Matters Arising: Sahara Reporters, Boko Haram and The Muslim 500 list

The publisher of ‘The Muslim 500’, the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre has released the much awaited 2020 edition of the annual compilation that ranks the most influential Muslims in the world. 

Sahara Reporters, an online medium broke the news on Wednesday, with what many critics believe to be a sensational headline:
‘EXCLUSIVE: Buhari, Boko Haram Shekau Named Among World’s Most Powerful Muslims’. 

The controversial online news medium Sahara Reporters, owned by Omoleye Sowore, who is standing trial on a 7-count charge for treason, money laundering, conspiracy  among others, wrote, in parts:

“For the fourth consecutive year, President Muhammadu Buhari, the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Saad Abubakar III and the infamous Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, have been listed among the most powerful Muslims in the world.

“This is contained in a Muslim publication, The Muslim 500 in its 2020 edition, an annual compilation of the good, the bad, and the ugly in the Islamic world, which was obtained by SaharaReporters on Wednesday.

The listing of prominent Muslim personalities such as Buhari, Sultan of Sokoto alongside the dreaded terrorist, Shekau in the newspaper headline did not go down well with many Muslims who saw it tagging the Boko Haram leader as one of the “…world’s most powerful Muslims”.

Beyond SR, other media outfits used similar headlines.

However, Sahara Reporters was not the only Nigerian medium to use such sensational headline in reporting the Muslim 500. Apart from several unpopular online media that copied and published this SR story verbatim, other media had in the past used similar headlines of which Muslim News can authoritatively confirm.

For instance, The Punch published the 2017 and 2018 editions with the banner headline as, ‘Buhari, Shekau listed among most powerful Muslims’ and ‘Again, Boko Haram’s Shekau named among most powerful Muslims’ respectively. The newspaper is though yet to write on the latest list, there is every indication that The Punch would follow the same old pattern.

The Sun newspaper did similar in one of its 2018 edition with the headline, ‘Buhari, Sultan, Shekau others make global most powerful Muslims list’. The Daily Post had used ‘Buhari, Shekau, Sultan of Sokoto listed among most influential Muslims in the world’ while Legit news online settled for, ‘Buhari, Dangote, Shekau listed among 500 most influential Muslims in the world’ in the previous years. These newspapers might likely use the same headlines when they’re ready to feature it on their news website.

Are the Media at fault?

Evidently, the casting of the headline by the SR couldn not be attributed to the legal battle between the embattled Sowore and the Nigeria Federal Government-led by President Muhammadu Buhari.

It’s not entirely the fault of SR and other media because the media acted or reventilated the report in the publication which had Shekau among the 500 most influential Muslims in the world, albeit under ‘top 7 extremists’ segment.

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That’s why the headline read thus, “Buhari, Boko Haram Shekau Named Among World’s Most Powerful Muslims” but in the body of the story, the newspaper clarified that President, “Buhari is listed 17th and the Sultan, 20th most powerful Muslims while Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram leader, is listed as one of the seven most powerful Muslim extremists in the world, in the latest report.”

The online medium however threw caution in the winds when it  reflected in paragraph 7 of the story that ‘President Buhari, who has always been accused by his critics of being a religious bigot, was described in glowing terms in the Muslim 500 report.’ 

This unethical journalism is the only fault we observed because the phrase ‘who has always been accused by his critics of being a religious bigot’ has been severally used to cast aspersions on the President by the opposition and it is bad press for such to be used in news writing since there is no evidence that the President is truly a bigot. While writing News, not opinion, journalists are expected to be neutral and unbiased, regardless of the ownership interest.

The side-by-side use of President Buhari and Shekau’s pictures by Sahara Reporters in its featured image can therefore be said to symbolise the good the bad and the ugly of Muslims perceptions as portrayed in the Muslim 500 list. The pictures of the duo were used to illustrate SR’s controversial headline.

There is another professional angle in which such report could have been written. Patriotic media or journalists would not have placed great achievers and illustrious nationalist like President Buhari, Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Dangote with a terrorist like Shekau in the same headline. In that case, they would have ignored the controversial ‘top Muslim extremists’ segment which had Shekau and other six terror gangs and focused only on the great Muslim achievers from Nigeria in their headlines and stories.

For instance, The Vanguards newspaper, concentrated only on “Buhari makes 17th most powerful Muslim” in 2016 while Daily Trust of 2017 wrote that, “Emir Sanusi, Sultan make list of 500 most influential Muslims” in the interest of the country.

Muslim News Nigeria believes that the ‘top extremists’ segment is not necessary. Hence, it focused its searchlight on the distinguished personalities from Nigeria who made the latest list,  with her story, “12 Nigerians made most 500 influential Muslims in the world”, with the exclusion of the Boko Haram leader, Shekau and IMN Shiite leader, Sheikh Ibrahim Zakyzaky.

