The secretary-general of the world's largest bloc of Islamic countries said Saturday that the kidnapping of more than 270 Nigerian schoolgirls is a "barbaric" and "inhumane" act.
Iyad Madani, who leads the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, spoke to The Associated Press in his first interview with the media since officially taking office in January.
The kidnapping by the extremist group Boko Haram in Nigeria has prompted worldwide condemnation, and Muslim scholars around the world have called for the girls' immediate release and safe return. The OIC and other Islamic bodies have said the acts of Boko Haram do not represent Islam.
Boko Haram claims to use Islamic teachings as justification for threatening to sell the kidnapped girls into slavery. They also say they want to impose Islamic Shariah law in Nigeria. The group has staged many attacks in Nigeria over the years, killing more than 1,500 people this year alone.
"This is inhumane and barbaric," Madani said. "They are simply criminal outlaws."
Speaking from the OIC's headquarters in the coastal city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, he said such extremist groups "not only disavow their Islam, but their humanity."
"When an organization kidnaps young schoolgirls and claims that this is Islam and that Allah has ordered this, and when they say they are acting in accordance with Islam in offering these kidnapped girls for sale, how could that relate to Islam, its holy book or any Islamic doctrine?" he said.
The OIC is comprised of 57 Muslim-majority member-states that span across Africa and Asia. It was established in 1969, and Madani is the 10th secretary-general to head the institution. He is also the first Saudi at its helm.
The organization faces challenges in presenting a unified Muslim voice, particularly as parts of the Arab world are gripped in a seemingly endless cycle of sectarian violence. In Syria, jihadist fighters from around the world are fighting alongside the country's Sunni majority against President Bashar Assad's Alawite, Shiite-backed minority. Meanwhile, Sunni-Shiite bloodletting in Iraq is deeply enshrined among hardliners on either end. In both conflicts, regional heavyweights — Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Shiite-led Iran — are seen supporting opposite sides.
Despite such divisions, Madani says ordinary Muslims feel a shared sense of Islamic identity with one another that supersedes doctrinal orientation. He described Islam as a religion that embraces a diversity of ideas, cultures and people.
"This is the nature of Islam... which guides the OIC from within," he said. "The roots of the problems are not in how we interpret or understand our Islamic identity," he added, but have to do with politics, economics and governance within nations.
He said sectarian killings and extremist groups like Boko Haram are a threat to the essence of Islam and to co-existence with non-Muslims who are a part of the culture and civilization of countries where Muslims are the majority.
"The OIC is striving to have a strong and active role in facing these extremist movements... so that they are not associated with Islam or any Muslim country."