14116279234_e237e671a4_oBy Bailey Marsheck
Staff Writer

Earlier this month, after two and a half years of grief and uncertainty, 21 Nigerian families were reunited with their long-lost daughters.  An agreement was reached with the militant Islamic terrorist organization, Boko Haram on October 16 which placed the girls into the hands of the Nigerian government for a brief evaluation before they were finally allowed to reconnect with their loved ones.  Despite the encouraging appearance of this development on the surface, there are still 197 other families who are waiting in anguish to discover the fate of their kidnapped daughters.

The ordeal started in April 2014 when 276 teenage girls were staying at a government boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria in preparation for their final science exam of the academic year. During the middle of the night, members of Boko Haram razed the town, abducted its female students and loaded them onto trucks. Some were able to escape in transit by jumping off the vehicles but the majority of the girls still remain missing over two years later. Heart-wrenching stories told by parents who desperately trailed their kidnapped daughters in hopes of recovery suggest that they were taken to Boko Haram’s unknown base secluded deep somewhere within the 120 square kilometers that make up the Sambisa Forest. The fate of the remaining Chibok girls remains uncertain due to inner turmoil within the ranks of Boko Haram as well as the various challenges presented by the natural geography of the Sambisa Forest.

The terrorist organization was originally founded in 2003 by Mohammed Yusuf as a religious movement in response to the divergence between Nigeria’s Christian south and Muslim north. The group first came into conflict with the Nigerian government in 2009 when the movement transformed into a violent uprising. Boko Haram continued to become more radical and anti-government as Yusuf’s followers grew.  Eventually, a police operation led to the arrest of prominent members of the organization for possession of bomb-making equipment and other weapons. Yusuf was imprisoned and died in jail which aggravated the group’s anti-government philosophies beyond their breaking point. Boko Haram’s actions have only escalated since then, resulting in suicide bombings on government installations, kidnappings of both locals and foreigners, and allying themselves with the extremist group ISIS.

Boko Haram’s ultimate goal is to end the country’s religious division by creating a purely Islamic state. Their name translates from the Nigerian dialect of Hausa to mean “western education is forbidden,” but applies generally to include hatred for western culture and religion as a whole. The group rejects the notion of allowing women any form of education and made a conscious decision to abduct and transport the female students instead of simply killing them. In a message to the media, Yuusuf’s successor Abubakar Shekau claimed responsibility for the Chibok attack and encouraged girls to leave school to marry while additionally informing the public that the captured girls would be sold as slave brides. Captives who managed to escape have reported that many girls were in fact married off to the group’s soldiers and were forced to convert to Islam under the threat of physical and psychological abuse.

Despite conflicting sources regarding the agreement, the release of the 21 girls was confirmed to be facilitated by both the Swiss government and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Reports outlined payments ranging from cash sums to the release of Boko Haram commanders, the latter of which the Nigerian government vehemently denies. This negotiation seems to have opened up the possibility of future talks with Boko Haram, or at least with the faction responsible for the deal. The terrorist group underwent a complicated split in August, with a portion siding with original leader Abubakar Shekau while the other fraction opted to follow ISIS-backed Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the first son of Muhammed Yusuf. The dissonance is suspected to be over Shekau’s willingness to murder Muslims in pursuit of his end goals.

The release was negotiated with the ISIS-aligned faction, which has been much more willing to enter into talks regarding the release of prisoners since the two groups split. Since then, there have been efforts to expedite a proposed swap of 83 more girls.  However, doubts remain about whether the group is in control of the additional 100 missing girls as it is likely that the captives were split between the two factions. A further uncertainty in the situation persists over whether the remaining prisoners might be reluctant to return home in shame of their assumed forced marriages and potential pregnancies.

