In the past month or two, I have been really, really hard on the editors at The New York Times because of their mysterious — that word is carefully chosen — blind spot when it comes to basic, on-the-record facts about the beliefs, motives and tactics of the radical Islamist network Boko (“books”) Haram (“forbidden”) in Nigeria.
Rather than hit you with a wave of URLs, just click here for an earlier wrap-up of some of the basics. And here is a now-classic quote that offers an example of what’s happening in one of the world’s most influential newsrooms:
Boko Haram’s exact goals, beyond a generalized desire to undermine the secular Nigerian state, remain mysterious. Spokesmen purporting to be from the group sometimes release rambling videos, but these offer few clues of a coherent program or philosophy.
That still amazes me.
In previous posts, I praised a BBC background piece that nailed down many of the essential facts. You know, like the fact that the ultra-violent network’s official name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad” and the unofficial name, Boko Haram, is usually translated as “Western education is forbidden.” A crucial fact is that, in addition to slaughtering Christians and other minorities, Boko Haram specializes in killing Muslims who cooperate with the West, especially in the education of women and children.
Now, are other major newsrooms struggling with the blind spot that is seen at The Times? Yes and no. Consider this news feature in The Washington Post focusing on the history that looms over the story that is currently dominating the headlines, the kidnapping of 234 Nigerian school girls. Here is the top of that piece:
In 2010, long before the mass killing that now engulf Nigeria began, there was a masked man hoisting an AK-47, a stack of religious books and a promise. His named was Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the Islamic group Boko Haram, and in the 25-minute video clip, he promised to annihilate all traces of Western culture and education in Africa’s most populous nation.
It would start with a prison break. Two months after the video’s release, dozens of armed militants belonging to the group stormed a prison and freed 150 Boko Haram members, and 700 more inmates. Then on Christmas Eve, the group unleashed a flurry of bomb attacks in Nigeria that killed 38 Christians worshiping at church or shopping for gifts. “We will continue with our attacks on disbelievers and their allies and all those who help them,” the group said.
As the months and years passed, the number killed by Boko Haram rose inexorably.
So, to the present day. Was there a “mysterious” motive for the kidnappings at the school? The Post piece is direct and to the point:
The fact that the girls were in school speaks to the motive. The terror group, which has not claimed responsibility for the abductions, has roots in an anti-education ideology. Its disdain for an education model left behind by Britain is manifested both in the translation of the group’s name — “Western education is sinful” — and its terror attacks.
The group rose out of the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. A 30-year-old man named Muhammad Yusuf, who blamed British pedagogy for all the country’s problems, founded the group that would become Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. According to Mathieu Guidere, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Toulouse, the young leader introduced a Taliban-inspired model of teaching that rejected Darwin, among other thinkers, in favor of so-called Koranic sciences. The schools lured the unemployed, the impoverished, the students who had flunked out of government universities.
Preaching the necessity of Sharia law, the group grew in number and ferocity after Yusuf’s death in 2009.
Now, was that hard? The motive isn’t mysterious at all. It shows up over and over in Boko Haram’s actions and pronouncements. It’s right there in the history.
So what is so mysterious about all of this. I’ll keep asking.