Amid the problems caused by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram in Nigeria, historian and Stony Brook University professor Shobana Shankar, Ph.D, has written an article for the London School of Economics and Political Science, outlining the parallels between the terrorist group Boko Haram and other marginalized groups in Northern Nigeria.
Although her expertise is not the analysis of Boko Haram, Shankar has studied on-site, living in Nigeria for several years studying the ways of the Nigerian people. She lived in an area separate from the area now dictated by Boko Haram.
Her interest in African culture began before college and she discovered her passion through studying abroad, which inspired her to learn about cultural interaction in Africa and other parts of the world while spotting parallels in how colonialism affected different regions. Her research has also looked at why people in different cultures view medicine in distinct ways.
Shankar interviewed hundreds of people during her time in Nigeria, specifically the elderly, who spoke about how different the country was when they were growing up.
Interested in seeing how different ethnic groups in the region treated one another and herself, Shankar made pluralism, or how two or more groups coexist, an important aspect of her research.
Boko Haram’s Arabic name, “Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad,” translates to “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.” However, in Hausa, the language the people of the northeastern region of Maiduguri, Nigeria, “Boko Haram” loosely translates to “Western education is forbidden.”
Mohammed Yusuf founded the group in 2002 in order to oppose Western lifestyle. In 2009, the group began its creation of the Islamic State, and in the same year, its founder was killed by police officials.
Last spring, the group became well-known for the kidnapping of adolescent girls. On April 14, 2014, the group abducted 276 young women from Government Secondary School in Chibok, Nigeria. Fifty three of the girls have escaped successfully, some of which have returned to school in an act of defiance against the terrorist group.
“It is so much more about the past than the present,” Shankar said.
“One of the things to think about also is how the global community can think about engaging with people who live in societies affected by these kind of groups or situations, where they become isolated, where they shouldn’t be, because they have a lot to contribute to the global society,” she said. “They’re victimized in a broader sense by this group.”
Shankar, who is teaching a class on African politics and religion this semester (HIS 350), said that it is important to understand the deeper layers of history in order to really comprehend contemporary issues.
Shankar sees African history as an essential part of the history of the United States. Before the year 1800, the majority of migrants to the United States were African. Therefore, studying Africa, or other realms of history, can help students look at what they already know through a different lens.
“There is relevance for history to help understand what is happening now,” Shankar said.