These diplomatic challenges are met by geographic ones too, as the Sambisa Forest serves as the last logistical obstacle to the rescue of the remaining girls. Boko Haram’s forces operate under the cover of brush so dense that it cannot be detected by aerial surveillance. Regular patrols by militants coupled with a minefield of Improvised Explosive Devices make penetrating the forest on foot a logistical nightmare. The Chibok abduction occurred near the height of Boko Haram’s power in 2014 and since then the Nigerian army has been reclaiming territory in the surrounding state of Borno city-by-city in a tiresome campaign that is only further prolonged by the sect’s propensity for guerilla tactics. The army has started pushing their forces into the forest in an attempt to oust Boko Haram from their final major Nigerian stronghold. Yet, progress is slow and has been further impaired as the group’s camps are often found already abandoned. On October 2, the Nigerian military launched “Operation Forest Storm” which was an airstrike offensive meant to cripple key bases within the forest. While this increased the possibility of collateral damage, the ground assault has simply taken too long and been ineffective. Nigeria’s government and citizens at large have grown increasingly eager to end Boko Haram’s harmful influence on the country and move past the years of armed conflict.

But questions still remain.  Where are the remaining Chibok girls located within the vast Sambisa forest? Are they with the Shekau-aligned portion of Boko Haram or the ISIS faction? Are they still alive? Have they been radicalized? Have they stealthily been whisked to another hidden location? Will a second deal for the additional 83 girls come to fruition, and if so, in what terms?

While the return of the initial 21 girls may have ended this tragic saga for a few, many more families are left to wait without answers. The only way to discover the true fate of the Chibok girls is to penetrate into Sambisa and retrieve Boko Haram’s secrets from within the darkness of Nigeria’s forbidden forest and cast them into the light.

Image by Michael Fleshman



By Lauren Lam
Staff Writer

For most of us in the western world, we are fortunate enough to enjoy freedom of religion. Nonetheless, even in western countries where the ability to practice one’s religion is supposedly a fundamental “freedom”, individuals’ experiences in these countries suggest otherwise. In Canada, a country with a history of respecting religious freedom, as stated in the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, one can still find contemporary examples of individuals facing religious discrimination. Last November alone saw the end of a lengthy court battle between Zunera Ishaq, a Pakistani immigrant living in Ontario, and the Canadian federal government over her right to wear a niqab while taking the Canadian citizenship oath. Meanwhile, in France, where there is an official state policy of complete state secularism, or laïcité, different religious groups still tend to have different experiences when it comes to practising their religion. Under laïcité, all religious education is banned in public schools, and following the Charlie Hebdo killings, the French government issued a decree restating this ban. However, many argue that this decree disproportionately targets schools in Muslim-dominated suburbs.

Both of these examples involve injustices towards Muslim individuals. These injustices occur in the context of a series of recent radical Islamic terrorist attacks, such as those orchestrated by the Islamic State in Brussels, Paris, and San Bernardino, leading towards a greater trend of Islamophobia. A key question hence becomes: are these injustices a direct result of Islamophobia, or do they reflect a genuine and legitimate fear of compromising security for the sake of freedom of religion? Even further, if freedom of religion inherently conflicts with state security, how can these two ideals be effectively balanced?

Canada’s national identity largely rests on its multiculturalism and the idea of a cultural mosaic, as opposed to the American cultural “melting pot.” In 2011, Canada had a foreign-born population of approximately 6,775,800 people, or 20.6% of the total population, which is the highest proportion of foreign-born of all the G-8 countries. Additionally, 19.1% of the total Canadian population identified as a visible minority according to the 2011 census. With such a high proportion of the population born in foreign countries and/or representing minority groups, it would seem natural that the Canadian government and Canadian citizens would have a great deal of respect for different cultures, languages, ethnicities, and religions.

So how can the Canadian government’s 2011 ban on wearing niqabs in citizenship ceremonies be explained? Such headscarves are worn by Muslim women around the world as a display of modesty and a representation of their faith. The individual involved in the court case against the federal government, Ms. Ishaq, willingly unveiled in front of the official administering the citizenship test she wrote and passed back in 2013. She took issue however when she was told she needed to unveil publicly for the ceremony. When Ishaq brought a lawsuit against the former Conservative federal government, she not only won in Federal Court, but again in the Federal Court of Appeal, before the government brought the case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada in an attempt to reinstate the ban. According to Attorney Colin R. Singer, the ban on niqabs was unnecessary and only came about “simply because the niqab did not please the [former Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney]”.

