Twice in the past month or so, I have been pretty rough on the editors of The New York Times, who seem to have added a rule to their newsroom manual of style stating that basic, public-record facts about the radical Islamist group Boko Haram cannot be be published in their newspaper. Here is a sample paragraph from the most recent Times report that I found rather, well, mysterious:
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.
So what are the goals of Boko (“books”) Haram (“forbidden”) and what is this group’s philosophy?
Well, we are not talking about information that is very hard to find, according to helpful online explainer piece published by BBC, which is hardly an obscure media outlet. I know that I have pointed readers toward this piece before, but here’s one of its crucial passages:
The group’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”. But residents in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, where the group had its headquarters, dubbed it Boko Haram. Loosely translated from the local Hausa language, this means “Western education is forbidden”. …
Boko Haram promotes a version of Islam which makes it “haram”, or forbidden, for Muslims to take part in any political or social activity associated with Western society. This includes voting in elections, wearing shirts and trousers or receiving a secular education.
So, all together now, the radicals in Boko Haram are repeatedly attacking anyone — infidels and Muslims alike — who are involved in secular, non-Islamic education or who oppose the creation of a explicitly Islamic, sharia state.
With that in mind, let’s look at an online news piece from Vox.com which demonstrated how easy it is to state the obvious, in a story that ran under the headline, “A Nigerian terrorist group just kidnapped 100 girls to keep them from going to school.”
Right at the top of this short news feature, readers are told:
The Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram, one of the world’s most dangerous Islamist groups, just abducted 100 girls from a school in northeastern Nigeria. Why would an organization known principally for bombings and shootings kidnap a group of kids? Because Boko Haram’s opposition to educating girls is a core part of its ideology — and they think they can get something in exchange for the girls’ safe return.
Boko Haram has attacked hundreds of schools around Nigeria since 2002, when it was founded. The central-west African nation is half Muslim, and Boko Haram wants to make the state Islamic as well.
And there’s more right after that:
One of Boko Haram’s central grievances with the “fake Muslims” who currently run their country is Nigeria’s secular education system. The name Boko Haram, translated from Hausa, is often translated as “Western education is forbidden.” But more precisely, it means “Western culture is Islamically forbidden,” underscoring that Boko Haram’s campaign against schooling is only part of its broader crusade against non-Islamic influences on Nigerian society.
Now, it does make me somewhat uncomfortable that this material is written in a rather news-analysis style, including the fact that there is little language that attributes these facts to public statements by Boko Haram or to experts who have intensely studied the network’s history of violence.
Now, experts do show up shortly, with their remarks focusing on the fact that these young girls were almost certainly kidnapped in order to ransom them for money to help fund future Boko Haram operations.
“Their goal is almost certainly to ransom [the girls],” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation of the Defense of Democracies who follows Boko Haram, told me. “Otherwise, they have chosen a target that will make everybody hate them. Killing  schoolgirls would be a huge PR hit even for some of the rougher jihadist groups.”
While I would prefer seeing basic Boko Haram facts clearly attributed, it seems that the leaders of organizations such as BBC, which is ultra-mainstream, and Vox, which is digital-shiny and new, think that some basic information has been established about the terrorist network’s goals and motivations. I mean, the formal name of the organization is what it is and Boko Haram leaders have also, apparently, stressed the importance of the Koranic phrase which says: “Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors.”
So what is up with the folks at the Gray Lady? Has anyone else seen a Times report in which experts have been quoting discussing the basic facts about Boko Haram? This is all so mysterious to me.
IMAGE: Nigerian school children, from the website of UK’s Gordon Brown.