Maybe I’m just a nostalgist who romanticizes his childhood. But I do not recall religion being this extreme growing up in the 90s. I heard nothing about the stoning of blasphemers. Perhaps, that’s because I grew up in Southwestern Nigeria which is by far the most politically diverse and religiously tolerant region in the country. Interfaith tolerance exists in the Southwest to the extent it is common to see intermarriage between Christians and Muslims, something you hardly see in the Southeast or the Muslim north. That predominant ecumenical spirit in the Southwest must have shielded me from the news of acts of religious extremism in the north.
However, Islam began to come under suspicion in the Southwest around 2009/10 when Boko Haram started bombing worship centres and marketplaces. “Boko Haram” is a blend of the Hausa word “Boko” which means “book” and the Arabic word “Haram” which means “sin”. Together, “Boko Haram” loosely means western education forbidden. Christians immediately and rightfully felt threatened by the emergence of this deadly sect. That climate of fear led many to reconsider their view on Islam. Many began to question if indeed Islam is the religion of peace.
I’ve listened to different theories on the origins of Boko Haram. Some argue that the institutionalisation of Shariah law in some states in the north contributed in some ways to the emergence of Boko Haram. Others have argued that Boko Haram in its infancy was sponsored and used by some politicians in the north as their personal hound dogs. But the group turned on them as they grew and got more deadly. Whichever theory is true, one clear thing is the north has for a long time treated religion as a supreme ideology and inadvertently, it hatched dangerous chickens like Boko Haram which finally came home to roost.
But away from Boko Haram. There have been wanton killings and jailing of so-called blasphemers of Islam and Muhammed in the north in recent years. Just last year, Deborah Yakubu, a 200-level Christian student at Shehu Shagari College of Education in Sokoto was stoned to death for blaspheming Muhammed. Her offence was criticising her classmates for spamming an online study group with Islamic posts. In a horrific video that went viral, they stoned her to death because of that.
Her death personally hit home for me. When I was an undergraduate at Obafemi Awolowo University, I called out Christians on my class WhatsApp group for constantly spamming it with religious posts. Obviously, they didn’t like me for that. But that was it. I said my piece and they retorted, albeit illogically and emotionally. No one called for my head to be severed at the guillotine. It’s unsettling for me to think that if I had done the exact thing in Deborah’s school, I would have been stoned to death for offending the religious sensibilities of some people. That’s wild.
Out of the scores of people captured in the horrific video of Deborah’s murder, only two were arrested by the police. And to show you the extent her murder was justified, 34 lawyers came to the defence of her murderers. As I write, the two suspects have not been sentenced to prison. The case will likely drag on for years till it slips out of public consciousness.
Yesterday, another alleged blasphemer was stoned to death also in Sokoto state. In a video that has also gone viral, a butcher identified as Usman Buda was captured lying on a dirt floor while he was being stoned to death. I couldn’t watch past a few seconds of autoplay. Though I am a fan of action flickers, I do not have a taste for real-life ghoulish content. From reports, Usman’s butcher friends who tried to rescue him got injured in the crossfire of pelted stones. They are reportedly receiving treatments in the hospital. Unsurprisingly, the governor of Sokoto did not condemn the killing outright. He instead called for calm while promising to deal with blasphemers in the same breath.
#Blasphemy in Sokoto, Nigeria:— Subhi Vishwakarma (@subhi_karma) June 26, 2023
A butcher Usman Buda was stoned to death over alleged blasphemy. Buda allegedly made a comment on the founder of Islam during an argument with another trader, watch the video: pic.twitter.com/Lr8YU93TXB
Even politicians have to be extra careful when they engage in religious discourse in the north. You just have to pander to the north’s religious sensibilities. That explains the position of the Sokoto state governor. And that also explains why no presidential candidate condemned Deborah’s murder last year. It would be political suicide to do so. Atiku Abubakar was the only one who released a statement to condemn the killing but seeing the negative reactions it sparked, the post was quickly deleted on his Twitter account. He gave a convenient excuse that the post had not been authorised by him. Though many called him out for not having the cojones to stick to his guns, he at least said something. The deletion was done to protect his acceptability in the north.
In a plural democracy like ours, religion should not enjoy the special privileges we’ve ascribed to it. We should not have blasphemy laws. And people who kill because their religion was disrespected should be locked up or given the death penalty. We are not a theocracy. That is why Shariah law should not have existed in the first place. With Shariah law, people can be arrested and sentenced to death for posting unpopular opinions about Islam on their social media accounts just like Mubarak Bala, the incarcerated president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria who happens to be an ex-Muslim. In an interview I did with his colleague Leo Igwe, he revealed Bala was forced to plead guilty to the charges of blasphemy levied against him because that was the only way to protect his life and his lawyer’s. Had he not done that, the court would have ruled in his favour because the charges lacked merits. But that would have led to riots from fanatics who had been hurt by his Facebook posts.
Religious extremism isn’t just about Boko Haram bombing churches. I would argue blasphemy laws are a type of religious extremism as they criminalise unpopular uncomfortable religious beliefs. They are a threat to free speech and the right to freedom of conviction. The right to believe in anything doesn’t preclude others from having a negative opinion about it. Religion should not be a protected ideology. I am a free speech absolutist in this regard. If religious beliefs are a subjective metaphysical lens through which people make sense of the world, who is anyone to expect others to take those beliefs as absolutes in a so-called free society?
I used to be a raging embittered atheist. I’ve had my stint of existential angst and disputes with god. But over the years, I’ve grown to have a positive outlook on religion. I believe religion is a necessary part of the human condition. It provides succour to the downtrodden. While avowed atheists have a utopian view of a post-religious society, the truth is we do not know what will fill the void secularism would create, and whatever fills it may end up worse than religion. Though I hold this nuanced view on religion, I also reject the absolutist positioning of religion. Scepticism and spirituality can co-exist; each keeping the other in check from going extreme. That is the kind of society Nigeria should strive for; a society where people don’t have to censor their speech to appeal to the religious or irreligious sensibilities of others; a society where ideas are tested on the battlefield of intellectual discourse and the winner takes the spoils. Nothing smarks off more epistemic insecurity than stoning people who blaspheme your religion. One would think such moments provide you with a chance to lecture these blasphemers on their ignorance.
We need a real conversation on the place of religion before another person gets stoned to death. Otherwise, Nigeria is a fascist theocracy and we better stop pretending it is a democracy.