Yet, another media can go for the “good” as the main headline and “bad” as news rider. For instance, they can have, “Buhari, Emir Sanusi, Sultan of Sokoto make list of 500 most influential Muslims, as Boko Haram’s Shikau among top 7 Muslim extremists”. 

Any of the aforementioned can be adopted by the media in analysing the Muslim 500 report, depending on ownership interest. However, the mind boggling question should be, what’s ‘top extremists’ doing in the list?

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What’s ‘top extremists’ doing in the list?

Terrorists cum extremists irrespective of their religion, race, ideology or whatever motivates them and their evil acts should not be given prominence by the media in the first instance. This is the real issue and the exact reason we fault the inclusion of ‘top extremists’ in the list of the most influential Muslims in the world. If the organiser didn’t include the controversial list, there is no way media would have given Shekau undeserved fame by placing his name side by side with President Buhari and Sultan of Sokoto.

Evidently, there is extremism in every religion; The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) are some of the Christian terrorist groups yet the media will never address them as Christian extremists. The monstrous white Supremacists have been terrorising the US and inspiring wannabe-terrorists in other countries to attack Muslims yet they are never called terrorists. So, why Muslim or Islamist terror? Why rating top Muslim terrorists in the first instance?

Although, the organiser stated in the introduction that the impact of the nominees who made up the most influential Muslims in the world “can either be positive or negative, depending on one’s point of view of course”, yet, those who have wrecked havoc on humanity do not deserve such mention. There shouldn’t have been ‘top extremists’ in the list of 500 Most Influential Muslims since their actions and inactions are antithetical to Islam.

The organiser also said in the introduction that, “The selection of people for this publication in no way means that we endorse their views; rather we are simply trying to measure their influence”, but one may ask, ‘if you didn’t endorse their views, why give them the prominence they didn’t deserve?

How would listing them help in the fight against extremism or  bring an end to their evils? It will rather lead to unnecessary controversies especially in the non-Muslim dominated media in Nigeria.

New Zealand terrorist (m)

This was exactly what the New Zealand achieved during the Christchurch terrorist attacks where 50 Muslim worshippers were murdered in cold blood, while 50 others were injured in March 2019. The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern and New Zealand media that covered the Christchurch mosque attacks talk more about the attack but didn’t give prominence to the terrorist – not even showing his face.

According to Ms Arden, “We, in New Zealand, will give him nothing. Not even his name. When terrorists strike, the immediate damage—deaths, injuries, destruction—isn’t their ultimate goal. Their intent is far more ambitious, though intangible: They seek to cause terror, and for that, they need visibility.

Visibility supports the spread of terror. It makes terrorists look more important and powerful than they are, and provides a platform for their messages. It also encourages copycats to embrace the same murderous ideals and seek similar exposure.

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Special mention of this nature will only make them more popular and make some local terrorist groups commit more heinous acts against mankind so that they can also make the list in  subsequent years. The Boko Haram didn’t make the list of ‘top extremists’ when ‘The Muslim 500’ debuted in 2009.

The ‘top extremists’ section of the award, formerly known as ‘The Radicals’  had notable names such as Ayman Al Zawahiri of Egypt, Abu Omar Al Baghdadi of Iraq, Sheikh Rabi’ Ibn Haadi ‘Umayr al Madkhali of Saudi Arabia and the late Osama bin Laden, also from Saudi Arabia, among others in (page 163/164) , before it was changed to ‘Top Extremists’ in the 2014/15 edition.

The surprising entrance of the dreaded Nigeria’s Boko Haram into the list of top extremists in 2014/15 drew the attention of Nigerian media to 500 Muslims, which has been previously underreported despite having prominent Nigerians such as Sultan of Sokoto, His Eminence, Alhaji Muhammadu Abubakar Saa’d III from inception in 2009 (page 52/53) and the Borno born Islamic scholar, Sheik Ibrahim Saleh.

Abubakar Al-Baghdadi, DAESH leader

It took Boko Haram five years to make the list on page 169 alongside another newcomer, DAESH’s Abubakar Baghdadi, and the leader of the extremist group didn’t get the special mention on a platter of Gold. The insurgent group killed indiscriminately Muslims and Christians, burnt down places of worship and abducted the 200 Chibok girls in Borno, Nigeria, in 2014.

By 2016, Muslim 500 made headlines in the Nigerian media with inclusion of His Excellency, President Muhammadu Buhari as a newcomer, barely a year after he was sworn in as the President of Nigeria. Since then, the Nigerian media have been featuring ‘President Buhari together with Shikau, and Sultan of Sokoto’ in their headlines.

The organisers might have good intention, may Allah reward them but if they want to end terrorism and extremism, it’s high time they stopped giving them publicity and attention which incidentally, is the lifeline of their deleterious activities of which they don’t deserve. With that, the needless media sensationalism will come to an end.

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