Events in the past few months have compelled a rethink of the link between religion and human rights. Protests across the Muslim world over the republication of the cartoons of Prophet, Muhammad and the attendant bloodletting in France have underscored the mortal threat of Islamic extremism. It is particularly worrying that at one of the protests in Pakistan, a Muslim cleric shouted: “There is only one punishment for blasphemy”. And others chorused: “Beheading, Beheading”. Of note is the outrageous statement by the Egyptian president, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi that: “Freedom of expression stops when Muslims are offended”. One wonders if this statement is not another instance of a misplaced sense of entitlement or an exercise in religious conceit.
The torture and abuse of people accused of witchcraft in African countries are constant reminders of the extent that human beings could go in perpetrating egregious harm and abuse when they are motivated by religious, superstitious, and irrational sentiments. In discussing a topic like this, views and perspectives are likely to be taken off context; they could be judged as racist or Islamophobic and weaponized by far-right or left-wing politicians in Europe.
So, it is important to clarify that this presentation draws from a Nigerian/ African context. Even though in this piece, references are made to events that have transpired in Europe, this is an African perspective with insights from a non-western context. A part of the presentation focuses on the intersection between Islam and human rights violations drawing from the case of the Nigerian Humanist, Mubarak Bala.
This presentation speaks to a different setting; a context where Islam is a dominant religion and sharia law is in force, not a setting as in the West where Islam is a minority religion and Muslims are mainly migrants. The dynamics at play are different and should not be confused and conflated in situating the global threat of religion-based human rights abuses.
Allegations of racism and Islamophobia feature prominently in the European discourse on Islam. However, these are debate-blocking, criticism-dampening, and censorship mechanisms, and they make no sense, or better, are counterproductive in the Nigerian African life situation. In Nigeria, the main problem is hatred, oppression, and persecution by Muslims, not of Muslims, not irrational hatred and prejudice against Muslims. Allegations of racism and Islamophobia are used to minimize persecutions and atrocities that are committed in the name of Islam. They distract and detract from the urgency of tackling Islamic extremism, impunity, and human rights violations.
Take the case of Mubarak Bala. Bala came out as an ex-Muslim in 2014. He almost lost his life in the process because family members consigned him to a mental hospital where they treated him as a psychiatric patient. And look, Mubarak Bala’s case is not an isolated incident. In Islam, apostasy or blasphemy is, sometimes, associated with mental illness otherwise it is treated as a crime punishable by death. A Sudanese humanist, Mohamed Salih, who identified as non-religious during a local registration process, was charged for apostasy in 2017. But Salih was fortunate. A court freed him after a psychiatrist certified that he was mentally incompetent. By the way, Sudan has recently abolished its apostasy law. Even though, the abolition of apostasy could have been necessitated by Sudan’s quest to be removed from the US’ list of state sponsors of terrorism and have the crippling sanctions lifted. In a related development, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan questioned the mental health condition of French President Emmanuel Macron after Macron made comments critical of Islam following the killing of a schoolteacher in France. The schoolteacher showed the cartoon of Prophet Muhammad in class. “Macron needs treatment on a mental level”, Erdogan is quoted to have said.
Bala’s family subjected him to this ‘mental level’ treatment. But he managed to escape from the hospital following an international outcry and campaign by the global humanist community. Bala continued to write and speak out against radical Islam, Islamic privilege, and the lack of separation of mosque and state. He brought to the foreground the underground atheist movement in Islam-dominated Northern Nigeria. However, the emergence of Islam-critical views continued to infuriate the Islamic establishment in the region. The growing visibility of atheism and free expression of views that were critical of Islam continued to rile up Muslims in the area. Last year, Muslims organized a session on social media and the rise of atheism in Northern Nigeria at a local university. But that event did very little to dissuade the likes of Mubarak Bala or dampen the enthusiasm of a growing number of atheists and humanists who saw social media as space and opportunity to express themselves and freely speak, post, and comment on religion.
