Boko Haram is fundamentalist Islamic terrorist group.1 According to the BBC, its official Arabic name (Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad) means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”.2 Its more colloquial name, Boko Haram,may be very loosely translated as “Non-Islamic education is forbidden” or “Western education is a sin”.3 As well wanting to establish an Islamic state based on sharia law, the group also opposes what it sees as “Western” or non-Islamic education in Nigeria.4

The group’s violent actions have been denounced by Muslim organizations all over the world.5 It has been in the news most recently for kidnapping about 300 teenaged girls from their school in Chibok, in Borno state, northeastern Nigeria.6 In addition to various bomb attacks against civilians and army bases,7 they have committed similar atrocities against students in the past.

In February 2014, they opened fire on a school dormitory in Buni Yadi in Yobe state, with different news sources reporting between 29 and 43 teenaged boys being killed.8 They did the same thing in September 2013, killing about 50 male students and teachers in their dormitory at the College of Agriculture in Gujba in Yobe state.9 In July 2013, they reportedly killed 42 students at their secondary school in Mamudo, also in Yobe state, “spraying it with bullets and using jerry cans to burn some pupils alive,” according to The Telegraph.10

Any decent human being is shocked and saddened by such events. Many of us have an urge to do something. What can we do? Many have expressed outrage and kept international attention on the issue by using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. Many attend rallies, expressing outrage and showing support for the kidnapped girls and their families.11 Many thousands have signed petitions urging more effort to find the kidnapped girls, such as this White House petition  (  ) .12

The desire to help, to do something, is important and to be commended. But the fact remains that the situation in Nigeria is incredibly dangerous and, tragically, interventions may do more harm than good. The Nigerian military13 and police14 have committed their own atrocities, and their actions to tackle Boko Haram and rescue the girls may inflame the situation.15 Help from other governments may not be effective and also has the potential to worsen the situation, with the international attention actually encouraging future large scale terrorist atrocities.16

The fundamental problem is that the situation was already dire, even before these events occurred, and it has been so for some time. The causes leading to the current terrible situation are historically and politically complex, involving British colonialism;17 the rich world’s dependence on oil;18 religious, cultural and political differences between various ethnic groups;19 repeated military coups;20 corruption;21 poverty, and great disparity between the north and south;22 and disease (including polio, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis).23 It would be easy for the good intentions of individuals and governments to make a terrible situation even worse, which makes the kidnappings even more heartbreaking.

Does that mean we should throw up our hands in despair and do nothing? No, but we do have to be realistic about what we can achieve, much as we might wish to do more. We need to recognize our limitations as well as our strengths.

What are the strengths of an organization such as CFI Canada? What can we do, as individuals and also as a national educational charity? Unfortunately, we simply may not be able to do anything about the current atrocities in Nigeria. (For many, this may be the attraction of prayer — it can make people feel like they’re doing something instead of accepting uncomfortable feelings of powerlessness.)

However, we can each play a small part in trying to improve the future. We can speak out about the importance of secularism, everywhere around the world. A secular society is one in which the government and all its institutions — from its military to its courts to its schools — are religiously neutral. A secular society respects and protects freedom of religion, as well as freedom from religion. A secular society recognizes the right to an education that is free from all religiously motivated violations. A secular society recognizes the right of its citizens to have different religious beliefs (including atheism) from other citizens and members of the government.

Sadly, Nigeria is a long way from being a functional secular society, and it provides a stark and bloody illustration of the importance of secularism and how we must never take it for granted. We must insist on secularism, and be vigilant against religiously motivated violations, small and large, at home and abroad. Each of us can do what we can to educate and inform others within our own sphere of influence — whether at the local PTA meeting, or in conversation with national politicians. CFI Canada can assist in arranging events at which speakers talk about the importance of secularism. Although the beneficial effects of education may be painfully slow to materialize, education is a vitally important way to change the world for the better — and it’s what we do best.

If you are interested in inviting a speaker on the importance of secularism to talk with your high school or college class, community group or organization, please contact: or your local Branch leader.


Zena Ryder is Branch Director of CFI Canada’s Okanagan Branch

Media, Commentary and Further Information

Slider Map Source:





5. BC Muslim Association: Association of London Muslims: Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago:,0,237912.story. Various American Muslim organizations: International Islamic Fiqh Academy, in Saudi Arabia: The International Union for Muslim Scholars:

6. The estimates of the exact number of girls who were kidnapped varies.



9., gunned-down-as-militants-attack-college-dorms/4987926


11. Some examples: Hamilton, Ontario: Baltimore, Maryland: Washington, DC: Dublin, Ireland: Edmonton, Alberta: Vancouver, British Columbia:













24. Nigeria’s neighbours (17 May):

 25. How the attention is dying down (20 May):
26. UN sanctions (which may have no real effect and be largely symbolic), also info about Boko Haram’s killings over the past 5 years (23 May):
28. Nigerian Army knows where the kidnapped girls are (27 May):
33.  Boko Haram have kidnapped more women (10 June):

34. Nigeria’s former president states that kidnapped girls will likely never be found (14 June):