It is understandable that headscarves such as niqabs, which cover all of the face except the eyes, come with related security concerns. It may be difficult to verify the identity of individuals wearing them. However, this would be more of a concern for places such as airports, and even then there are alternative solutions. Many have proposed that women wearing niqabs and other headscarves could unveil in a private room with a female officer rather than in public as to best respect their religious beliefs. This alternative would also be possible for citizenship. Nonetheless, the Conservative government insisted that niqabs inhibited judges from recognising people taking the citizenship oath and still refused to consider holding separate ceremonies with female judges for women wearing niqabs. A common sentiment among Muslim women is that it is acceptable and reasonable to ask women to unveil to verify their identity, but it should not be expected in ceremonies because there is no inherent risk. When Zunera Ishaq was finally able to take the citizenship oath on Oct. 9, 2015, she unveiled for an official prior to the ceremony to confirm her identity.

Headscarves that cover individuals’ faces do pose unique security challenges. However, accommodations can be made which mitigate these security challenges, and the security threat is often overstated by those who are less open to different religions and cultures. The previous Conservative administration under Stephen Harper was much stricter in regards to religious freedom, while the new Liberal Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould withdrew the government’s appeal shortly after coming into office. Hopefully this marks a new period of better balancing state security with religious freedom in Canada.

France is another country with a long history of religious equality. However, official and unofficial policy regarding religion in France is very different from that in Canada and cannot truly be called “religious freedom”. Whereas the Canadian government tends to favour openness to all religions, the French government tries to treat all religions equally by placing quite serious restrictions on the practice of all religions. This concept of laïcité has a long history dating as far back as the French Revolution and the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man. According to laïcité there is a complete separation of church and state, which means that French citizens cannot be educated about religion or wear “conspicuous” religious symbols in public schools.

In 2004 a French bill was passed which banned conspicuous religious symbols in public schools. However, it has been clarified that this does not prevent individuals from wearing headscarves and other religious symbols in public places, universities, and private schools. The argument behind this bill is that France is a neutral society where people of many different religions must coexist, making integration a key issue. This becomes even more difficult considering France has the largest Muslim minority in Europe in addition to the world’s second largest Jewish minority. Eliminating such religious symbols is intended to aid individuals who are members of minority groups in assimilating into French society.

Two key concerns arise from this. First and foremost, is a policy of complete neutrality desirable if it inhibits the freedom of individuals to practice their religion? Secondly, is this law applied evenly for all religions?

According to Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, laïcité is about allowing individuals to have whatever beliefs, or lack of beliefs, they want, and public institutions should be completely neutral to them as a result. However, it is difficult to comprehend how this policy leads to religious openness when there are cases such as June 2014, when a top appeals court ruled that a private nursery was reasonable in firing an employee who refused to remove her Muslim headscarf in the workplace.

A second problem with this policy is its uneven application. Even if such a policy were to be beneficial for French society in theory, it is not beneficial when it disproportionately affects various religious groups. For example, Ascension, a Catholic holiday, still remains public despite the official separation of church and state. There have also been several reported instances where mothers of schoolchildren are prevented from participating in school trips because they choose to wear a hijab, yet other mothers wearing visible crosses are allowed to participate in the same outings. Furthermore, in April 2011, another law was passed which prohibited headscarves which cover the face in public. It appears that while the French government maintains an official policy of state neutrality, it unfairly targets Muslim women wearing headscarves.

The French policy of laïcité is well-intentioned; integration and security are important. Nonetheless, the policy has been manipulated by people in all aspects of French society to unfairly target Muslims. Like in Canada, the French government should revisit its stance on religious symbols and garments such as the niqab and hijab. After all, freedom of religion is one of the most fundamental human rights and must be protected for everyone, not just a select few.

Photo by tamara_cox1


By Omkar Mahajan
Staff Writer

Myanmar has always been a predominantly Buddhist nation with a sizable Muslim minority. In fact, there have been significant tensions between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority in Myanmar. Throughout history, Muslims have been persecuted in Myanmar. However, the persecutions dramatically intensified during British rule in the 1930s and have since increased with more persecutions in recent years and in the present day. Additionally, Buddhist extremist groups have since emerged preaching hate and violence towards the minority Muslim population. Even more disturbing is that despite the democratic reforms of Myanmar and the removal of its military junta, the government still oppresses and persecutes its Muslim minority. Not surprisingly, the United Nations has already condemned Myanmar for its treatment of its Muslim minority and has noted that Myanmar is committing human rights abuses towards Muslims. Muslims in Myanmar continue to be oppressed despite intervention from the United Nations and other countries, the democratic reforms of its government and the mistreatment of Muslims has only been exacerbated with the appearance of Buddhist extremist groups and vocal leaders opposed to Islam. Efforts to quell down violence and opposition towards Muslims are clearly not functioning.