Now in a further attempt to clamp down on the emerging humanist/freethought movement and rein in Mubarak Bala, the police arrested him on April 28, 2020. The arrest happened following a petition by local Islamists who complained that Bala insulted the prophet of Islam in a Facebook post. The petitioners alleged that Bala called the prophet of Islam a terrorist and a pedophile. The police disappeared Bala for several months, denying him access to a lawyer and family visits. They have refused to charge, or release him. Meanwhile, other Muslims have taken to social media calling for the murder of Mr. Bala, if he is eventually released from police custody.
And look, these are not empty threats. Alleged blasphemers are either sentenced to death by sharia courts or murdered in cold blood in northern Nigeria. Islamic courts hand down death sentences to blasphemers if they are Muslims as in the case of Yahaya Sharif. Muslim fanatics kill, lynch or behead alleged blasphemers if they are non-Muslims as in the case of Bridget Agbahime, Mrs. Agbahime, a Christian woman was murdered in Kano for insulting the prophet Muhammad. Her suspected assailants were charged in a court, but the Kano state government pressured the court to dismiss the matter, stating that the suspects had no case to answer.
Look, this situation is not peculiar to Kano. In Islamic northern Nigeria, those who murder, behead, lynch, kidnap, and assault alleged blasphemers or desecrators of the Quran have no case to answer.
This regime of impunity applies to abuses linked to witchcraft accusations and witch persecution. Witch hunters act without fear of punishment. Witch killers and bloodletters are seldom brought to book because as in the case of Muslim persecutors of blasphemers, they are largely exempted from sanction and prosecution.
In October, a local mob lynched an elderly woman in Kenya for witchcraft. Local sources informed me that since August, at least 4 elderly women have been murdered in Kenya for perpetrating occult harm. There have been other horrific acts of murder of alleged witches in Ghana, Nigeria, and Malawi. In Nigeria, a local politician set ablaze 15 suspected witches, including his mother, in May this year. The police have refused to arrest and prosecute the suspects despite several petitions and representations.
Those who act in the name of the supernatural, be it God or Allah, prophet Muhammad or Jesus, witches or demons, do so with impunity and in utter disregard for humanity because they believe that they are only accountable to their deities, not human beings. They care not; they care less about human-mediated sanctions, consequences, and penalties. Some logic, reason, and evidence need to be deployed to resist these bloodletters and address this global menace. In response to the pervasive superstition-based abuses, the Advocacy for Alleged Witches, was launched in January this year. The main goal is to end witch persecution in Nigeria, nay in Africa by 2030.
Witch persecution has persisted in Africa because the campaign to eradicate this dark and destructive phenomenon has largely been defective. Those who prioritize respect for African religious and cultural sentiments over reason, science, and evidence have championed the process. Those who are driven by the notion that Africans are not yet ripe for the European, yes, the western kind of Enlightenment are leading the efforts. They do not want to be seen as disrespecting Africans. They do not want to be accused of racism, or as in the case of Islam, Islamophobia, or neocolonialism. The campaigners cannot call African witchcraft by its name: superstition, and in effect, they prosecute wishy-washy, lackluster enlightenment programs that paper over the problem.
Efforts must be made to prosecute an effective global campaign against religious extremism and superstition based abuses. This campaign must include defending the rights of all human beings, including Muslims to blaspheme and hold views that are critical of religious and superstitious beliefs without fear. Even at the risk of being accused of racism and Islamophobia, Humanists must resist attempts to censor comments that are critical of harmful cultural practices. Humanists must rally against measures to outlaw or prohibit expressions and publications that highlight religious absurdities and other misconceptions that inspire hatred, violence, fanaticism, and bloodletting. Humanists must stand against this tendency by religious believers to value their religion, their holy book, their place of worship, the name of their god, a cartoon of their prophet more than human life. These extremist tendencies should not be excused under any pretext. Expressions, theistic or non-theistic, are not free unless they offend or can offend or provoke. Freedom of expression starts and not stops at the point where individuals, Muslims, or non-Muslims could be offended.
Early in this 21st century, an Enlightenment with a global dimension lurks on the horizon and beckons on all humanists to act. In the words of Franz Fanon, each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it. So it is, and so will it be with this generation of humanists. Now I ask: will this generation of humanists answer this call to duty? Will it fulfill or betray the mission of the New Enlightenment?