Unless you have a core of steel, shock is a natural reaction to news items like the arrest for blasphemy of Muslims and former Muslims in Northern Nigeria. The news of the sentencing to death of a child for blasphemy – who according to the Shari’ah court that tried his case, “committed the ‘crime’ while he was too young – by Islamic ruling – to stand trial and had hence to wait to be old enough to be tried.”
The former Muslim in my mind, while I wrote the phrase above, is the former president of Humanist Association of Nigeria, Mubarak Bala, who has been in custody for over a year awaiting trial for ‘insulting’ the Prophet Muhammad in a Facebook post that compared the Prophet to Prophet Apostle Suleyman.
Yours and my shock is a very valid response, as is the confusion that is just as valid because we are forced to come face to face in modern times with laws that should have died a natural death maybe 10 centuries ago or much earlier, which nevertheless remain in our secular democratic society that claims to exalt a litany of freedoms we see violated every day.
The freedom of expression, in the continuing push to limit the expression of law-abiding citizens – the Twitter ban and Anti-gay laws we only recently allowed to come to be and continue to exist are a close-to-home example.
The freedom of religion – which guarantees the freedom from religion as well, in the allowance for some Muslim majority states to include laws against apostasy in their penal/customary law.
The freedom of association – also manifest in our anti-gay laws and in the very real violent oppression of public dissent through the tagging of any demonstration whether lawful or not as ‘public disturbance,’ hence something that must be stopped with however much force it takes in order to, ‘protect the integrity of the nation.’
The list of freedoms we are owed as our due for agreeing to partake in a secular democratic state, which we are constantly being denied, is impressively long even for a country that does everything in its power to not impress with anything but aberrations.
Yet, in our feeling of shock and confusion, it is instructive that we ponder what the offenders are feeling while they commit these atrocities in the name of religion.
The Northern region continues to be painted with one brushstroke – of one dark hue or other.
Ask any Northern Nigerian of say, Benue extraction, who – forced to learn Hausa language for the access it could grant them to economic upliftment – lives in a constant state of having to defend that they are not in fact part of the offensive Hausa Muslim majority that perpetuates these atrocities the Southern region reads about all the time.
Then consider the actual Hausa person, who may or may not be Muslim – many abide in a silence necessitated by the need to self-preserve, who even if they are a Muslim they disagree with this madness yet can’t voice it for fear of being the next target of violence – many Hausa Muslims like this also abide.
Then there are the majority that does partake in this with the utter conviction that they are right to do this. Their hearts filled with whatever the feeling is that resembles peace when you have taken part in violating another human being and are looking up to your God to reward you in this life and the next for your ‘good’ deed. They will defend their beliefs to death – often quite literally aka suicide bombing – even if they may not take the knife to the throat of the offender – that’s what the Islamic State is for, to take away the gory parts of this unique kind of state violence in the name of Allah (SWT.)
For all their bravado, these people know fear.
The fear of pushing their luck. Of going too far lest they get too alienated from the larger world – if not because they seek human connection at least to still leave room for advancing the religion of Islam.
It is a concern the Prophet himself raised long ago when he said:
“I do not want the people to say that Muhammad kills his Companions.” [Al-Bukhari]
He had said this in response to an overzealous companion’s declaration that when they return to Medina, “… the more honourable will expel therefrom the meaner,” among the Prophet’s companions.
Many Islamic scholars have in the past as well as in modern times cautioned against being too blustery with these ‘laws’ lest they push away converts to Islam. An enduring testament to the unease even in the hearts of devout Muslims about these laws whose universal unappeal towers over their local seeming appeal among even believers.
The Northern Islamic zealotry sits on a precarious foundation, always has. And the enforcers of Shari’ah law know this and ponder in their secret hearts, “How far of a push is too much push that could force the hand of the rest of the country to pursue our full alienation.”
Since its legalization in many Northern states in the early 2000s, the Shari’ah law has not succeeded in enforcing an execution sentence – however many it may have handed down.
The reason is simple – the constitution takes precedence.
Every ruling is open to appeal, and whenever that happens what devout Muslims consider the ‘limitations’ of the constitution in its inability to hand out death sentences like candy for insulting a religious idea or highest figure, always steps in to nullify a death sentencing.
The whole endeavor is therefore a charade that Shari’ah enforcers fear to expose too much lest their largely unhappy, silenced population rebel against the charade that makes a mockery of all the customs of their ancestors. A charade that forces a sense of being lost on a population that once flourished through its open arm relationship with cultures as far away from them as the Orients – a beautiful nature that made Islam’s entrance possible to begin with.
It is unlikely that these enforcers will push too far, but in the very fact that they are allowed any room in a secular democracy for starters is the heart of a larger problem – the implied approval of even worse zealots. The kind of zealots that can ignore the many teachings of right-thinking Islamic scholars against taking the law into their hands lest it affects the image of Islam and go ahead to execute dissenters. It has happened in many Muslim majority nations the second the center falls apart. Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, you name it.
Keeping the center holding in Nigeria, is therefore not altogether a matter of choice for the North – for this in addition to myriad other reasons. Yet keeping the center clean – free from laws that make one wonder if Nigeria is a secular or Islamic state – is also not a matter of choice for the predominantly Christian and traditional religion practicing Southern region.
Whether a balance exists that allows all Nigerians – Northern as well as Southern – to flourish without the fear of stepping on the wrong toes and ending up being the next name to be forced through the ordeal of the pointless charade of Sharia enforcement, is a matter of open debate.
We may need to begin considering who and who will be at the table of that needful debate. Now is the best possible time.