What is the history between Islam and Buddhism in Myanmar?

Islam is believed to have first arrived to Myanmar from Arab merchants in the 7th century CE. Islam then appeared in greater numbers as settlements from Muslim traders and travelers arrived along the coastal regions of Myanmar. It wasn’t until the 1500s that persecution and negative sentiments towards Islam emerged significantly. The leader of Myanmar at the time, King Bayinnaung, was fiercely intolerant of Islam and prohibited Muslim practices and rituals such as Halal (Yegar 10). Persecutions of Muslims in Myanmar from that point became commonplace and many Muslims fled Myanmar. However, the negative sentiment would intensify greatly in later centuries to come.

During the British rule of Myanmar in the 1930s, tensions between Muslims and Buddhists increased. There were approximately 500,000 Muslims in Myanmar at the time and there was also a steady flow of immigrant Muslims moving from British India to British ruled Myanmar (Yegar 29). Unfortunately, due to economic hardships and the rise of xenophobia, religious and race riots targeted Muslim populations. Even though the riots were originally intended to target Indians, the British and other foreigners, the riots actually harmed many Burmese Muslims because numerous people viewed all Muslim residents there as foreigners. The Burma for Burmese Only Campaign was soon established to protest the Muslim presence in Myanmar (Yegar 37). These protests led to the destruction of 113 mosques (Yegar 37).

What did the British do about these events?

The British created a committee to investigate the real causes of these events (Yegar 38). Although the committee determined that economic hardships and sociopolitical conditions caused Burmese hardship, their efforts were short lived. They advocated that Muslims be represented on the legislative council, have the right to practice and follow their own religion and be granted full citizenship (Yegar 38). Furthermore, the Burmese Muslim Congress was founded to oversee these efforts and look after the welfare of Muslim residents in Myanmar. Unfortunately, the government under U Nu, the first Prime Minister of Myanmar shortly after Burmese independence, ignored these measures and Muslims were later oppressed.

Nu ordered the disbandment of the Burmese Muslim Congress (Yegar 75). Moreover, he later adopted Buddhism as the official religion of Myanmar angering many Muslims in Myanmar. However, a coup d’état in 1962 removed U Nu from power and replaced the government with a military junta under General Ne Win. This military government would remain in power until the 21st century.

General Win enacted numerous alterations to the government structure of Myanmar and this not only aggravated the situation and well being of its constituents, but it also exacerbated the status of Muslims in Myanmar. For instance, Muslims were banned from serving in the army. The business, media and other forms of communication were restricted and placed under the control of the military junta. The country soon became a one party system and protests against the military regime of Myanmar were violently crushed. The government also conducted a number of human rights abuses including the usage of child soldiers, systemic human trafficking and sexual slavery and forced labor. In fact, in June 2012, “Children [were] being sold as conscripts into the Burmese military for as little as $40 and a bag of rice or a can of petrol.” Forced labor was also widespread throughout Myanmar. However, the human rights abuses committed towards Muslims in Myanmar were much worse.

What was the Military Junta’s treatment of its Muslim minority?

The Military Junta committed genocide and ethnic cleansing towards its Muslim minority and violated many human rights laws towards its Muslim populations. The Rohingya people, an ethnic group that resides in Myanmar of whom the majority of Muslims in Myanmar belong to, have been persecuted ever since. First, they were denied basic citizenship rights and were treated and seen as foreigners despite residing in Myanmar for centuries. Second, the government forcibly removed Rohingya Muslims from their homeland and replaced them with Buddhist residents. Over 800,000 Rohingya Muslims have been displaced from their homeland. Additional human rights abuses toward the Rohingya Muslims include but are not limited to prohibition of owning land, banned from having more than two children, and unable to travel without permission. However, in 2011 there was a democratic transition and the government was radically changed from an authoritarian regime to a unitary presidential republic. Shockingly, the status of Muslims did not improve under the democratic transition and human rights abuses continued to occur.

What is the current status of Muslims under the democratic government of Myanmar?

