S. international assistance are facing the chopping block.
Yet major cuts would hamstring communities like Chibok from feeding their families and educating their girls. If the United States is serious when it says it will do whatever it can to keep girls such as those in Chibok safe, it must ensure that anti-poverty, pro-education development programs are adequately funded.
What has been happening in northern Nigeria is tragic. But it has also been, in many ways, predictable. It is sad that it has taken the kidnapping of so many girls to bring this issue to international attention. And it should not take more such incidents for policy makers to realize the danger of leaving the region to suffer in poverty as extremism grows.