'Boko Haram' doesn't really mean 'Western education is a sin'

Boko Haram gets lost in translation. Oh, and the word 'boko' isn't derived from the word 'book.'

By , Staff writer

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    In this image made from video received by The Associated Press on Monday, May 5, 2014, Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Nigeria's Islamic extremist group Boko Haram, speaks in a video in which his group claimed responsibility for the April 15 mass abduction of nearly 300 teenage schoolgirls in northeast Nigeria.
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What's the real meaning of "Boko Haram?" I've been wondering about this recently since news articles are constantly informing me (including ones on this website) that it means "Western education is a sin." 

I was surprised that Nigeria's Hausa language, spoken by the mostly Muslim group that is dominant in the northern half of the country, would have a four letter word that meant "western education." Haram has always been obvious - a borrowed word from Arabic that refers to things that are forbidden in Islam (as opposed to things that are halal, or permitted).

I wondered if it was an acronym, or a mash-up of two other words. So I started looking around and struck gold with a paper by Paul Newman, professor emeritus in linguistics at Indiana University and one of the world's leading authorities on the Hausa language.

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It turns out the Hausa language doesn't have a four-letter word that means "Western education." It isn't a mash-up or an acronym. What it has is a word that came to be applied to a century-old British colonial education policy that many Hausa-speakers saw as an attempt, more-or-less, to colonize their minds. 

First, some information needs to be dispensed with. The word is often described as being borrowed from the English word "book." Not so, as Dr. Newman's work makes clear.

Starting in 2009, Wikipedia's article on the Hausa "Boko alphabet" incorrectly asserted that the word derived from "book." It was corrected two days ago, when someone noticed Newman's article. Wikipedia's entry on Boko Haram likewise carried the falsehood for at least a year and a half until it was partially corrected at the end of last month, though allowing a falsehood to persist on equal footing with the truth: "The term "Boko Haram" comes from the Hausa word boko figuratively meaning "western education" (often said to be literally "alphabet", from English "book", but the Hausa expert Paul Newman says it derives from a Hausa word with meanings such as "fraud" as "inauthenticity".)"

Often said? A dangerous phrase. This is how we end up with lazy reporters who parrot what they read on Wikipedia or what they read in other news stories (who were often, in turn, parroting from Wikipedia or other reporters.)

And it doesn't stop there. Newman found the US National Counterterrorism Center started passing along the "book" claim circa 2011 (it still is), and cites nine other instances in works by academics and polemicists like the anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller. The press is an even bigger megaphone.

Newman writes that "boko" has a variety of meanings focused around denoting "things or actions having to do with fraudulence, sham, or inauthenticity" or deception. He says the false linkage to the English word "book" was first made in a 1934 Hausa dictionary by a Western scholar that listed 11 meanings for the word – ten of them about fraudulent things and the final one asserting the connection to "book." An incorrect assertion, says Newman. 

A big deal? Not a huge one, but a good example of how received "facts" are often far from the truth.

I'm more interested in the current claims that Boko can be translated as "Western education." Does it? Sort of, but not really.

Let's go back to the British colonialists in northern Nigeria. In their aggressive push for modern secular schooling – and the resistance from Muslims – lies the spark for Boko Haram's murderous rampages against "Western" education.

Newman writes about the history of the word's use in this context:

The correct answer was implicitly presented by Liman Muhammad, a Hausa scholar from northern Nigeria, some 45 years ago. In his study of neologisms and lexical enrichment in Hausa, Muhammad (pp. 8-10) gives a list of somewhat over 200 loanwords borrowed from English into Hausa in the area of “Western Education and Culture”. Significantly, boko is not included. Rather one finds boko in his category for western concepts expressed in Hausa by SEMANTIC EXTENSION of pre-existent Hausa words.

According to Muhammad, boko originally meant “Something (an idea or object) that involves a fraud or any form of deception” and, by extension, the noun denoted “Any reading or writing which is not connected with Islam. The word is usually preceded with ‘Karatun’ [lit. writing/studying of]. ‘Karatun Boko’ therefore means the Western type of Education."

Newman explains that when Britain's colonial government began introducing its education system into Nigeria, seeking to replace traditional Islamic education (including replacing the Arabic script traditionally used to write Hausa with a Roman-based script that they also quickly called "boko") , this was seen as a "fraudulent deception being imposed upon the Hausa by a conquering European force."

Rather than send their own children to the British government schools, as demanded by the British, Hausa emirs and other elites often shifted the obligation onto their slaves and other subservients. The elite had no desire to send their children to school where the values and traditions of Hausa and Islamic traditional culture would be undermined and their children would be turned into ’yan boko,’ i.e., “(would-be) westerners”.

Newman accepts (as can been in the passage above) that "boko" is reasonably associated with "Western education" in English translation today. But the actual resistance was to something being imposed by triumphant foreigners. I suspect that an imposition of a Japanese or Chinese or Indian educational system would have been just as boko (in the sense of "bogus") to the Hausa elites of a century ago as the British imposition. And it would probably not go down well today. 

What a little reading about the group's name reveals is that their desire is not to obliterate non-Islamic education all over the world. Just in their own backyards. While that does not make their behavior in Nigeria any less horrific, recognizing that this group is inwardly focused (like most Islamist militants throughout history) is useful to start trying to understand what the US, the rest of the "West," Nigeria, and anyone else should do about the situation. 

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