Despite the democratic transitions in Myanmar, the status of Muslims has not changed significantly. Muslims continue to be denied citizenship, are still unable to travel without permission, are banned from owning land, and having more than two children. What has changed is that the violence between Buddhists and the police towards Muslims has increased tremendously. Over 140,000 Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine State have been forced to evacuate and leave Myanmar as a result of the ongoing violence. Many have escaped to Thailand, Malaysia or even Australia for refuge. An additional 100,000 Muslims have left Myanmar out of fear of persecution. The 2012 Rakhine State riots, located in the eastern state of Rakhine, enlarged the amount of violence occurring between Buddhists and Muslims. Entire villages were destroyed and over 80,000 Rohingya Muslims were displaced just from those riots alone. A civil war between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists has also been taking place in the Kachin State, located in the northern part of Myanmar. As a result of this, the government intervened declaring it a state emergency and imposing curfews in those regions and sent military forces to handle the matter.

Furthermore, in September 2012, President Thein Sein promoted a controversial plan that, in his own words, would “send [Muslims] away if any third world country would accept them”. Sadly, there has been a growing tendency from the military to target Rohingya Muslims through arrests and violence. Nonetheless, the international community did not tolerate such actions and did intervene as a result.

In what ways did the international community intervene in Myanmar?

First, the United States and the European Union both placed strict economic sanctions and other trade barriers in place towards Myanmar. Unfortunately, this had the adverse effect of harming civilians in Myanmar instead of the general government. Since the democratic transitions, the sanctions have been lessened. Many international organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the United Nations have condemned the human rights abuses that have occurred in Myanmar. Samantha Power, President Barack Obama’s Special Assistant to the President on Human Rights, documented that “serious human rights abuses against civilians in several regions continue, including against women and children” and despite the United Nations General Assembly urging the Burmese government to respect human rights, violations and mistreatment of Muslims continue to occur. Unfortunately, active international involvement in Myanmar to salvage the situation and status of Muslims has been minimal and ineffective.

Why is oppression and violence occurring to Muslims from the general populace and the government in the first place?

First, there have been a number of Buddhist monks who have actively advocated the persecution and killing of Muslims. U Nyarna, a Buddhist monk and leader of a local monastery, has called for the expulsion and killing of Muslims. His followers plan on sending Muslims in Myanmar into camps where they will later be deported to other countries willing to take them. Nyarna justifies his actions by asserting that “although killing is wrong, people cannot be saints in times where they feel threatened.” But, Nyarna is not the most vocal leader or most influential opponent towards Islam amongst the Buddhist community in Myanmar. In fact, Nyarna pales in comparison to Ashin Wirathu, an enigmatic leader who appears to be more of a dogmatic extremist than a zealous monk devoted to his religion.

Wirathu, the leader of the 969 movement in Myanmar, is a Buddhist monk who is one of the most extreme opponents towards Islam in Myanmar. Despite claiming to be a simple preacher who isn’t hateful, his speeches are often filled with rhetoric blaming Muslims and encouraging violence towards them. He led a rally of monks to promote and support President Sein’s plan to expel Muslims from the country. He also called for the boycott of Muslim owned stores and restrictions on interreligious marriages between Buddhists and Muslims. The 969 movement, which he created, calls for the permanent removal of Islam in Myanmar. Access to the internet and social media has allowed Wirathu to reach more followers. He has been able to post his sermons inciting hate and violence on Youtube. His commanding presence and powerful oratorical skills have allowed him to incite fear in Buddhist people that Islam in Myanmar poses a threat and needs to be dealt with. He argues that Buddhism is under attack from Islam and the nationalistic sentiments he echoes resonates with many Buddhist citizens of Myanmar who feel strongly about their religion. Even more disturbing is the fact that the President of Myanmar has defended Wirathu. Extremist leaders like Wirathu are the reason why violence against Muslims in Myanmar continues to occur. International intervention is needed to quell down the violence occurring and salvage the plight of the Muslims in Myanmar. After all, despite the democratic transitions in Myanmar and the minimal involvement from the international community, oppression towards Muslims is occurring at a growing scale and it is clear that greater intervention and pressure will have to occur.

Additional References:
Yegar, Moshe. The Muslims of Burma: A Study of a Minority Group, by Moshe Yegar. Wiesbaden: O. Harrassowitz, 1972. Print.

Photo By: Global Panorama